A Tale of Fear and Panic in Singapore

Ok, just to get it out of the way, this isn’t my story.  This is the maid’s story.  I thought it was worth sharing because it highlights a problem that’s unique to Asia.  For the sake of the story and her privacy we’ll call her Cookie.  Ok, here we go:

Cookie was at the mall with one of the boys she looks after.  They’d been having a good time at the arcade, but it was time to head home.  It was starting to get dark out and it was close to dinner time.  So, they walked down to the bus interchange and got in line.

While they were waiting in line, Cookie noticed that there was an old white guy in the line behind her.  He looked to be in his mid-50s, was bald with scraggly white hairs around the sides of his head and a he had a rough, unshaved look.  He also looked like he was smuggling a small pig in his shirt, the way his gut overhung his shorts.  In other words the guy was pretty gross looking all around.  Cookie didn’t pay him much attention, but every now and then she’d catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye.  He was watching her.

When the bus showed up, Cookie hurried herself and the boy onto it and they made their way to the center area, close to the exit door.  The old white guy got on the bus with her and sat down where he could see her.  During the short trip to her bus stop, Cookie noticed that the guy kept glancing over at her.  She was starting to get uncomfortable with it so she was glad when they were able to get off the bus.

As she started walking down the sidewalk she looked over her shoulder and saw that the old white guy had also exited the bus at that stop.  She started walking faster.  She looked over her shoulder again and saw that the old man had matched her pace.  She started walking even faster, but whenever she increased her pace so did the old man.

When she reached the bottom of the building where she lives she grabbed the boy’s hand and ran to the stairwell.  She took the stairs quickly and then dashed down the hallway to her door.  She could hear the old man running behind her, chasing her.  For an old fat guy he was pretty quick on his feet.

When she got to her door she started fumbling for the key and finally got it out of her bag but she was so nervous she couldn’t get it into the lock.  She heard steps approaching and knew the old man was right there, coming around the corner.  She finally got the key in the lock and looked over her shoulder and…

The old man was right there behind her.  She backed up against the door gate and asked him what he wanted.  He reached in his pocket and quickly pulled out…

A piece of paper.  With his phone number on it.  He handed it to her and left.

WTF?

Indonesian Maid Beaten To Death By Malaysian Employers

via Yahoo! News:

Hani was rescued from her employers’ home a week ago. She was found by another Indonesian cleaner hired to replace her who noticed a foul smell coming from a locked bathroom.

Police said that when she was found she was tied up around her arms and legs, and was bruised all over her body. Among her injuries were a serious wound to the right leg that exposed the bone.

Local papers reported Hani had been abused by her employers almost daily during the two months she worked at their home.

One of Asia’s largest importers of labour, Malaysia depends heavily on domestic workers, mainly from Indonesia, but has been criticised for not passing legislation to govern their rights and conditions.

In May, the government announced plans for new laws to protect domestic workers from sexual harassment, non-payment of wages and poor working conditions.

Indonesian maids typically work seven days a week for as little as 400 ringgit (113 dollars) a month.

I hadn’t had much exposure to the practice of having hired help in the home until moving to Singapore. It’s apparently a very common practice in Asia, which surprised me.  In the United States it would be nearly impossible for the average person to afford hired help, but in Asia even middle-income families can generally afford a maid.  The reason for that is that the wages paid to these domestic helpers is very small in comparison to ‘normal’ wages made in the country where they work.

From what I’ve seen in the admittedly short time I’ve been in Asia, people rely on their domestic helpers to care for their homes and even their children in some cases.  They work long hours, often 7 days per week depending on the employer.  So, why is it that there’s no legislation to protect them?  Why is it that they’re paid a wage that’s so small local children would reject it from a part-time job?

These women leave their homes in search of a better life and are often used as the butt of a joke, or abused, sometimes sexually.  Then there is the rare occasion where a domestic helper is beaten to death, or commits suicide.  It’s disgusting.

Sometimes it’s not possible for these women to pick up and leave and go back home.  How could they if they’re paid so little they can’t afford the ticket?  Or if their wages are being withheld?  Or if they’re locked in the house and not allowed out?

What Determines A Person’s Worth?

I was thinking about this question because of something that happened earlier today. I woke up briefly in the morning and I thought I heard the maid crying. I’m sick, though, so I rolled over and went back to sleep. Later, I found out that there had been a problem.

She had recently bought a laptop computer. It was her first so I had to give her a few pointers, and she seemed really excited by things like Yahoo! Messenger and Facebook. This morning, she was on Facebook chatting with someone she had met. Apparently the guy was really into her. Then she told him what she does as a profession.

In her own words, “…then he ridiculed me and rejected me like a dog.”

Is it really that serious? A woman brought to tears and rejected out of hand just because of what she does for a living? She’s a maid, not a prostitute.

Let me quote something I wrote just recently:

As another example, maids in Singapore are typically foreign laborers and it’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “You look like my Filipina maid”, with a voice full of derision and disrespect. While being a maid is by no means a glorious job, these women accepted an opportunity to better themselves by earning more money in a foreign country, far from their homes. To me, that shows a desire to progress and improve and is far from being a fault. Also, I’m not really clear what makes these people think that maids are inherently ugly, except that perhaps they associate profession with looks, class, and appeal. Or perhaps the average Singaporean equates attractiveness with the amount of a persons’ paycheck? I’d also like to highlight that this common saying emphasizes many Singaporeans’ real belief that they are better than foreign laborers, just because of where they’re from.

I really can’t express enough how disgusting and ridiculous this superior mentality is. A person’s value is not based on what job position they hold, or how many years they went to school. If you get along with someone, why shut them down just because of what job they hold? Our maid is one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever met. Ethnicity and education have nothing to do with that.

This is Singapore, not Nazi Germany. This country was built up by a collective of peoples from all over Asia and is today a fairly multicultural center. There are people from all over the world living in Singapore. So why is it there are still these ridiculous ideas that some people should be shunned based on where they’re from? A lot of Westerners would shun Singaporeans because they’re from Asia, and dismiss educational certificates because they’re from a second-rate country. Wouldn’t feel nice to be on the receiving end would it?

Also, just being born in an somewhat affluent country doesn’t mean you’re better than someone from a poorer country. It just doesn’t work that way. A difference in the value of a nation’s currency doesn’t indicate a difference in the value of the people. Singapore is just lucky. That’s all. The country is in a good location to make money from shipping, and the government instituted imported labor policies that allowed Singapore to become a wealthy nation. Imported labor. Ya, those same people that are being mocked and ridiculed are the people that made Singapore what it is.

I hadn’t planned on revisiting this topic, but after this fiasco with our maid, I had to speak up again.

The whole “We’re better than you because you’re not one of us” thing didn’t work for Nazi Germany. It didn’t work for Japan. It’s not going to work for Singapore either.