Photo credit: Youth.SG/Clemens Choy

My Little India adventure with Migrant x Me

Migrant x Me aims to help educate and raise awareness of the migrant worker community in Singapore. I had the opportunity to shadow them for a night.

Clemens Choy

Published: 25 July 2019, 12:00 AM

I believe in giving back to the community, but I have never actually relinquished my free time to help the less fortunate. Instead, I have been admiring volunteers and the work they do from afar.

Unlike more common places to volunteer, like nursing homes or soup kitchens, I was more curious about causes that support marginalised communities, like our migrant workers.

So, I spent an evening with volunteers from social enterprise Migrant x Me to find out what it was like being a volunteer.

Founded in 2018 by 25-year-old Isabel Phua, Migrant x Me aims to educate the public on the challenges migrant workers face in Singapore.

A few years before starting Migrant x Me, Isabel has been working with and interacting with migrant workers. She befriended the workers, invited them to her home, and even visited their families in Bangladesh.

“I met a worker who was cheated by his employer and was in debt of over $10,000. When I visited his family in Bangladesh, his family was so affected that they couldn’t sleep.

“That was when I realised they were just like us. They had families, and were working very hard for a better life for themselves and their families,” recounted Isabel, who currently works full-time at Migrant x Me.


Isabel Phua (pictured) introducing herself to the volunteers.


At 7pm, I met Isabel and her team of seven volunteers at a playground near Little India. Our meeting point, located near a mall, was surrounded by housing estates.

Our agenda for the night? To conduct a trial run of an upcoming educational to help participants recognise the prejudices they may have towards migrant workers.

Part of the route included landmarks significant to migrant workers in Little India, such as an open area known as Bangla Square, Mustafa Centre, and a brothel at Rowell Road.


The volunteers were training to be future guides for the upcoming walk.


Our first stop was a government-run physiotherapy clinic. Just as they started to discuss the significance of the clinic and its location, all seven volunteers, Isabel included, took out their pens, notebooks and phones, eagerly taking notes.


It is unsurprising to find a physiotherapy clinic here due to the number of migrant workers from the construction line staying in the area.


Being future guides for the walk, it made sense for them to be busy taking notes. What stood out to me was how passionate they were as they discussed the significance of the physiotherapy clinic’s location.

These youths, not much older than myself, sincerely cherished Migrant x Me’s cause and genuinely sought to help the public understand the lives of migrant workers in Singapore.

I also noticed Isabel busy taking notes, asking questions and participating in discussions, even though it was her fourth time on this trial walk.

Isabel shared: “I started Migrant x Me because I think that public education is very important. For the past five years, my friends and family kept asking me very basic questions like what do migrant workers face, what are some challenges they go through, and whether India and Bangladesh is the same country.

“I realised it’s this lack of understanding that lead to many misunderstandings, prejudice, and stereotypes we hold. It affects the way Singaporeans, as doctors, lawyers, policy makers, businessmen, treat migrant workers.”


Volunteers were always ready to take notes during discussions.


After the physiotherapy clinic, we headed to City Square Mall and Mustafa Centre. Treading deeper into Little India, I could not help but feel like an outsider in a foreign country. I felt like a minority.

I then found myself at a place I never thought I would visit – the infamous Rowell Road brothel.

The eight of us shuffled along a grungy five-foot way. As much as I hate to admit it, I felt uncomfortable. We stumbled through uneven pavements, aware of the gaze of numerous foreign passersby.

After a few more “Sorrys” and “Excuse mes”, we passed by a dimly lit room underneath a rundown shophouse, lush with a reddish hue.

Beyond the threshold of a gate and a few grilled windows, was a vastly different world. Over 10 scantily clad women sat in neat and orderly rows, their gaze loosely trailing behind men who passed their enclave.


Walking a few blocks past the brothel, we stopped along the road for a discussion.


The volunteers were unusually silent. Like me, most have never been close to a brothel before.

I did not feel disgusted or offended. Instead, I felt sad and sympathetic for the migrant workers who had to resort to such places to remedy their loneliness.

Isabel shared quietly that one of the biggest challenges migrant workers face is a lack of companionship.

At our last stop, we gathered at Bangla Square, affectionately known as Mini-Mart by the migrant workers. It was a wide open area next to a hawker centre. Scattered around were groups of Bangladeshi migrant workers. Nearby, a ‘No Drinking Zone’ sign was perched on a lamp post.

In pairs, volunteers had to strike up a conversation with a migrant worker, attempting to befriend them. Not a hesitant face was in sight. Once instructions were given, the volunteers took off.


Volunteers having a discussion at Bangla Square, also known as Mini-Mart.
Photo credits: Youth.SG/Clemens Choy


I thought it might be difficult to communicate with them due to the language barrier, until I met  a Bangladeshi man who has worked in Singapore for the past 14 years.

He shared his personal stories fluently in English. He even showed us a photo of his young daughter on his phone.

I later learnt that many migrant workers have been working in Singapore for decades. Naturally, most of them would pick up English.

Some have even been around for longer than I have been alive – and I only turn 20 this year.

After spending an evening with the volunteers, I did not expect so much work and effort to go into volunteering. I always thought volunteering was along the lines of: go there, do as you are told, and leave.

But these passionate volunteers really go the extra mile in helping Singapore understand migrant workers. All in the effort of making Singapore a more accepting and understanding place.

If you are interested to find out more about migrant workers in Singapore, check out Migrant x Me’s upcoming learning journey at the Youth Corps Learning Festival on 26 July 2019.

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