"Art for Good": Poetry from Singapore's Migrant Dormitories

“Poetry is a luxury we can’t afford” – so said the late minister of Singapore during its early days of independence when the nation’s dire straits meant that it had to channel all its energies to solving its most pressing needs. Now the country has gone from third world to first within the span of a generation, suggesting that this piece of advice has worked out well. And why shouldn’t it? It seems perfectly logical to prioritise Maslow’s basics before other non-essentials like leisure, comforts and – oh, of course—poetry. Although it makes sense for us to put these pleasures on hold temporarily whenever we hit hard times, what about those of us for whom such times are more than a temporary state? Will the arts be shelved indefinitely for those who can never quite make ends meet? Will I never get to enjoy the beauty of poetry just because I’ll never afford a roof over my head? 

Thankfully, the answer is no. 

Because art is not a luxury, but a basic human right. It is a celebration of life and beauty, and everyone is entitled to it. 

I am so glad that this pragmatic city that had once declared art an impractical and indulgent luxury is now beginning to see this. In my next few posts, I share with you some heart-warming initiatives from around the world that show us what art can do for all. 

Poetry for Singapore’s migrant workers

Zakir Hossain Khokan first moved to Singapore from Bangladesh to work in the construction industry. In hopes of providing an outlet for his fellow Bangladeshi migrant workers to engage in poetry, he founded a Bengali poetry interest group called “Amrakajona” (Bengali: “We Are”). Beginning with weekly gatherings where the group would exchange their latest creative productions, this initiative soon garnered greater support from the local community and helped pave the road for what is now a flourishing migrant worker literary scene in Singapore. 

Singapore Bangla Literature Book Fair 2017

The first Migrant Literature Festival was hosted last year and celebrated the talents of many who had come to the country as domestic helpers or construction workers. For these writers, this new literary outlet comes as a welcome opportunity to express their creativity and to engage with the greater community. Said Zakir:

 "Being in a foreign land, feelings of loneliness are unsurprising... We hope to continue bonding the community and create more platforms for migrants to connect with locals."

Engaging in poetry gives this marginalized community a voice in the country which they helped build. Their poetry grants insight into their lives and declares that they are so much more than faceless labourers—each of them is a unique human being with their own story to tell. 

More about Zakir’s projects here. More about Singapore’s migrant literary scene here


This post is the first part of our series of 'Inspiring Art Projects Around the World'.

This post is brought to you by Aestheletic: we believe in making art accessible to all - we bring the paintings from our art gallery to you as street wear. 

 *All photos in this article have been used with permission from Zakir Hossain Khokan