It’s interesting to note that your book, while titled Made in Singapore, was captured almost entirely in Bangladesh, about a non-Singaporean. What makes this a Singapore story?
The protagonist in Made in Singapore is Salim Javed, who is from Bangladesh and has worked in Singapore since 1996. While I used the title Made in Singapore to refer to the baby girl his wife Jorna conceived when visiting Salim in Singapore, I realised along the way that he came here to make life better for himself and his family, and it is no exaggeration to say that many of these dreams were ‘made’ in Singapore. The money he earned here as a construction foreman is much higher than what he could have made back in his village, and it has certainly benefited his loved ones. Salim is a representative of the thousands of migrant workers who work here, and I certainly believe that they are part and parcel of the Singapore narrative.
You met Salim five years ago when he helped to build your house. But there were other workers involved as well. Why the interest in Salim?
Among all the workers, Salim spent the longest time at our house because he was the foreman for the project. For months, he slept in what is now our living room. The makeshift kitchen where he used to cook is now our patio. I met him almost every day during the building process and he talked to me the most. By the time the house was near completion, I knew quite a lot about him.
One day after we moved in, he popped by to do some small repairs and took the opportunity to tell me that he got engaged. I jokingly told him that I would go to his wedding in Bangladesh if he invited me, and he took it seriously. So when he really invited me, I could not refuse.
Over the years, Salim has also become the guy our builders send over whenever we need something added or fixed. After photographing his wedding, I felt that there are a lot more stories about Salim and his family that I want to share with others. We are so used to chatting with each other now, that I think it has become second nature for him to update me about his life.
From your introduction to this book, it appears that you have quite an in-depth understanding of Salim’s family, and the relationship between him and the villagers. Do you feel like an intruder in his life?
Everything that I do as a photographer is a form of intrusion, but I believe that I have, over the years, earned Salim’s trust and therefore access. However, there were times when I had to refrain from asking some difficult questions, and there were times when I stopped myself from making certain images.
For instance, I had asked many times about being in the delivery room with his wife, but Salim was always diplomatic in his replies, which ranged from a smile to “see how lah” to “cannot lah”.
Another instance was on our last night in the village, when Salim and Jorna were having a long chat on the couch outside our room. He had become room-less because Jorna’s friends and relatives were staying in their room, and Salim had kindly given the two other rooms to my partners Samuel and Juliana, and me.
It was a very intimate moment between Salim and Jorna, and one of the few times they had a chance to be alone together. I forced myself to get out of my room with my camera and shot a few frames, all from a distance. When I returned to my room and looked through what I had photographed, they were not very satisfactory. Samuel, who had travelled to Bangladesh with me to make a documentary, kept egging me to go out again and try photographing from the reverse angle, but I procrastinated. In the end, I went to bed obsessing about what I could have done. I still think about the possible images, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t intrude in this instance.
I have never assumed that I have a right to poke my nose into every situation, and I am thankful every time someone grants me permission.
How did the rest of the villagers treat you when you were in Baktabali with Salim?
Bangladeshis, especially those in rural areas, are really hospitable folks. We could walk on our own freely because the whole village knew who were were and most people felt that it was their collective responsibility to ensure our safety. A few of the kids who knew me from my previous visit also saw themselves as our guardians and would chase others away so that we could work.
However, as a foreigner, I always stood out. The people’s friendly nature and a genuine curiosity about me were a very potent combination. It could become very difficult for me to work because I do not believe in staged images and I generally do not like pictures of people staring right into my lens. So without being rude, I had to figure out ways to avoid getting myself into that kind of situation. Fortunately, on the last trip in December 2013, my two partners took some attention off me, so it was often possible for me to sneak away and do my own work.
We were really treated like VVIPs everywhere we went. I could try food from the hawkers and they were mostly happy to let me eat for free. Salim would also fight to pay for me. Because the amounts involved were very small, it would have been petty and impolite for me to argue over such acts of kindness. After many years of debating whether giving money to our subjects is ethical, I have decided that I am more interested to be a human being and friend first, a journalist later. So I have given Salim small amounts of money on the side because I am 100% certain that this was not the reason why he granted me access to his life.
When I was going to Salim’s wedding in 2011, I didn’t tell him until I was already in Dhaka. In fact, I lied and told him I couldn’t attend, because I was really afraid that my visit would drain their resources. I knew that everyone was already busy with the wedding preparations and the last thing I needed was for them to have to worry about my well-being. But funny enough, I ended up sleeping in the bed where all the wedding rites were held. I didn’t get much privacy because the ceremonies were lengthy and lasted late into the night. I think when they finally realised that I was sleepy or needed to work but couldn’t because they were actually ‘in my way’, they felt bad. But seriously, I was the guest and I was the one inconveniencing them. In situations like this, I often had to remind myself not to be a typical complaining Singaporean.
In comparison, city dwellers like us are horrible hosts. We could walk in and out of Salim’s house as if we owned it, but the same cannot be said of the reverse scenario. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I doubt they expect us to treat them as equals. I guess we can’t change that attitude totally but I believe we can at least try to be nicer.
