Don’t let the system get you down: academic success vs. policy impact

Life in Singapore went like clockwork.

People moved through the bustling city caught up in their own expensive lifestyles. Migrant domestic workers floated like shadows in private spaces holding together this affluent régime.

Living in an advanced and developed country like Singapore, it is possible to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and lose sight of what is happening around you. Sri Ranjini Mei Hua’s interest in humanities and her experience living abroad, along with her multi-cultural background, made her notice all the foreign workers around her. Ranjini knew what it meant to be a foreigner. She soon found out that many of these families did not even receive a minimum wage. It also came to her notice, that because migrant domestic workers lived within a private space (unlike other migrant workers), they worked 24/7 without a single day off.

Ranjini was moved.

Sri Ranjini Mei Hua

At this point Ranjini was working at Singapore Internet Research Centre, and while she was doing research for the company, she decided it was time to do something of her own. She wanted to explore how migrant workers sustained themselves and accessed social support in Singapore, one of the most expensive cities to live in. Knowing that her organization would only support an ICT-centered perspective of the issue, she “kinda married the two things”.

Ranjini focused on how migrant domestic workers used smartphones as a portal to access the outside world. Her proposal was approved, Ranjini got the grant to fund her research and finally submitted a research paper on “Social support through ICTs for migrant workers in Singapore” for publication.

After two long years, the paper was finally published. Between the submission and the publication, Ranjini lost faith in the academic system.

“The whole industry around academics is a little flawed, its metric is based on much you publish”.

She recognized that academics was more about personal “growth” and less about influencing. Discouraged over how academics reward intellectuals and researchers with no real-life influence, Ranjini sought a different platform. She realized what she needed was something that would reach the press quickly, and she resorted to opinion editorials.

Without any direct contact, Ranjini took a wild swing when she sent her first article, more as a concerned citizen and less as an academic. When they published her first article, Ranjini was surprised, she laughs saying “maybe people were sending in worse articles”. With time editorials began to recognize Ranjini due to her frequent submissions.

But change wasn’t easy, articles were written but things never changed. Ranjini recalls:

“I was young and impatient and wanted to change things… wanted things to improve in terms of social policy.”

However, with time she learnt that writing to make change entails understanding what intimidates people, what moves them, reasons for resisting change, and most importantly putting yourself in their shoes.

It was around that time that a regulation was passed stating that the employer should not withhold the smartphone of the migrant domestic worker. But despite this regulation it was impossible to monitor the happenings within domestic spaces, and certain employers continued to withhold their employee’s smartphone. With the regulations and frequent articles, Indonesia and Philippines declared that if their citizens were not treated well, they would stop sending workers to Singapore. Over time Ranjini has published different articles in numerous journals/newspapers including Bangkok Post, South China Morning Post, and Jakarta Post.

In 2012 Ranjini chanced upon the CPRsouth conference and decided to send in a research paper. Singapore did not have the infrastructural issues and ICT dilemmas the other participants talked about. It was a small manageable country with “more phones than people”. To Ranjini this was all very new. It provided her with a channel to present issues in the region and collaborate with fellow researchers. After the 2012 CPRsouth conference she collaborated with Ibrahim Rohman, a participant from Indonesia, on an article about e-governance in Indonesia. In July 2015 it was published in The Jakarta Post.

Ranjini is currently a consumer insights and advisory manager in a private organization. At one point in life she believed that she needed to work in the social sector in order to influence and to create an impact. She no longer retains the beliefs of her younger self. Ranjini knows that despite working in the private sector she can still contribute to the policy decisions through social media and the press. She now works on research projects without organizational backing, often creating her own fundraisers, sometimes with NGOs or on her own as a Yoga instructor. She continues her struggle, to fight for the rights of women and marginalized communities.

“At the end of the day I’m not writing for my name. I’m writing for a collective voice of a marginalized group”.

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