Of Maids and Monsters

Bernard Chung,
Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore

Sponging down the family car at the crack of dawn and preparing supper for their employers – all in a day’s work. Serving a gamut of roles from house-keeper to nanny to cook to even extra help in their employers’ businesses, the foreign maids here have become an indispensable feature of many Singaporean families. While technically employees, the level of trust reposed in them in their care of their young charges suggest that they deserve to be treated like more than mere employees, something they aren’t even in the eyes of the law (see below). That some people obsess over the state of their bank accounts more than their children (24 hour child-care centres) only reinforce their value to our economy and social fabric. In return for a salary (arguably a pittance relative to their contributions), many can go about their work, safe in the knowledge that their homes and children are cleaned, guarded and tended to.

Yet, the litany of barbarism against these maids ensues. I’m aghast at the news of employers starving, burning, molesting and beating their maids. Though not as revolted when I read of employers even biting off the nipples of their maids, pounding the maids head with a metal meat-tenderiser or scalding with hot irons. Some maids have chosen to leap to their deaths than to suffer further indignity. The last straw must be when one reads of an employer inflicting over 200 injuries to his 19 year old maid until she succumbed from his brutalities. The monster in that case, a Mr. Ng Hua Chye was sentenced to 18 years jail and 12 strokes of the cane; surely the miserly punishment is a travesty. One wonders what the outcome would be if he had inflicted similar treatment to a Singaporean. While the perpetrators of these crimes are deservedly behind bars, I cannot be certain that there aren’t others who continue to behave like tyrants over defenceless women whose only crime was to have to come here to work. Most of these foreign maids probably suffer in silence just to preserve their livelihood, hoping in vain for the conscience and humanity in the employers.

These cases must offend our conscience and make us wonder what kind of people were behind these atrocities.

It distressed me most to find out that the employers in these cases were more often than not “normal” people with respectable jobs and dispositions, without records of criminal activity or mental illness. Doctors, businessmen and executives are some of those who belong to this unsavoury class, attesting to the fact that these are seemingly decent Singaporeans of the typical variety. Most have teenage children yet thought little of abusing maids as young as their own children. Is it not chilling that we, meaning you or me or your relatives could be any of these beasts, as unlikely as it may appear? Even if most of us who have maids working for us have the benefit of morals to guide us, these might not be enough to prevent us from resorting to emotional violence such as personal insults and threats to send them home. Emotional violence is no less malevolent and has in some cases led to suicides. I doubt the need to remind you of the plight of these young women who willingly (or unwillingly) brave separation from their families, a foreign environment, exorbitant fees to agencies and now abuse.

Why then do some among us choose to flagrantly disregard these and along with them their humanity? I hesitate to impute any racist factors into the equation so my suspicions point to our relative affluence. (Compassion doesn’t give a 10 % annual return so why bother with it?) It creates an illusion of superiority and dominion over persons subordinate to us, in this case our maids. In fact, my own experience visiting some relatives and friends revealed that some maids are really at the absolute beck and call of their employers. Couple this with the fact that the maids are dependent on their bosses for their nourishment, shelter, rest and of course compassion. The level of authority over the servant can corrupt some to assume that since they hand over their hard-earned cash, the servant is to obey them absolutely. When one is used to such submission, any deviance will barely be tolerated.

The level of dependence of the maid and the presumption of superiority by the employers pervert the latter’s conscience. They deem it fair that since they cough up good money to accommodate the maid, they can discipline them. Starting with verbal insults that escalate to physical abuse, encouraged by the maid’s reluctance to report them, they become used to meting out “punishment” after a while. The root of their presumed superiority stems from their underlying belief that they are above their maids since they pay her and allow her to remit money to her family. They believe that the maid owes them everything, that they liberated her from the oppressive conditions in her maiden country. They also look down on these maids for being poor and so dependent. Especially with the specter of the recession looming and the necessity of care for their children, some employers take out their resentment and discontent on their maids. Some Singaporeans are just so used to getting their way with their purchasing power that maids are regarded as just another piece of property like the car or new plasma TV set, not as persons with integrity and dignity.

Some people posit that the cult of male superiority is allowed to thrive in maid-employer relationships, on the back of evidence that many abusers are male. I would like to refute these baseless averments since in most cases, the wives are privy or even accessory to their husbands’ actions, their passivity amounts to agreement. Yet, the fact is that these young women are very vulnerable to maltreatment and only legislation can protect them accordingly. Sadly, the Government reckons that criminal deterrents are sufficient protection for the maids. This can be reflected in its failure to amend the Employment Act to reflect the maids’ status as employees and to regulate working conditions. One wonders if the absence of any economic impetus or alarming labour shortage is the reason behind this (refer to the lifting of the quota on female doctors). Does this amount to acquiescence by the authorities of the attitudes towards foreign maids?

Perhaps we have a conscience after all. 25 people have rallied to the cause of the maids, among them lawyers, students, civil activists and lecturers. The Working Committee 2 aims to improve the lives of the maids and to do this it plans to educate the public by changing mindsets and attitudes. Just as we Singaporeans need to be taught courtesy, to speak our mother tongue, now that we have a conscience. The existence of a lobby might prod the State to act, I hope. Well, no matter what happens, it is encouraging to see that there are some among us who are willing to take up cudgels to address an injustice.

But is it too little too late? It has been said that “every generation learns from the mistakes of the last” but one wonders if our young will know better when we don’t point these out.

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