Singapore filmmaker captures plight of foreign workers

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Jagraj Singh Wasan in music video Dance Karneya

By Anandpreet Kaur | Singapore |

You don’t often cross paths with young people all fired up to promote the welfare of foreign workers. In most parts of the world, the foreign labourers don’t get treated well, despite their contribution.

Songwriter and filmmaker Jagraj Singh Wasan comes across as one such person. The Singapore-born artist feels for them. His fire rages from speaking up against animal abuse to bullying to modern-day slavery.

“I’ve always had a penchant for the voiceless, be it the animals we harm, the bullied child at school, or the under-appreciated in our society,” he told Asia Samachar.

During the 2020 pandemic lockdown, he went to work to produce a video that captures the dreams and ground reality of foreign workers.

Dance Karneya is a fun dance number that is told through the eyes of a Punjabi worker, who’s left his family and home, in hopes of building a brighter future in a foreign land. He has big dreams and aspirations but is met with the reality of the situation – one without a voice, often taken advantage of, and underappreciated,” he said.

The idea was to create something that migrant workers could relate to, something that was fun and something to honour their high-spirited nature and tenacity.

“With the song and the video, my hope is that we spark more discussion about what more can be done for the people that help build our country,” he said.

His first single entitled ‘Time to go to sleep’, released in 2018, explored the issue of inbred terrorism and highlights the ostracisation faced by Sikhs. The music video was premiered at the International Filmmaker Festival of New York.

Jagraj and his band of volunteers had put together a screening of the Dance Karneya last month as the world celebrated International Migrants Day on 18 December. Click here to view the music video.

Here are excerpts from an email interview with Jagraj.

What prompted you to pursue the plight of the foreign workers?

I’ve always had a penchant for the voiceless, be it the animals we harm, the bullied child at school, or the under-appreciated in our society. This might have stemmed from me looking different, and being made to feel so, growing up. But I’d like to think we don’t have to go through bad experiences to be able to relate to and have empathy for the ‘other’ i.e to be able to put ourselves in another’s shoes.

Seven years ago, I shot footage for a documentary I wanted to make about our foreign workers, prompted by the Little India riot. I conducted some interviews with the workers, all of whom were not comfortable showing their faces on camera (in fear of losing their jobs presumably), as well as with the non-profit organisations dealing in their issues. Unfortunately, I never completed the project, and always felt guilty about it. I guess I lost motivation because there were already so many of these documentaries out there, all with the same sob stories.

I did a bit of soul searching these past few years, asking myself how I could best serve such topics as an artist in my own unique way. That answer in this case, came to me in the form of a fun, upbeat Bhangra/Rock track to lift everyone’s spirits. With Covid serving as a catalyst, ‘Dance Karneya’ was born.

How do you view their situation in Singapore today?

It’s getting better, with more light shed on the issue, people volunteering, policies being updated. But there is still much that can and needs to be done. Ensuring the workers get paid fairly, are treated equally, have access to and knowledge of their rights, proper healthcare, and that they are not taken advantage of because of the imbalance of power. We really owe them a debt of gratitude. So much of how fast Singapore has progressed, and constantly updates itself today, is due to their hard work and low wages.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Well done Jagraj . Real test will be when foreign workers stay with same company/ family for longe time.

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