The three interns conceptualized Made by Migrants, a project that looks into the lives of foreign construction workers by joining them in their work and play. Ian recorded his experience with them, taking pictures and conducting interviews.
Same but different
The striking difference between Ian and his co-workers might have been the attention-grabbing hook of the project (these are advertising interns after all), but that was were the differences ended.
“The project is centered around work. It really was an interrogation of what it is to work and [to be] away from home … basically trying to foster a sense of collegiality between Singaporeans and migrant workers. They’re our colleagues and we built this city and the economy together,” Victoria explained.
Coming from the United Kingdom, easily fitting the mold of an expat, Ian felt uncomfortable with the distinction between different types of foreigners. “The phrase ‘foreign talent’ and ‘foreign worker’ for me was something that I didn’t feel comfortable with,” he said.
Speaking about Junsheng, one of his colleagues from China, Ian mused about how similar yet different their lives were. “For him to be 22 and to have 2 kids and to be away from them, that’s just really brave and I wanted to know if he was scared to be a father and he was like ‘no, no, no.’ At this age I couldn’t do it. I don’t think I would be ready.”
Ian might have been there to learn about them, but they were just as fascinated by him as he was by them, proving that curiosity about the unknown is only human.
“I think they were really shocked. Tatuporn (a Thai worker) said, ‘We’ve never even met a westerner never mind coming to have barbeque with us or anything.’”
A new take
Handing this delicate and controversial issue was not easy.
Finding a job placement for Ian was difficult for many reasons. “There was a lot of resistance,” said Mark. “Because we wanted to focus on the commonalities that exist, to humanize it, a lot of people were worried how this could be perceived negatively if it was handled in the wrong way,” added Ian.
“Our biggest challenge behind the scenes [has been] protecting our project, making sure that sensationalist public opinion didn’t mar it in anyway, making sure that whatever we said or whatever comments that came and how it was perceived by the public didn’t take away from the integrity of the project,” said Victoria.
There was opposition to the way the three decided to approach the topic, and they had to learn quickly how to walk the tightrope between understanding and stereotyping these men.
“We spoke to quite a few charities and… there was a bit of confrontation when we spoke to [some of] them about our original thoughts because they felt it was necessary to show that [migrant workers] were victims, whereas other groups like Migrant Voices agreed that it was about showing the personalities and what’s beyond the label of ‘foreign worker’,” said Ian.
The right approach?
Response has been mainly positive but “there’s also been comments which say it’s slightly superficial,” Ian admitted.
Yet that is likely a result of the nature of the project, not the way it was carried out, the interns contend.
“This project is quite human in the way that it’s evolved. It’s like meeting someone immediately, you don’t pull out their deepest darkest secrets or their most tender stories within moments so we couldn’t expect too much from two weeks. Whatever superficiality that people detected it that is really just a reflection of the challenges of time and resources and human nature,” reasoned Victoria.
“To me, [Singapore] was built by migrants,” said Ian. “Everyone here, except the Malay people who were the original settlers, are migrants.”
“This is what a migrant worker told me: he feels that [here] first is the money and then second is the heart.”
“Even if only two people [watch our videos] that’s a massive thing for me… In Singapore we just view them as invisible and now I actually hear stories about them and their families and their children and it makes me think a bit more, just that little bit more.”
By Sharon Chen / Pictures by Shawn Byron Danker
Do visit the Made By Migrants website here for more write-ups, pictures and videos by the interns.
Join publichouse.sg's Facebook page here.