Food as Migrant Infrastructure in Singapore
Global cities such as Singapore are hubs drawing on a rich history of the Indian Ocean and the British Empire. Singapore marked the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Decolonisation happened pretty late in Singapore in 1959, 1963 and finally in 1965. A question which could be asked is whether Singapore with its deep integration as a financial hub in the circuits of flow of capital, goods and labour truly thinks about its decolonial moment. The flows of global capital need foreign labour for its social reproduction. Singapore has a million foreign workers male and female, who build and maintain the snazzy public infrastructure and deliver care work so that double income families can achieve equilibrium.
In 2020, there were about 2.52 million immigrants, here classified as people living in a country in which they were not born, in Singapore out of a total population of about 5.7 million.
The perspective from which this has been attempted is from a ‘global from below’ aesthetic based on the global-level conversation where class differences are reconciled. The Singapore which I write about is at a standard deviation from the official Singapore Tourism Board perspective where there is hardly any acknowledgement of the invisible hands that build the global city. Acknowledgement in official circles is few and far in between. If there are no ready registers for recognition, they need to be created one article at a time through independent scholarship. Migrant workers spend their passions so that ‘Passion Made Possible’ can be delivered as a reality such as the Singapore Tourism Board building under renovation at Tanglin.
Singapore is a top-down managed multicultural melting pot which is obsessed with food as its unofficial national culture. There can be serpentine queues when a new outlet opens. There are also long lines which aggregate in front of Madras Coffee House next door to north Indian Shree Laxminarayan Mandir on Chander Road adjacent to the historic Tekka Centre, the spiritual hub of the Singaporean Tamil Community in Little India.
The migrant workers or even middle-class expat families pick up sweets or sip chai which is a rare commodity in Singapore after darshan. Tekka Centre and the area next door is migrant central with plenty of ethnic Tamil Supermarkets such as Minaka Trading and New Madras Trading and eateries where the migrant worker can drink alcohol with friends and share savoury snacks from back home. These are spatiotemporal compressions which are transnational and local. These spaces are also spaces of acceptability where a brown man is not out of place.
Food is the ultimate comfort connection for an alienated migrant worker who is disconnected and disenfranchised from the mainstream of the host country in the absence of cultural, economic, and social capital. The approximate cost of lunch for 2 in Singapore is around 80 SGD, around Indian Rs. 4588.
Thus, food is edible migrant infrastructure taking cue from global Indian celebrity chef Vikas Khanna who coined the restaurant as ‘edible theatre’. As a person whose one side of the family came from present-day Bangladesh, the ability to partake in the famous kachchi biryani from Dhaka that too at the Singapore branch of the uber famous Fakruddin was a trip across borders and memory lanes in the diaspora. As a third-generation Mumbaikar, when I used to miss vada pav, I used to head to Kailash Parbat with a Maharashtrian friend from Indore, a Mumbai Sindhi Institution to eat the staple, although at near fine dining prices which is a luxury I had as a research consultant.
Class is a major variable in the access to resources among migrants in Singapore as most migrant construction workers get two packets of food in the early hours of the morning prior to work, as they are transported to their work sites in the back of vans. The food often gets rancid by the time they eat. Although there has been a lot of research undertaken and civil society interventions in the migrant worker food contracting business, quality cannot be improved as the workers are unable to pay higher costs, as they have a recruitment debt to pay back home. It is an economic issue more than anything else. A fine dining meal for two would be a major proportion of a migrant worker’s monthly wage.
The Little India precinct popular with male temporary guest workers from India and Bangladesh has an affective olfactory sense scape and soundscape which transports them to a few hours on a Sunday back home. They also pick up snacks such as pran chanachur or Haldiram bhujia till their next sojourn of nearly two hours from the peripheries of Singapore, where their all-inclusive custom build dormitories are mini townships designed to keep them invisible from the mainstream optics of a global city. These dormitories such as North Coast Lodge in Woodlands overlook Johor Bahru across the narrow waterway, the physical location at the fringes is a metaphor for workers as a marginalised ‘bachelor body’ who should restrict themselves to their work.
The migrant worker who does not have access to pathways to permanent residency and citizenship spends decades of his/her life in Singapore working and sending back remittances to loved ones back home have the one aspect of his/her life which could be replicated, that is of food. Migrant infrastructure is roughly characterised as a sociotechnical assemblage of brokers, agents, transport infrastructure such as airports or even smartphones facilitating ‘platform migration’. The index which is critical to the everyday texture of the affective life of a migrant worker is overlooked as a space which is considered in the long shadow of a global city. Migrant food spaces in the Little India district in Singapore which is the effective node of transnational circulations of an edible kind is a space of comfort and succour disputing the demeaning and restrictive expression of a ‘security scape’ which Singaporean scholars have put forward.
These spaces cannot be considered global, and the migrant and global are epistemically part of separate registers in theory-building academia. Migrant food spaces are equally transnational if not global as a large proportion of your resident population might be temporary, however, they live in a permanent temporariness and often in translocal, long durée fashion with multiple generations working in Singapore, especially from districts in southern Tamil Nadu such as Siva Ganga where the Chettiar community has an influential presence in Singapore. Food is a way with which we could bring in a fresh, effective lens to understand the problems of writing migration with a drone view. I would encourage writing about migration and in turn Singapore with a big bite of life, sitting at the migrant food courts at Cuff Road while sipping Bru Kaapi.
Manishankar is a writer and researcher on the Gulf based in Singapore.