Migrant worker enclaves in S'pore transformed after year and a half of Covid-19 curbs

SINGAPORE – In Little India, jewellers that could count on five-digit takings each weekend are struggling to hold on, while a previously vibrant community space that drew Bangladeshi workers from across the island no longer pulses with fellowship.

In Geylang, Internet cafes once lit with neon and filled with night owls seeking respite from their weekday grind have gone dark.

Enclaves that once drew their energies from and were the go-to weekend haunts for migrant worker communities here have been markedly changed since Covid-19 restrictions were implemented in March last year, and dormitories locked down in April last year.

Eighteen months later, there is finally light as a long-awaited pilot scheme for workers to return to the larger community begins this week, but many businesses are on their last legs – if they have not already called it quits.

In November 2018, Mr AKM Mohsin took over Swaad, a vegetarian restaurant in Desker Road, in hopes of offsetting expenses for his work with the Bengali migrant worker community.

Little did he know the pandemic would ravage his business by up to 80 per cent, even though the restaurant was largely patronised by Indian Singaporeans and tourists, who never returned as they avoided the area out of fear of being infected by foreign workers.

Despite rental relief of four months, two by the Government and two by his landlord, he had no choice but to close the restaurant.

“I had planned for the restaurant to help support Banglar Kantha and Dibashram, but it became a burden,” said Mr Mohsin, 57.

Banglar Kantha is a Bengali-language newspaper that Mr Mohsin is editor of, and Dibashram – Bengali for daycare – is a cultural and activity centre he started to cater to Bengali migrant workers in Singapore.

Before the pandemic, Dibashram was a vibrant space that saw migrant workers from all over Singapore coming together to socialise, read and jam together.

Now, physical activities have all but stopped, replaced instead with online discussions that are a pale imitation of the vibrant atmosphere of the Desker Road shophouse that houses Dibashram.

Mr Mohsin’s struggle is a familiar one throughout Little India, a regular haunt of migrant workers from both India and Bangladesh, many of whom live in dormitories.


Mr AKM Mohsin had to close his restaurant Swaad, a vegetarian restaurant in Desker Road. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

Following the restrictions imposed on those living in dormitories last March, businesses in Little India have struggled to make ends meet, much more than other migrant worker enclaves The Straits Times visited.

Mr Ruthirapathy, 52, honorary secretary of the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, estimates a 50 per cent drop in footfall compared with before the pandemic. This, he said, translated to falls in revenue of up to 80 per cent for some shopkeepers.

Mr M. Rakkapan, director of Satya Jewellery, said the store used to make about $30,000 on weekends alone, accounting for about two-thirds of the monthly revenue. Almost all of its Sunday takings have dried up since last March.

“I still have to pay for my monthly rental and my staff,” said Mr Rakkapan, adding he has survived only with the weekly patronage of some of the Malaysian workers who are unable to travel out of Singapore.

He said he appreciated the Government’s assistance with wages and rents during the circuit breaker from April to June last year, but said these were not enough to save every business in the area.

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Mr Sirajul Islam, 56, can attest to that. His wholesale business, Costkom, which imports groceries from Bangladesh and distributes them to minimarts and dormitories here, had to shut down last year.

Started in 2018, the firm operated out of a warehouse in Pioneer North and had around 200 customers at its peak and an annual turnover of over $1 million, he said. “The business went down to zero, as all the minimarts had to close during the circuit breaker, so I had to throw away my entire last shipment from December 2019.”

“I don’t know how to survive,” he said, adding that his wife has been running a Malay food takeaway business to help the family make ends meet. The couple have four children, aged between 12 and 26.

He also said he estimated about $150,000 was needed to restart his distribution business, and has started to sell produce gained through a line of credit from his contacts at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre to about 50 loyal customers.

It is a similarly bleak situation for E-Lover Internet Cafe in Geylang. The owner, who wanted to be known only as Mr Chua, said he was calling it a day for his business.


Mr Chua walks through his shop while looking at workers remove lighting fixtures on Sept 4, 2021. ST PHOTO: WALLACE WOON

As workers tore down light fixtures and emptied the fridges of bottled drinks earlier in the month, the 65-year-old described how packed his business used to be on the weekends.

He said in Mandarin: “I used to have 35 computer stations, but I can operate only eight now. Even then, my customers can’t come.”

A few units down at an eatery selling Bangladeshi cuisine, a sole worker peeled onions among the empty seats on a Saturday afternoon earlier in the month when ST visited the store.

Restaurant worker Magandran Nadarajan, 45, said only a quarter of the number of customers before now come on a Sunday, adding that “everyone would come, not just Bangladeshis”.

Not all locations popular with migrant workers are in a similar state of duress. Businesses in Lucky Plaza and Peninsula Plaza, frequented by the Filipino and Myanmar communities, respectively, have not faced the same issues as most of their customers have been able to visit on their days off.

Optician Tony Lin has operated out of his Peninsula Plaza unit for over four decades. The owner of Berlin Optics and Contact Lens Centre said in Mandarin that his shop is evenly split between Myanmar and Singaporean customers.

“We have many old regulars, as well as newer Burmese customers,” said Mr Lin, who is in his 60s.

Due to his local customer base, business was not hit as hard, with a 30 per cent drop in customers overall, and a 10 per cent to 20 per cent drop in Myanmar customers, many of whom are foreign domestic workers unaffected by the restrictions faced by those living in dormitories.

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Responding to the announcement of the pilot programme, which would allow up to 500 vaccinated migrant workers back into the community each week, Mr Lin said that it was good for business, especially one like his, which cannot be conducted easily online.

“So long as the Government judges that it is safe, we welcome as many foreign workers from the dorms back into the community as possible,” he said.

Shop owners in Little India were not the only ones to feel the loss of weekend visitors.

Resident Stephen Kwok, 56, who has lived in Klang Road for 13 years, said they added vibrancy to the area on those days.

For freelance designer Dixon Quek, one business claimed by the pandemic was a loss he felt personally. “My favourite tailor is gone, and if this pandemic continues, there will be a loss of culture.”

Workers, in the meantime, are looking forward to the pilot scheme which starts this week, where 500 workers a week will be allowed to venture to Little India.

Block cleaner Hussein Mosharof, 23, from Bangladesh, said he ran important errands on weekends. “I buy my food supplies for two weeks, send money back to my family and meet friends.”

His compatriot, Mr Hossan Shahadat, 33, said the open plaza bounded by Syed Alwi Road, Desker Road and Lembu Road – affectionately called Bangla Square by migrant workers – was an important meeting point for many workers as it was the one central location where people living in dormitories all over Singapore could gather.

He added the past 16 months had been very difficult for workers. “Some of them, so long no going out, going crazy.”

Despite the headwinds faced by Little India businesses, those ST spoke to remained optimistic migrant workers will return to the area when the situation permits.

Mr Abdul Basheer, outlet manager of Stop82, a Desker Road store that sells affordable clothes and footwear, said: “They will still come back. They know this place already; it has everything they need, and things are cheap here.”

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