16 April 2014

“O” is for Opportunity & Obligation & Occupation – it is about being better than Bangladesh

My folks are passing though Singapore again next week on their way to New York. They often lay over here on the way to or from Europe, which is their usual destination – as it is a convenient stopping off point to and from Australia. However in this case they are off to America.

They are going to New York.

They of course stop off here in Singapore to see me as well.

Their last visit to the Island was on the return leg to Australia last July. It was after one of their annual and epic tours of Europe. They travel for a couple of months each year and seem determined and hell bent on spending my and my sibling’s inheritance.

I don’t mind at all.

It is their money, and both Mum and Dad worked very hard for more than 50 years and they should be enjoying themselves.

I shall also be spending my kid’s inheritance.

Note that Totty and Tom.

My parent’s trip last year was to Italy and Turkey where they cruised and toured all around the place and then they flew here direct from Istanbul. They normally stay in Singapore only for a few days, and when here they prefer to stay in the grand and luxurious and historic Fullarton Hotel. They like it there and I get them good corporate rates. I would put them up at my place but I live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and they are too ancient now to sleep on my couches.

I am too old to sleep on a couch either – and why would I? I have a perfectly comfortable bed.

Whenever my parents leave I immediately miss them. I miss them now. I love them dearly and I enjoy their company. 

I really do.

My Mum and Dad have been to Singapore many times before. The old boy was in the Australian Army for most of his adult life and for all of my childhood.

He retired as a Colonel.

We moved around a lot when we were kids and I was actually born in Malaysia - on an army base.

I was an army brat. So too were my brother and sister.

Now I am just a brat.

Dad did two tours of Vietnam when I was a little boy. These were much different than his retiree holiday tours. They were much different because there was a war going on then. The American’s delusional paranoia of Communism elicited their invasion of this beautiful Southeast Asian land with weapons of mass destruction. They conscripted young men to engage in war and the Australian Army followed suit.

The Americans are still doing this - assailing foreign lands and dropping bombs. Their phobia now though is of Islamic extremists.

They still invade and Australia still follows. 

History repeats itself over and over again.

It is madness. 

It is an abomination.

I remember watching footage of the Vietnam war on television when I was a little boy and crying a lot because my Dad was over there in Vietnam and terrible and frightening things were happening. My Mum cried a lot too. They were timorous and terrifying times. I learned very young that the dread of losing your father permeated all of one's senses. It was a harsh lesson for a little boy and it wasn't fear - it was terror. I recall the emotion even now. It tasted of malevolence and it smelt of atrophy. It was a black fog of despair that was all consuming.

Dad doesn't talk about his time in Vietnam and I don't ask him about it anymore. I used to. He did tell me once that there are no winners in wars. He told me that there are some things that may be worth perishing and sacrificing oneself for, but there is nothing worth killing for. There is nothing at all.

I remember that well.

Mum and Dad and I walked around Singapore a lot while they were last here. Many new buildings had gone up since their last visit. Beautiful buildings. Singapore is becoming an architecturally splendid city of international renown. The Marina Bay Sands, the Arts Centre, the Louis Vuitton Building and the incredible Cloud Forest Dome at the new Gardens by the Bay are sights to behold.

They cost billions of dollars.

The construction industry is still booming on the Island. The construction workers in Singapore are predominantly from Bangladesh. They are here on work visas and they toil extremely hard and in very difficult conditions. To do any manual labor outdoors in the incessant heat and the near saturating humidity that prevails here is unthinkable to me.

I could not do it.

I struggle just walking around.

My Mum was a bit taken aback when we walked down near Marine Parade and we saw a couple of Bangladeshi guys asleep on the pavement. I told my Mum not to be alarmed.

I said, "Don't worry Mum.  Don't panic" and I then explained the Bangladeshi construction labour story to her. She had no idea. I told Mum that these poor blokes had likely been working since 6am and would be doing a fourteen hour shift. I told her that they did this every day and they were just trying to catch a few moments sleep. They were exhausted.

It was also Ramadan then - and these workers would not have had any lunch. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is a four-week period of prayer and charity and fasting for those of the Muslim faith.

Fasting is the act of not eating - it is not the act of moving very quickly.

That is just going fast.

During the Ramadan period Muslims are not permitted to eat between sunrise and sunset. The pre-sunrise meal is called suhoor and the post sunset meal is called iftar.

The act of fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and it is also a time for self-contemplation and charity. Those of the Islamic faith will often help out the needy during Ramadan. Largesse is encouraged in the teachings of the Islamic holy book the Qur'an.

I think this is very nice.

I think it is beautiful.

We should all of us do this all of the time.

The world would be a better place.

I have chatted quite a bit to a number of the Bangladeshi construction boys during my tenure here in Singapore. We had large teams of them working on some big building projects that we did for my Employer. I also used to yack to them when I lived out on the East Coast of the Island. My house was adjacent to a park where some Bangladeshi men often chose to sit and sleep on Sundays. Sunday is their only day off.

