In a country where freedom of expression is discouraged, the only Bengali newspaper in Singapore is giving a platform to migrant workers to share their stories of hardship and joy in the affluent city-state they are helping to build from the ground up.
The monthly, called the "Voice of Bengal," is published in Bengali and targets the roughly 150,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers in Singapore, many of whom are employed in low-wage, labor-intensive jobs in the country's construction industry.
Adjacent to an enormous luxury condominium in Geylang, Singapore's entertainment district, A.K.M. Mohsin, the newspaper's editor-in-chief and supporter of Bengali migrant workers, knocks on the door of a windowless house with a ramshackle tin plate covering its front. "Kabir, are you in?" he inquires.
Kabir Mamun, 51, limps out using crutches after waking from a bed in the hallway. Twenty migrant workers from Bangladesh live in the dimly lit room.
Mamun broke his left femur at the end of last year when he fell from the second floor of a construction site. Forced out of a room provided by his employer, he turned to a friend who offered him the cramped living space.
Mamun tells Mohsin, 58, that he has not been paid a salary since his accident. He feared his employer would not even pay for his medical costs if he made too strong of a demand for what Mohsin only sees as his right to workers' compensation.
Mohsin eventually helped him procure a lawyer, maintaining that all employers are obliged to pay employees who are laid up and unable to work due to on-the-job injuries.
Before his injury, Mamun earned about S$1,000 ($700) per month like most of his fellow Bangladeshi who work in Singapore. This relatively small salary in a country with an average monthly household income of more than S$9,000 was still enough to pay the school tuition of his four children back in Bangladesh.
With no job back in his home country, Mamun has spent the better part of the last two decades as a migrant worker, sending nearly all of his earnings to his family in the South Asian country. Singapore's wealth and lifestyle are maintained by highly skilled professionals from around the world and low-wage migrant workers like Mamun.
Copies of the monthly newspaper, which is usually 20 pages in length, are distributed to migrant workers' dormitories and sold for S$1 at grocery stores. An online version of the paper was started in 2013.
The publication covers labor-related regulations in Singapore, information on migrant work in other countries and news from home. It is chock full of all the essential info for Bangladeshi migrant workers living in a foreign land.
The office of the print newspaper sits on the second floor of an old shophouse in the middle of the Little India commercial enclave, along a narrow street lined with small shops selling spices, jasmine, as well as electronics, and serving Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine.
A flight of narrow wooden stairs leads up to the small office with just enough space for a desk, a few chairs, tall bookcases and a rug under a skylight.
When Mohsin came from Bangladesh to Singapore in 1991 to study computer science, he often visited the district where thousands of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent gathered on Sundays to reconnect and ease their feelings of homesickness through the familiar smells and sounds of their homeland.
"I was very happy to meet my countrymen," Mohsin said, explaining that he began to have long conversations with a Bangladeshi man he met there who asked if he might help him pen a letter to his family.
At the time, Bangladesh had a low literacy rate. This was before the age of the internet or smartphones, and international phone charges were expensive, making letters the most reasonable way to communicate with people back home, Mohsin said.
After he began writing letters for free on behalf of his compatriots -- to their parents, children and lovers back in Bangladesh -- Mohsin gained a reputation in the community, and dozens of people began to line up for his services. Sometimes he would read letters aloud they had received from home.
"I became very close to them. I got the idea that I must be the spokesman for this community," said Mohsin, who raised the capital to launch "Voice of Bengal" in 2006, rolling it out with the help of a small team including an editor in Dhaka and volunteer migrant workers in Singapore, among others.
An article entitled "COVID Diary," written by Mohiuddin Sarker, a 34-year-old construction worker, was published in the February print edition this year. It was a serial contribution that described Mohiuddin's life in Singapore under the COVID-19 lockdown.
Mohiuddin was infected in April 2020 and quarantined for more than three months. The 55-day account included his experience of being forced to isolate in a windowless room on a cruise ship and other facilities that had been hastily arranged, as he had to move from place to place even after recovering.
One of the doors was locked from the outside. He would knock on it repeatedly to call staff to let him out to use the toilet. Relying on the faint signal from his cellphone, he'd send Mohsin his diary entries to somehow maintain his sense of sanity.
"I missed the sky. I was trapped in a room with no windows," Mohiuddin wrote.
As the first cluster of COVID-19 occurred in one of the dormitories packed with Bangladesh migrant workers, Singapore imposed restrictions, banning them from leaving their lodgings except to work until September 2021.
This contrasted starkly with the lives enjoyed by Singaporeans and high-paid foreign expats, who were subjected to far fewer restrictions. Mohiuddin says he felt like he'd been "treated like an object."
In another story he contributed called "Journey by Lorry," Mohiuddin wrote about his daily life as a construction worker, being ferried to and from a site along with building materials on the back of a truck. The story, which was run in October 2017, was later translated into English and has even been turned into a short video that was posted on social media.
"A lorry is not for carrying people," he said. Riding on the back of the truck, workers are exposed to the sun and rain and subjected to the perils of being flung off when the vehicle brakes abruptly. Some have even died in such accidents, Mohiuddin wrote.
Although it is hard to criticize the government in a country that restricts freedom of expression, the "Voice of Bengal" has lent an ear to the predicaments of migrant workers and become a starting point for discussions on how to improve their working conditions.
It tries to shed light on the situations of laborers who are building the city's skyscrapers, highways and train tunnels, showing their marginalized place in Singaporean society.
The newspaper also plays a crucial role in encouraging Bangladeshi workers to cherish their culture and develop their writing. Many stories and poems of joy and sadness from contributors are published in the paper.
Although it has been struggling to survive amid shrinking advertising revenue and sales due to the pandemic, the office, which had stopped receiving visitors due to the virus, is once again filled with laughter and banter from the Bangladeshi community.
On a Sunday night in May, the soulful timbre of traditional percussion and string instruments accompanied by a song streamed from the shophouse attic. Five Bangladeshi workers who received permission to go out have reunited after a long period apart. That one night of frivolity provided only a short reprieve from their six-day work week that sees them rise at 6 a.m. and return home at 9 p.m, but it is well worth it.
A man sings the verse of a self-deprecating Bangladesh migrant worker who struggles in a country far away from his homeland while pining for a woman back home.
Mohsin regularly opens his office like this for Bengali poetry readings and music performances. Before the pandemic, over 30 people would sometimes gather there and some have even become poets and singers since returning to their home country.
He believes the newspaper not only provides a valuable source of information but "a voice to the voiceless."