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My domestic helper left her family for 30 years to work for mine. She never got to start her own.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | March 2, 11:55 am

Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2018 edition of The Birthday Book.

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 53 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the complexity of the future roads we must take, as individuals, and as a nation.

“Willing hands, open hearts” is an essay contributed by Shaun Mathew, an aviation professional who has worked and volunteered in the arts and legal sectors.

Mathew’s essay is reproduced in full here:

By Shaun Mathew

Our domestic helper has been with our family for over 30 years.

She cooks the most delicious biryani, matenga (pumpkin) curry, and appams just as they make them in her home state of Kerala.

Could we have done more for her?

She has journeyed with us through the deaths, births and mélange of events that pepper life in any family. We are her family, especially since she never did start one of her own.

She left her hometown at a young age to seek a better future for herself and her family. In her mind that was the noblest of all endeavours, and she never entertained dreams of furthering her education or pursuing a career.

In spite of her contentment, I always wondered if our family could have done more for her.

We offered to sponsor classes for her to learn new skills, allowing her to move beyond working around the house and in the kitchen.

The disparity in treatment helpers in Singapore experience

We ask her if she’s happy; the answer is always a resounding yes. But others are not so fortunate.

Singapore’s households hum because of the sweat of the domestic workers who watch over our children, cook our meals, and tend to our aged parents.

We go about building our lives while theirs remain almost static.

Some are lucky and get to travel with their new families while leaving their families and children back in their home countries; others are paid low wages and are granted little time off, with privileges like handphones and trips home only once a year.

Many are referred to as “maids”, a term which barely masks the servile nature of their circumstances.

A different “class” of guests in Singapore

The privileges of life that we have come to expect as normal don’t seem to apply to the almost 600,000 foreign domestic workers and construction workers in Singapore.

Not all of Singapore is as openly accessible to them either; our helper feels uneasy whenever she does come out for meals with us as she is usually the only helper around who’s not actively tending to young children or the elderly.

There are furtive glances first at her, then at us as the people around us register her presence.

It is easy to see how enclaves like Geylang and Little India have become the de facto community spaces for these “classes” of foreign guests as they search for places where they can be accepted and enjoy the company of their friends.

Even the heartlands, where so many of these workers live save for their occasional days off, are not theirs to savour.

Leaving an impact on the family

Our helper, who is in her early 60s, will be returning to India next year (2019) as her work permit can no longer be renewed.

She’s in good health and desires to stay, but unfortunately we will have to say our goodbyes.

Her legacy isn’t one of towering achievements or grand projects, but having cared for no less than two aged grandparents, an aunt stricken with cancer, six children, the countless guests who have visited, and eight dogs.

In her place, another helper will be welcomed into our home and we will do all we can to love and care for her as a member of our family.

We will, over time, discover her dreams, understand her worries, and become friends. She will also eventually move on home, but it is my desire that she will do so equipped and empowered to serve her own family.

Rediscovering what it means to build family & country

The day may come when we can no longer afford to have such workers to do the jobs that we currently shun.

In many countries, this is already a reality and we will need to rediscover what it means for Singaporeans to look after and build their own families and country.

For now, our paths cross for a little while and it is my dream that we can build closer relationships with and come to treasure the oftentimes faceless and nameless helpers and workers in our midst.

If the Singapore story is one of hope and possibilities, then everyone has a part in creating this not just for themselves, but for all who pass through our thriving island on their journey of journeys.

If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has a new initiative, “The Birthday Workbook”, that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.

Top photo by Fasiha Nazren.

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