College-educated and armed with years of journalism experience, 52-year-old AKM Mohsin could have easily joined the ranks of Singapore’s white-collar warriors. Instead, he took up a different fight.
For the past decade, the editor of Singapore’s only Bengali newspaper, Banglar Kantha, has thrown himself into championing the rights of migrant workers here. Every day, in a small office located at a Rowell Road shophouse where he runs his newspaper, he also counsels four to five of his countrymen, who reach out to him seeking help from being trapped in difficult circumstances.
“There are some who are very needy. They can be injured, yet their companies try to chase them out or forcefully send them back to Bangladesh. So I will give them a space to stay, and help them to approach the authorities,” he told The Pride.
For many of the workers, some of whom pay up to $15,000 to agents back home to come to Singapore, the stakes are high. Some even have families who sold the roof over their heads to raise this sum.
Keenly aware, Mohsin offers his help free of charge, drafting letters and following up on their cases. He said: “Instead of them spending $200 to see a lawyer, I give free advice. They are my countrymen. They have no place to go to seek help. As much as I can do, I do for them.”
Born in Bangladesh, Mohsin hails from Brahmanbaria, a large city in eastern Bangladesh with a strong musical and cultural heritage. The son of a freedom fighter, Mohsin’s own activism as a student demonstrator and critic of the military government landed him in jail during his college years.
Turning pensive, the Singapore permanent resident recalled: “In that time, our country was going through a very extreme situation. Student politics, army ruling, demonstrations against the army government. So my family thought it was safer to send me overseas.”
After arriving in Singapore in 1991 to study English and computing at a private school, he eventually found work at a printing press. In those days, there were fewer Bangladeshi workers based here, and for most, a common concern was how to keep in touch with family back home when many could neither read nor write.
Sundays would see Mohsin sitting on a bench at an open field outside Mustafa Shopping Centre, where he would read and pen letters for the workers who were illiterate. Inspired by their colourful personal stories, an idea to showcase these voices soon struck him.
“I thought, why not publish a magazine or newspaper? As the community became larger, every day, new people were coming but there was no platform to share their views,” explained Mohsin.
So in 2006, he started Banglar Kantha, a move that left some of his friends shocked. Where many aspired to open businesses like restaurants or provision shops, publishing was seen as a “losing venture”.
Mohsin said: “My view is that many come (to Singapore) to do business. Everybody just comes here to make money. I thought, at least one person must hold on to our own language and culture in this multiracial and multilingual society.”
A labour of love for Mohsin, he edits all the articles on Banglar Kantha and also travels personally to Changi Airport to pick up fresh copies of his monthly paper, delivered from a factory in Bangladesh. To keep costs low, he employs four writers based in Dhaka, who correspond with him online after their day jobs, keeping Mohsin up till 3am on most nights.
Every month, 6,000 copies of Banglar Kantha reach Singapore’s Bangladeshi community, mostly low-wage workers who will peruse the paper for the latest stories back home, and some local happenings.
Another section that many look forward to has Mohsin fulfilling his vision of letting the voices of his countrymen ring loud and true. The paper carries two pages of poetry, short stories and commentaries that glimpse into the lives of foreign workers in Singapore.
These works are contributed by the literary talents who come to a cultural centre for migrant workers that Mohsin started in 2011. Called Dibashram, the centre sits in the same unit where his office is located. This cultural space is yet another part of Mohsin’s efforts to enrich the lives of the community. It comes alive with music and the written word on evenings and especially on Sunday nights.
It is a modest space that the workers use to practise their writing, poetry and music-making, but one that offers a cherished reprieve from the menial work they do for up to six or seven days a week.
“Locals may think that Bangladeshis are only labourers, but they are also human beings. They also have talents, they also have pain and feelings,” he said.
An aspiring novelist back in Bangladesh, 24-year-old shipyard worker Rasidul Islam Jewel prefers to come to the centre whenever he gets time off, rather than venture to other places.
“We meet here together for recreation, because there is not much space outside for workers. Here, I like that we can write stories and books and do musical activities,” said Jewel.
In May this year, news broke that Dibashram would close down due to a lack of funding, Falling revenue from Banglar Kantha meant that Mohsin could no longer cover the centre’s rental and utility bills that came up to $3,000 each month. Digging into his personal savings had become unsustainable, and the situation prompted a fundraiser set up by the community that has rallied more than $7,500 in donations to date.
In that same time, advertisers also came forward to place their advertisements in the paper, aiding Dibashram’s survival. Although deeply appreciative that the funds raised would help with the centre’s rental for a few months, Mohsin expressed his wish for the fundraiser to cease as he was uncomfortable with receiving more money now that the situation had improved.
“If we can continue with our advertisements, then there’s no need to beg people. I don’t like it, so I have asked the organiser to close it down,” Mohsin said.
Living in a three-room HDB flat with his family, the father of three school-going daughters also does translation and interpretation work to supplement the household income. While he’s not looking to slow down anytime soon, his long hours and dedication to work has entailed personal sacrifices.
“I don’t feel tired, but sometimes I have mixed feelings. To do very hard work, yet I can’t meet my family, and Sunday is the only day when I have some time with them.”
Although supportive of his newspaper business, his resolve to run Dibashram has created some friction with his family in the past, who chided him for putting too much effort into something where he does not get anything in return.
Despite this, Mohsin is resolute in wanting to keep the centre running for his countrymen.
He mused, “I feel that we take so much from our migrant workers to develop our country, but what are we giving them?”
And so, he fights on – a brother to those who share his heritage, and an advocate for the marginalised.
Dibashram’s poets will be participating at this year’s Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. The event will take place on 13 December at the National Library and is open to the public. More details can be found here.