RIMA Brief – March 2024
Religious Experience of Muslim Migrant Workers in Singapore
Speakers: Mr. Omar Sunny and Ustaz Ahmad Faritz

 

Key Takeaways 

1. The socio-religious realities of Muslim migrant workers in Singapore are diverse and dependent on the individual’s socio-economic status.

2. Singapore’s religious spaces are significant for Muslim migrant workers due to similarities with religious spaces in their home countries.

3. More can be done to improve the religious experience of Muslim migrant workers in Singapore with regards to their religious classes.

4. There must be more concrete efforts to welcome and assimilate Muslim migrant workers with the larger Muslim community in Singapore.

Background 

Most of the discourse on migrant worker experience revolves around the politics of inclusion/exclusion as well as their needs. However, little is documented regarding the religious experience of this highly diverse group which exists as a marginalised community in the city-state. This absence of information impedes a comprehensive understanding of their experiences in Singapore. This is especially applicable in the context of the wider Muslim community, with whom they share religious spaces. 

This discussion aims to understand the socio-religious experiences of Muslim migrant workers. In doing so, hurdles obstructing their religious practice can be identified, allowing potential avenues for assistance and support to alleviate such problems to be explored. 

Summary  

The brief examines the socio-religious reality of Muslim migrant workers in Singapore, focusing on their professional advancement, housing situations, engagement in mosques, religious practices, challenges, and socio-economic hardships. It highlights the journey of a Muslim Migrant workers as an example of progression through upskilling and education, while also discussing differences in housing experiences and the significance of mosques as familiar spaces. Challenges such as employer reluctance to accommodate religious practices and stereotypes from local Muslims are discussed as well, along with socio-economic struggles including separation from family and debts to employment agencies. The brief provides insight into the diverse experiences and obstacles faced by Muslim migrant workers in Singapore. 

Understanding the Socio-Religious Reality of Muslim Migrant Workers 

As a migrant worker that has worked in Singapore since 2012, Omar Sunny shared that he has made significant progress in his professional career through upskilling and continuing his education. Though he started as a construction worker who lived in a dormitory, as of the webinar, he is an Assistant Mechanical and Electrical Engineer and has a rental flat in Bedok.  

Omar stated that the early years as a construction worker was difficult for him as he was not used to the hard and physical labour – he was a student and office worker back in Bangladesh. However, through enrolling in part-time courses with his own earnings, he was promoted to a Safety Supervisor Officer. Subsequently, through upskilling himself by attaining a diploma, he managed to switch his line of profession from Construction to Building Maintenance. This allowed him to attain higher pay and a better position. 

Omar’s experience indicates that it is possible for migrant workers to upskill themselves, depending on their socio-economic background. As he shared, he was able to use his earnings to upgrade himself with mutual agreement with his mother, who supported his ambition to upskill and continue his education. 

On his housing experience in Singapore, as a construction worker, Omar had to reside in a dormitory in Punggol for around six years. This differed when Omar became a S-Pass holder, allowing him to reside in public residential areas. He noted that there are significant differences in the two housing situations. Living in a dormitory is much more communal: living among friends, and having shared facilities such as shops, gyms, and playgrounds. He compared this with residing in a HDB unit, where although it is much calmer, he has to travel to meet friends and book slots to exercise. 

Omar shared his experience of volunteering in mosques. He first volunteered at Al-Islah Mosque in Punggol, before volunteering at Darul Ghufran Mosque in Tampines after shifting to Bedok as it is nearer to his residence. Volunteering in mosques, among other things, constitutes cleaning and maintaining the mosque on Sunday morning, helping with crowd control during major events, such as during Friday prayer on public holidays, and assist with breaking fast during Ramadan. The reason behind his decision to volunteer is linked to the familiar atmosphere of the mosques with Bangladeshi mosques, indicating that Islamic religious spaces retain an element of comfort for Muslims from different societies due to the many commonalities they share. 

Even so, Omar still noticed the minor differences of Singapore and Bangladesh mosques and in terms of Islamic practice. One of it is the role and function of mosques in Singapore, as they assume a multi-purpose role such as social and educational activities, and not just a space to perform religious rituals. Celebration of religious festivities also differ in Singapore and Bangladesh. 

In terms of Islamic religious classes, Omar shared that he usually attends English-speaking programs in mosques and other places. He stated that the mosques he would volunteer at provide monthly English-medium classes, conducted by local asatizah. 

Muslim Migrant Workers in the Context of Religious Spaces 

Ustaz Faritz shared that Al-Falah Mosque places great importance in inclusivity and diversity. For this reason, they have high engagement with global Muslims in Singapore, which includes Muslim Migrant workers. From his conversations with Bangladeshi migrant workers in Al-Falah, Ustaz Faritz shared that those who come to volunteer in the mosque are different work-pass holders; they can either be on a Work-Permit, S-Pass, or E-Pass. This would mean that their salary and residence differ according to their work passes. 

