Leaving your home to work in a foreign land is something which millions of people all over the world do. In Singapore, hundreds of thousands of them have arrived on our shores, seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
But of the millions who have passed through our land, not everyone has emerged better off. Stories of foreign workers being cheated, abused and even literally left for dead here have made the news through the years.
Theirs are tales of heartbreak and broken dreams, of families sometimes driven to even harder times because their breadwinner chose to risk it all in Singapore.
But there are also those who have made it, who have achieved their dreams of a better life, who have gone home better – richer – and started new lives for themselves and their families.
Over Labour Day weekend, the Straits Times ran two such stories which represent the opposite ends of the journey – one who became so wealthy he now lives in a $1.2 million condominium which even Singaporeans would envy; while the other left here a broken man, becoming a paraplegic due to a work accident.
“I will never walk again.”
39-year old Meng Xiangbo had been working in Singapore for 7 years before his life changed forever in September last year.
Meng, a carpenter, was working at a construction site in Sembawang when a slab of pre-fabricated concrete wall which was being hoisted fell on him, severing the nerves along the lower part of his spinal cord.
He was brought to Tan Tock Seng Hospital where he learned how serious the injury was – he would no longer be able to move the lower part of his body. The doctor told him there was nothing else he could do.
“The news was hard to accept,” Meng told The Straits Times.
The doctor told him he can no longer work for the rest of his life.
He was naturally devastated. His dreams had come to a sudden end. Who was going to feed his family?
He decided to keep the news from his loved ones for more than a month. There was no point in making them worried, he said.
5 months after the accident, and with the help of the Ministry of Manpower, Meng learned that he would receive $327,500 in compensation, the maximum a worker can receive under the Work Injury Compensation Act.
On the flight home to China, Meng had to wear adult diapers and a urine bag connected to a urinary catheter as he cannot control his bowels and urine.
Life, from now, will be a bit harder for him and his family.
“I am home but I feel lost,” he says back in his home. “I regret going to Singapore,” he told the Straits Times reporters who had accompanied him to Qingdao. “If I hadn’t gone, I would not have been injured.”
“I am worried about the money,” said the lone breadwinner who has a daughter and a young son. “There is no one working to support the family now.”
The curve ball that life has thrown Meng is a risk which workers like him have to take, so that at least there is the opportunity of a brighter horizon. But it doesn’t always turn out the way one hopes, and the bright future they envisage and work so hard for sometimes turns to dark clouds.
Meng, however, should take courage in the knowledge that many who have gone through what he is going through has made a good life, in spite of the cards life has dealt them. Indeed, many have succeeded and have been inspiration to others.
From penniless to a $1.2 million condo
“I really believe God gave me everything,” said 47-year old Mani Malaichamy. And who can dispute it? He has achieved the very dream which all migrant workers pray for – success beyond the wildest dream they dared to imagine.
His is a story of “an Indian migrant worker who arrived penniless in Singapore 20 years ago but defied great odds” to find success.
It was all thanks to his former boss, Ang Ah Teng, whom Mani calls his “second god”. It was Ang who also encouraged him to spread his wings and to venture into business on his own.
Mani had arrived in Singapore 20 years ago, not unlike your average migrant worker, chasing the rainbow which leads to a better life.
Hailing from the town of Tirrupatur in Tamil Nadu, Mani’s ability to speak English turned out to be advantageous – his employer at the time was a property development company in Marine Parade. So, instead of a construction site, he was deployed to the office of one of the company’s new condominium in Bukit Timah, according to the Straits Times.
“That’s because I could speak a little bit English. The other workers could not,” Mani explains.
His job was to paint and fix minor defects in the condo units.
His salary at the time was a mere $18 a day. It would be a little bit more if he did overtime.
But Mani was a prudent man who didn’t spend his money frivolously. He would save and cook his own food, send money home and paid his debts.
With enough money saved, he went home to India to get married.
But he returned to Singapore eight months later.
“I had to come back. I had only enough money to get married but not to buy a house. I also had to pay for my sister’s marriage,” he says.
His life took a fortuitous turn with his new employer, ATC Painting Specialist, owned by Ang.
Because of his resourcefulness and eagerness to learn, he was given many opportunities to learn the ropes.
“I did many things. I was driving a lorry, fetching workers, collecting cheques, making payments, supervising, taking care of projects,” Mani said.
He even signed up for a three-month course to get certified as a safety officer.
He was in a good place, earning a good living with a pay of $3,000. He applied for and got his permanent resident status, bought a HDB flat and brought his family over to live with him.
It was at this point that he started to contemplate running his own business, but he felt he could not “betray” Ang who had been good to him.
“I know I could come out and do business,” Mani said. “I know my customers, I know how to apply for workers. But I thought of my boss, he taught me everything. Without him, my family would not be here with me.”
But Ang saw it differently, and encouraged Mani to strike out on his own.
“He said, ‘You go out and fight. If you are not successful, you can come back.’ Where to find boss like that? Even I cannot be like that. I was so happy I cried,” Mani told The Straits Times.
And so he did – starting his own company while still working for Ang, and three years later, going the full hog and quitting his employ to run his own full-fledged company, doing painting.
With an initial contract worth $150,000 to paint a school, he was on his way. Ang passed him some contracts too, to get him started.
Soon, business was so good he had to employ more workers. His company now employs 26 staff.
Last year, his company saw $2.6 million in revenue.
Mani now drives a new 2.4 litre, white Toyota Harrier, and last April, he and his family moved into a $1.2 million condo in Pasir Ris.
“I used to paint condos but I never dreamt I would one day live in one,” he says.
The two stories here present a stark contrast of fortunes – one who almost lost his life pursuing his dreams, while the other succeeding beyond even his own.
Millions of such migrant workers continue to seek a better life, leaving their homes for foreign lands, and casting their fortunes with the vicissitudes of life, in the hope that they will be the lucky ones who emerge with that dream intact, and more.
Read the original stories in The Straits Times here: