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‘I Dream of Singapore’ Offers a Humanising Look At The Trials and Tribulations of Singapore’s Transient Workers

22 April 2020


‘I Dream of Singapore’ Offers a Humanising Look At The Trials and Tribulations of Singapore’s Transient Workers

After a life-threatening injury, a construction worker lies endlessly in wait to return home. A migrant poet-labourer leads students in dreaming of an afternoon river. One Muslim devotee cries while praying, wearing his “I [HEART] SINGAPORE” shirt. Having paid the average EUR10,000 “migration fee,” another fresh-faced youngster arrives, eager to try his luck here too.

Director: Lei Yuan Bin

Year: 2019

Country: Singapore, Bangladesh

Language: Bengali, English

Runtime: 78 minutes

At one point of the documentary, director Lei Yuan Bin and his team follows Feroz, a Bangladeshi who was a transient worker in Singapore, home to his village. There, in between conversations and observations, they ask a teenager if he wants to work in Singapore in the future. Fighting through the awkwardness, his response was an optimistic “yes”. 

To hear that as a Singaporean – to hear my country described with disarming earnestness as a “good country” – was uncomfortable to watch, given the appalling treatment Singapore gives back to its migrant workers. 

I Dream of Singapore’s dream-like pace betrays the urgency infused in its messaging. Through patient observations and an ethereal soundtrack, it delivers a surreal yet uncompromisingly humanising look into the lives of migrant workers in Singapore.

I Dream of Singapore opens with Feroz lying down while shying away from any glances straight into the camera. It’s in his contemplation where the tone for the documentary is set as well, offering a glimpse into a mind stranded between two worlds.

There are no narrations to guide the audience. Instead, I Dream of Singapore relies heavily on forbearing observations and contrasting imagery to tell its story.

Tying them together is Feroz’s journey home. A debilitating injury leaves Feroz unable to work and unable to receive proper medical treatment due to his transient worker status. Thankfully, he is helped by Ethan Guo, General Manager of Transient Workers Count Too. The non-profit organisation is dedicated to improving conditions for low-wage workers in Singapore. After Feroz’s partial recovery, Ethan journeys back home with him to Feroz’s village.

The imagery conjured by I Dream of Singapore is far from subtle. Singapore’s skyline is shrouded in an uncharacteristic mist, with the country often characterised by its swanky tourist landmarks. In contrast, Bangladesh roars to life with lively shots of its streets and villages. In between the two worlds are the crowded streets of Little India and the dormitories migrant workers reside in. Here, the appalling conditions they are exposed to are mercilessly captured, with high fences and active police surveillance permeating throughout their hours away from hard labour.

The tone of isolation and longing is furthered by the frequent stills of migrant workers staring into their phones; their only portals back home to their families and lives. Yet, there is no rage – at least not captured on camera – towards their predicaments. There is melancholy and fear but hope always seems to shine through. 

Despite the lean runtime and pressing message, the documentary is unfortunately not an easy recommendation for all audiences. Its observational documentary style creates an atmosphere that is suitably meditative but taxing attention-wise. This was particularly pressing for me in the first third of the documentary with not much going on, but it all slowly faded away as a clearer narrative emerged with Feroz’s story in focus. 

Furthermore, its collection of visually striking imagery is more than enough to tell its story. With the camera being a fly-on-the-wall, there is a warm sense of clarity that permeates the documentary, while its imagery and contrasts fill in the airy gaps in its dreamlike world. Taken together, I Dream of Singapore succeeds in relaying the experience of these transient workers – as much as film possibly could. 

The documentary is a technical feat. Beyond what is captured, how the documentary is shot is equally entrancing and telling. Most noteworthy to me is how the humble Day Space that Feroz and a few others reside doubles as both a cozy sanctuary through tightly spaced frames, and a lonely space opened up by wide panoramic shots. Beyond the camera’s gaze, the documentary’s excellent editing work chains its images into a poetic experience, backed by an array of ethereal musical compositions to punctuate the mood.

I Dream of Singapore is an intimidating yet pressing documentary that peers into the lives of Singapore’s long underappreciated and often overlooked group of transient workers – a group that quite literally built the city. Much like how they would see the country, the documentary offers virtually no look into the heartlands of Singapore, while drenching its skyline with opaque fog. The disconnect is painfully resonant. It is now up to us to pierce through the mist. 

Catch the documentary’s trailer below:

An estimated 200,000 migrants are in Singapore and they are currently under siege by the COVID-19 crisis. Independent film distributor Anticipate Pictures, in collaboration with The Projector is hosting I Dream of Singapore on their platform for rental streaming as part of fundraising efforts for Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) during the pandemic. All proceeds will go towards supporting TWC2 and The Projector. The film is now available for streaming for a limited period until 10 May. There will also be a special talkback session on 26 April at 5pm with TWC2 on Facebook Live. 

Similarly, follow local initiative Its Raining Raincoat on Facebook to find out more about how you could help transient workers during this crisis and beyond.

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.