May 10, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Serene Goh

(Photo above) HIA there, and everywhere. Regular volunteers from Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA) packing in dates for Muslim workers confined to dormitories. Packing for essential items, as well as dates for sharing, were completed at the TSL Building in Eunos in time for the Ramadan-Vesak Day distribution, together with hot meals. ©️Bryan van der Beek 2020, all rights reserved.

Two yellow wellingtons on Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen’s T-shirt are a reminder to walk a mile in the shoes of labourers in shipyards and construction. The logo now represents the boots on the ground the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach has become to foreign workers here.  

Since the start of the Circuit Breaker quarantine, the inter-faith group — part of the Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA) — has led the distribution of meals to workers confined to dormitory quarters. They deliver food to about 10,000 workers who also require hygiene and health items.

Each worker currently receives two meals daily — a total 20,000 meals for AGWO. At about $3 each, the organisation has already dispatched about $1.8 million of meals in the first 30 days of the circuit breaker, not including transport. 

Throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, those food drops have extended to pre-dawn meals. These are delivered in the dead of night, sometimes hoisted over locked gates, to about 40 dormitories where workers need to eat ahead of the day’s fasting. 

Ramadan-Vesak Day 

The eve of Vesak Day, 3,000 boxes of Nawab’s Briyani left the halal kitchen in Admiralty, a special dish of mutton ghee briyani with hard boiled egg, bundled with rations of rockmelon and dates for sharing. 

(Above)Briyani boss. In the dead of night, Mr Mohamed Farook, boss of Nawab’s Briyani, sorts packs of food into plastic carriers bound for foreign worker dormitories. His staff’s top speed for packing is 700 boxes per hour.

Nightly, about 20 volunteers fill their car boots to make contactless drops at dwellings in Tuas, Woodlands and Admiralty. Bags roll out in a fleet of sedans and SUVs around 1.30am, with the last of them arriving at destinations by about 4am. 

Rev Samuel, committee chairman of AGWO and vice-president of HIA, has a smile in his eyes above his mask. It never wanes as he oversees the matching packs to dorms. He notes that the meals are just one course in the group’s mission. 

(Above) Keeping them warm. Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen, aka “Pastor Sam”, committee chairman of Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO), hustles to load up car boots with pre-dawn meals so they can arrive as warm as possible to diners.

Walking among dorm residents, many from Bangladesh and India, he’s acutely aware that he is also a conduit for emotional support. Especially at the outset of the quarantine, they were terrified about contracting the COVID-19 virus, and distraught. 

“They’re afraid they will die,” he said. “For them, it’s not a matter of if, but when they will test positive for COVID-19. There’s so much false information, they don’t know what to believe.”

So in Tamil, the 43-year-old talks to them about social distancing, and how critical it is to maintain a regimen of handwashing. He explains how the virus impacts the respiratory system, which groups are most vulnerable, and educates them about how it spreads, and how recovery can take place. 

Mostly he salves their agony, by simply being a friend.

“We see a different side. We see the others – not the complainers and haters – we see those who are so readily availing themselves, showing their compassion. People want to do something, they’re just not sure what they can do.”

The Long Battle

The AGWO is keen to meet the most immediate needs of workers, which fall chiefly into three categories: a. food, fruit, dates and dry food; b. personal hygiene products; c. health supplements, vitamins and medical supplies.

(Above) Checking it twice. A volunteer driver from HIA ensures numbers tally with dispatches to dormitories, as Pastor Sam checks them off his list.

In addition to the nighttime deliverers, HIA’s spectrum of other volunteers have during the day been packing essentials for workers. To drive the Ramadan-Vesak Day distribution alone, with both daily items and food, cost about $400,000.

HIA’s president, Reverend Ezekiel Tan, 48, calls the exercise “a long battle”, which he estimates will require at least another $1.8 million to sustain for another 30 days.

Any amount above that in donations and funding will support more workers, for there are 12,000 workers here spread across 260 dormitories that the charity eventually aims to reach. The COVID-19 situation, he added, is “not the time to be philosophical about who is to blame for what”.

