SINGAPORE – Singapore has a Chinatown and a Little India, but the thousands of foreign workers living in the city-state have their own lesser-known havens. Filipinos cluster at Lucky Plaza along the Orchard Road shopping magnet, and every Sunday, the Peninsula Plaza near Singapore’s docklands heaves with Burmese immigrants enjoying what for many is their only day-off every week.
Dozens of shops – almost all Burmese-owned – sell food and newspapers from the home country, with an array of locally-made phone cards offering various deals on pricey phonecalls back to Burma.“It costs usually more than 1 Singapore dollar (SGD) per minute”, says *Kyaw Kyaw, a 35 year old aeronautical engineering graduate. “It is a lot of money for some of the people working here”.
He says that unlike Malaysia and Thailand, “a significant percentage of the Burmese here are working in professional jobs”, with Singapore-based companies accepting Burmese academic qualifications in technical fields such as IT and engineering. However there are many thousands working as site labourers or housemaids – the latter a
growing sector for Burmese women as numbers from Indonesia or the Philippines fall off. For *Myo, a construction worker from a village close to Mandalay in north-central Burma, a 20SGD per day wage means that a weekly phone-call home, even for ten minutes, can eat up at least half a days pay.
“I work from 8am-10pm, 6 days a week”, he says, adding that he gets an additional SGD3.75 per hour for the five hours overtime he puts in each day, which kicks in after 5pm. He says the long hours and “many disagreements” between the Chinese and Malaysian foremen, and the mainly Burmese, Indian and Thai labour, leaves him drained most Sundays, when he has his only day off.
“But it is better than in Malaysia”, he concedes. “I worked there for two years, and always had to give ‘tea money’ to the police. That doesn’t happen here”.
Upstairs, 24 year old carpenter Tin Aung eyes some of the 9,000 Burmese language books stored at the library co-founded by Bo Bo Win, an electrical engineer and businessman now halfway through his second decade in Singapore.
Tin Aung moved to the city-state two and a half years ago, and says that the library is a much-needed source of cultural support for the estimated 200,000 Burmese living and working in Singapore. “I cannot read so well in English”, he says, “neither can many Burmese”.
In an effort to bridge the language gap and perhaps get around what he describes as a shortage of quality literature available in Burma, *Zaw Zaw, an ethnic Chinese from Mon State in Burma’s south, takes a collection of Samuel Beckett’s poetry – written in both the Irish writer’s native English and adopted French – and says “I am translating this book into Burmese”
For his part, Bo Bo Win says that he set the library up “around the time of Saffron” – referring to the demonstrations against price rises in Burma in 2007, that eventually became a mass protest against military rule.
“We started with 573 books”, he says, but thanks to donations of material from Burmese travelling to and from their homeland, “now we have more than 9000”.
His wife runs a Burmese restaurant in the basement of Peninsular Plaza, and over the packed Sunday afternoon din, Bo Bo outlines a real grievance for the thousands of Burmese in Singapore.
“Not only do we have to pay our taxes to Singapore, which is right by law”, he says, “we have to pay on the double, whenever we want to get our passport renewed”.
Using a weighted system based on the workers salary, Burmese in Singapore not only have to pay the official 300SGD passport renewal fee, but also pay anything from SGD700 to SGD3000 in ‘tax’ to the country’s embassy in Singapore.
“My Singapore boss does not understand why we have to do this”, says Kyaw Kyaw, half-laughing at the embassy’s requirements. Burmese passports are valid for no more than three years, meaning that the embassy can collect a substantial amount of money, based on an estimated 200,000 Burmese living in Singapore.
Having a minimum 6 months validity on the passport is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to retain official work permit status in Singapore, so Burmese wishing to remain there have little option but to be swept along with the embassy’s lucrative revenue stream.
Some say they would willingly go home, if economic conditions improve in Burma. “I hear there might be jobs coming up at Tavoy”, says Zaw Zaw, referring to the new multi-billion port-highway project being built on Burma’s southwest, but which has reportedly been held up by fighting between the Burmese Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
Opinions are divided on what Burma’s future holds. “I hope the rulers make some changes, for the better”, says Kyaw Kyaw, “but the past means it is hard to be optimistic”.
“If I could earn even half as much at home as I earn here, I would go back”, comments Bo Bo Win.
*signals that names was changed or shortened at request of interviewee
The Burmese Embassy was contacted by email and by telephone regarding the payment system, but had not responded by time of publication