May 13, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Serene Goh

(Photo above) Committee Chairman of the Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach (AGWO)
Vice-president of Hope Initiative Alliance (HIA)

Reverend Samuel Gift Stephen leaves his Yishun home each day at 9am, going dormitory to dormitory to keep track of what workers need.

Representing the AGWO, he spends 10 to 11.15am having conversations to find out what dry rations and medical kits are lacking, or to uncover yet unknown quarters where other workers are staying. When lunch arrives, he ensures everyone is fed. Then he spends the rest of the day chasing down leads — like word of a Chinatown living quarters where 60 workers are running out of money for meals.

He doesn’t re-enter his home until past 11pm, after a day taking care of his brothers at a total of 260 dormitories under AGWO’s purview. He’s only ever called them brothers, because from the time he was a child, that’s all they’ve been to him. At his father’s house there were always, at any given time, at least five workers from shipyards or in construction present as family visitors.

And it’s a story that begins in 1967, when a missionary from Sri Lanka sailing home after a trip to Medan found himself on a sinking vessel, the Gospel ship Ebenezer.

It had sprung a leak off the Straits of Malacca, so the man asked its Swedish captain for a life raft. Pointing him in the direction of the nearest land, he sent the man off in a dinghy, with the equivalent of about $10.

That man paddled to Singapore, coming ashore in Sembawang late at night with just the clothes he was wearing. He noticed a blue-lit cross belonging to the Pentecostal Evangelical Church (today, Praise Evangelical Church), and made his way towards it seeking shelter. Finding the church doors bolted, the exhausted man finally fell asleep on its steps.

The next day, jolted awake by the church’s stern Finnish missionary Sister Rasi, he negotiated for a place to stay in exchange for his services as a grounds caretaker. So she gave him a small room, and he began odd-jobbing. Cutting grass in the backyard, he noticed migrant workers walking by from the nearby Sembawang shipyard, and befriended them.

By 1980, Reverend Dr John Sam Stephen — Samuel’s father — had founded his own church, called Smyrna Assembly. Its mission was to reach out to foreigners working in construction and shipyards.

“My mother was a full-time nurse for over 50 years, and she was either working or cooking to feed everyone. My father too!”

His congregation soon grew to 100 people, with 30 Singaporeans and 70 migrant workers, whom he regarded as his own children. They, in turn, called him “Appa” — or father in Tamil. Always welcome at the home, they shared meals with his wife and two sons, Samuel and his younger brother Joel Daniel Stephen, as well as whatever space they had for beds.

“The whole time growing up, there were always, at any given time, at least five workers in our house,” said Rev Sam. “My mother was a full-time nurse for over 50 years, and she was either working or cooking to feed everyone. My father too!”

They would sometimes bunk with him in his bed, and confided in him their fears, dreams and concerns. Many revealed they were saddled with debts of between $5,000 and $15,000 to agents in their home countries Bangladesh, India or Sri Lanka.

They’d confess that they’d been shown polished images of Singapore, and promised salaries of about $2,000 a month. Agents there assured them of their own rooms, and all meals provided. Where just $1 translated to 50 rupees, enough to feed a whole family, the numbers seemed to justify uprooting so they could give their children a better life.

When they disembarked, they would be shuttled to dormitories of six to a room, each to a metal frame bed with no mattress, no blanket, where they’d have to use their clothes as pillows. They’d discover that their pay was closer to $600 a month, their midday meals just mounds of cheap rice with a few pieces of meat, barely enough to sustain hard labour.

If they spoke up here, they feared they would lose their jobs while still saddled with debts. If they told the truth to their home communities, they feared the loss of face and what their families would think. Many would plan to leave when their debts were repaid. But in that time, many would also get used to their living conditions, adjust to having their children growing up without their presence, and hunker down.

“I ask them, where do you live? In a nice house? What car do you drive? A Mercedes? I ask them, who built your house? Do you have children? Do you let them eat like this?”

When Samuel became senior pastor at Smyrna Assembly in 2008, he and his team set up a ministry to empower and equip foreign workers with skills to upgrade themselves called Smryna Assembly Mission for Education (SAME). They could then learn English, computer skills, Autocad (industrial design), and financial management, among others. They also organised picnics, social events, cricket tournaments, and provided meals.

Since 2018, he stepped down to focus on AGWO.

Today, Pastor Sam is married with two daughters. But while his wife Grace Deborah Samuel and his children are his immediate family, he also carries the stories of his brothers with him as he delivers food and essentials to them.

When he encounters employers who take them for granted, he speaks plainly to them: “I ask them, where do you live? In a nice house? What car do you drive? A Mercedes? I ask them, who built your house? Do you have children? Do you let them eat like this?

“Someone must make them realise that their fortune was built by someone else. Aren’t these workers your sons?”


The Storytellers

  • 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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