This year, the celebration of Deepavali will take on a different tone for most, as they find themselves confounded with social distancing measures as a result of the pandemic. For instance, although the famous yearly Little India light up remains the same, other festivities have gone online, such as the Deepavali Festival Village.
While many Hindus in Singapore will still proceed with the celebrations — albeit with smaller gatherings — our migrant workers, a large number of whom also observe the festival, are still largely confined to their dormitories.
Food distribution exercise for migrant workers
Thankfully, some of our fellow Singaporeans have taken the initiative to bring some festive joy to these migrant workers. On 14 November, the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), a movement of Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA), conducted a food distribution exercise to about 8,000 migrant workers in celebration of Deepavali.
Over 100 volunteer drivers were mobilised to collect food from a distribution point in Admiralty. The festive meal consisted of chicken briyani, kesari (an indian sweet), muruku, laddus and beverages.
“All of us will do our best to keep you safe”
At the P-Way Construction & Engineering dormitory in Tuas, a small ceremony was held, where Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth & Trade and Industry, Mr Alvin Tan, was present to help with the distribution of food to the migrant workers.
President of Hope Initiative Alliance, Rev Ezekiel Tan, kickstarted the ceremony with an opening speech to the workers. He expressed a desire to show care for the workers beyond the festive season. “The whole of Singapore, different faith groups, are involved in showing care to all of you here, who have laboured to contribute to the well-being of Singapore.”
Minister Tan also gave an address, where he made reference to the significance of Deepavali, of how light overcomes the darkness. “I know we have had nine to ten of that darkness, but it takes all of us to overcome it.” He also assured the workers of their safety. “You can tell your families that you are safe here in Singapore, and that all of us … will do our best to keep you safe. That is the promise.”
“Once we escape the current situation, I can get the home leave and go back.”
Upon visiting the dorm, I noticed that most of the workers were in high spirits. Some of them had also decorated their dorms with lights to add on to the festive mood.
After welcoming the guest of honour and collecting their meals, most of them returned to their dormitories. Shouts of “Happy Deevapali” could also be heard from the upper levels of the dorm.
Amidst the hustle and bustle, I managed to speak to two workers, who willingly shared how their Deepavali festivities have changed since the onslaught of the pandemic.
Appasamy Suresh, 35, is married with a three-year old daughter. Having been in Singapore since 2005, he has worked on various MRT projects, such as the East-West Line, and is now a site coordinator. Dressed in a pink shirt, he was in high spirits, and jokingly asked if he could sit down for his picture, so that he could “be like a minister”.
Appasamy said that he was quarantined in his dormitory for six months during the height of the pandemic in Singapore. Although things have gotten better since, Deepavali celebrations for him this year are limited to spending time with his colleagues.
“For previous years, we would go outside, meet [our] friends, drink together, but now we have the safe distancing for our health, so no meet up is best.” Despite the restrictions that have been imposed on his movements, he reaffirms that he feels very safe knowing that the government has been taking steps to care for him and his colleagues.
Being away from his wife and daughter, he shares that he calls them on a daily basis. Although he is used to celebrating Deepavali away from home, he eagerly awaits the day he can fly back home to be reunited with his family. “[My wife] is happy, but she wants me to [go] back to India, but we are waiting for the normal situation. Once we escape the current situation, I can get the home leave and go back.”
“Singapore take care of me, you don’t worry.”
Another worker, Gopal Sakthivel, 29, also had his Deevapali plans disrupted. “Last time we go Little India, but this Deepavali never go.”
Although he was grateful for the food delivery and the small-scale celebrations, he said that he missed his family, as he knows that they were worried about his health. “They [asked me] how quarantine [was], I said Singapore no problem, very good, Singapore take care of me, you don’t worry.” He also said that his family was doing good at home.
He shared that his wish this Deepavali was for his family and himself to be in good health, and to be able to return home as soon as possible. “Before this COVID I can go home [for] one month, now [I] cannot go.”
In my conversations with the workers, it was clear that although they were celebrating as much as their current circumstances allowed it, many of them still have a deep longing to spend the festive season together with their loved ones.
As we celebrate this Deepavali, let’s also not forget these unsung heroes among us, who have made countless sacrifices to build our beautiful city skyline. Although we may not be able to assuage their feelings of homesickness, little acts of kindness can sometimes go a long way.