NegotiatingState Power It is important to unravelthe reasons behind Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan’s varying levels of confidence, aswell as political consciousness, because such insights will provide us a windowinto not only understanding the intricacies of migrant worker literary activismbut also making sense of a variety of mechanisms that migrant writers enact toresist or negotiate state power. Name Countries of origin Education Length of Residence in Singapore Career in literary scene in Singapore Family Background Publication in Singapore Legal cases Wina Indonesia (Junior) High School 13 years 2015 till now Windowed, 1 daughter Songs from a Distance (2017) (anthology) 2011, arrested by the police as she was (coerced into) helping with employer’s catering business Fedelis Philippines BA in Business and Commerce (drop out) 5 years 2012 till now Windowed, 1 daughter Songs from a Distance (2017) (anthology) none Hasan Bangladesh Diploma in Ceramic Technology 9 years 2011 till now Married, 1 son Strangers to Myself: A Memoir of a Bangladeshi in Singapore (2017) none Through the interviews, two major factorsare found to be at play, affecting the said migrant writers’ levels ofconfidence. First of all, there seems to be a strong correlation betweeneducational background and level of confidence. Holding a degree in CeramicTehnology, Hasan might feel more assured than Wina and Fedelis that he couldreadily land a job back in his home country in case he gets into trouble withthe Government of Singapore. His assertion ‘Idon’t care’ might, therefore, beborn out of the absence of his perturbation regarding job opportunities. Fedelis,albeit a college drop-out and a widow, holds a high school education, whichstill allows her to access different kinds of jobs. In addition, Fedelis hasestablished her own business in the Philippines, in collaboration with herbrother (Fedelis, personal interview, December 5, 2017). Meanwhile, with herjunior high school education, Wina’s chances to access jobs with a decent payare slim.
In the interview, Wina remarks, “(If I get deported), that means I’lllose my job and it will affect my family” (Wina, personal interview, October27, 2017). The second factor affecting their levels of confidence is themastery of literary devices. Since 2011, Hasan has dedicated a considerableamount of time to learning literature in ‘Bangla Kantha,’ a literary communityset up exclusively for Bangladeshi and Indian workers. His participation inthis literary community has earned him broad experience in literary writingand, most of all, mastery of literary devices. Similarly, Fedelis has learnedliterature since she was in high school, which gives her extended knowledge onliterary elements. Unlike Hasan and Fedelis, Wina is a newcomer in literaryscene. In fact, she started writing in 2015 and only came to study literaryelements in 2016 in the literary community Voiceof Singapore’s Invisible Hands (Wina, personal interview, October 27,2017). Mastery of literary devices, such as satire, points of view andsymbolisms, determines the migrant writers’ level of confidence as it enablesthem to operate within the ‘safe’ arena but yet still able to advance their messages in subtlemeanings.
It is worthy to note,however, that albeit having the longest years of residence in Singapore, Winaappears to be the most anxious about her literary activities as compared toFedelis and Hasan. Her deep-seated angst can be seen through her statement, “Ifear to write something about migrant workers’ rights” (Wina, personalinterview, October 27, 2017). Her worry escalated to the point where she decidedto deactivate her Facebook account in early 2017 for fear that the governmentwould launch a crackdown on her. Although her fear is caused, in a large part,by educational background and lack of mastery of literary devices, a morein-depth analysis shows that it is likely due to her past unpleasantexperience. In 2011, Wina was arrested by the police when she was working inher employer’s catering business (Wina, personal interview, November 2, 2016).
Thiswas despite the fact that she was coerced by her employer into working in thebusiness without getting paid. Her passport was confiscated, and her workpermit got suspended during the investigation process, which took nearly threemonths. During this period, Wina had to remain in her employment agency and pay$10 per day. Having her passport and work permit taken, she was unable to work.In the end, Wina owed as much as $3,000 to her employment agency due to theliving expenses incurred, while her employer was charged only with a $1,000fine. She declares, “In my opinion, when things like this happen, it’s alwaysus — the workers — who are put in a difficult condition, while employers canstill do their business as usual.” (Wina, personal interview, September 10,2016).
This experience seemsto have a lasting impact on Wina, and in particular, characterizes Wina’sliterary writings. Of all the three migrant writers interviewed in thisresearch, Wina is the least active, vocal and articulate. Wina’s writings are typifiedby themes that touch upon human sensibilities; they are not overtly clustered aroundthe issues of migrant worker rights. Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan’sconfidence, notwithstanding its varying degrees, suggests one thing: thesemigrant writers are conscious of the state power and their own socio-politicalstanding. As we discussed earlier in the previous subchapters, suchconsciousness has been raised largely by their participation in MWPC and itspost-events, including the workshops and competition put together by Sing LitStation. Foucault (1978) asserts through his theory of power, subject, andresistance that resistance to power is only possible if subjects recognize andare conscious of the existence of power itself (History of Sexuality Vol. 1,1978).
