February, 2014 Monthly archive

RobertZhao copyCan you tell us who is the real Robert Zhao? Where was he born? What was his childhood like?

I am Robert Zhao Renhui, and I was born in Singapore. I cannot remember much of my childhood because there weren’t a lot of photographs taken. My dad had two Yashica cameras, which came in handy when I was in Primary 5. I started taking photographs in the classroom, and I added ‘spirits’ to the images by using a felt tip marker to draw random small shapes on the film. I brought the photographs to school and the reactions from my classmates had a profound effect on me. This is one version of the story.

I also remember growing up near a fish farm, which explains my interest in animals. One thing I am sure of is that after I turned 12, my father took me to Tuas to fish. I must have walked on the reclaimed land for hours, seeing people fly their model planes, without quite reaching anywhere. The place was just sand without end.

Do you think you can tell us how we know when you are telling us the truth and when you are taking us for a ride?

In real life, I’m not good at telling lies, my friends know immediately when I am lying. I usually dramatise the truth, which is much easier. In the same way, my work usually starts with facts and my direct observations. Along the way it gets twisted and distorted into something else. For example, “View of Marina Bay Sands”, the print that we are offering for my book, is a scene that will never happen. Some people can’t tell and have asked me how I shot the photograph. I don’t blame them – Singapore changes very fast, so our memory of its landscape is often vague. The picture is a composite of two cities from Japan and the United Kingdom, two countries which have shaped how our island looks today.

Do you always get irritating questions similar to the previous one?

Even if I do, I try to be polite. Usually I learn something about myself with every question.

The Institute of Critical Zoologists is a grand-sounding name. For someone who isn’t familiar with your works, they might believe this establishment actually exists. Do you often get contacted by real zoologists?

Most of my work is ‘performed’ through the context of an institution, which takes the form of my website, I’ve received emails inviting me to be on the peer review panel for academic journals of zoology. Some artists have also enquired about the possibility of working with the institution. Once, I was contacted by a photo editor of Discover magazine, a popular science and tech journal. They published one of my pictures showing a very well-camouflaged leaf insect perched on a plant. The image was from my series called The Great Pretenders, which explored ideas of mimicry and authenticity in photography. So basically, in those pictures, there were only leaves, and no insects.

After the image was published, a scientist from Germany who had spent his life studying leaf insects wrote me an email. He said, “I couldn’t recognise the species in the image until I went to your website. I finally understood why.”

You have gone from being criticised for your earlier works such as Wu Xiao Kang (with artist collective A Dose of Light), to being celebrated as one of the most exciting young artists in Singapore. What has the journey been like?

It is still too early to tell. In a lot of ways, I’m still starting out. It was difficult in the beginning, when my Wu Xiao Kang fictional narrative upset some people. That was a good lesson in managing responsibility, expectations and trust. I do what I do to survive and to fuel my art practice. It’s like a monster that just keeps getting bigger. You expect more of yourself after each project. In a way, despite my initial struggles, the easiest period was the beginning, when art wasn’t really a job.

Are you afraid that in time to come, you may not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies?

I tend to think everything is a lie, ha! Anyway, I believe that my Singapore landscape work will feel different over time. It will take on a different life, like all photographs, which get harder to read with time. Especially in Singapore, where the landscape changes so rapidly and it’s hard to remember what really happened to some places. Anyway, a photograph is always lying in some way and we must be careful not to look for an absolute truth in such a precarious object.

Your girlfriend is also in the creative business. Is she as crazy and imaginative as you? Does she always trust you since you are rather good at confusing others?

I think she is crazier than me. I would have never given up a stable job (she was an arts writer) to pursue my own dreams! She is working on her own short stories at the moment and I think there’s a certain craziness in her writings and she is definitely more observant and sensitive than I am. This in turn brings out interesting perspectives on things that happen around us. She can read me very well and she doesn’t understand why I still bother to lie to her for fun. I think she trusts me.

Do you think your works are political in any ways?

I always think there are enough overtly political works around and I am not the best person to contribute – it’s not my natural inclination, so why force the issue? What I’m obsessed with is humankind’s interaction with nature. When I look at landscapes, I am looking at the impact we make on nature and the narratives we create when we have the ability to create artificial waterfalls, sand dunes, air-conditioned parks, zoos and natural history museums.

But these stories that we spin aren’t divorced from politics. (Obviously it’s hard to find anything that is untouched by political forces.) So if politics come into my work, it’s by sneaking in through the back door. In Singapore, for example, we are very green and pruned. This is a political decision. This is a way to show that we are in control, that even nature can be controlled. So when anything grows too wild in our Garden City, I tend to visit these spaces.

Do you use photography to comment or criticise?

