During an Eid celebration last week, Mehboob Abedeen, a Bangladeshi man in his late 20s who holds a low-paying job with a construction company in Singapore, made an emotional speech before a small crowd of fellow workers gathered in a stuffy one-room community centre in the city-state’s neighbourhood of Little India.
“The ones who killed our foreign guests and our Hindu brothers in Dhaka have tarnished our image everywhere,” said Abedeen amidst huge applause. “But Bangladesh is a secular country. Long live Bangladesh, long live Bangla! We must abide by laws and work peacefully in Singapore along with our brothers from foreign countries.”
After the July 1 attack by Islamist militants on an upscale restaurant in the Bangladesh capital in which 20 people were killed, and several earlier attacks on secular bloggers and minority Hindus in the country, Bangladeshi workers in Singapore have felt compelled to reiterate their secular identity amid speculation that Indian workers might secure an edge over them in the job market.
Detained and deported
Singapore has been a favourite employment destination for low-wage workers from Bangladesh and India (where they hail mainly from Tamil Nadu). However, with the rise in Islamist militancy in Bangladesh, observers speculate that it may become difficult for Bangladeshi workers to continue to secure an employment visa for Singapore.
The spotlight’s been on them even prior to the Dhaka attack.
As far back as January, 27 Bangladeshi Muslim workers were detained in Singapore on charges of supporting the armed jihad of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Twenty-six of them were repatriated to Bangladesh.
In May, another five workers in Singapore, who allegedly formed a group called Islamic State in Bangladesh, were repatriated. Many of the deported workers were accused of plotting a terrorist attack in Bangladesh from Singapore.
“Employers these days are showing less interest in hiring Bangladeshis or renewing their employment contracts,” said AKM Mohsin, publisher and editor of Banglar Kantha, a Bengali newspaper published in Singapore. “This means more opportunities for Indian workers since both Indians and Bangladeshis are paid the least and are thus preferred by employers here.”
Low-wage Bangladeshi and Indian workers earn less in Singapore than workers of other nationalities, such as China. While Bangladeshis and Indians earn approximately $1.5-$2.2 per hour for jobs in the construction, shipping and food processing sectors, Chinese workers earn upto $5.2 per hour for work in sectors such as public transport.
Visa process tougher
Bangladeshis and Indians keen on low-income jobs in Singapore are expected to pay anything between $5,200-$11,150 to employment agents back home, which is not an insignificant amount for these workers. However, in addition to this financial burden, Bangladeshi workers have faced a prolonged wait to procure work visas for Singapore in past months.
A report published by The Straits Times newspaper in May said that Bangladeshi workers had to wait longer in recent months for their work permit applications to be accepted, with employment agencies being asked to provide more details of each applicant, such as family background and hometown.
“There are thorough checks on Bangladeshi applicants before their work permit applications are accepted,” said Jolovan Wham, an activist with the advocacy group HOME, which works with low income foreign workers in Singapore.
However, the government of Singapore has not officially announced any policy to restrict the intake of Bangladeshi workers. “There is no such official policy,” said Wham.
But Wham conceded that even if the government had such a policy in place, it would be “too sensitive for them to announce it officially.”
Indians in demand
Traditionally, from India, only Tamil Nadu sent low-wage workers to Singapore. But some employment agencies say that employers in the city-state are beginning to show a preference for Indian workers from other states such as Punjab.
“Employers are very happy with the Singhs from Punjab,” said Jacky Lee, owner of the Singapore-based KSP Employment Agency, which specialises in procuring employment for South Asian workers. “The Singhs are mostly employed in gardening and road works, which require them to work under the sun for long hours. But they never complain unlike other workers from South Asia.”
Banglar Kantha’s Mohsin said that a December 2013 riot involving Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Singapore’s Little India, which was triggered after an Indian worker was killed in a road accident, had affected the job prospects of Indians for a while. “But the perception of Indians has changed for the better since the country’s prime minister (Narendra Modi) visited Singapore last November,” said Mohsin.
So far, according to Bangladesh government figures, there doesn’t seem to be a drastic drop in the number of its nationals going to Singapore. As per figures released by the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, an agency of the Bangladesh government that facilitates the overseas employment of locals, 29,610 Bangladeshi workers travelled to Singapore for the purpose of employment till June. This does not forecast a significant drop in the overall volume of Singapore-bound traffic from Bangladesh this year.
According to the agency’s website, in 2015, 55,523 Bangladeshi workers travelled to Singapore, a marginal drop from an all-time high of 60,057 workers in 2013.
As of June 2015, Singapore's population stood at 5.54 million. This includes 3.38 million citizens, 530,000 permanent resident and 1.63 million non-residents or foreigners. The majority of Singaporean citizens are ethnically Chinese, and the city-state has an Indian and Malay minority too.
In a Facebook post in January, Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said that his government would step up its security to protect racial and religious harmony.
This perhaps translated into increased surveillance of foreign workers.
“If a group of 10-12 Bangladeshi workers assemble in public to chat or unwind, the police checks their work permits and notes down their particulars,” said Mohammed Soren (not his real name), a Bangladeshi worker, who has been in Singapore for the past six years. “Also, we can no longer gather in certain familiar spots in Little India.”
“The government wants to monitor and closely engage with the Bangladeshi Muslim community in Singapore and maintain religious harmony,” said Wham. “Of late imams have been involved in mosques to ensure that Muslim workers are not radicalised. Thankfully, there is no public sentiment against workers from Bangladesh.”
Singapore has a stringent counter-terrorism law – the Internal Security Act.
In 2001, this Act was used against members of Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic radical group, Jemaah Islamiyah, who hatched a plan to bomb the embassies of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Israel in Singapore.
The deported Bangladeshi workers were also booked under this Act – which allows for detention without trial and has been criticised by pro-democracy activists.
Bangladeshi workers are anxious to cooperate with the Singaporean government to protect their jobs. “We must immediately alert the authorities if we spot someone amongst us liking or sharing messages of terrorism on Facebook,” said Abedeen. “We want to cooperate with the government to track down Islamic radicals.”
Suruchi Mazumdar has a doctorate in communication studies from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.