Singapore has about 1 million migrant workers. But at what point do we think of migrant workers beyond their jobs, and see them as full-fledged human beings with their own lives and desires? Birds Migrant Theatre, a group of migrant workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines united by their love for theatre, are here to deepen that understanding, and show that migrant workers can also be artists, as they present works that shed light and add layers to our blanket stereotyping and understanding of migrants.
Simultaneously juggling their day jobs while also being invited to perform at stages as big as the Esplanade, Birds Migrant Theatre will be making their M1 Singapore Fringe Festival debut this January, with their original devised work Foreign Bodies. Co-directed by Haresh Sharma, resident Playwright of The Necessary Stage, and theatremaker Serena Ho, Foreign Bodies follows migrant workers Arif and Ani, who meet and fall in love, only to face an accidental pregnancy which could spell the end of their relationship, and their lives in Singapore.
Speaking to co-devisors Wiwi Tri and Ak Zilani, who also contributed writing and will perform in the play, we found out more about the complexity of being a foreign worker and the hard decisions they sometimes have to make, and the difficulty of existing within a potentially flawed system.
Wiwi first joined Birds Migrant Theatre in 2018, meeting Haresh and attending a theatre workshop. A domestic worker from Kediri East Java, Indonesia, Wiwi wrote a play, Shoes, that was given a dramatised reading at the Singapore Theatre Festival 2018. Zilani is from Bangladesh, and has been working as a construction worker in Singapore for 10 years. Often writing about inequality, gender discrimination and human rights, Zilani has performed in Big Dream, Text Book and Sambal, and In Between, which he wrote, all by Birds Migrant Theatre.
“Over the New Year break in 2022, we had a workshop with Haresh and Serena, and three of us from Birds Migrant Theatre had a meeting, where we caught up over what we’ve been going through over the last few months,” says WiWi. “I brought up how one of my friends had accidentally gotten his girlfriend pregnant and didn’t know what to do, and that formed our basis for discussion and devising.”
“Most of the stories we perform at Birds Migrant Theatre are based on real life experiences, especially those that people are less willing to discuss or talk about,” adds Zilani. “The person who gets pregnant is often seen as an offender, but she is also a victim. They can’t afford to report it to the Ministry of Manpower or risk getting found out, and might face shame from their family back home even.”
Considering both Wiwi and Zilani are also holding down full time jobs on work permits, their time to actually work on and rehearse for their performances is incredibly limited. “It’s my passion, and that’s why I love doing this. I used to dance and sing, and wanted to continue performing in some way,” says Wiwi. “I don’t expect people to praise me, but at least for this, I know that we’ve all worked very hard to bring this to the stage, and just want to show the world that hey, we’re migrant workers, and we want to put something out there of a certain standard, even if it may not be of the same calibre as professional artists.”
“Birds Migrant Theatre is a place that feels like family, and after spending time here, I found it gave me more self-confidence and boosted my energy and mental health,” adds Zilani. “It’s difficult to get friends to come watch become time is so difficult, but we are very committed to each production, spending up to every Sunday for 6 months preparing for it. When we get the chance to watch shows, we are always blown away by every production. As a group, we do want to improve with each production, and I believe that our passion helps us achieve that, and at least we have this as a platform to explore and learn and grow ourselves as artists.”
Xenophobia still runs high however, and because of how restrictive the system is, most migrant workers have no choice but to be fully defined by their occupation, and any deviation from that role is seen as out of line. “Our identity is as migrant workers, and because we’re always working or grouped together, we end up mostly isolated from the local Singaporean community and the arts,” says Zilani. “Some migrant workers don’t even know that a recreation centre exists, and their lives really end up being eating, working and sleeping.”
“I’ve been in Singapore for about 18 years now, and in the first three years, my employer didn’t even allow me to speak to other people, and I had to sneak out just to call my family and pretend I was buying something,” admits Wiwi, who came to Singapore to raise more money to support her daughter back in Indonesia. “It became a lot easier to communicate with the rise of video calls, but I do know there are so many domestic helpers who are still very restricted by their employers. Because of this, when they face troubles, it can be difficult to communicate to ask for advice or assistance from outside, and their time is so limited, some people still don’t have off days or have to go back on off days before dinner.”
In terms of what they hope audiences walk away with, all they want is a greater sense of empathy after watching Foreign Bodies. “I think people will be divided after watching it, it’s not just black and white, and some people will still think oh, we can’t break the rules, while others will be more passionate,” says Zilani. “But the focus of the story is really more about what we can do to help, despite the limitations, even if it’s with the mental anxiety and emotional stress.”
“I want people to recognise that we are also human, and we have the right to love and have sex. Sometimes accidents happen, and while you have to face up to the consequences, people can afford to empathise more with how difficult it can be for us to get contraceptives, or how we have no Medisave to pay the hospitals,” says Wiwi. “If locals watch this play, I hope that they think about helping or asking how they can help before judging, and that this would be the mindset they take going forward.”
Photo Credit: Birds Migrant Theatre
Foreign Bodies plays on 15th January 2023 (2pm/5pm/8pm) at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here