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Shivaji Das

Shivaji Das

Management consultant, author, humanitarian
10/06/2017 - 05:50

SHIVAJI Das is an inspiration to any white-collar executive looking to balance his or her professional life with humanitarian work and artistic pursuit. He is a partner at American management consultancy Frost & Sullivan, where he is the head of consulting (Asia-Pacific) and global head (public sector & government practice). His days are filled with non-stop meetings, conferences, phone calls, e-mail and frequent travel to far-flung places. But he still finds time to organise cultural events and workshops for migrant workers and refugees in Singapore and Malaysia. He's responsible for initiating the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition which, in its last iteration, received poems written by construction workers, domestic helpers, and other migrant workers in Bengali, Tamil, Mandarin, Tagalog, Bahasa Indonesia, Cebuano and English.

On top of it all, he is an author of three books, the latest one titled Angels By The Murky River: Travels Off The Beaten Path, which highlights stories of lesser-known communities around the world. They include renunciant monks in Singapore, female boxers in the Philippines and farmers-turned-painters in Morocco and China. He has been published in TIME, Asian Geographic, Jakarta Post and other renowned titles. Together with his wife Yolanda Yu, he also takes travel photographs and exhibits them in the US, Malaysia and Singapore.

Given your role in Frost & Sullivan, where do you find the time to write and publish books?

I do have tremendous responsibilities at work, and things can get pretty intense during the day. Because of the many projects Frost & Sullivan carries out around the world, there's a lot of travelling involved. But that's actually when I find a pocket of time to visit lesser-known communities and write about them. Much of my writing is about people on the fringes who are not often talked or written about. I hope that through my stories, I can show their humanity and give them a voice. I have a strict routine: I must write at least 300 words a day within 30 to 45 minutes. So I often find myself doing that in airport lounges, long flights, or before I sleep.

You came up with the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition in 2014, which has gotten significant coverage and has since expanded to Malaysia. How did it come about?

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I was volunteering with Transient Workers Count Too (or TWC2), a non-profit organisation that promotes equitable treatment for migrant workers in Singapore. Its Cuff Road Project that serves food to migrant workers is located near the drop-in centre Dibashram, where a group of foreign workers often come together and share poetry they'd read or written. After interacting with them, I realised that few people outside of this community knew of their talents. I thought that if we organised a contest, it could energise the community and give them the right exposure. In the first year that we organised it, we only managed to reach out to Bangladeshi workers. But by the second year, we were able to get more non-profit organisations to send the word out. The number of entries rose from 28 to above 70, with entries in Tamil, Chinese, Bahasa, Tagalog, and many other languages. We are still trying to reach out to other communities such as bus drivers and sex workers, but we've been unsuccessful. Sex workers, for one, usually don't stay here for very long. But as the competition grows, so have the logistical challenges such as translation. The competition in Malaysia in now entering its third year and it's open to refugees as well, so we're getting submissions in Persian, Urdu and various Myanmar languages. It's hard trying to find good translators who can capture the beauty of the poems; it's our biggest headache.

How does Frost & Sullivan support your volunteer work? And do you think corporations in general do enough for social causes?

I don't ask for donations at my workplace. My personal view is that it's up to individual employees to donate to whichever cause they feel strongly about. Frost & Sullivan has been supportive in small ways, such as sponsoring a training room on Sundays when I can't find a space for something, or providing drinks for certain events. To me, a corporation is there to carry out its core businesses well and generate profits for its employees and shareholders. They are also committed to carrying out their work legally and ethically. But when it comes to charity work or social responsibilities, I don't think corporations have an obligation. Instead, they should let the individual decide how they want to allocate their personal time and money. Corporations are not necessarily the best at identifying causes and supporting them. Those things are best left to NGOs.

As someone who commits so much of his time to raising the voices of fringe communities, what drives you?

I'm deeply troubled by the rise of nationalism, populism and patriotism around the world. I see it happening not just in America and Europe, but also in Indonesia, China where my wife is from, India where I'm originally from, and even the Philippines, which used to be more cohesive. When I was a student in India, the hostel communities were divided into Northern and Southern Indians, and within the latter, Tamil and Telugu speakers, and within those divisions, Brahmins and non-Brahmins, and more. I learnt how important it is not to fall into specific alignments such that you stop hearing the voice of the other side. And that's why I dedicate my time to telling stories of the Other.

Shivaji Das's book Angels By The Murky River: Travels Off The Beaten Path is available at Kinokuniya and Books Actually.