Singapore, Singapore

Beyond the Border, Behind the Men

Beyond the Border, Behind the Men

May 24, 2013

Using the arts to change attitudes towards low-paid temporary workers

Photo credit: JT Singh

The children react to his time in Singapore differently. They will frequently ask “why doesn’t father come back home?”
– wife of Golam, a Bangladeshi migrant worker, Beyond the Border, Behind the Men

Golam has spent 16 years as a migrant worker. Away from his wife and family in Bangladesh, he is one of over 100,000 Bangladeshis and nearly a million migrants holding work permits in Singapore.

For many Singaporeans, a low-skilled worker like Golam registers only as a stereotype: the construction worker, the shipyard worker, the cleaner. Now a multi-media arts project aims to change that careless perspective. Beyond the Border, Behind the Men (BTBBTM) is on a mission to expand the “singular” narratives of the faceless foreign worker and to uncover more about an economic group that makes up almost one-fifth of the city’s population. Through music, theatre, photography and film, the BTBBTM project works to remind viewers of the individual and human stories that lie behind the cliches.

No longer nameless

BTBBTM is using the power of the arts to convey a message of hope and inspiration. This ambitious initiative was founded in 2012 by three young friends after they had spent time volunteering with the Cuff Road Project, a community organization located in Singapore’s Little India that provides free meals and assistance to mainly Bangladeshi migrant workers in distress. Theirvolunteering  experience showed them that these men had more to share than tales of “anguish and despair” related to workplace injuries and errant employers, but also a “rich tapestry of emotions, warmth and glow.”

“We wanted to start this because we felt that all the stereotypes and mis-perceptions about these migrant workers had to be addressed,” says co-founder Bernice Wong. “I think the main point was how similar they were to us, in the sense that we all had our own families to care for, lovers to love, dreams to work towards to, our fair share of joy and sorrow. Hopefull,y by drawing attention to our similarities, our family and friends can gradually appreciate their presence a little more.”

Inspired by the friendships they made at the Cuff Road Project, the group took a trip to Bangladesh to meet and film the men’s families. The short film, Beyond the Borders, Behind the Men, provides a glimpse of the lives of three Bangladeshi men and their families – the sister missing her brother, the father proud of his son’s accomplishments, the lonely wife. Interspersed are shots of the migrants themselves – Jahangir playing the tabla, Saiful enjoying an outdoor game of carom and Golam returning home. At the end of the film, the men are no longer faceless, nameless migrants,  and no longer the sum of their stereotypes. The viewer is left with the message: “Like us, they are also sons, fathers, husbands, storytellers and dreamers.”

Says construction worker Rashedul Haque after watching the film, “Making a living in Singapore is difficult because of the living conditions we are placed in, but the film shows the stories behind what we are struggling here for.”

Building a movement

The initial plan to produce a short documentary and photo exhibit to chronicle these migrant stories was quickly revised in response to the enthusiasm of the migrant participants. When the group learned that some of the migrant workers were talented musicians, a jam session was organized with 20 Singaporeans and 20 Bangladeshis which led to the creation of a band and a YouTube video with more than 20,000 views. A concert of pop songs and Bangladeshi folk music also raised money for a new recreational space at the Cuff Road Project facilities.

The collaboration also opened the eyes of the migrant workers. For Jahangir, the tabla player shown in the film who came to Cuff Road Project after injuring his backbone in a six-metre fall at work, participating in BTBBTM changed his perceptions of the city: “Singapore boys and girls are my brothers and sisters. I see no difference between Singapore(ans) and Bangladesh(is) — we are all friends.”

The concert was followed up by a performance of the group’s first play, Hard Times, Easy Money. Written by a migrant participant of BTBBTM, the play dramatizes the lives of foreign workers caught up with “unscrupulous middlemen with equally unscrupulous local employers.” Sponsored by the Migrant Workers’ Centre, the cast of Bangladeshis and Singaporeans performed in front of an enthusiastic outdoor crowd of more than 1,000 in the Little India neighbourhood.

Beyond the Border, Behind the Men (Full Film) from Yiqin on Vimeo.


Beyond the Border, Beyond the Men uses the powerful mediums of music, film, photography and social media to make a difference in the lives of Singaporean workers and the city they live in. BTBBTM’s work has attracted recognition and new funding from various organizations such as Our Better World, the National Arts Council (Singapore), the Singapore International Foundation, and the National Youth Council. With growing support, the group will continue to develop creative channels that can make a positive difference in the way people interact with Singapore’se migrant workers.

The project demonstrates the transformative power of the arts as a tool for advocacy. Singaporeans who have always seen migrant workers working tirelessly on constructions sites are now gaining a new perspective on the men behind so much of the city’s growth and development.

“Our migrant friends are just like us, coming to work in Singapore out of their love to provide for their loved ones,” wrote a visitor to the BTBBTM photo exhibition. “Thank you and your team for your love for our migrant friends and creating love amongst us with them!”

Contributed by JT Singh (edited and condensed for publication by editors)

Making it Work for You:

  • Art has the power to change minds and lives. Look for stories that break stereotypes rather than feed them.
  • Provide participants with opportunities to showcase their talents on their own terms. A project that began with a passive representation of migrant workers grew into one where they took centre stage.
  • Partnerships help attract new participants and new audiences, increasing your chances of attracting media attention to your work.

For this Good Idea contact:

Bernice Wong
Beyond the Border, Behind the Men

Beyond the Border, Behind the Men