Critics might loudly dominate social media but, he pointed out: “We see a different side. We see the others — not the complainers and haters — we see those who are so readily availing themselves, showing their compassion. People want to do something, they’re just not sure what they can do.”

For HIA and AGWO, finding out how to do things was also critical.

(Above) Last-minute huddle. Pastor Sam and volunteer drivers ensure the right numbers of packs go to the correct dormitories. Up to 43 larger, purpose-built dormitories house about 3,000 to 25,000 residents each, while another 1,200 factory-converted dwellings, house between 50 to about 500 workers.

While their permits were still pending approval, volunteers faced initial hurdles trying to complete deliveries, as inspectors issued formal written warnings to them for being out.

These were dropped, of course, after the charities made clear their intentions, said Rev Tan with a laugh.

“We had to do a thousand and one things at the same time. We are like the ambulance response team, but we had to figure out how to do it without risking the health of guest workers or our volunteers. How to actually meet the demand at professional level.”

Overnight, he said: “We became one of the largest mobilisers, and had to arrange meals with the caterers. There were many who were checking whether the migrant workers were happy with the food.”

(Above) Dream teams. AGWO volunteers often buddy up to drive, and drop off food at locations. Because the drives must be completed quickly and take place late at night, volunteers come from the same household.

He says the group stays positive for two reasons: firstly, their faith, and secondly, having a sense of mission and urgency.

“We can make a difference to the people who need help, and the desperate needs out there. The faith we have actually caused us to feel adamant about overcoming obstacles, because otherwise, they will be hungry. They will be starving. Whatever little we do can make a big difference.”

“You can always find fault, but to contribute positively to the solution is to us better. We can convert it into positive energy.”

Another upside, he notes, is how the mood among dormitory residents has shifted somewhat.

“At first it was very intense. They were depressed, worried, they thought they were locked up to die. But now things are getting better, and they’re seeing their fellow guest workers recover. They see measures in place. They see Singaporeans caring for them, and that has slowly helped change the whole paradigm.”

(Above) They can and they will. Reverend Ezekiel Tan, aka “Pastor Ezekiel” and Pastor Sam both pitching in to load up meals. The pair have known each other for more than 10 years, and established the inter-faith group AGWO to raise awareness of how migrant workers live. AGWO’s exhibition last year simulated a dorm room, to help attendees better understand the experience of living in one. Said Pastor Ezekiel: “This is a crisis and the community should come together. While it’s true the employers should do their jobs, there might be errant ones or those who are having financial problems. Where they cannot meet the demand, we can do something.”

Rev Tan is thankful for many things despite myriad issues that need to be resolved. “Throughout the circuit breaker period, we’ve seen Singaporeans coming on board so spontaneously — to pack and deliver, and adopt a dorm; to demonstrate the kind of graciousness we can as a people. I think it’s been best seen during this national crisis.”

“You can always find fault, but to contribute positively to the solution is to us better. We can convert it into positive energy.”

A Kitchen Aids

Nothing is stirring past midnight at FoodXchange@Admiralty, a seven-storey food facility with 283 spaces for catering operations.

Nothing except Nawab’s Food Industries on its fourth floor. By 1.30am the morning of Vesak Day, staff have bundled the last boxes of Nawab’s Briyani into large orange plastic carriers. The kitchen has been scrubbed down, its rice paddles and aluminium curry pots cleaned and ready for the next day.

(Above) Fully loaded. A volunteer’s car boot brimming with pre-dawn meals, is fully loaded and ready to roll. Each larger carrier contains 20 meal packs. Smaller containers hold dalcha and sharing portions of fruit and dates.

Everyone’s lined up to load up vehicles with the pre-dawn meal for Muslim workers: a special serving of basmati ghee briyani, mutton masala, a hardboiled egg and a side of dalcha.

The family budget-briyani business, established in 1987 by Mohamed Abdullah, has since 2017 been run by his 42-year-old son, Mohamed Farook.

But newcomers don’t seem to know his name, he quips: “I think soon my name will be changed to ‘Nawab’, because that’s what everyone calls me now!”

