03 March 2007

When You Have No Shoes

I have blogged about a Chinese national working in our office canteen before (here). This article is about another very large group of foreign workers in Singapore - domestic workers.

The some 140,000 foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Singapore are mainly from Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Others are from Malaysia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In August 2003, Indonesia's Tempo Weekly Magazine interviewed Dr Ng Eng Hen, then Acting Minister for Manpower (currently Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Defence). The subject of the interview was mainly about FDWs in Singapore, steps taken to protect their rights and the prevention of maid abuse. However, the interview did not mention anything about how to protect employers from their errant maids. (New measures were introduced in October 2006 to assist FDWs and their employers.)

We can all sympathize with the plight of FDWs in Singapore. Most of them come from really poor families in not-so-rich countries. Some of them are quite highly educated. Don't be surprised if you find that some of them are even university graduates. One thing in common about them is that they are all here to work and earn a better salary than they could ever have achieved back home. In doing so, they leave behind their loved ones in their home countries for a long time. They come to a faraway and unfamiliar land called Singapore. We can understand why some of them can't really help feeling homesick, depressed and even suicidal sometimes. More so if they are not treated humanely by their employers. Even worse when they are physically or emotionally abused.

Yes, we are familiar with horror stories on how some maids were beaten, scalded with boiling water, burnt with hot irons, made to eat dog shit and even kicked to death. Yet equally often, we also hear frightening stories on how some maids stole, prostituted themselves and not only robbed and killed their employers but also their own kind time and again.

I don't have to tell you why I don't have a maid at home. Besides wanting to avoid all the possible problems that I mentioned above, I treasure my privacy. Not that I like walking around my house naked but it just wouldn't feel the same when there is a non-family member within the house. However, I do see a few families in my block who employ maids. They are employed to look after the elderly and the young as well as to do household chores. Sometimes, I also see them washing the family car in the open air car park.

One Sunday afternoon several weeks ago, I was waiting at the ground floor lift lobby to return to my 9th-storey humble HDB abode. When the lift arrived, an Indonesian-looking girl in her early 20s went into the lift with me. I noticed that the girl had no shoes on. Half curious and half friendly, I started the following conversation with her:

Me: Are you used to walking around like that?

Girl (blushing): No, my shoes spoilt.

Me: Oh, then why didn't you buy a pair at the market. You can get a pair of slippers for about $2 only.

Girl (blushing even more): No bring money.

Me: Oh I see. Are you from Indonesia?

Girl: Yes.

Me: Which part?


Me: Is that in Sumatra?

Girl: No, Java Tengah (= Central Java).

Me (blushing at my ignorance of Indonesia's geography): Oh I see. So you work for a family here?

Girl: Ya, a Malay family on the 11th floor.

Me: Ah, that's good. They can understand what you say.

At that point, we both reached the 10th floor where the lift stopped.

Me: See you again.

Girl: Bye.

For a moment there, I thought I discovered yet another case of maid abuse.


Anonymous said...

Oh man.. reminds me of my mum.. dun even wan to spend $3 on a pair of shoes... sigh..and i am spending like $30 on one... but i no choice, my feet size too big, and big things = expensive. dammit.


Unknown said...

Sigh.... I guess its an inavoidable lesser of two evil to have a maid. When your kids are young (like my 3-year old) and both you and your wife's work is hectic, the last thing you want to do is tangle around with the housework. Taking care of my son alone takes a lot of energy, time and patience - something which I increasingly lack nowadays. The real problem why couples are not having kids in Singapore is not really the financial portion but the lack of time and energy. This is why I am stopping at one.

Chris Sim said...

Cool insider
I used to have the same kinda thinking about having kids. Parenthood is time-consuming, we have no time and energy for other things else. Both my wife and I wanted to stop at one (for many selfish and personal reasons), and despite many kaypohs around us telling us that a single child will grow up lonely and selfish, we stood our ground for 6 years. Then one day, my boy, who was 5 at that time, out of nowhere quipped: "What's going to happen to me when both of you are gone?" That really jolted us out of our blissful threesome life. It's true, kids with siblings would be apple to draw emotiona support from one another in time of needs. But dun let what I wrote influence you. Affairs like these are very personal, and you juz do what's best for you, your wife and kid. I dun have a maid. I chose to live near my mum, the daytime caregiver of my kids.

Tsk..tsk...tsk.. Never missed a chance to chat up anyone with coconuts on the upper torso hor? Sure you were not having other design in your mind when you asked her why she wasn't wearing any shoes? Shame on you. Having said this, I'm one of those who also cannot have maid at home one. The Slim Lady cannot tolerate another "housewife" at home. Good also, or I'm sure her foto would be splashed across our papers for maid abuse. Sure will happen one. Hehehehe..

Chris Sim said...

Surely you meant "old man" instead of "oh man", right? LOL

Oh, btw, what BIG FEET you have. 大脚仙!哈哈!But the tiles look more interesting leh. Hahahaha...

Victor said...

GNE - Got $3 shoes one meh? Where to get? LOL. $30 shoes are not considered expensive lah. Maybe $300 ones lah. And I thought shoes of the same pattern are all of one price, regardless of whether they are of size 3 or size 13?

