Anyone who’s born and bred in Singapore will know the drill – study hard, earn a respectable degree and find yourself a cushy job that paves the way to a brighter future.
Swimming against the currents of these conventions, 27-year-old Cai Yinzhou surprised everyone when, fresh out of school, he travelled to Perth for one month to live as a migrant worker and work as a labourer.
The stint involved gruelling 12-hour days building sheds far away from the comforts of home, and opened his eyes to the experiences of Singapore’s foreign workers.
While homesickness and exhaustion were relatable, Cai’s experience in Australia was starkly different from that of a migrant worker in Singapore. For one, his employer ensured that workplace safety guidelines were adhered to, that he was given a proper place to rest and was covered by insurance, should accidents occur.
“I couldn’t imagine myself feeling any sense of security if I didn’t have these, which is what a lot of migrant workers don’t have in Singapore.”
As a fresh graduate, Cai founded Geylang Adventures in 2014, a group that provides guided tours to Singapore’s red-light district. The initiative was inspired when Geylang came under harsher scrutiny in the wake of the Little India riot in 2013. Described as a “potential powder keg” with “a hint of lawlessness” to the Committee of Inquiry, the district became the subject of reinforced legislation.
These labels, and the unsavoury connotations attached to the migrant workers who frequented the area, did not sit well with Cai. He decided to use the tours to show that there was more to Geylang than its vice and disorder.
Having lived there all his life, he felt that the voices of the workers had not been heard. He recalled: “There was a void of any representation about how they truly feel, who they actually are.”
So the idea came about to hold guided tours for people to experience Geylang, all its good and bad. This included the stories of its people, both locals and foreigners, along with its rich history and cultural heritage. With the idea that knowledge and exposure breeds understanding, Cai saw Geylang Adventures as a platform that could spark friendship between locals and foreigners.
As a child, he often encountered groups of foreign men heading to work in the early hours of the morning, around the same time he made his way to school. Over the years, his familiarity with them grew, and he even began playing badminton with some of them on their days off.
In contrast, the wider local community interacted less with the workers, so when the latter were targeted for problems like unruliness and vice, few spoke up for them.
“People suddenly had a shock compared to how I was eased into it. I saw them every day, I saw their sacrifices and their lifestyles. It made me feel more compelled to do something for them.”
His experience in Perth also taught him that the foreign workers’ concerns went beyond issues of bread and butter: “Their true needs were not food and money. These are very transient. You eat food and you’re done, you spend money and it’s gone. The real help they needed was in building relations, and in starting a new home away from home.”
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Asked about the difficulties faced in Singapore, Cai zeroed in on the labour court’s difficulties in ensuring fair compensation. He had supported crowdfunding efforts before to help workers who had been deserted by their companies which either went bankrupt or abruptly shut down, but was well aware that it wasn’t a sustainable solution.
“In Singapore, we have built a culture of consumerism. A worker is injured and sent back, and a new one takes over. A company goes bankrupt and a new one takes over. We see that trend in dealing with people and migrant workers bear the brunt of it.”
Although past conversations revolved around migrant workers stealing locals’ jobs, he felt the paradigm had shifted in recent years. More came to see that the workers were doing important work that locals didn’t want to do, and fellow advocates came forward to speak for them.
He mused: “The question becomes, what can we do to safeguard their rights?”
For Cai and a group of like-minded friends, bridging the invisible divide was the first step. In addition to the Geylang Adventure tours, he also started Backalley Barbers, an outfit that organises free haircut sessions for migrant workers, and Majulah Belanja, cookout sessions where local volunteers help to give migrant workers a taste of home.
In case you thought both are just a matter of cutting hair and cooking food, they go much further than simple acts of charity.
“What matters is that connection, that you spend time talking to them not about what you’re doing at that point in time, but about them as a human being and friend, instead of their label of being a migrant worker.”
Yvonne Huang, 29, has volunteered with the Backalley Barbers since its very first session in late 2014. The initiative started with Cai and his cousin giving free haircuts to a few migrant workers they had befriended in the back alleys of Geylang.
While the duo had initially relied on Youtube videos and practised on their own hair to hone their clipping skills, volunteers like Huang have gone so far as to take up a hairdressing course to gain confidence with the clippers.
Interacting with the foreign workers through the barbering sessions has made the key account manager think deeper about Singapore’s migrant workers. She said: “If you throw away the label of a migrant worker, they are just like all of us. They are a father, a son and a friend, and they deserve respect just like me and you.”
It has even inspired her to take action when the situation called for it. Last November, Huang’s previous domestic helper was unfairly dismissed and her new employer tried to send her back to Myanmar with less than 24 hours’ notice. Huang recounted: “She was crying on the phone and I knew I had to help her. With the help of the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME), we managed to keep her here and she’s now working with a new employer.”
With a grand plan of training up a pool of some 100 volunteer barbers by 2018, Cai hopes to extend the work of Backalley Barbers to other underprivileged communities as well, like those in elderly homes and low-income families.
Juggling these initiatives full time and dreaming of making an even greater impact, Cai is living and breathing his social advocacy efforts. The fact that not just curious locals and eager tourists are joining the Geylang Adventures tours, but also policy-makers, is an encouragement.
Describing the “eureka moment” for some of these officials he observed on the tours, he appreciated the fact that they could glean new perspectives as policy-makers: “It’s a moment for some of them when they come through and realise things could be done differently, and it could be better than the way it’s being done now.”
For Cai, this affirmed the belief that positive change can come about when we’re brave enough to stand up for it.
“The reality is that we can change the status quo and we’re empowered to speak up for the rights of people who don’t really have a voice… I believe with enough people speaking up, the policies will change.”
To explore how you can support Geylang Adventures and Backalley Barbers, please follow the Facebook page.