My photographs are usually of situations that I find interesting. So it’s more of an observation. It’s a picture. It’s visual. It’s not about saying one thing or another. I don’t set out to talk with my images.

Can you help us imagine two possibilities? First, a Singapore you can be proud of in the future. Second, a Singapore you cannot be proud of in the future.

My main concerns are with nature and how we co-exist with it on our really small island. A Singapore I would be proud of respects the little wilderness we have as part of the history and make-up of this land. There is only so much pruned nature we can enjoy.

A Singapore I can’t be proud of – so many ways for us to go wrong, where do we start?

In a way, Singapore today makes me both proud and ashamed. Take that eco-bridge we just built over the Bukit Timah Expressway for animals to move between two nature reserves which we separated [with the expressway] many years ago. Every time I drive under the bridge, I cannot help but ask myself: Do animals really use the bridge? Was the bridge built for them, or was it just a project to show that we care for nature? What will happen when they start using the bridge since these two habitats have already been separated for so long?

Where do you find your inspirations and ideas? Is it true that you have a lot of imaginary friends?

I use Google Alerts for subjects that I am interested in to see how these subjects come up in news items and academic discussions. I put alerts on things such as “wildlife conservation”, “extinction” and “animal traps”. I am also on a constant look-out for images on the Internet and in flea markets. At the moment I am collecting images from all the natural beach sand dunes in the world to try to construct an alternate history of Singapore’s own sand dunes.

In my institute, I work only with imaginary collaborators. A few people presenting an idea to you always seems more convincing than someone doing it alone. It is like how this project has 20 photographers, which adds depth to the investigation. It’s the same idea.

Were any animals ever harmed in the creation of your works?

I don’t believe any animals should be harmed for art. I worked with cockroaches once, but those roaches were going to die anyway. I persuaded my friends to surrender their house cockroaches to me – after being killed by insecticide instead of being smashed with a shoe. I prefer working with dead or stuffed animals. I tried photographing my friend’s cat once and it was impossible. I usually just visit the zoo or use discarded dead birds or fish from local pet shops.

What were the best and worst things you have heard about your works?

I try to avoid hearing or reading anything people say about my work. Sometimes I get wind that people feel betrayed by my works. This should happen, it’s not a bad thing to me.

If you can spin a story, however absurd it may be, about Singapore’s past, present or future, what would it be about?

Over the years, Singapore has had all kinds of temporary sand dunes, imported from neighbouring countries for land reclamation purposes. It’s about time we have a sand dune that stays as it is. It should be a permanent monument to Singapore’s success story of creating new land.

What if one day you wake up and realise that you’ve lost the ability to imagine, what would it be like for you? What do you think you would be doing?

This is a real fear that I have whenever I am near the completion of any project. A fear that I have run out of things to say. I just hope it never becomes true. If it does happen, I guess I’ll become a tour guide. I’ll still be telling stories, but other people’s stories.

Are you famous?

At the moment there are 678 likes on my Facebook page and about 1,200 followers on my Instagram account.

Help us picture Robert Zhao in 2025. What can we expect?

Hopefully he’s creating better photographs than he is now. invited some of our friends to send questions to Robert. Here are the two that he chose to answer.

Steffi Koh, undergraduate, Nanyang Technological University: As you’ve had encounters with wild animals, dead animals and animal activists alike, how do you see animals and their place in your world?

I am trying to see things not from my point of view, because I’m human and tend to complicate things. I believe the world works in much simpler ways. I like to see things from the perspective of animals or plants, and wonder what they would think of all these things we do such as wildlife conservation, pollution and extinction. We are all in this together.

Daniel Boetker-Smith, founder, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive: I see your work as being very politically motivated, but in a very subtle and smart way. Can you tell us about how politics influences your work, and how important is it that photography makes us think beyond the borders of the image – about society, truth, the future, etc.?

My motivations are actually much more selfish. My work usually starts with curiosity and a burning desire to photograph a particular subject.

Singapore’s borderlands, where the huge ‘sand scapes’ are, form one of these subjects. I’ve been going there for 15 years. I was trying to find a way to photograph this vast landscape and couldn’t find a good way to do it.

It was only after I started reading about some of the ecological consequences and political motivations of the act of land reclamation, that I started to appreciate the space with a different perspective. I was attracted to the space because it was a form of wilderness that happened by accident. It wasn’t a planned landscape like many of the neighbourhood parks and gardens and reservoirs we have in Singapore.

So when I started to shoot these sandy landscapes again, although I was informed by some of the political reasons why these spaces existed, I just wanted to pose some simple questions. When does sand become land? When does land become country? What really happens when we have so much new land? I try not to impose a very strict political lens on my work. I find that images, when they are good ones, tend to be richer and more mysterious.
As for what photography can do outside of itself – I don’t think about that so much. I just like to wonder what people will think when they pick up my images at some flea market in the future.

