Business as Usual in Little India

Note: This set of photos were first taken in June 2014. I have gone through several iterations since I first started working on this post and have always been displeased with the form in which my writing has taken. It is now January 2015, I hope you like it. If you would like to just browse the photos without words, you may do so by clicking here.

In June 2014, a bloodied luggage bag was found on Syed Alwi Road, Singapore. The bag contained disembodied body parts, which according to local news outlets, belonged to a 59-year old Pakistani Man. This incident further fuelled the ongoing discussion of Singapore’s reliance on Foreign Workers. Perhaps coming from my background in studying Sociology, this incident renewed my interest in how Foreign Workers are viewed in the Singaporean Social Fabric as well as how little attention we pay to their contributions to the infrastructural work that goes on behind the scenes in our booming city.

The following week, before I returned to Melbourne, I decided to drop by Syed Alwi Road on a weekday to experience for myself what exactly goes on in Little India on an average weekday.

"Look, the streets don't actually clean themselves do they?"

I was early enough to catch sight of a hardworking Janitor sweeping litter accumulated through the past night. I’ve had so many of my non-Singaporean friends go on and on about how clean Singapore is, unfortunately it is something we take for granted. Look, the streets don’t actually clean themselves do they?

If there were any signs that a bloodied luggage was found in the middle of this place, I must have missed it as everyone around me went about with their own schedules like any other regular day.

"Curiosity is always best satisfied by just asking someone."

I’ve always been curious as to what these huge machines on tripods are and I guess curiosity is always best satisfied by just asking someone. 

"He goes on to tell me that not everyone can operate such machinery and proudly stated that he had a degree in Engineering."

Thanks to Mr. Surveyor, I was enlightened. He tells me that this complicated machine is used for Site Surveys, measuring distance and such. Of course, building things require very precise… measurements. He goes on to tell me that not everyone can operate such machinery and proudly stated that he had a degree in Engineering. Cool bro, cool. Sadly, I think it is highly unlikely that he is paid the average Undergrad salary though… Perhaps we need to start considering what it really means to be "educated". Does a degree really hold its value if you are working somewhere else where you are less valued?

Moving on.

By this time, Singapore’s characteristic humidity was taking its full toll on me and I had to get a drink… Somewhere. Anywhere. I eventually stumble upon an old-school convenience store which we affectionately call a “Mama shop”.

Cue Wikipedia entry:

“A mama shop (from Tamil மாமா, meaning uncle or elder) is a convenience store in Singapore that is located under a high-rise apartment block built by the Housing and Development Board (HDB). Traditionally, they are owned and operated by Indians. Unlike other stores such as 7-Eleven, mama shops are not air-conditioned, and sell a variety of provisions within their limited area of approximately nine square meters.”

You’re welcome.

"Handsome looking don't you think?"

The encik (Malay for Uncle), gave me the green light to capture his dashing looks on camera. Handsome looking don’t you think?

Just because he was so sweet, I decided to put my Instax Mini Printer to some use… Combining my Fujifilm XT-1’s wireless function and my iPhone, I was able to print a photo for him to keep!

"Encik hasn’t seen something like this before and couldn’t stop thanking me for the small gift."

Encik hasn’t seen something like this before and couldn’t stop thanking me for the small gift. He offered to collect no money for the bottled water I was about to purchase. I politely refused; business is business after all.

Further down from the Mama Shop were several traditional hardware stores, in which I bumped into Mr. Pipe who was sweating just as I was (okay, he probably has it much worst!) as he was sawing some metal pipes. At first surprised, he eventually broke a smile, an act in which I returned without hesitation.

"...he eventually broke a smile, an act in which I returned without hesitation."

The entire area is littered with construction sites, a sign that construction for Singapore’s latest Downtown Metro Line is in full swing. Already, traffic on the roads have seen a huge bottleneck in the area.  As I pass by another massive construction/digging site I decided to stop by the guardhouse to speak with this kind sir:

He tells me he kind of actually likes his job because it pays quite well (mind you, he probably is still paid way less than the average working Singaporean). I politely asked him to be my model and he agreed. We started chatting and when I mentioned that I currently live abroad in Melbourne, he quickly remarked:

“Australia?! Is it easy to go there? Can you help me get there?”

“Australia?! Is it easy to go there? Can you help me get there?”

Initially taken aback by his bold request, I politely told him that there wasn’t much I could do when it comes to Visa applications nor have any networks with any employment agencies over there. 

Oh well. 

I learnt so much from just going on this short journey. Singapore is a small country but everyone is often in a hurry. Public spaces are merely an in-between affair and a nuisance in which we must traverse to get to our destinations. We often alleviate the boredom of travelling through the use of our electronic devices or listening to music. Eventually, so much of our surroundings are lost to these distractions. I’m glad I had the chance to stop, pause and converse despite the humid weather. The honest reality is that I could only do so because time was something I still had (as a student) but people who had full-time jobs in this Little Red Dot often find themselves starved of time due to work commitments. When I finally left Little India, I couldn't help but feel like my journey made little difference to the various people I met. It is after all, business as usual.

"It is after all, business as usual."