It is a six-day working week here in the Singaporean construction industry.

I have been to Bangladesh. Dhaka is the capital city. The country has a population of more than one hundred and fifty million people and paucity is endemic. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated nations on the planet and it is also one of the most impoverished. The national language is Bengali however despite the lack of opportunity for education - many also speak very good English. 

I was just traveling around the place when I went to Bangladesh. I was exploring the world and I wasn't working at the time. I was trying to find myself as well. It was a long time ago. I never actually succeeded in finding myself but I am still seeking. At Times I think that the search is futile however I shall persist - for I am as stubborn as I am curious.

I inherited this from my Dad.

There are bits of him in me.

One of the main things that I wanted to see in Bangladesh was the ship graveyards of Chittagong beach and I did see them. They were amazing. Chittagong is a place where old ships go to die. Massive and redundant ships of all types sail their last voyage to Chittagong from all around the world.

It is their death cruise.

When they arrive in Chittagong they are abandoned and then they are systematically dismantled - piece-by-piece. It is referred to as "Ship Breaking". 

Chittagong is the second biggest facility of its type in the world. If you want to know where the biggest facility is you will need to look it up. I can state with some degree of smugness that I know where it is located. Thousands of Bangladeshis are ‘ship breakers’ and they labour day and night to cut these ships apart. The steel is recycled. Chittagong beach is an environmental catastrophe but it is a sight to behold.

It really is.

The Bangladeshi people that I met in Dhaka and Chittagong and here in Singapore too are without exception kind and hospitable people. They are delightful in fact. The nation is impoverished but like many of the Third World countries that I have visited the generosity of the people is extraordinary. In Bangladesh I was constantly touched by heartfelt acts of benevolence. I was regularly invited to share meals of fiery but delicious curries with families who lived together in one small room. I was offered and drank sweet chai with them and we talked a lot about the game of cricket.

Bangladeshi men and boys love cricket. 

So do I. 

I learned much about humility and respect and decency in my stay in Bangladesh and I learned much about myself too. 

Hubris is a bitch that does not reside in places like Bangladesh.

The Chittagong ship graveyard started by accident more than fifty years ago. It started after a massive cyclone blew a Greek merchant ship ashore and beached it at Chittagong. It was unable to be refloated and it sat there for years. In 1965 a local steel company bought the ship and they got it for a song. They then 'scrapped' it. It took more than three years but it begat an industry – a very big one for Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshi laborers here in Singapore share their accommodations with their co-workers and up to a dozen of them sleep on roll-up mattresses in a single room. Their Singaporean Employers arrange for the Workers transportation to and from construction sites each day in trucks. The average pay rate is about $4 an hour. This is about a third of what a sixteen year old might earn working in a McDonalds in places like Australia or the UK for flipping burgers.

Despite this minimalist of minimum wages the guys from Bangladesh save all that they can and they send it back to their families. On any given Sunday long and patient lines of them can be seen at the Western Union offices in the Little India district of Singapore. They send their wages back to Bangladesh to feed their families who would otherwise starve.

It is the children of impoverished nations that suffer the most. Starvation and malnutrition related diseases are the primary causes of mortality amongst infants in Bangladesh. It is the same in Nepal.

It is heart breaking.

As I have already mentioned - in the small park that was next to my house on the East coast of Singapore there were always groups of Bangladeshi construction workers resting and sleeping on Sundays. They did so under the shade of the beautiful banyan trees.

I sometimes repeat myself.

I sometimes repeat myself.

They would sometimes chat in small groups and lay out picnics. I used to walk my old Golden Retriever in the park. His name was Bob. As I strolled past groups of these guys I would say "Nomoskar".

This is a polite way of saying, "Hello how are you?" in Bengali.

I learned this in Bangladesh.

The Bangladeshis who I befriended would always reply with big grins and say "Nomoskar. Apni keamon arsen?"

This is "Hello. Are you well?"

In return I would deliver an "Ami halo arsi".

Which is Bengali for "I am well"

This is simple and polite Bengali formalities and civilities. Then we would converse in English because that was all the Bengali I had. The guys seemed very pleased that I had been to their country.

When I got to know them a little better we talked about all sorts of things. We chatted about cricket and families and children and the ship graveyards of Chittagong. I told them that I thought that the jobs they had here in Singapore must be very difficult given the heat and humidity. I told them that I thought that life must be very tough for them.

They replied to me that it wasn't easy being away from their families but they were used to hard work and heat. They told me that they thought they were very lucky to be in a place as nice as Singapore and that their lives weren't so bad. They pointed out to me that they could sit under the shade of a Banyan tree here in a beautiful lush green park on their day off and they could drink chai with their friends.

They told me that it was better than Bangladesh.

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