To purchase a copy of Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui, please visit:

The portrait of Robert Zhao Renhui was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

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RobertZhao copyRobert Zhao Renhui (b. 1983) works mainly with photography but often adopts a multi-disciplinary approach by presenting images together with documents and objects. His work includes textual and media analysis, video and performance. His recent exhibitions include the Singapore Biennale 2013, President’s Young Talents 2013, Photoquai 2013, International Festival of Photography at Mineiro Museum (Brazil) and Engaging Perspectives at the Centre for Contemporary Art (Singapore). He has exhibited in the Noorderlicht Photo Festival, Format Festival (Derby, UK), Lianzhou International Photo Festival (China), Fukouka Asian Art Museum (Japan), Photo Levallois (Paris), Seoul Arts Center, GoEun Museum of Photography (Busan, Korea), Zabludowicz Collection (London), Shanghart (Shanghai) and PPOW (New York).

Robert’s work has been awarded the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography (University of the Arts London, 2011), United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Award (Singapore, 2009), Sony World Photography Awards (2010 and 2011) and honourable mentions in Photo Levallois (France, 2008). In 2010, he was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council (Singapore). His work has also been featured prominently in Artforum International, ArtInfo, Fotografia and Punctum.

Robert received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and the London College of Communication respectively. His work addresses man’s relationship with nature, paying close attention to how our attitudes and opinions shape our assumptions about the natural world. He has also undertaken research residencies at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Bangkok University Gallery, National Museum of Wales, Earth Observatory of Singapore, Ffotogallery (Penarth, UK) and Arctic Circle Residency. He will be involved in a residency at Kadist Art Foundation (San Francisco) in 2014.

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Released together with each new book are three limited prints from an image chosen by the individual photographer. So far, six have been unveiled and one of the set has been completely sold.

In April, you will be able to see ALL, if not most, of the images framed, in a mini showcase at the National Museum of Singapore. You will also be able to see all the books published so far.

Please come back again for more details for this special event.

Meanwhile, a recap of what we have offered up to now.

From For My Son by Darren Soh

Sandcastle Day
From Our Coastline by Lim Weixiang

03/20 Bay of Dream
From Bay of Dreams by Kevin WY Lee

From Two People by Sean Lee

Boktabali, Bangladesh
From Made in Singapore by Tay Kay Chin

From Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui

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Despite our daily blasts of messages promoting different things, it doesn’t surprise us that many people are still confused about what we do, or how we do it, when is this ‘nonsense’ going to end, if we are a secret society, etc etc.

We also have to apologize if you are receiving the same message more than once, from different people.

It means several things. One is that we are passionate folks who kinda sing the same tune. It also means we are needy and kiasu to some extent.

We have often asked ourselves, ” Why do some much just for ourselves?”

One of the yardsticks for us is your ‘participation’.

Honestly, it would be quite easy for us to sell some titles in bulk to a few organizations and then declare to the world that we are out of print.

But trust me when I say that it doesn’t give us as much satisfaction, when compared to our books being shared by many different people.

We also think that it is important that you know how we operate, and how we treat the people who work with us.

Seriously, we think we are an ethical organization that is not profit driven. And we are not rich.

To begin with, each of the photographer who publishes with us OWNS and RETAINS his full copyright. His only commitment to the team is to license 15 images to be reproduced as part of the series, and the run is limited to 500 copies.

The photographer also agrees to let the group have the first right of refusal for a group exhibition.

In addition, one of the images from the series is also selected for reproduction into three limited edition prints which we sell to finance the project.

Apart from that, each photographer is free to do anything to the 15 images. Needless to say, he owns his own rights to the outtakes from the project as well.

In return for letting us publishing his works, each photographer only gets 10 copies of his printed books, two each of the other books published in the series, some publicity, a book launch, and some referrals. If he wants additional copies of his own books, he has to wait until the window opens, and he pays the cost of the printing.

You may think that our agreement is not a big deal. Wait till you hear the horrible contracts we receive each day from other publishers.

How we fund this project has also been of interest to different people and we have nothing to hide.

The initial financing of the project came from three good friends who gave us about $1500 each. A few of the Platform founders also pledged some amount but to date, we have found no need to activate that portion yet.

Each of our limited print sells for $1200. If all three prints from one photographer are sold, the printing cost of that particular book would have been 90% covered.

The sale of our books contributes substantially to our coffers too. The advance sale of complete sets at $500 each also yielded substantial amount.

We are always proud to say that we pay our printing partner, Grenadier Press, on time, every time.

Our other cost comes from area of print making, in which we are lucky to receive sponsorship of materials from Cathay Photo, our long-time partner.

