31 Oct 2018

Photo: A Land Imagined / Facebook

The indie Singaporean film “A Land Imagined” has been in the spotlight recently, winning the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Awards. The film stands out for its daring subject matter — the mysterious disappearance of two immigrant construction workers in one of Singapore’s countless land reclamation sites, and the subsequent investigation by a jaded Singaporean police inspector. It’s not every day that a film attempts to take on subjects that concern the regular Singaporean — economy, immigration and class dynamics — and turn them on their heads entirely.

The sobering reality

As a country formed largely from early immigrants, Singapore has always acknowledged the need for immigrants to bolster its economy. In Singapore, the most visible immigrants are knowledge workers who belong to a high or middle socioeconomic status (SES) and also the blue-collar workers and domestic workers that help feed its burgeoning construction industry and support white-collar households.

While white-collar workers with high educational qualifications are welcomed in the hope that they will integrate into society and become permanent residents or citizens, blue-collar and domestic workers are rendered invisible not only by society’s attitudes towards them but also by way of government policies that leave them with no social or economic security. Blue-collar workers cannot marry citizens or permanent residents without permission, and if a blue-collar or domestic worker is found to be pregnant, she is immediately deported. As the director of “A Land Imagined”, Siew Hua Yeo, explains, blue-collar workers live in the outskirts of the restless city, where their exploitation remains unseen. “With no recourse for grievances, [they] live in precarity. The constant fear of repatriation, with debt incurred from training and agency fees even before they start to work and earn, continue to entrap them in their wretched situation.”

“A Land Imagined” highlights this situation by focusing on the incidents that foreshadow immigrant worker Wang’s disappearance. Wang’s accident at the construction site leaves him incapacitated, and he is forced to become a driver at a fraction of his already minuscule pay. He also attempts to retrieve his colleague Ajit’s passport, which has been taken away by the foreman for “safekeeping”. The risk of accidents, the possibility of pay cuts and the fear that a return home could be thwarted by a higher-up — all stories that we have heard happen to construction workers — are highlighted in the film. Yet, these are realities unknown to Lok, the police inspector assigned to investigate the disappearance of Wang and Ajit.

In “A Land Imagined”, Lok has never had to tackle a case involving a blue-collar immigrant. The subtext in the movie seems to suggest that most blue-collar cases are covered up and not reported. Or perhaps, blue-collar workers are afraid to commit any misdemeanours for fear of losing their livelihoods and their passports. These are possibilities that Inspector Low seems completely oblivious to.

A new perspective on immigrants

It comes as no surprise that most attitudes towards immigrants are built upon myths. People tend to believe that there are more immigrants in the country than there really are. Singaporean citizens often fear that immigrants are ‘stealing’ white-collar jobs, but the truth is that the foreign workers usually take up jobs that qualified Singaporeans are not interested in pursuing.

And while people believe that immigrants receive more than their share of government aid and the country’s resources, the opposite is true. In economies like that of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, low-income immigrants are subjected to stricter than usual laws that maximise the benefits accrued to the country while minimising the burden on the country’s resources. Such exclusionary policies are unsustainable in the long run.

“A Land Imagined” forces us to sit up and face the social costs of Singapore’s dehumanising immigration policies, which have resulted in the undervaluation of low SES groups across both native and immigrant populations. Reinforcing social stratification between low SES immigrants and the rest of society has encouraged class rigidity across Singaporean society.

Seeing the invisible

Improbable as the storylines may have seemed, movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” opened people’s eyes to the potential within lower SES groups. By chronicling the native-born resident's poignant interactions with immigrants, films like “Gran Torino” and “The Intouchables” offered viewers a different perspective on the immigrant experience and cultural assimilation.

On that note, films like “Ilo Ilo”, “A Yellow Bird” and “A Land Imagined” are a new kind of Singaporean cinema, exploring the society’s underbelly and its oft-forgotten inhabitants with a humanist lens. Increasingly, young, talented filmmakers are breaking away from the mainstream film community to independently produce scripts that deal with these often overlooked topics. Unlike the mainstream film producers and directors who explore Singapore with rose-coloured lenses, this new crop of filmmakers are not afraid to explore the darker realities of Singapore, including poverty, racial tensions, and relationships between migrant workers and Singaporean citizens.

These movies are a sobering reality check for Singapore’s policymakers, suggesting that the dreams of social inclusion and mobility are not easy to realise. As socio-economic barriers become more rigid, even the educated middle class is struggling to move up in life. Now, more than ever before, the country needs blue-collar workers and domestic workers to help it keep up the pace of growth and encourage social mobility. And what these workers need is visibility — a platform to tell their stories and to address their grievances. Policy-makers are now starting to address this in many small ways. The community of filmmakers, activists and thinkers are also opening the eyes of Singaporean society to the plight of these workers.

As Yeo Siew Hua emphasised, it is never easy to depict people whose lives are so inextricably interwoven with ours, yet so different. However, such sensitivity is required of all of us, and especially of educationists and policymakers, as we mould the country’s social fabric and determine its economic future.