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“It starts with the conversations you have with people around you”

Backalley Barbers, Yinzhou’s social initiative, was born of a desire to bring communities together. While cutting hair and having a conversation, the organiations’ volunteers get a glimpse into the life of the migrants who live in the Geylang district of Singapore, and exchange on everyday life.

“The point of focus is not in cutting hair, but the conversations that we have with the people we serve,” reiterates Yinzhou.

There are around one million low wage migrant workers in Singapore, forming a significant portion of the entire country’s population of 5.7 million.

Yinzhou, the grandson of a Chinese migrant, himself grew up in Geylang district, where he still lives today. An active defender of migrant rights, in addition to founding Backalley Barbers, he also runs an organisation called Citizen Adventures. Yinzhou and the team give educational tours of the neighbourhoods, aiming to provide Singaporeans an insight into the lives of low-wage migrant workers, and ultimately, to bring people together.

The organisation has also been a part of a network providing support and relief items to migrant workers living in cramped dormitories during their months-long COVID-19 lockdown.

Read Yinzhou’s story, and his vision for a better narrative on migrants.

“This was a journey that started with friendship.

Growing up in Geylang, I got to meet many of my neighbours who were low wage migrant workers. They do jobs no Singaporeans would aspire to, and even though we were of similar ages, their struggles and sacrifices in life were far greater than mine.

Being friends with them as a Singaporean was rare, and some friends were surprised. We don’t often think about others’ situations when living the life of privilege that we have in this country.

What I do full time now is to show people around Geylang to understand neighbourhoods and communities as multifaceted, dynamic, and alive. The objective of showing people around is to introduce the social ecosystem and highlight how interconnected we all are to issues around us.

Backalley Barbers was inspired from mundane conversations I had with my friends who were migrant workers, from daily routines to conversations about food or everyday life. Forming a connection between Singaporeans and migrant workers is at the core of our work, not necessarily related to any exceptional stories, just about everyday life.

It is easy for Singaporeans living in comfort to forget about the journey of others amongst us - about the kind of sacrifices that migrants make to come here to work, what they have given up at the prime of their lives.

While cutting someone’s hair, it becomes very casual. It's not so much about someone’s identity as a migrant worker, but about who you are as a human, as a person and, potentially after the conversation, a friend.

Singapore was constructed by migrants.

The hands that built our nation and the kind of sacrifices that our forefathers made reminds me of the journey migrant workers take today.

Historically, migrant workers in Singapore have contributed a lot to society, not just through their labour, but also because of the diversity that they bring. That same diversity continues today, driving high levels of aspiration and ambition and truly hard-working and resilient spirit.

Many have not been able to be there for the formative years of their children, or to be there for their loved ones in times of sickness and even death. Their labour here is not just for themselves, but for the families and loved ones they have had to leave behind.

But often, in Singapore, this world is invisible. We walk into our nice, fancy malls and our first question is likely not ‘who built this?’ For me, dissonance is eased when we put two people of very seemingly different diverse backgrounds together in the same room.

Education can go a long way to solve that, to show that it is because of the efforts of migrants that we are where we are today.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has shown us how little regard we have for migrant workers.

There are around 330,000 migrant workers who live in dormitories, sharing quarters with 10-20 others. COVID-19 spread rapidly there: about 93 percent of the entire country’s infections have been amongst workers living in dorms.

While the rest of us continue lives as per normal with minor inconvenience, workers living in dorms are still only able to leave for work or apply for a few hours to go to the nearest recreation centre. For months on end, mental health has suffered and the true extent of economic devastation is uncertain, with many worrying about losing their jobs.

During the period when migrant workers were not allowed to work, many Singaporeans realised how much we rely on the migrant population, when they were unable to get their air-conditioning fixed, or grass trimmed, for example.

It's really when we lose something that we realise how much we take it for granted. I think the impacts from the pandemic will be here for a while. We should rethink how societies can thrive, not at the expense on low-cost migrant workers.

A shift in the narrative on migration should not just be about providing inspirational examples in the community. We need to be introspective and reflect as a society, how we can do our best to protect migrants.

A lot of that comes from looking inward to history. Appreciating how far we have come because of what the generation and diversity of migrants in the past have ploughed back to the land.

It starts from home and as a Singaporean, what we do now in this generation is significant in defining what the next generation will inherit from us.

Narratives of being fearful of migrant workers can be invalidated once we are friends with them. Speaking to them, instead of about them.”

Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the personsfeatured in the story and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

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  • When anyone’s human rights are denied, everyone's rights are undermined, so I will stand up
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