We are blessed to get year-round venue sponsorship from the National Museum of Singapore.

Apart from the photographer, the ‘regular staff’ in each book includes the four founders of the project – Darren, Ernest, Leonard and myself; Yu-Mei, our super duper copyeditor; Flee Circus, our wonderful portraitist; Jonathan, the crazy creative director/designer.

On launch day, we usually count on good friends like Sebastian, Ox and Wei Xiang to man the cashier.

Our stocks sit in whatever extra holes we can find in homes, offices, storage spaces.

Nobody gets paid, not even for coffee. Or petrol.

If this sounds like a mix of complaints and boasting, it is probably a bit of both.

But if we don’t believe in it, and enjoy most of it, we won’t be sending you all the updates.


Have a great day ahead and do think of us yeah?

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View of Marina Bay Sands
Edition of three, plus one artist’s proof
S$1200 per print*


* By purchasing a print, you are making a direct and important contribution to the publications of twentyfifteen books. Without your generous support, the financial burden of self-publishing them will be significantly higher for us.

About the print:
– Paper size: 17″ x 22″
– Image size: 13.8″ x 20.8″
– Each print is carefully made with the Epson Stylus Pro 4800 Printer, using original Epson inks.
– The paper for this edition is Museo Silver Rag, 300gsm.
– You can find out more about the paper specifications for Museo Silver Rag paper here.
– Signed with title, edition number and year, in ink, recto

Singapore shipping:
– Free hand delivery for any Singapore addresses.
– Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent.

Overseas shipping:
- we will work with individual buyer on the best shipping option.
– Additional charges to be borne by buyer.
- Each print is delivered in top grade Mylar or equivalent, with additional protection for shipping

More info about digital printing in general:
- Wilhelm Imaging Research is the world authority on stability and preservation of traditional and digital photographs.

How to make an order:
Place your order by emailing me at

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As a kid growing up in the little village of Baktabali in Bangladesh, Salim Javed often wondered about life on the other side of the Dhaleshwari River.

Why did so many people from his village take the five-minute ferry ride across the 1.5 kilometre-wide river every day? And why did they always seem to come back with so much more?

Why was Shidullah, his older brother, always trying to move away permanently?

“When I was a student, I used to swim across.”

“There is no swimming pool in our village, so this was the only way for me and my friends to enjoy the water.”

To many villagers, crossing the river and not turning back is one of the easiest ways to a better life.

Looking at the choices available in Baktabali, which lies about 20 kilometres south of the capital Dhaka, it is not hard to understand the villagers’ sentiments.

When he was about 14, Salim was a fisherman for about two months. After that, he also had a short stint on his father’s farm.

The other possible places where he could have worked were the brick-making factory or the jute mill. He also contemplated jobs such as food seller, rickshaw puller, barber, carpenter, boatman.

But none of this would have paid anything close to what he earns today, as a construction foreman in Singapore.

In retrospect, leaving Bangladesh to come to Singapore in 1996 was more like a spur-of-the-moment thing – one fuelled in part by a long-standing disagreement with his brother over life choices.

Older than Salim by 13 years, Shidullah, now 48, married a woman from Dhaka and moved out of the village many years ago.

“He was always talking about doing business and getting rich, but he never finished what he started,” Salim explains.

“I got tired of hearing his excuses, so I decided to go overseas and prove to everyone that it was useless to just talk and complain.”

There was one other big thing that separated the two brothers – what they were looking for in an ideal wife. Salim, now 35, always wanted a woman who would stay at home and help to look after his ageing parents. His brother preferred someone more worldly.

“Family is most important to me,” Salim says many times.

Perhaps he always knew that he would have to work overseas one day, and that marrying a woman who was willing to give up everything else to become part of his family would be the most important criterion.

Money was of course another issue that contributed to the lukewarm relationship.

To finance his dream of working in Singapore, Salim borrowed a few thousand dollars from his father, who had just sold a few plots of family land.

He also received help from Soma – a cousin, immediate neighbour and close friend – who had worked in Singapore a few years earlier.

When Salim arrived in Singapore in March 1996, he focused on earning money and led a thrifty life, saving most of his earnings and sending them back to his parents.

A substantial amount of his salary also went to support his younger brother Shamin’s tertiary education.

With a bank loan and a design by Shamin, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering a few years ago, Salim also managed to build a house across from his parents’.

Although the original plan was to have two storeys, with the upper floor reserved for Shamin and his future family, Salim had to postpone the second phase as he ran out of money.

Putting his family first also meant a conscious effort to avoid falling in love.

“Many foreign workers in Singapore have girlfriends,” Salim says, “but having a girlfriend costs money and I cannot afford it.”

Even if he had fallen in love with someone in Singapore, there could not have been any happy ending. She would most likely have been a transient foreign worker like himself and they could not have married as long as they were in Singapore.

