The Invisible People of Singapore: Racism Yet Again

It’s been quite a while since my last post on racism got passed around on Facebook. I wish I could say that my post made a huge difference in the world and we can all lock elbows and sing the kumbaya around the Merlion but who would have guessed, my one ramble didn’t dissolve structural racism. Who knew.

This week a Nancy Goh-esque figure tattled to the Straits Times in response to the new Indonesian policy on domestic workers. (Another Straits Times piece summarising the policy changes can be found here.) The changes are part of Indonesian president Joko Widodo’s effort to regulate and “professionalise” informal employment.


(This is Nancy Goh btw.)

Here are some of the changes:

  • Domestic workers should live separately from their employers in dormitories, and not in the employers’ homes.
  • They should work regular hours and be compensated for overtime work.
  • They should get rest days and public holidays off.

At this point you must be wondering

Hey I thought this was going to be about racism! Why suddenly talk about maid

Well, my friend, maids also happen to be humans, and they make up a significant proportion of the people currently living in Singapore, along with the men who literally lay the bricks for the foundation of our country. They don’t show up on surveys because we apparently don’t care enough to ask their opinion on anything. We impersonate them in comedy skits but we never hear their actual voices. Maids spend a large portion of their lives here, they raise your children, they cook the meals you come home to, they know the Singaporean neighbourhoods, they have favourite shirts and colours, they crack jokes and have hobbies and interests and friends and dreams and a personality. They’re people, and that should be reason enough for anybody to care. What I am incensed about, is that this statement will genuinely come as a surprise to many Singaporean employers.

Here is the Nancy Goh (real name Francis Cheng but I’m going to call this person Nancy Goh nonetheless) response:

“The Ministry of Manpower must consider the implications on employers of foreign domestic workers if Indonesia’s plan to introduce live-out maids becomes law (“Indonesia plans to stop sending new live-in maids abroad“; Wednesday, and “Live-out maids ‘will lead to more costs, issues’“; yesterday).

If maids live separately from their employers and work regular hours, with rest on public holidays and days off, and also get overtime entitlement, they should be covered under the Employment Act.

Employers should not be obliged to pay a security bond or sign a safety agreement because they won’t know and cannot control what the maids do when they leave the house after working hours.

The same argument holds for the purchase of medical and personal accident insurance, and the sending of maids for regular medical checks.

Would the monthly levy still apply and would employers have to bear the cost of sending the maid home?

If maids live elsewhere, the link between employers and maids is broken, without obligation.

If the maid works part time illegally elsewhere or compromises her safety and health after working hours, employers should not be penalised.

We must remember that live-in maids are required to not just take care of various household chores but also take care of children and the old and ailing. They are needed in case of emergencies.

A live-out maid will not serve the same purpose and may become a burden to employers with her other activities.

I have highlighted the parts I have a problem with. The letter started out by voicing reasonable concerns because it seems as if Nancy Goh wants to iron out some kinks in the local employment policies, such that they line up with Indonesia’s prerogative to regulate domestic work. But somewhere in the middle I got really uncomfortable and the ending sentence confirms my suspicions that this Nancy Goh person is whiny and just can’t stand a life without a servant at his/her beck and call. This doesn’t sound like a “since Indonesia is doing this let’s follow through to streamline our employment act” letter but more like a “boohoo where is my kitchen slave waahhh”.

 

In the first place, the usual working conditions are already unjust and maids are treated like they are subhuman.

Here’s a scenario: Let’s say a Singaporean Chinese girl called Hui Min is taking a gap year before she goes to uni. She wants to be a domestic worker for a year to earn money for her university fees. How would you treat this girl? Would you be angry if she went out on the weekends? What if she had access to her own passport and private smartphone? What if you saw her dating someone on her time off? Would you get all riled up and demand you get your money’s worth? NO RIGHT?

Because what she does in her personal life is her own daiji. If she gets pregnant and quits her job then it sucks for you because you expected her to work a full year, but even then you wouldn’t take it upon yourself to police what she does in her free time with her own body. It’s just not your place as an employer. It’s common sense, it’s keeping out of someone’s private business. It’s one of those things where it sucks to be you, the employer, but very clearly you still shouldn’t do anything preposterous or feel entitled to control your employee. Imagine if your own boss got angry at you for having a significant other. “Dammit, you have a fiancé?! Now how are you going to do your excel sheets! I’m paying you good money for this! I will send you back to Serangoon!”

