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‘$alary Day’ Is a Migrant Worker’s Earnest and Sincere Effort to Capture Their Financial Struggles7 min read

22 May 2020 5 min read


‘$alary Day’ Is a Migrant Worker’s Earnest and Sincere Effort to Capture Their Financial Struggles7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Written and Directed by: Ramasamy Madhavan
Cinematographer and Editor: Ho Say Peng
Stills Photographer and Poster Designer: Judith Tong
Produced by: Zakir Hossain Khokan, Ho Say Peng, Ramasamy Madhavan

R Madhavan came to Singapore “1426 days ago” (as he so poignantly puts it), working as a site engineer in the construction industry. Madhavan is also a writer and poet. Having taken part in many migrant worker poetry competitions, he is an artist at heart. It was the creator in him that inspired him to write, direct and star in $alary Day – a first-of-its-kind short film to be made by a migrant worker, partnered with locals.

The film, which is about 13 minutes long, shows how workers divide their meagre salary, after sending the majority of it back home. It also raises awareness about the disproportion between their labour and salary, while conveying their solitude in a foreign country.

In the midst of the COVID-19 situation, $alary Day premiered on Youtube on 25 April 2020, while most of the country watched firsthand as COVID-19 cases shot up, especially within the migrant worker dorms. Amassing almost 20000 views since then, this short film is the artistic collaboration between Singaporeans and migrant workers. 

(R Madhavan in a poetry recital showcase/Credit: R Madhavan)

The short film tugged at the heart strings of many netizens because of the high COVID-19 numbers amongst the migrant workers. Almost 90% of Singapore’s total cases are migrant workers who primarily work in construction and live in dormitories. With hundreds of workers being infected every single day, there has been an influx of insensitive and cruel comments on social media, accusing them of ‘raising the numbers’. At such a delicate time, $alary Day is a much needed slap of humanity reminding everyone that migrant workers are much more than just numbers – they are someone’s son, father and brother.

Intrigued and impressed by their undertaking, Sinema.SG had a chance to (virtually) chat with writer and director R Madhavan and cinematographer and co-producer Ho Say Peng.

How did this partnership happen and what was the inspiration behind the film?

Ho Say Peng: I was shooting a documentary about migrant workers when I first met Madhavan in the process of filming. We met each other sporadically over a year. When he had the idea for $alary Day, he approached me to help.

R Madhavan: After sending most of my salary back home and calculating how much I would need for my own expenses here, I realised that there was very little left. I thought to myself how there are some migrant workers here who earn S$18 per day or less. I was trying to figure out how they would survive on such low wages, about S$450 – S$470 per month. They would have hardly anything left, after sending money home. 

I wanted to shed a light on the situation that these workers were facing. Furthermore, the families of foreign workers should know of this too, I thought. Only then can they see the circumstances and appreciate the same, which would be very good for the migrant worker community. That is why I made this film.

After much consideration, I realised that the film could only be made with the help of Singaporean partners and I got in touch with Say Peng. After hearing the storyline, Say Peng agreed to join us. I have known Say Peng for some time as he has been involved with migrant workers’ shows previously. He does the photography and gives us the pictures. He is a very good man. Since we can only do this on our off days, it took quite some time to finish this production.

(Still from $alary Day)

What was the process of creating the film?

HSP: Since we wanted to create a very realistic film, we adopted a documentary style approach to filming. It’s as if the film isn’t fiction, but a slice of life documentary. This film was created before COVID-19 and the intent was to share the marginalised stories of these workers.

The film has minimal dialogue but isn’t entirely without it. There is a scene at the end in which Madhavan converses with his mum. The idea was to have the film entirely without dialogue but we both felt it served the story and intent of the film better if he spoke at the end with his mum. Working with Madhavan was fun. It was a pretty relaxed but tiring shoot. 

It was successful to some degree when it got screened at The Projector and a few other venues. While the reception from those screenings were quite positive, the reach was still quite limited. More people need to watch this film, which is why we decided to put it on Youtube.

RM: No salary was accepted by anyone who worked on the film. All proceeds from the private screening will be given as charity to organisations that help migrant workers. The short film has been well received on the Internet thus far. People have contacted me to convey their congratulations. 

Judith Tong, Say Peng’s friend, was of great help designing the poster and for publishing it on the Internet. Not forgetting fellow producer Zakir, too. The team was very small but we created something that was successful.

(Still from $alary Day)

What do you hope to convey through this film?

RM: The relationship between Singaporeans and migrant workers only exists within the workplace. There seems to be no other opportunity to foster a relationship anywhere else, outside of that arena.

I believe Singaporeans need to see this film for its message. It will be good if someday, the government helps to put in measures that will increase migrant worker salaries. It will be very helpful for us.

I humbly ask that Singaporeans share this short film with their family and friends. We faced much difficulty in securing permission in order to shoot on location for $alary Day. Many with kind hearts gave us permission after they heard the message and purpose of the film. I wish to convey my appreciation to them. 

(Still from $alary Day)

Say Peng had already shot one film before this and we were able to overcome many challenges because of his expertise. We worked as a team on the whole project, we took a lot of time and put in much effort and introspection into it as well. We hope the message reaches the audience.

HSP: COVID-19 brought the plight of migrant workers to the forefront and made it a topic of national conversation. $alary Day is just a small piece of this conversation, along with Lei Yuan Bin’s I Dream of Singapore and other films addressing similar concerns.

I think more Singaporean filmmakers should assist migrant workers who have the passion to create films telling their own stories, instead of always being the authorial voice telling their stories. We should support them to take charge of their own narrative.

There is this idea that when filmmakers tell stories of marginalised communities, they are giving voice to the voiceless. However, I think the real way of giving voice to the voiceless is to help and support them in finding their own voices.

Contribute to funds that will help the migrant workers during these trying times here.

Read more:
– Surreal and Uncompromising, ‘I Dream of Singapore’ Offers a Humanising Look At The Trials and Tribulations of Singapore’s Transient Workers
– Showcasing Their Craft Through Carousell’s MADE in SG Initiative – An Interview With Artist Leah Chong and Freelance Actor Dwayne Lau

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.
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