His only opportunity would be with a woman from home – but how was he going to meet anyone and start a meaningful relationship when he was here and she was there?

Three years ago, after nagging from his family, he finally agreed to marry Jorna, then a 20-year-old village girl his anxious mother had found through matchmakers.

“My mother was going to give up on me after many tries.”

“She said that if I rejected her again, she would stop trying.”

To Salim, romance or courtship are over-rated.

“Of course if I have a girlfriend who likes me and I like her, then it is very good.”

“But it is a problem if she doesn’t get along with my family members.”

While he was in Singapore, his parents presented a ring and other gifts to Jorna’s family.

Several months later, in February 2011, he flew back to meet and marry her. They both have good memories of their first real meeting.

“She came to the airport to greet me. I think she has a good heart. I like her.”

Jorna’s first impression was that “he is more handsome in real life”.

Before that, he had only seen her photos but they spoke daily on the phone, often for hours.

Salim’s views about marriage are not without reason or merit.

“I work overseas and my brother also intends to work overseas,” he elaborates, “so it is important that our wives are good girls who can look after our parents.”

And the definition of a good girl, in Salim’s book, includes the willingness to give up her own dreams.

“She will stay home and look after my parents lah.”

That, and to make many babies.

Salim’s views represent those of most people in his village, which has been an active exporter of labour to Singapore, Dubai, Saudi Arabia – indeed, anywhere with jobs.

Even his 22-year-old cousin Katha, a fine arts and theatre undergraduate who considers herself quite progressive and liberal, thinks there is nothing wrong with her cousin’s logic.

As for Jorna’s family, her father Ahsanull Faker worked in a toilet bowl factory in Singapore from 1996 to 2000. His two sons still work in Saudi Arabia and his other son-in-law also used to work there.

While there aren’t any official records, Salim thinks more than 100 men from his village have worked in Singapore, with the first arriving as early as the mid-1980s.

Most still talk passionately about their time in Singapore, although not everything they experienced was positive.

Salim’s brother-in-law, Md Jahingir Alam, 38, spent five years working in Singapore’s shipyards, including a stint in Keppel FELS.

“The money in Singapore was good but I never saw my son,” he says.

“My wife and I talked about it, she cried, then I cried.”

“In the end, she said, ‘Lots of money we don’t need, you come home first’.”

But he hopes to return to Singapore to work again in a few years’ time, armed with newly acquired skills in electrical wiring.

He even wishes to move to Singapore permanently with his family, but at the moment, just getting himself a job here may not be as easy as before.

That probably explains why everyone looks up to Salim, who is, in the eyes of his villagers and relatives, the perfect son who has made good in Singapore.

By his own admission, he makes more than his fellow villagers, but most people also think that he deserves it because he is hardworking and trustworthy.

In Singapore, Salim has worked with the same small construction company for the past eight years. He is now a trusted supervisor, with a small army of workers under his command.

His boss, Michael Soh, considers him more a family member than an employee.

For his wedding, the company directors gave him extra money, which came in really handy.

The lunch that Salim’s family hosted for relatives and friends cost S$3,500, the decorations at his family compound S$500. Salim spent another S$2,500 on new clothes for relatives and S$10,000 on gold for his wife.

Three months after his wedding, Jorna arrived in Singapore for a one-month visit. Again, his employers gave him extra money and helped with her visa application.

Mrs Habibah Mahmood, a kind, elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. She even decorated it to look like a wedding suite and made sure they had home-cooked meals.

To let them have the maximum amount of time together, Salim’s bosses also gave him flexibility with his schedule.

They knew that he would repay their kindness many times over and he did.

In March 2013, Jorna came back again for a longer visit and this time, Salim’s employers rented a small flat in Little India for them.

Soon after she returned to Bangladesh, Salim found out that she was pregnant.

“Made in Singapore,” he jokes, “I think I know which day and where.”

While it was planned and welcome news, having a new family member also means more expenses to come.
But Salim wants only the best for his family, at least to the best of his financial ability.

While he doesn’t have a television set in Singapore, he bought a 32” Sony for Jorna to bring home when she last visited.

“Even after paying $300 tax, it was still cheaper than buying one in Bangladesh.”

Salim also helped to finance part of his father’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

Instead of going to a public hospital, Jorna delivered at a private hospital in Narayanganj, the big city across the river.

Private hospital is better, Salim says, because it means seeing the same doctor for all her check-ups.

The hefty bill left him with much less for the rest of his family when he went back in late December 2013, three days after his daughter Samyra was born.

Some relatives, who were used to Salim’s earlier generosity with his money and time, became a little unhappy with the new father, and they didn’t hide their displeasure.

