‘Unfortunately, I am not lucky’: Migrant Writing from Singapore and Australia

Moderator: Deirdre C. Byrne, Professor and Head of the Institute for Gender Studies, University of South Africa, South Africa

Wernmei Yong Ade, Assistant Professor and Deputy Head in the English Programme, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Writing the Self: Transient Workers’ Stories of Love in Singapore:
“Having the freedom to express our love through small gestures like holding hands, a simple kiss, and saying ‘I love you’, doesn’t seem wrong. Well, those who can do that without worrying that other people might humiliate them are lucky. Unfortunately, I am not lucky. I am a domestic worker in Singapore” (Iyah, transient worker from the Philippines). It is widely accepted that to love and be loved is central to personhood and a sense of self; the loving relation is, after all, a relation based on being recognized as a unique self by another. As Iyah’s testimony demonstrates, this path is however not always open to the transient worker in Singapore. For transient workers in Singapore, practices of love are subject to strict laws of the country and the biases of Singapore society. For instance, transient workers are not allowed by law to marry a Singapore national or a permanent resident. Any Singaporean or permanent resident who desires to marry a foreign national on a work permit (which all transient workers carry), can only do so in the form of “marriage by contract”, in which the transient worker will have had to leave Singapore and remained outside of the country for a number of years before the marriage is legally recognized by the State, and the couple able to start a life together in Singapore. Female transient workers are also required to take a mandatory pregnancy test every six months, and if a woman is found to be pregnant, she must immediately return to her home country. Subsequently, such laws have an impact on the way society views the bodies of transient workers, as less deserving of intimacy and love.

This paper examines the ways in which transient workers in Singapore wrestle with visibility and personhood, particularly as these are constituted through practices of love. My survey of the stories told by transient workers, such as the one told by Iyah, reveals that love, both in its familial and romantic forms, are central themes. Storytelling has always been seen as an important means towards reclaiming voice and visibility, particularly for marginalised groups of individuals. My presentation proposes that the telling of love stories comes to stand in for the loving relation as a form of inter-relationality that reveals the uniqueness of lovers as persons, a loving relation that many migrant workers, in leaving their home countries, are often forced to give up, and find challenging to rebuild in Singapore.

Sources for data will primarily consist of published poetry and short prose written by transient workers in the last 3 years. Sources will also include interviews with editors of the collections of works, as well as interviews with the transient workers who have authored the works referred to, subject to approval by the relevant organisations.

Kelly Gardiner, Lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing, La Trobe University, Australia

Writing the Refugee Experience:
In 2013, in an effort to deter people from seeking asylum by boat, the Australian Government introduced off-shore processing – detaining people outside its territorial waters, so that they are unable to claim refuge. This has resulted in hundreds of refugees, including children, being imprisoned in Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and elsewhere for many years. Some have died or been killed, and many have been ill for months or years, living in limbo. While the majority of Australians welcome migrants, and the country prides itself on its “multiculturalism” as a result of post-war migration, public opinion on offshore processing is divided,1 and “border protection” continues to be a significant political issue, furthered by media coverage and political commentary found to dehumanize the people affected.2

At the same time, writers have focused on gathering, representing and publishing stories by or about refugee experiences, as a conscious way of garnering public support for a change of policy. This paper focuses on the efforts of many writers for children and young people to represent refugee stories, including award-winning novels (such as The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon), graphic novels (The Arrival by Shaun Tan), and picture books (My Two Blankets, by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood). Through analysis of selected works and of paratexts outlining authorial intentions, it examines the ways in which such works use concepts of love – often gendered – and belonging alongside literary strategies (especially voice), to give voice to, and “re-humanise”, the real human beings whose humanity is under erasure by government and political commentary. It will consider the ways in which storytelling can intervene in public debates, with writers acting as advocates, and why both writers and publishers choose to focus on young readers.

[1] Lowy Institute poll.lowyinstitute.org/themes/immigration-and-refugees

[2] Roland Bleiker et al., “The Visual Dehumanisation of Refugees,” Australian Journal of Political Science 48, no. 4 (2013).