I also never kena Toto. Never mind, still got next year. If you can't wait, then go buy again on Monday lor.

Victor said...

Walter - No need to explain why you have a maid lah. Although I linked your post about the maid who stole, my comments here are not directed at you. I understand that every family has valid reasons for employing a maid, just like everyone has their own reasons for not having more kids. But don't say so soon, accidents do happen and minds can change.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel - news just released showed that over the last 2 years, our fertility rate showed a marginal increase from the dismal 1.25 in 2004. Maybe the baby bonus is really working.

Victor said...

Chris - I bet your Senior Junior is now asking, "When can I have my freedom? When both of you are gone?" LOL.

Don't be always so suspicious of people. Although I admit that I love coconut juice, I don't have any ulterior motives when I spoke to that young girl, okay? In fact, if she had said, "No money" instead of "No bring money", I would have gladly given her $2 to buy a pair of slippers.

Victor said...

Chris said: "...what BIG FEET you have.".

All the better to trample on you with, my dear Chris.

Chris Sim said...

They look slightly "deformed", too. hahaha..

Lam Chun See said...

Victor, your story doesn't seem complete. So why isn't she wearing shoes. You mean the boss so kiam siap and wouldn't buy her a pair of slippers? Hard to believe leh. Why not do some investigative reporting and let us have part 2.

Our present maid quite happy. Just signed a 3rd 2-year term with us. That means about 1/4 of her life will be spent here at our home! Probably the prime of her years too. Big sacrifice she has to make don't you think?

Our neighbour's (the one who gives us lots of makan in CNY) maid (also Indon) is always so happy - singing, laughing very loud. I often wanted to ask her what's her secret but afraid of being misunderstood.

Victor said...

Aiyah Chun See, you're speed reading again. I mentioned that she was barefooted in the lift heading for home when she said, "...my shoes spoilt."

I assumed that one of her shoes/slippers gave way when she went out and she threw the other one away as well. I didn't dare to ask her some more as I also afraid of being misunderstood.

Anonymous said...

LCS: I think spending the prime years of her life here is a big sacrifice. When she returns home she might find it difficult to get married and have her own family.

Vic: like you said she threw away the spoilt one and went back, probably to wear another pair

Anonymous said...

I think I have employed more maids than I can count, or rather the "Madam" has. We were one of the pioneer batch of maid employers in the 1980s. At that time, we had Filipina maids. The interesting thing was you could phsycially select your maid because they bought themselves a passage to Singapore, not like today where one views biodats (anyway you believe an illiterate can write and describe herself so fabulously well?). At that time we wnated our son to be brought up in a 100% English speaking environment and the Filipinas are noted for their good English pronounciation. BTW I rather take an good looking maid than a "innocent" maid in crummy clothes (if I wanted differentiate our social class). Think of it when you walk into town or supermarket with your family and the maid. You don't want eyes to stare at you because you got such terribly dressed maids do you?

We (husband & wife both working) were not freed from problems too - like maid prostituting themselves, no chemistry between "Madam" and maid, maid advertizing themselves to get husbands in penpal magazines, maids running to the embassy and demanding compensation, maid taking-cover whilst on duty, maids totally afraid of men (later found to be a lesbian), maid who could work but cannot agree with "Madam" (so did not want to extend contract), maid who borrowed money from friends and finally after she left we found Ah Longs coming to our house....you name it we experienced it.

So it all boils down to luck man and how the "Sir" makes a good judgement call on domestic issues or be observant about the maid. How many of "Sirs" listen to one side of the story (their wives) and not the maids?

When the children are young, maids become "step mothers" in some ways but when they are teenagers, they should be independent of maids, and maids need to do doemstic chores rather than baby-sitting.

I have seen maids perform duties
like washing cars. I find in Singapore car owners seldom wash or clean their cars but leave the task to maids. I wonder why? I prefer to wash/clean my car because it is a healthy exercise and not degrading (if your landed neighbour sees you doing it). I have seen Lexus, Mercedes, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Kia and Hyundai owners never wash their cars; more so especially among women drivers.

What I find challenging is to try out new dishes and supervising the maid. I practise "Monkey See and Monkey Do" philosophy. If the maid is able to see my standard, then I am blessed with good menus each day. No wonder my maids need to slim down when they go home. They tell me they dont want their husbands to see they have become fat or secretly "makan babi".

Victor said...

Frannxis - Yes, that's yet another restriction for FDWs working in S'pore, i.e. they are strongly discouraged from getting boyfriends here because they may get pregnant and be sent home while their employers lose their security deposits.

Peter - Woah, yet another masterpiece. Thanks for sharing that very interesting story and your personal experiences with maids.

I can see that you are more than qualified to start your own blog. (Your comment is longer than my article and more interesting some more.) So how? Hehe.

Anonymous said...

Victor: I wish I got skills (talents??) to start a blog. Maybe I like to write about my experiences with maids - the fun, the downside, upside, etc.

eastcoastlife said...

Victor arh,
What ugly feet you have! But luckily you have the foresight not to put up the photo of your coconut-sized balls! hahaha........

Victor said...

Jayne - Ugly they may be but I am proud of my feet. As for coconuts, I am proud of them too but I didn't put up any photo of them because my camera lens' wide-angle is not wide-angled enough. LOL.