At its 2,800 sq ft halal premises, staffed by about 10 assistant cooks, Nawab’s is accustomed to turning out an average of 2,500 to 3,000 daily. The Indian-Muslim food specialist also caters at events for foreign workers.

Mr Farook points out: “Big quantity we are not scared. We already know the momentum, thanks to our experience.”

(Above) A mighty pen. Last-minute labelling by Pastor Ezekiel. The Inter-Religious Organisation of Singapore (IRO) is a partner of HIA-AGWO. IRO’s members represent the following religions: Hindu, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Toaist, Jain, Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Baha’i.

The pace is still breakneck by any standard. The Ramadan-Vesak Day order for AGWO alone takes 12 full hours from start to finish, with prep work beginning at noon. There’s the chopping of onions and vegetables, soaking the rice, boiling the meat, boiling the dal, then stirring aluminium curry pots that each hold 500 servings of rice.

(Above) Getting a boost. Pastor Ezekiel swigs an energy drink in between loading, before he himself drives off with a loaded boot to make deliveries.

Cooking in earnest starts around 8.30pm after kitchen workers break their own fasts, to keep food as hot as possible for diners. “As a Muslim, I know that the meal has got to be easy to digest early in the morning,” said Mr Farook. “It cannot be too heavy, otherwise it’s hard to eat.”

The Nawab crew can pack between 500 and 700 boxed meals per hour. But Mr Farook seems more impressed with the swell of volunteers turning out to make deliveries.

“Everybody is spending their days and nights here. It’s a first experience for me. They are blessed. I want to thank them for doing all these good things,” he said. “Behind the scenes there are a lot of volunteers, a lot of people doing things… it’s just that we don’t see.”

He is proud that his brand is doing at this point of crisis what he always intended for it to do: providing acceptable meals for $3.

(Above) A little fall of rain can hardly hurt. In the still of Tuas, Pastors Sam and Ezekiel get through the rain for a drop off. Working in sync, the pair aim to get meal boxes to over locked gates to residents inside the dormitories.

(Above) So over the top. The food pass-along chain has to get over a wall at night, as food packs are hoisted over locked gates into the compound. Note the division of labour: one to hold the brolly, one to get it over the gate, another to receive, yet another to shelter the recipient.

(Above) “Nandri!” is the recurring callout to Pastor Sam during food drops. He says it right back.

Inspiration had struck him when, after his Friday prayers, he noticed that meal packets donated for the needy at his mosque were outstripping demand. “Those packets cost $6 each. So I thought, if I can do it for $3, then more people can be fed.

“Within three weeks after I launched the $3 briyani, I had orders for 30 or 40 packets, or 60 packets, because people could buy more out of their donation budgets. They could now feed 100 people with just $300.”

Of late, Mr Farook has struggled to keep prices low. Basmati rice rose from $40 to $60 a bag, and shipments are taking longer to arrive. A 2.5kg bag of onions went from $2.50 to $9.50, he said, and even plastic boxes are more expensive. He’s finally raised his prices from $3 a box to $4, to maintain the quality of his meals.

“Behind the scenes there are a lot of volunteers, a lot of people doing things… it’s just that we don’t see.”

Undaunted, he’s launching 400 vending machines islandwide with affordable frozen briyani, including about 20 foreign worker dormitories.

It’s an entrepreneurial risk Mr Farook is grateful that his wife Faridah Begum supports — and he is excited: “We will have frozen briyani inside the machines, and the machines will have inbuilt heating facilities. It’s going to let us give a bigger quantity of rice to workers, which they need more of.”

(Above) Last one for the night. The last bags of food make their way out to Tuas South Lane. Foreign workers receiving the meals have been here any length of time, newcomers might have only been here a few months, others say they have lived in Singapore for up to 20 years.


  • Bryan is still trying to figure a way to combine his three main loves. Can anyone help him figure out how to balance his whole family on a motorbike while riding and taking photographs?

  • Serene believes in the power of good pie, and publishing stories that inspire. You can call her a pie-blisher.


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