Having said that, the publication of Wina and Fedelis’ anthology book Songs from a Distance (2017) and Hasan’s Strangers to Myself: Diary of a Bangladeshi in Singapore (2017) couldbe seen as an act of negotiating power in and of itself since the publicationis a form of resistance to the dominant narratives of migrant workers and is deeplygrounded in the hope to reshape these narratives by offering the migrants’ ownversions of the stories. The factors discussedearlier, such as educational background, mastery of literary devices and legalcases seem to characterize the mechanisms that Fedelis, Hasan, and Wina use innegotiating state power in their literary writings. In the interview, Fedelis asserts,“I write with full consciousness and select my works…I touch issues inplan color and usually write in first person point of view, so it seems thatit’s just my opinion. Sometimes I use satirical lines, but I really make sure Idon’t go over the fence, lah. So thedog may bark, but I know I am safe” (Fedelis, personal interview, November 6,2017). It is immediately clear that,in Fedelis’ case, multiplelayers of self-censorship play out at the initial stages of the production of herliterary writings.
[AR1] Not only does Fedelis keep herselfconscious of the subject on which she is writing, as well as of the statepower, Fedelis also selects with full consciousness her works that are to becirculated in public sphere. She also draws up boundaries and makes sure that sheremains within the safe zone by using a variety of literary devices inconveying her messages, for instance, point of view and satire. What needs tobe highlighted is the fact that Fedelis possesses the ability to censor her ownworks and use various literary devices. Such self-censorship is a clearmanifestation of Fedelis’ consciousness of state power. Echoing a similar idea, Hasansays, “Whenwriting, I don’t think about the government or my boss. I just write what’s onmy mind.
I’ll choose my works just if I want to publish them. When Italk about bad practices at work, I don’t put the name of the company” (Hasan,personal interview, October 31, 2017). Hasan’swriting process is, however, different from Fedelis’ in that it is not done underthe pressures of complying with his preconceived notion regarding the extent towhich he can broach the topics of migrant worker rights.
He also uses anonymityin the writings that bring up the topics of bad practices at work. Wina’s fear,however, appears to linger and gives a profound, formative principle to her writings.She claims that, “I write mostly when there is an event that requires me towrite” (Wina, personal interview, October 27, 2017). Wina’s relativepassiveness, as compared to Fedelis and Hasan, might be caused not only by her limitedknowledge on literary devices due to her new arrival in literary scene, but also by herlegal problem in the past, [AR2] which continues to have an impact on herconfidence, particularly in writing political literature.
Conclusion Inthis paper, I have endeavored to spell out the technology of power that theState utilizes to discipline migrant workers; that is, work permit scheme. In sodoing, I argue that the existing work permit scheme for construction anddomestic workers decenters power from the State to employers, creating multipledisciplining effects on migrant workers. This mechanism tends to lead one toassume that migrant workers are completely stripped off their subjectivity and agency.However, this is mistaken. Any discussion on power relation would be incompletewithout taking into account ‘resistance’ (Foucault, 1987) enacted to such power—inthis case—by migrant writers (Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan) who work in constructionand domestic sectors. As this paper shows, the ‘battles’ between the State andsaid migrant writers are moved on to literary terrain, into which these migrantwriters insert their own powers with the purpose of negotiating the State andultimately re-writing and re-shaping the narratives about themselves. Wina, Fedelis, and Hasan’s consciousnessto enact resistance to and negotiate State power is raised primarily by theirparticipation in Migrant Worker Poetry Competition (MWPC) and its post-eventprograms, such as workshops and competition conducted at Sing Lit Station. In negotiatingor resisting the State power, these migrant writers make use of a variety ofliterary devices, such as satire, point of view, and anonymity.
The strategiesdevised to negotiate such power, however, are taken based on three majorfactors, namely educational background, mastery of literary devices, and legalcases that they have had in the past. This paper fills in the lacuna inacademic literature on the analyses of migrant literary writings by providingexplanations about how State power plays out in the production of migrant (in constructionand domestic sectors) literary writings. As such, this paper provides the basisupon which future researches on the production of migrant literary writings—especiallythose produced by transient migrant workers such as construction and domesticworkers—in relation to State power in other countries can be studied. [AR1]Doesit have anything to do with Foucault’s theory? [AR2]Shehas been ‘discplined’ by the government.
Relate it to Foucault’s theory.