A few days before he left Singapore for home, an aunt called to ask for a new blanket. Others also called with different requests.

“I don’t have much money to spend this time,” Salim told them, ”maybe only around $1,000.”

“I already spent a lot on the baby.”

On the first morning of his recent home visit, Salim found himself in an uneasy argument with his mother, who had not seen him since his wedding.

In between peeling potatoes and chopping up chickens for lunch, she was sobbing and complaining, and occasionally lifting her head to glance at a few other relatives who had come to see Salim.

She would also look at him from time to time, and her expression could be described as bittersweet.

It was clear that he was getting an earful, and equally clear that everyone else appeared to agree with his mother. But they were also trying to defend him.

All things considered, it was not a big argument.

Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, ‘begum’ is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) had missed her son, but she also needed to tell him about the pressure she had been under during his absence.

That morning, the conversation centred around the complaint she had been hearing non-stop from Salim’s mother-in-law.

“She tells everyone that you never call her.”

To an outsider, it sounded like a really petty issue, some would say even an unreasonable one.

“Why should a son-in-law call his mother-in-law regularly?” Salim wondered.

“I have to work and I can get really busy,” he tried explaining. “Besides, I call my wife everyday, a few times a day, and very often, we talk for hours.”

But that was not his mother’s point.

“You were matchmade, and I promised Jorna’s parents that you are a good son. But you never call them.”
“I call my wife daily, that is more important.”

Like all doting mothers, Salim’s mom agreed and sympathised with her son.

Just having to bring up this topic pained her.

She knew that the sacrifices he has been making for the family were necessary, and that they had all benefited. She knew she should not complain again. After all, he was just back for a short visit.

“Working in Singapore is easier for me,” he says jokingly. “Back here I have to make many people happy.”

“Everyone wants to see me, everyone wants me to go his house.”

He could not have visited one cousin and not another. So even if it meant popping by for five minutes, he had to do it.

For the first two days of his recent visit, his sister Sume avoided him and Salim thought that she was upset that he seldom called her. But there could have been other reasons, such as the fact that he had not been able to help her husband get a job in Singapore.

For his cousin Fatima who lives down the road, seeing him was a chance to get updates about her son Hussain, who also works in Singapore.

In her modest house, a portrait of young Salim occupies a central spot. She sleeps better each night knowing that Salim will help to look after her son.

In turn, Hussain’s twin sister Pinke helps to look after Jorna, and now baby Samyra as well.

With many husbands, sons and brothers from the village working overseas, those who are left behind have learned to help each other. The migration of the male population in the village often means the reconfigurations of family lives and roles.

The family of Soma, the man who helped Salim move to Singapore in 1996, lives between Salim’s parents and the new house Salim built.

Hussain, Soma’s 21-year-old son, worships Salim like a hero. Now training to be an engineer in the merchant navy, he sobbed uncontrollably at Salim’s wedding, for fear that he would have no place in Salim’s new family.

Soma’s youngest son, six-year-old Albi, sees Salim as a father, clinging onto him wherever he went during Salim’s recent visit home. He recently even phoned his dad to say that “from now on, I will call you ‘Uncle’, not ‘Daddy’.”

“Albi often spends time with Jorna, so whenever I call her, I also get to speak to him,” Salim explains.
Soma, 44, certainly doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to help look after the boy.

He tells Salim, “Albi can be your son, no problem.”

Salim says, “Of course Soma always calls home, but not as much as me lah.”

Mimi, Soma’s daughter and a college student, babysits Samyra whenever possible and runs errands for Salim’s parents.

The two families share a kitchen and cook for each other.

Young Albi has also decided that Samyra is his new sister and that he needs to protect her.

When the people of Baktabali look at Salim, they see a model of success – someone who has made it abroad, an example to be followed. As long as one can cross the river, he can have access to Dhaka, and through Dhaka, the rest of the world.

It is not difficult to understand such feelings when it is clear that for every one male adult working in Singapore, it means a family of six or seven not having to starve in Baktabali.

In the village, a brick worker earns S$5 per day, or about S$150 each month. The goat that was sacrificed to celebrate Salim’s daughter cost close to that monthly salary. There was no way an average family in the village would be able to afford that.

But being separated from their loved ones is a reality that Salim and many of his friends have learned to accept.

Getting time off from work to go home for these guest workers is rare, so whenever they are back in their villages, they scramble to do as much as possible.

In the two weeks that Salim was home in December 2013, a lot had to be accomplished.

Even if they had wanted it, Jorna and Salim hardly had any chance to be alone together. Traditionally, a new mother must be surrounded by friends and relatives, so their room was always full of other people.
So Salim did what he does best – helping people and making people happy.

The locks for the new house had not been installed for the past two years because Shamin is now a teacher in a small town seven hours away. Salim got them done in the first week he was home.

