Supporting our migrant workers, beyond our shores

“When you educate a girl, you educate a nation.” This well-known African proverb was what prompted Associate Professor Tan Lai Yong, NUS College of Alice & Peter Tan (CAPT) Director for Outreach and Community Engagement, and others at the College to spearhead a pilot project that helps defray the university education expenses of migrant workers’ female dependents. 16 women from Bangladesh have benefitted from this initiative this semester.

The COVID-19 crisis has exacted a heavy toll on the migrant worker community in Singapore. When approached by an anonymous donor who wished to help, Assoc Prof Tan and the CAPT team were keen to move beyond short-term measures – such as handouts of masks and hand sanitisers – towards rethinking ways of giving back to the local migrant worker community. To help uplift lives in a sustainable way, they decided to shift their focus further upstream – by supporting access to education.

Uplifting through education

Although some of the Bangladeshi migrant workers working here had qualified for university in their home countries, they came seeking better work opportunities in order to support their families back home. Some of them are working so that the women in their family can receive a university education.

Assoc Prof Tan shared, “In speaking with the men, we could feel a sense of pride and joy as they told us of their wife, sister or daughter who is in a top university in Bangladesh. The quiet smile and the sparkle in their eyes said it all. As we spoke, we realised that the migrant worker before us had also scored top marks in his pre-university exams but had his studies curtailed due to poverty – and here he is in Singapore as ‘another construction worker’. It is thus humbling to know his background, his potential and his commitment to labour under the hot sun for his family.”

However, remittances sent home encounter many competing demands, with education and its incidental costs being just one of them. Hence, the CAPT team decided to use the funds to start a “Bangladeshi Worker Dependent Varsity Bursary”, and incorporated the project into the College’s “Hidden Communities” and “Citizenship in a Changing World” modules. These modules are part of the University Town College Programme that allows students to explore a broad range of topics related to the College’s focus area of community engagement and active citizenship.

A community galvanised to help

Kicking the project off in August, the team collaborated with CAPT’s community partner SG Accident Help Centre (SGAHC) to identify migrant workers with female university-going dependents. Subsequently, more than 50 students then worked in teams to engage with migrant workers and their dependents via video calls and WhatsApp messages. Over 10 weeks, they strived to learn more about the lives and personal stories of the migrant workers while also assisting with their bursary application.

CAPT alumni and some members of the broader NUS community were also roped in to translate the application form into Bengali, and serve as interpreters when needed. The CAPT team then worked with SGAHC to remit S$300 each to 16 female dependents in Bangladesh to help defray the costs of their university education this semester. 

Fourth-year NUS Arts and Social Sciences and CAPT student Donovan Liew, who helped roll out the project, said, “We are grateful to our partner SGAHC. Their role was crucial, as they linked us up with their network of migrant workers they have been regularly engaging with. Their support was paramount for the project’s success. This project was also meant to demonstrate the potential for replicability and scalability to non-governmental as well as corporate organisations that may be keen on such initiatives as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts.”

The impact of this initiative – for everyone involved

One migrant worker whose sister received support from this initiative is Nahiduzzaman (Nahid), who came to Singapore in 2013 seeking work. The eldest in a family of four children, Nahid lost his mother in his teens and grew up supported mainly by his farmer father. He had scored well enough in his exams to enter Dhaka University, a top-tier university in Bangladesh, but had given up his dreams of a university education to support the family.

Nahid never stopped believing in the power of education to shape lives. His sister is currently pursuing a degree in music and aspires to a government job after graduation. He sends back the bulk of his monthly income to support his family’s living expenses and about S$300 is set aside each month for his sister’s tuition and hostel fees. Grateful for the additional support that he has received, Nahid shared, “I want my sister to study as she is very good at it. I could not study in the past as my family had no money. Now it is good that I can support my sister. It is much more difficult for girls to study than boys as it is not easy for girls to have part-time jobs while studying.” 

Year 1 NUS Engineering’s Liaw Zheng Kai shared, “Through these opportunities, students can become more aware of the migrant worker community and this also promotes understanding between the two communities. This would help migrant workers understand that they also have the support of the wider community in Singapore. It has also helped me understand the challenges they face and taught me the importance of reaching out to those in need, even if they may not ask for it.”

Assoc Prof Tan surmised, “This project gave an opportunity to our CAPT undergraduates to contact their peers – female students studying in Bangladesh. In doing so, we catch a glimpse of the odds they overcome to stay in their pursuit of education. One day, when the situation permits, our Overseas Service-Learning trips could be to Bangladesh. Instead of building toilets or painting murals, we could go to learn about what these female students do in their own community volunteering, and we join hands, work under their guidance and further our learning.”

The project is set to continue in the next semester.