Working conditions were bad to begin with, and Indonesia is now rectifying the problem. It’s not like they had decent arrangements and now Joko Widodo wants to provide every maid with a lounge chair and a servant to fan them with peacock feathers. It’s that they were treated like cattle, and now they will be treated like regular workers.

 

We don’t care about domestic workers or Bangladeshi construction workers because they’re not “Singaporean”.

They’re not only seen as outsiders, but they’re always seen as lowly maids and “bangalahs” and nothing else. In our minds they don’t exist outside of mopping floors and carrying planks. They could be laying in the grass enjoying an al fresco meal but we’ll see them as unruly sexual predators who are a danger to every (Singaporean, mostly Chinese) woman in the vicinity. They could be having a day out with their friends at the mall but we see a stretch of cheap maids and loose women outside Lucky Plaza. It’s the “bangalahs” doing their “bangalah” things and the maids doing their maid things. Everything they do is somehow lower, somehow a bigger disruption in our sterile streets. They do literal back-breaking work and this is the thanks they get? They get shooed out of stores and glared at in public, that is, if they’re lucky enough for their employers to let them have weekends off. (Apparently some poetic geniuses interpret the Sunday rest day rule as letting their maid stay at home without doing strenuous chores.)

No, I don’t think they are any more unruly than we are, and I don’t think our xenophobia is justified. Our country seems to have the propensity of creating parang-wielding ah bengs, and there’s probably one terrorizing your neighbourhood basketball court right now. Also, just recently some crazy Japanese dude slapped three police officers, but we don’t think of Japanese people as hooligans. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be vigilant citizens or whatever, only that now it seems like migrant workers are guilty until proven innocent. We already think lowly of them, even if they’re just sitting in the grass.

 

You can’t treat other people like shit even if you are disadvantaged.

Even if you get the short end of a stick in a deal and your expectations can no longer be met, you cannot compromise on treating someone decently. If I pay a handphone shop ah beng to change my handphone screen protector and he does a shoddy job, I can complain to my friends, and never return to the shop ever again. What I cannot do is hit him on the head until he replaces it again. Ok that’s a bad analogy.

Ok how about if someone is a private tutor, and in a world tailored for you and your son, you would like the tutor to be at your house 24/7 to answer questions. It’s inconvenient for you to not have access to his services around the clock, because your son does homework throughout the day and he might have a lot of questions. But so? If the service is unavailable, it’s unavailable. Don’t exploit people just because it will disadvantage you otherwise. It’ll be good if doctors could stay in your house to care for the elderly in your home, but if you can’t afford this service, and you can’t provide the doctor with comfortable living conditions, then you are not entitled to this treatment. The doctor has his own family or personal interests, he would like time away from work. It’s the same with other people, like domestic workers.

 

“The rich can exploit the poor, because beggars can’t be choosers.”

You might not think yourself particularly wealthy. But if you’re middle-income in Singapore, you’re pretty much a rich ass in most parts of the world. You own a computer, you’re educated, you sleep on a bed at night and you have clean running water. The way society runs in Singapore, is that we get to keep our lifestyles going because we have poorer people from other countries to do the dirty work. The reason why there’s probably no real life Hui Min to do domestic work, is because no Singaporean in their right mind would go into this knowing the conditions. It’s just not worth the money. But for some people, they really need the cash, and we milk as much out of them as possible by seeing how low they can go, and how far they can bend over. If you think you can make people do whatever you want just because you have the money they desperately need, then you’re a bully.

Wake up, and stop treating your maids like they’re your property.

 

 

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One thought on “The Invisible People of Singapore: Racism Yet Again

  1. Hey Nat, great article as usual. I wanted to point out one of your gripes against Francis/Nancy. I think that some employers of maids/helpers are not too keen on this policy because Singaporean employers are required to pay a “bond” for their maids/helpers i.e. If they run away from home with their boyfriends they meet at Lucky Plaza, get injured working extra jobs outside, or get pregnant, the employers are liable and have to pay the maid agencies.

    P.S. Please correct me if I’m wrong; I’m not too familiar with all maid-related policies since I don’t have one. 🙂

    Like

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