Tale from Singapore: The construction and survival of a man abroad

There are so many things I wanna write about - my observation of life, people, places, businesses, food, travel, etc. Over the past three weeks I’ve opened up perhaps too much of my personal life, and received a number of concerned messages from family and friends who cared about my well being - and for that I am deeply thankful. So for a change I’d write not about myself, but about precious individuals I encountered in my travels.. this time, in my second home, Singapore.


I see this everywhere in Singapore, and most noticeably on the public transportation system and in public eating places. 9 out of 10 persons in the MRT (mass rapid transit, i.e. the local train system) has their eyes fixed on their mobile screens. 9 out of 10 single person in a public food center is entertaining him/herself by watching a video of some sort on their mobile device while eating their meal.



It's hard to be present for yourself and for others because almost everyone is extremely caught up with their phones and the dopamine lure of an alternative world - the world of social media.


Proposed solution:

Technology comes and go, but people, lives and encounters are precious, and these are what truly matters. Engage with the people you’re with at the moment, for the moment will not last. Social media can wait, the person or persons living across the globe can wait - the time zone is different anyway. Well, this is much easier said than done - I’m often guilty of that. I try not to use my phone when I’m with people - be it my husband, family or friends. I may not always do it right, but I try. So please bear with me. And may I encourage you - do the same. Try to put your phone away when you’re engaged in the moment with another human being. It sends a powerful signal when we give them the fullest attention they deserve - it tells them that you are important. And everyone needs to feel important. It’s basic human desire. ;)

So, with that in mind, I took off one day to a cultural district in Singapore. This was in December 2017.

Saturday, December 2, 2017, 1900 hours:

I asked where I could find the best thosai in Tekka and was told the one in the middle of the food center. I found the stall, ordered a thosai, plus a cup of teh tarik halia (ginger milk tea) and promptly scouted for an empty table.

Shortly after I settled in my seat, a party of three; two Indian guys and an Indian girl, sat down at my table - they each at a fried snack. I looked around me across other tables - many are eating a similar fried snack.

The party of three soon left, and another Indian man sat at my table. He too, had on his plate, the same fried snack I had seen so many people eating.

I asked him what it was. He said it’s vadai, made from dhal or legume beans and deep fried. It’s a popular snack among Indians and typically eaten during breakfast and tea time.

He recommended another snack called idli, made from rice and dhal. Idli is eaten either during breakfast, lunch or dinner. He went on to say, idli is steamed and healthier. I smiled and wondered, how did he know I cared about healthy food?

He said if I come to Tekka tomorrow, i.e. a Sunday evening, it would be packed with people. I asked him why.

You see, he told me, foreign construction workers (mostly from India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) work 6.75 days each week – all day from Monday to Saturday (11 hours from 9am to 8pm) and till 5pm on Sunday (8 hours from 9am to 5pm), after which they would shower and arrange to meet their friends for dinner in Tekka on their only time off (those several hours on a Sunday evening from 5pm onwards).

From him I learned many shocking facts:

  • An average construction worker works 9am-6pm and is paid $2 (the minimum wage in Singapore).

  • After 6pm, the hours are considered overtime and he would be paid $4 per hour. An additional 2 hours per day equates to 60 hours a month (2 hours x 30 days) x $4 = $240, and that’s sufficient to cover his entire monthly living expense.

  • If that $240 extra income is sufficient to cover his entire monthly living expense, what does he do with his regular income at $2 an hour from 9am to 6pm, i.e. 11 hours x $2 x 30 days = $660? He sends all of that home to his family in India, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.

  • Monthly food expense is $200. That’s an average of $2 per meal, 3 meals a day.

  • 85-90% of Indian and Bangladeshi workers in Singapore cooks when they get back to their dormitories at 9pm - they cook dinner for the night as well as breakfast and lunch for the next day.

  • By cooking, they keep their food expenditure to $200 a month. If they chose to buy food from the construction canteen, their food expense would double or triple that, and they wouldn’t have any savings or money to send home to their families. So they’d rather sacrifice their own appetite for the welfare of their families.

  • A bag of rice costs $15 and that could last two weeks.

  • They earn on average $900 per month. The same guy would earn only $250 in India.

  • By earning $900 and paying $200 for food (while his accommodation and transport are covered by the company), he gets to save $700 a month.

  • An average man earns $250 per month in India. A construction worker in Singapore earns $900 and gets to save $700. You can see why they would want to work in Singapore. In 10 years, they can lift themselves off the poverty line to being a middle-class household.

This man that I was conversing with, he is a site engineer in a construction company. After 10 years of working in Singapore, he lifted himself from a lower middle-class to an upper middle-class income bracket. He plans to continue working in Singapore for the next two years before moving back to India for good. He would have saved enough money to buy a plot of land and start a business selling fertilizers to the surrounding businesses and villages close to his home. It costs SGD50,000 to start a business in India. He would not have been able to save that amount of money had he worked in India instead of Singapore.

So, his grand plan when he finally moves back to India for good, with enough capital to start his new business and to be reunited with his family whom he has been living apart from for the 10 years:

All he needed to do is to earn the equivalent of SGD$800 each month in order for his family to live comfortably - $400 to cover the household expenditure for a family of four (him, his wife and two kids – his son is 7 while his daughter is 3) including housing rental, utility bills, food, transportation, and other household expenses; and save the remaining $400.

I asked him if he found himself blessed to have been born into a middle-class family where his family could afford to send him to a private school and university, upon which he could seek employment in Singapore as not as a lowly construction worker but as a site engineer. He agreed that it helped that he’s got a head start because of his family’s wealth. He started as a site supervisor and quickly climbed up the ranks to site engineer. He considers himself very fortunate to be able to make 3 trips home to India each year to visit his family. Most construction workers do not get to visit their families in all the years they work in Singapore (and many work for over 10 years, far and separated from their families in all these time).

It has been hard for his wife and kids to be separated from him for extended periods. He could afford to fly home to visit his family, but he could not afford to send for them from India as it would nullify all the savings he has worked so hard for. Each time he flies to India, it costs him SGD$450 in air ticket – to fly his wife and kids from India to Singapore, it would cost him SGD1,800.

I asked him what is the best way to lift India out of the poverty line. He said education. With higher education, one could command a higher pay. Without education, one could never expect to earn much at all. I agree wholeheartedly.

We bid farewell, as he had to meet his friend for dinner. Before we parted ways, I asked him his name. It is Mani.

P/S: I could tell he would have vehemently rejected to have his photo taken, so out of respect for him, I didn't. 

Enjoying my thosai and teh tarik halia (ginger milk tea) in Tekka food center

Enjoying my thosai and teh tarik halia (ginger milk tea) in Tekka food center

Tekka food center, Little India, Singapore

Tekka food center, Little India, Singapore

Singapore, home to 6.7 million people

Singapore, home to 6.7 million people