The Burmese community in Ngee Ann is 200-strong, and growing. Jeremy Boo finds out more about their community and how they live
For 20-year-old Tint Htoo Aung, home is a rented Bukit Panjang flat shared with five other Burmese friends.
It is past 11 pm and the second-year Mechatronic Engineering student has just reached home after his part-time cashiering job.
The Myanmar national is one of 7,000 Burmese who have come to Singapore to study, according to The Straits Times (ST) on Oct. 11.
In their four-room apartment, handwritten signs in Burmese remind them to switch off the lights.
Beneath a portrait of the Buddha, free weights rest near the doorway where sneakers fan out untidily. A small coffee table, a sofa, and television set fit snugly in the living room.
Htoo’s speciality is soup. He prepares traditional Burmese fish soup with ingredients his mother had sent him from Myanmar, while his classmate Htet San Wai fries corn.
At 21, “Grandpa” San Wai is the oldest and handles rental and billing issues.
Most of them come from Yangon, Myanmar. The six met each other when they arrived in school here more than two years ago.
They have been sharing this apartment for about a year to keep expenses low.
By midnight, supper is ready. Dishes are laid out on a table that doubles up as a study desk.
Burmese bond in NP
According to the president of Ngee Ann Polytechnic Myanmar (NPMM) President Zayar Min, there are about 200 Burmese students in the polytechnic, many of whom are members.
NPMM is a student-initiated group that encourages social bonding among Burmese students.
The ST report also said middle-class families in Myanmar are taking out all they have to send their children to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to study.
Two decades ago, the military government divided major universities into smaller schools across the nation when students protested against them.
The revolution, which happened on Aug. 8, 1988, is known as the 8888 Uprising.
Rangoon University, once the most prestigious university in Southeast Asia throughout the 1940s and 1950s, now lies in tatters.
“The junta wants people to be uneducated,” says Owain, 18, a second-year Business Process and Quality Engineering student, who declines to disclose his Burmese name for fear of reprisals against his family.
“I feel sad thinking about my country,” says NPMM Vice-president Zayar Phyo Kelvin, 20.
He was born two months after the 8888 Uprising.
While they were rushing his mother to the hospital just before he was born, his family had to tie a white cloth on the ambulance to show that they were not involved.
‘Anything but politics’
Parents tell their children that they can do anything when they are in Singapore, but they must not engage in politics.
On the issue of Burmese dissidents, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said in a written response in Parliament that the government “has rightly decided that such persons are undesirable and that they should leave.”
The Burmese students also fear repercussions for speaking out against their own government in Singapore.
“If we do anything political here, we cannot go back to Myanmar and our families will suffer,” says Kyaw Waiyan Htet, 19, a Civil & Environmental Engineering student.
According to an online media release by Singapore-based political activist group Overseas Burmese Patriots, a part-time polytechnic student had to leave Singapore in August because his visas were not renewed.
Burmese students in the polytechnic say that they have no intention of joining any political activist group.
“Every Burmese person is not happy with the government. This is something we have in common,” says Life Sciences & Chemical Technology lecturer Ms Swe Swe Min, “But we must be sensitive to our host country. We should be mindful when we express our opinion about our government.”
Despite current circumstances, many Burmese people have a very strong sense of belonging and community, she says.
They still hope of returning to a peaceful and free Myanmar.
“I keep my hope for that day the military steps down. It will happen in 10, if not 20 years,” says Waiyan.
Soe Thet San, 20, an Electronic & Computer Engineering graduate who was top student in her course, plans to either work in the public health or education sector, or set up a non-governmental organisation when she returns to Myanmar.
Until then, the 2008 Golden Graduate award winner says, “I need, I must do well to get out of this darkness.”
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