Waiting for a cup of tea

Dr Tan Lai Yong // May 25, 2020, 4:48 pm

Project Integrate @ Mandai

Project Integrate saw students and foreign workers getting together for games of badminton, futsal, basketball and volleyball before Circuit Breaker. All photos courtesy of Dr Tan Lai Yong.

Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4: 8-9)

At times, I had thought it a waste of my time. Another long train ride to Kranji MRT station, then a bus ride and a walk up to the foreign workers’ dormitory. Soon I was surrounded by thousands of workers – some jumping off the back of trucks, others locking up their bicycles and still others walking briskly back to their dorms to cook dinner.

Bangladeshi friends teaching Dr Tan Lai Yong (right) and student volunteers cricket.

Together with some high school students, we signed in at the security check at the Westlite workers dormitory and headed to the basketball court. There are some 4,000 men in the dormitory – would any of them come for the sports activity? We had badminton, futsal, basketball and volleyball all set up.

Philoxenos is about understanding what a “stranger” values and discovering that both of us are joyful when dignity is treasured.

At times, I wanted to hurry things along. It took five minutes to get a cup of tea. It was not because of the dozens of workers lining up for the tea at the dormitory canteen. It is because I asked for “teh c kosong” – tea without sugar.  All the prepared drinks here were super sweet.

At times, I wondered why a worker had to call me on a Friday or Saturday night. 

When the Apostle Peter wrote, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling”, I guess he knew that some of us do grumble. I grumbled now and then.

The Greek word for hospitality is φιλόξενος – philoxenos.

φίλος, philos, is a word to describe a friend and companion, even one of the bridegroom’s friends who, on his behalf, asks for the hand of the bride. 

ξένος, xenos, is the word for “a foreigner or a stranger”.

Put together, the words of Apostle Peter teach us to become a friend to a stranger.

The opposite would be xenophobia.

After a cricket session, one Bangladeshi worker told me with a very big smile: “I many many happy today.”

A close friend and companion means that I would be willing to do what my friend likes. Our teenagers enjoyed playing frisbee and basketball. The first workers that came down to the sports area were Myanmar workers. They played sepak takraw and were so good that we would have lost big-time even if we’d used our hands. 

The Bangladeshi men came – they headed directly to bowl and bat at the cricket corner. It was a sweet transformation to have our Singaporeans learn to play cricket under the watchful tutelage of the Bangladeshi men.

After a cricket session, one Bangladeshi worker told me with a very big smile: “I many many happy today.”

I asked him why he was so happy.

“Today, I play cricket. And I teach student to play cricket. I take photo and tell my family that I teacher.”

Philoxenos is about understanding what a “stranger” values and to discover that both of us are joyful when dignity is treasured. He was not just a construction worker or a grass cutter. He was a cricket coach. Biblical hospitality transforms us.

Me Migrant

That was almost six years ago. Kudos to the teens who travelled to these workers’ dormitories. One boy told me that his home was in Tampines and here we were in Kranji.

There were Saturdays when I did not want to go but for the eagerness of these teenage volunteers. They made the trips till COVID and Circuit Breaker curtailed our sports sessions. But the seeds of hospitality had been sown.

However, I still had to wait a long time for my tea in the crowded canteen. One Saturday, a Bangladeshi worker named Mukul sat with me and we had tea together. Fresh from our cricket experience, I asked Mukul about his interest and was surprised that he was not that crazy about cricket.

“What do you do in your free time?” I asked Mukul.

“I write poetry.”

I had to ask him a few times to make sure that I was hearing the right thing. Mukul did write poetry. Other than writing in his note books, he sometimes scribbled poems on the brown packaging paper of the cement packs. For once, I am glad that the tea took a long time to come.  

Migrant Poetry Evening organised by the students.

I found out that Mukul had compiled a book of poems, and that Singapore poets had appraised them as good poems, but he had no means to publish. I knew next to nothing about poetry but, when I read one, I knew that we had to raise the funds to help Mukul publish. 

Being a friend to a xenos brings stark challenges to my neat Singapore lifestyle.

A few months later, Me Migrant was published by Ethos Books (2016) and the first run sold out.  The book was featured in local as well as foreign newspapers. In a sad twist of events, Mukul lost his construction job and had to go back to Bangladesh.

Philoxenos is about listening and being there in happy and sad times. Hospitality is not entertaining clients or networking. Not every meal ends with a sweet dessert and not all plans end happily ever after.

Being a friend to a xenos brings stark challenges to my neat Singapore lifestyle. One Friday night, CK called me and said he hoped to meet on the weekend, as he needed advice.

The xenophobe in me wondered if CK wanted to borrow money or needed help to change jobs. CK travelled all the way from Jalan Kayu to meet me at Clementi on a Sunday evening. After a happy greeting, he told me that his older brother had suddenly passed away in Bangladesh.

A few moments of silence. Then CK asked me: “Dr Tan, should I go back to Bangladesh and marry my brother’s wife? If I don’t marry her then who will take care of her? And her baby.”

Learning the finer points of cricket.

CK and I would meet a few more times and he would ask me the same question, to which I had no answer. He was a young man with his own dreams and perhaps his own love.

One day, he called me and happily told me that he had made his decision and he thanked me for being an encouragement. Did I help him?  

Philoxenos has helped me to see the enormous magnanimity in a stranger‘s heart – and has taught me what it means to be a brother.

A simple philoxenos moment

It was a few weeks to Chinese New Year and construction had slowed down. The high school teens asked what the migrant workers liked to do during their break. There were not many options as we operated on a small budget. Then one worker mentioned that they, too, liked to volunteer.

Some of these workers had one Sunday off a month and here there were, volunteering.

Where could a group of migrant construction workers volunteer? Fast forward – the students and the workers together spruced up St Luke’s Hospital in Bukit Batok. The dormitory managers heard about the project and they stepped up to charter a bus for the workers. They also bought lunch for all and we enjoyed a meal together after watching them expertly clean, paint and tidy up.  

Another Sunday was spent decorating ang pows and greeting cards for long-staying hospital patients who had few visitors. The dorm manager again chartered the buses and bought lunch for all volunteers. Some of these workers had one Sunday off a month and here they were, volunteering.

What should biblical philoxenos look like in the post-pandemic months?

Sadly, many migrant workers will lose their jobs and have to go home. What will I put in a goodbye gift?

In years to come, perhaps a different category of workers may come to Singapore – how do we be salt and light so that our advocacy make for the removal of exorbitant agency fees and better employment terms? How will Christians support good employers and good dorm managers in their business?

In the interim, for workers remaining in Singapore, I dream of each Christian family inviting two workers home for a visit. No big buffets. No lavish food. Just a simple philoxenos moment.

Love covers a multitude of sin – including the silent ones of prejudice and xenophobia. Philoxenos is a discovery of God’s love.


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About the author

Dr Tan Lai Yong

Dr Tan Lai Yong became a Christian in 1974 through the Youth For Christ at Siglap Secondary School. He and his wife have been members at Bethesda Frankel Estate Church since becoming Christians as teenagers. They have two kids who are now in their 20s. Dr Tan and his family lived in Yunnan, China, from 1996-2010, working with poverty affected communities in villages. He now teaches at the NUS College of Alice and Peter Tan.