Do you think that your documentation has benefited Salim and his family in any way?
I don’t really know, but I dare say it benefits me more. I am very sure they don’t talk about it or think about how they can benefit from this. They are not calculative or opportunistic people.
Do you regularly keep in touch with Salim in Singapore?
Unfortunately, not as often as I should, and it is not something I am proud of. He still comes over when we need help fixing stuff, so I see him two or three times a year. But we get along with his bosses and we like their workmanship and professionalism, and we have recommended them to many friends. So once in a while, I will also hear about him from friends and seriously, everyone loves him.
Occasionally, he calls me with updates about his family. His parents want me to attend his younger brother’s wedding and they have said that they will plan the wedding dates around my schedule. Fortunately, I don’t really have to worry about this now because Shamin is still looking for a suitable woman. On this issue, the two brothers have also ‘fought’ because Shamin, being a college graduate, is looking for someone similar, but Salim still believes he should just find a village girl. But I will be happy to attend the wedding when the time comes. It will be a good time to do a follow-up on Samyra too.
From your introduction, there seems to be a interweaving web of relationships between the people in Baktabali and those who work in Singapore. Do you intend to explore Salim’s relationship with his friends?
Most certainly. This project has barely started and you can expect to see more in future. My title for the original project was The Hands That Built Our Home, and Made in Singapore is only a small instalment of the bigger things to come.
As someone who has studied and worked overseas, do you see a part of yourself in Salim, who is working away from his loved ones?
When Salim was back in Bangladesh, he was always in a hurry to get as much done as possible. There were so many things he needed to fix, so many people he had to visit. Some of the things, I am pretty sure, could have been done by others but they were left for him because there is a special feeling attached to certain tasks and they wanted to wait until he was back.
On my part, I remember vividly that when I was back from the US in Singapore during one of my school holidays, I had to untangle some wires from the back of a cabinet, a task that appeared very simple. My father said to me after I was done, “Only you could do this.”
I don’t think I understood the full extent of what he meant then, but after observing Salim’s interactions with his family, it became very clear that the message was pretty much the same: “We’re really glad you’re home – the family misses you.”
In a way, the tasks that we are asked to do when we are home for short visits are also opportunities for us to feel less guilty for having ‘abandoned’ the family. For Salim, it was as if he was in a race to make up for the time lost.
When I was studying overseas and something happened at home, I couldn’t be at home in person to help and that was very frustrating. But my family always bent backwards to make me feel okay because I was overseas, I didn’t really have a choice. I reckon it is the same for Salim.
Being away can make one feel very hopeless and detached. Family members will, often out of good intention, cushion us from certain news from home because they don’t want to burden us. But eventually, we have to face the problems. I think the long exchange Salim had with his mother is one such example.
What was the most challenging aspect when creating Made in Singapore?
Editing the project down to 15 images is a mad idea and that really taxed me to the maximum.
As an educator and photography advocate, what do you think is one thing that is lacking in photography in Singapore?
Since you only asked for one, I will have to say “The Singapore Voice”. While it is perfectly okay for photographers to emulate others and attempt spin-offs or follow-ups from internationally famous projects, I am worried that this will distract from what we really ought to be doing with our own photography, which to me is to have our unique voice that can be heard and recognised worldwide. I am less concerned about the style, more concerned about the content. There are many internationally prolific Singaporean photographers out there, but they are not necessarily known for their Singapore-centric works. I am not saying that winning these big accolades is not important but I hope that someday, more Singaporean photographers can tackle Singaporean materials without having to worry about them being too parochial. What I am thinking about is the photography equivalent of Anthony Chen’s film ILO ILO (2013) – a Singapore story that can have international appeal.
The good news is that the Singapore scene has changed quite a bit in the past 10 years and we are closer to that ideal now. It’s fantastic that a few photographers I respect are using their acclaimed place in the international arena to tackle Singapore projects. With their standing in the global community, their ‘local’ projects may not be considered ‘too local’ for much longer.
So I really hope that photographers like Darren Soh will not stop photographing vernacular buildings unique to us and I hope Clang’s forthcoming contribution to TwentyFifteen.sg will also get global attention. I think Jing’s crazy portraits of Singapore groups will also be important documents in the future. These photographers have some clout with international editors and that will make a difference in getting The Singapore Voice heard by a bigger audience, and on a bigger stage.
Eight years ago, you embarked on a project, National Day Babies, documenting 40 Singaporeans born on National Day. Is Made in Singapore your gift to the nation for its golden jubilee, or can we expect more to come?
If you consider the TwentyFifteen.sg initiative one of my babies, then I think there are plenty more. As for my personal projects, I never stop thinking about them. But whether I can deliver or not is another question.
You are the same age as Singapore. Tell us, what is one thing you would wish for yourself and the country?
The one wish I have for myself is very simple – don’t stop dreaming. For Singapore, I will be very happy if people are kinder to each other.