It is also traditional to buy new clothes for female relatives on such a happy occasion. Salim trooped down to the bazaar near the river with his sister and Soma’s wife Ohidabegum, and paid for eight new pieces of clothing.

An elderly aunt was warded in the same hospital where Jorna had given birth, so he popped in for a quick visit.

Despite his many obligations, there was no doubt that Salim was happy to be home.

In fact, given a choice, he would not have returned to Singapore.

Everything he needs to be happy is in Bangladesh but he also needs the money even more now.

“I will work in Singapore as long as my bosses need me lah,” he always says.

His father prefers to leave it to God when asked whether he would like Salim to stay in Bangladesh. His mother thinks that he should do it for another two more years.

Jorna more or less agrees with her mother-in-law, although she was also quick to tell Salim that now that they have a baby, she won’t have too much time to miss him.

Perhaps it is her way of reducing his worries.

Besides, they really do need the money.

Salim makes no pretence about where he wants to be eventually: back in his village, where his wife and other family members are.

“Jorna doesn’t like to live in Singapore anyway.”

“Visit okay, but to stay, no.”

For now, he has to make sacrifices, work hard in Singapore, and deal with the loneliness of being away from his loved ones.

When the opportunity arises, the couple also hopes to have another baby, preferably a boy.
When he eventually goes home for good, he wants to build houses with Shamin, for clients as well as for speculation.

“Property is good investment, sure make money.”

“But I have little cash now, I must work some more.”

Years of working in Singapore meant that when it was finally time for him to tie the knot in 2011, Salim could afford to present Jorna with a house designed by his brother Shamin, whose university education had been financed by Salim. He could even indulge in some luxuries, such as a bridal bed filled with roses, decorated by his good friend Rajo. After the wedding, Salim preferred Jorna to stay at his home and help care for his elderly parents in his absence. However, he also understands when she goes back for longer visits with her parents, who live about 30 minutes away on foot.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Separating Baktabali, Salim’s village, from Narayanganj, the big city – and in some ways, the world – is the 1.5 kilometre-wide Dhaleshwari River. To get to the other side, where the bright lights and action are, villagers usually take the five-minute ferry ride. On most days, visibility is poor because of the pollution from the brick fields, as well as other factories along the river. That ‘fog’ makes life on the other side seem even more mysterious and appealing to the young people, who often dream of leaving the village in search of a better life. When the Muktapur Bridge, located southeast of Baktabali, opened in 1991, it provided an alternative route to the big cities. However, it is still rarely used because the journey takes two extra hours; moreover, very few villagers can afford to own a car.

Salim returned to Singapore two weeks after his wedding in February 2011, but the couple was soon reunited when Jorna arrived for a one-month visit that May. To facilitate her visa application, which is more complicated because she is an unemployed dependant of a transient worker, Salim’s employers acted as her guarantors. In general, visits from spouses of foreign workers are rare because it is expensive. In addition, because the workers are mostly housed in dormitories with other men, accommodation during such visits is problematic.

When she heard about Jorna’s visit, Mrs Habibah Mahmood, an elderly Singaporean whom Salim had befriended while working on a project in Opera Estate, offered the newlyweds a nice bedroom in her house. Although she had never met Jorna before May 2011, the widow, who is in her early 80s and has children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in different parts of the world, welcomed her with open arms. She treated the couple like her own children and made sure that they always had homemade meals. During Jorna’s visit, with the blessing of his employers, Salim stayed with Jorna instead of at his dormitory.

In his 18 years in Singapore, Salim has resisted the lure of the bright lights, choosing to lead a simple life. While he doesn’t even own a television set for himself, he bought Jorna a 32” Sony TV to bring back to Baktabali when she last visited. With many mouths back in Bangladesh to feed, he spends as little as S$300 per month on himself. He seldom eats out, preferring to prepare his own meals in his dormitory, which is usually just a bed in a house being built by his company. “My bosses also give me extra money for things like transport and lunch,” he says, “so I don’t have to spend much.”

Salim is a role model to many young people in his village and their conduit to the outside world. Through him, they learn about new things, new words, new technologies. At Salim’s wedding in 2011, his cousin’s son Hussain (right) was visibly affected and worried that his hero would no longer have time for him. But in the last two years that they have been apart, the teenager has matured into a young adult, and is now an engineer-in-training for a merchant navy. To welcome Salim back last December, Hussain took time off from his company and met him at the airport, together with a few young kids from the village.