For Al-Falah, they consistently hold monthly engagement sessions with the workers. During Ramadhan and Hari Raya, the mosque will hold gatherings as well to show their appreciation for the workers who volunteer in the mosque. From their engagements, Al-Falah realise that Muslim Migrant workers do not have much time for leisure and entertainmentThey organise different types of activities for the Muslim Transient Workers. Sport activities would be football, volleyball, and cricket. Cultural activities would be short skits, poetry recitations, and singing of Islamic songs. They would also organise Qur’an and Azan competitions.  

Religious Practices of Muslim Migrant Workers 

As Muslim Migrant workers are predominantly South Asian, they are adherents of the Hanafi school of thought, different than the Shafi’e school of thought that is dominant in Singapore. Other than fulfilling their religious obligations and volunteering in mosques, the migrant workers strive to educate themselves religiously as well. There are different types of religious classes that they attend; 1) Bayan (lectures and da’wah), 2) regular classes in dormitory, 3) special sessions in dormitory to commemorate special occasions. At times, MUIS will send asatizah to the dormitories to conduct classes or special events.  

From Ustaz Faritz’s engagement with migrant workers, they opine that only 5-7% actively participate in religious programmes. Their general perception is one of thankfulness for the opportunity to practise their faith peacefully, while also being able to join and organise their own programmes. 

Challenges Faced by Muslim Migrant Workers in Practising Their Faith 

For some migrant workers, their employers are adamant that they do not fast due to the nature of their job. As they are needed to perform physical tasks in hot weather, there have been cases of migrant workers suffering from dehydration or falling ill, therefore the employers do not want their work performance to be affected. Performing the five daily prayers can also be a challenge for some workers, as not all employers are understanding on their religious beliefs.  

In the context of their religious education, the challenges lie in wanting qualified individuals among themselves to be able to conduct religious classes. Despite their religious qualifications, they are unable to register as religious teachers due to the inconsistencies of their certifications, such as misspelling of names or inaccurate and different transliterations. Some institutions in Bangladesh do not provide official certifications as well. This leads to the situation of having local asatizah to conduct religious classes for the Muslim Migrant Workers. As the classes will be conducted in English, there are some difficulties in understanding certain concepts and topics.  

Muslim migrant workers have shared that they encounter certain stereotypes from local Muslims. An example would be that migrant workers tend to have illicit relationships or affairs with locals and domestic helpers. Another stereotype is that migrant workers might be radicals or extremists. In religious spaces, due to their large congregation, they have encountered remarks about not wanting them to bring their traditions in Singapore’s mosques. Granted, the workers shared that all of this occurs in small numbers. 

Socio-economic Challenges of Muslim Migrant Workers 

One of the main challenges shared by the migrant workers is regarding the long-distance from their family members that stretch for many years. This leads to anxiety and depression due their inability to constantly communicate with their family members and physically be there with them. Another challenge is regarding how they must bear debts from their employment agency for years. In some cases, they must work for a number of years before they are able to send money to their family back home.  

In terms of their residential experience, those who reside in certain dormitories are not allowed to cook their own food. As they are only able to eat what has been chosen for them, this causes them some level of discomfort. 

Future Areas of Research  

More can be studied about the religious experience of Muslim migrant workers in Singapore. While the Islamic religious sector has made significant progress over the years to accommodate to their needs, there are still gaps that need to be analysed. The first would be the impact and effectiveness of the religious classes that they attend. As aforementioned, classes that uses English as its medium are not the first preference of the migrant workers. Thus, there is more that can be done to ensure that they can have religious classes that cater to their preferences.  

Another matter to consider is regarding the assimilation of Muslim migrant workers with the larger Muslim community in Singapore. While they share common religious spaces, there is more that local Muslims can do to support and be empathetic towards migrant workers. Research should be done into what type of support and programs would best benefit Muslim migrant workers with regards to their socio-religious needs. 

About the Speakers 

Mr. Omar Sunny is currently an M&E engineer, working at a facilities management company in Singapore. Moving from Bangladesh in 2013, Sunny started off his journey in Singapore as an electrician under a construction company where he served for five years. In 2021, Sunny also undertook a Diploma in Electrical Engineering Technology under PSB Academy, as part of upskilling. Atop of his job as an engineer, he also enjoys volunteering, hiking, swimming, and immersing himself in music in his free time. 

Ustaz Ahmad Faritz is currently the Manager of Community Development at Al-Falah Mosque, and Senior Mosque Religious Officer (SMRO) of District South mosques in Singapore. On top of conducting many youth development programmes over the years in collaboration with other organizations, Ustaz Faritz also has an interest in social inclusion. Ustaz Faritz has been actively connecting with transient workers at Al-Falah Mosque since 2021, establishing a circle of active transient worker volunteers, organizing regular gatherings, religious talks and appreciation events for them such as soccer matches and beach barbecues. 

 

Click on the link to download the RIMA brief – 2024-03 RIMA brief_Muslim Migrant Workers

Image Credit: REUTERS