Government scholar and self-proclaimed poet Abelard Kok wants you to know that migrant workers live difficult lives in Singapore, but he’s doing something about it.
Kok, who chooses to be called by his surname because Abelard is too steeped in colonial overtones, says he started caring about migrant voices in Singapore while studying English Literature at Cambridge University.
“One day I was sitting down for a formal at St Johns, when I realized: oh my. There are some people in Singapore who’ll never get to eat this food, you know? Although really even though we have a Michelin starred chef, it’s not that great. I even skipped the last two courses because I just had to get back to my room and write a poem from the perspective of a Bangladeshi construction worker who misses his hometown,” he explained.
Kok says he often feels like he is the only one who really understands the plight of migrant workers. “Look, plenty of people try to lobby for regulations and housing, but they don’t understand that what migrants really need is a voice in iambic pentameter. What’s the use of sanitary and safe living conditions if you can’t express your inner humanity in onegin stanzas?”
Like a true Tang-dynasty scholar-bureaucrat, Kok doesn’t need extensive face time with his subjects to convey their voices. “I see construction workers pretty often – I mean, they’re busy renovating the south wing of my house. But engaging in casework would bog down my creative juices, y’know? Others can help them file paperwork for complaints to the Ministry of Manpower – my comparative advantage is in helping the subaltern speak via the written word and social media. If my new migrant poetry collection sells well enough, I can just pay someone else to file papers, right?”
Given his position as a government scholar on the fast-track, one might expect Kok to seek a position where he could enact legislative change for migrant rights. However, Kok sees a higher calling for himself: namely, at The Eagle and Child café in Oxford, which he describes as “definitely the best place from which to launch a revival of the Singaporean arts scene, although we’d have to rename it The Mynah and Baby Bonus to reclaim it from the colonizers.”
That, however, is a goal that will have to wait till after his scholarship bond expires. In the meantime, Kok is committed to ensuring everyone knows that he is bringing migrant worker perspectives to the famously open and accessible Singapore poetry scene. To that end, he has a short-term obstacle to overcome: “I need to sort out the renovation. The sounds from construction are really affecting my poetry – maybe I can get those Bangladeshis to use only their hands, instead of any heavy machinery.”
As of press time, the Indian workers rebuilding Kok’s south wing declined comment.