Eager to see Jorna and their newborn girl Samyra, Salim headed straight to Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj, immediately after touching down in Dhaka. Although the private hospital is further away from their village and more expensive, Salim insisted on sending them there because it meant that Jorna was able to see the same doctor for all her pre-delivery check-ups. Baby Samyra, who was conceived in Singapore during Jorna’s two-month visit, was born three days ahead of schedule, when Salim was busy building another home in Singapore. Her name, which means “pleasant community”, was picked by him, from three names Jorna had shortlisted.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Salim’s mother Nurjahanbegum (in Bangladesh, “begum” is an honorific added to the given names of married and widowed women) spends most of her time in the kitchen, preparing meal after meal for the family, and interjecting her daily routine with passionate conversation about her children, especially Salim. Although she thinks that he should return to Bangladesh permanently in two to three years, she also understands that it will be very difficult, especially now that he is a father and has more mouths to feed. Nurjahanbegum is 67 and has some minor health problems. With her eldest son living in Dhaka, Salim in Singapore and her youngest son teaching in a village seven hours away, it is rare for her to be able to see all her sons at the same time. Fortunately, her husband Abdul Ali, though 73, is still relatively healthy and able to run the household.

Childbirth is a big family affair, and Salim and Jorna are lucky to receive help from both their families. In the private hospital where Jorna gave birth, her mother and grandmother, Salim’s sisters, as well as their cousins all took turns to stay over. On the map, the Medistar General Hospital in Narayanganj looks like a short ride from their village, but the actual journey, in a van Salim had rented, takes more than three hours each way. They could have saved 1½ hours on the journey by taking the ferry across, but Salim would not entertain the idea of putting his wife and baby through the crowded and uncomfortable journey.

Compared to the older buildings in the village, Salim’s new house is modern-looking and includes facilities not commonly found in other homes, such as a flush toilet and hot water. Designed by his younger brother Shamin, and funded by Salim’s savings as well as loans, the house has three big rooms on the ground floor, one of which is his and Jorna’s. The plan for the second level, meant for Shamin and his future family, has been shelved due to a shortage of money. Staying by herself in such a big house is lonely, but Jorna is lucky to be surrounded by Salim’s family members. However, before her delivery and Salim’s return, Jorna went back to her parents’ home for an extended stay, as her own mother is younger than Salim’s and therefore physically more capable of taking care of her.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
Abdul Ali, Salim’s father, is a local landlord, businessman and farmer who never goes anywhere without his red and white keffiyeh. He uses this path linking his village and the Baktabali bazaar near the river almost daily. Lined with houses and potato, canola and parsley fields on both sides, the unpaved mud road is also surrounded by brick fields, many owned by locals who have returned from long working stints in Singapore. Though the soft-spoken Abdul Ali is 73, he still walks spritely and only hires a pull-cart when he has a lot of things to carry.

Esti, Salim’s young nephew, has always been able to find ways to amuse himself and he becomes even more animated in the presence of visitors. But his parents – Salim’s sister and brother-in-law – hope that his world will be bigger and more exciting than just climbing trees and performing multiple somersaults outside their house. They worry that if Esti stays in the village when he grows up, he may be stuck with a low-end job such as being a brick worker, who makes only about S$150 monthly – approximately the price of the goat that was sacrificed to celebrate the birth of Salim’s daughter. Esti’s father worked in shipyards in Singapore for five years and knows about the opportunities available overseas. He hopes to return to Singapore to work soon and even dreams about moving the whole family here.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
In the villages where the men work overseas, the women stay behind to raise the children and look after the family. Despite their exposure to the outside world, local society remains rather traditional and conservative, and gender roles are clearly defined. When Ohidabegum (extreme left), Soma’s wife, and Taslimabegum (second from right), Salim’s elder sister, go to a public place, such as to the bazaar to choose new saris for the family, they have to don niqabs, but their children, Albi (second from left) and Shanta (extreme right), are exempted.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
As a student, Salim took this scenic road to school every morning. On his trip back in December 2013, when his former teacher from secondary school invited him to visit, Salim took Albi, the six-year-old son of his good friend and cousin Soma. Now 44, Soma arrived in Singapore two years ahead of Salim and was instrumental in helping the latter settle in. He doesn’t mind that his son seems closer to Salim because it means having an extra adult to look after him. Similarly, Salim will not be there when Samyra takes her first steps or has her first tooth, and he will have to rely on his relatives to step up and play a bigger role in his absence.

Boktabali, Bangladesh
As a transient worker, Salim is used to sleeping in makeshift places, but he didn’t expect to be sleeping on a sofa during his last visit home. Despite building a new house with his hard-earned money, Salim found himself room-less because many relatives came to visit and he wanted everyone to be comfortable. In the end, he slept on the couch in his living room for several nights, entertaining himself with games on his mobile phone when he couldn’t fall asleep. When she could tear herself away from their baby, Jorna would sneak out of her room and sit next to him, and the couple would chat into the wee hours, something they also do on the phone when they are apart.

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