Review: Not Here (2019)


Not Here: Human trafficking in the little red dot



C/W: Movie contains details of physical torture

Not Here, a local 30-min documentary which was released last month at The Projector and is now available on YouTube, discusses human trafficking in Singapore.


The film starts with a narrator stating how Singapore presents itself as a “near-perfect” country, as it’s orderly, clean, and fast-paced. It digs deep into the crevice of our worker exploitation system. Most of the workers featured here are migrant construction workers or those who arrived as domestic workers. The tales of emotional blackmail and physical torture are already enough to make you tear.


‘Mary’ (not her real name) was physically tortured by her family and also punished as though she lived in incarceration through methods of beating with objects, or whacking, or even making her dunk her hands in the toilet with bleach. Mary’s case is not an isolated case and she is one among many exploited domestic workers. This segment, being the first, provokes us to think about how we treat our domestic workers. Would we really go to such extreme means of torture to get our way?


The focus then shifts to our construction workers. Abdul (not his real name) has also been exploited by his employer. For Abdul, it was through means of emotional blackmail if he whistleblew about his injury and he was also coerced into lying about his injury. There are many cases which go undocumented of construction workers in Singapore being exploited or living in poor conditions. People are usually just going to tell you, "They clean your roads, toilets, and build your buildings because you don't want to". Abdul's story hopefully serves as a reminder about such awful practices by cruel employers. 


The next survivor we are introduced to came to Singapore and got more than what they bargained for. Iriana (not her real name) talks about being told that she had to carry out some responsibilities in Geylang, only realising later that It was sex work. This caused psychological trauma for Iriana. 




While the stories in the film were all very chilling, the offshore fishermen story was the most chilling. In this story, Reverend Father Romeo Yu Chang, a Port Chaplain expresses that these men who are sent offshore are unable to be protected by the law, and some succumb to suicide when overworked. It was a shame that a ‘survivor’ from this segment was not featured. But a consolation to that was Shelly Thio from TWC2 who explained in great detail why these men suffer inevitably.

The documentary took great care in censoring the workers' faces and even changing names if they found it necessary. The importance of Not Here should not go unnoticed, and they were also fair in giving nods to changes in legislations when some were made for the rights of workers, even if they came late or only could relieve a little of the exploitation these workers faced.

If the documentary were longer, it could have delved into living conditions of foreign workers and the struggle for affordable healthcare, as they do not have enough purchasing power and also live in crammed spaces most of the time. This is usually swept under the rug as well. 

Not Here serves an important purpose in a country afraid to talk about worker exploitation and the consequences that these migrant workers are suffering due to exploitative practices from employers because it's more focused on the “If locals do not do these jobs, nobody will” narrative. Another film, released around the same time, A Land Imagined, also touches on worker exploitation (albeit with fictional characters). But will this be another elephant in the room for human rights in Singapore? Can we, a society that prides ourselves on “prosperity and progress” be willing to acknowledge that this is happening under our noses, and also be allowed to endorse whistleblowing for such practises? Only then can we proudly show people how Singapore appears so polished.

Watch the documentary below:


Written by Varun Naidu

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