Singapore’s success would not have been possible without the women who keep it afloat by taking on the burdens of domestic care—not only mothers, but also the maids.
“If the maid is so difficult, why don’t we do without her? But the very idea seems unthinkable. We, the middle-class, depend on the maid so much that we can’t see how we can function without her.”
This excerpt sounds like it was lifted right out of a Facebook post, but it is actually in an article published in The Straits Times—nearly 40 years ago, on 3 October 1976.
Like a loom on which grand tapestries are weaved, the Singapore story today is dependent on the scaffolding of migrant labour—especially those of female migrant domestic workers, who have been travelling to Singapore to work since the mid-1960s.
Indonesian domestic worker Kasmini Saimun is one of these women. When we first met her, she was in the kitchen, presiding over a bubbling pot of creamy soup. Soft-spoken and petite, her hair greying at the temples, 50-year-old Kasmini has been in Singapore for 16 years, having worked with the Ong family since her first day in the city-state.
“My ma’am treats me like a sister,” she said, settling down at the family dining table in an airy Choa Chu Kang flat for a chat. “When there’s something, anything I can tell her. Then I don’t feel lonely, because even though I am far from my family, here I also get one. I mean, like—” She hesitated. “How to say, ma’am?”
May, her employer, was sitting across from her. Warm and welcoming, the Malaysian-born mother of two was quick to translate Kasmini’s next phrase, uttered in Bahasa Indonesia, into English.
“She feels like this is like her own house,” May said.
Indonesian domestic worker, Kasmini, with the Ongs in a family picture. Kasmini is on the extreme right in the back row. May is seated on the extreme left of the front row. Image Source: May Lee
The story of Kasmini, May and the Ong family is a narrative that could have unfolded in thousands of homes in Singapore over the past few decades. While it is clear that Kasmini and May are close, their tale is one of an intimate and complicated story of care—a long trek that is endless, uphill.
Live-in help is not new to Singapore. When Singapore was still under colonial rule, it was common for Cantonese women from China to migrate to Malaya to work as amahs. Local women—usually the wives and daughters of working-class men—were also often employed as part-time domestic workers during the colonial era, particularly for middle-class Indian and Chinese communities.
Yip Yew Chong’s mural of an amah, which is displayed along Everton Road. Image Source: Choo Yut Shing
After Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, the labour shortage in Singapore prompted the government to introduce the recruitment of foreign domestic workers. Reproductive labour—the raising of children, the maintenance and upkeep of a household, the work of making and moulding a family—is crucial to the functioning of a society, but it also tends to be undervalued and to fall disproportionately to women.
The government relaxed its immigration policies to encourage migrant women to take over Singaporean women’s domestic duties, hence easing Singapore women’s entry into the formal workforce.
Now, over 239,700 migrant domestic workers live and work in Singapore. One in every five households hires a domestic worker.
From cradle to grave
Sixteen years ago, Kasmini arrived in Singapore during a difficult time for May and her family. May’s father-in-law was in failing health following a stroke, and her two young children needed care, especially since May also held a fulltime job.
After May’s father-in-law passed away within Kasmini’s first year of working in Singapore, Kasmini focused on caring for May’s younger son instead. Diagnosed with asthma, the five-year-old boy often had trouble with activities that required physical exertion, and even clambering up a flight of stairs was a strain on his lungs.
“When I wasn’t at home, she would have to carry him six storeys up the stairs, even when he was in Primary Five, Primary Six,” May remembered. “She takes really good care of my children. She treats them as her own children. My boys, they treat her like a second mother.”
The Ong brothers celebrate Kasmini’s birthday. Image Source: May Lee
The close relationship between Kasmini and the boys continues today. They are protective of her: When hesitant discussions arose about Kasmini transferring to another family, they made it a point to say that they would have to screen every potential employer before giving her their blessings.
Now, aged 20 and 22 and completing their National Service, they see her only on weekends, and are beginning to entreat her to teach them how to cook.
“My younger boy’s Whatsapp photo is with Kasmini,” May laughed. “He is very close to her.”
Time is a double-edged sword. As the children grew up, their grandmother’s health receded. Over the past few years, the boys no longer needed as much attention; it was May’s mother-in-law’s deteriorating health that put a great deal of pressure on both May and Kasmini.
Diagnosed with severe dementia, it was difficult for May’s mother-in-law to find sleep. In the dead of night, she would wander around the home, often opening cupboard doors and flinging household objects to the ground. Kasmini would follow her, anxious that she might fall or hurt herself.
May and Kasmini had agreed to take shifts to care for the elderly woman, but, worried about May’s need to work the next day, Kasmini often chose not to wake her from sleep. Because May’s mother-in-law had also experienced two hip fractures, Kasmini also had to assist with daily activities such as carrying her into the toilet and helping her shower.
Kasmini and May’s mother-in-law. Image Source: May Lee
“It was very hard, very hard,” Kasmini recalled. Several times, the caregiver stress prompted her to consider giving up and returning home. However, fortified by May’s support and her closeness to the family, Kasmini persevered through two years of the trying work of eldercare, before May’s mother-in-law passed on at the age of 94.
“I am old already”
When Kasmini first arrived in Singapore sixteen years ago, she had one goal: to put her four children through school. Five years after she left Indonesia, her husband passed away, leaving her as the sole breadwinner for three daughters and one son.
“Now they are grown up,” said Kasmini. “My first and second daughter are married already. I have one granddaughter and one grandson.”
Advancements in technology have helped Kasmini to stay in touch with her children. “Last time, don’t have the Internet, I have to buy the phone card and call from there, because I want to ask them about their lives, I want to know what happened,” she said. Like many other women who migrate to Singapore for work, she was concerned about how her children were faring without her there to keep an eye on them.
“Thanks to the god, my children listen to me, they can understand,” she said. “Now there’s internet, I can message ‘how are you?’ Now they’re big already, don’t need to worry too much. They know their mother is working here, so sometimes only say, ‘I miss you’, ‘I love you.’ And then after that they ask, ‘when do you come back?’”
Kasmini was one of the winners at the Foreign Domestic Worker of the Year Awards in 2014. Image Source: Kerrie Wee
Kasmini wants to return home someday soon, but also wishes to work two or three years more to build up her savings, having spent most of her salary on her children’s education. After spending a third of her life in Singapore, and with her children grown, she is not sure what life holds for her back home in Indonesia.
“I am old already,” she said. “I also very tired. I want to go back home, and stay with my children… but maybe if I go home, maybe also I’m alone. If my ma’am need me, I can stay here. Until when, I don’t know.”
The Singapore story is a striking one: the steely metropolis rising up from uncultivated marshland, led by visionary men and women whose names will be emblazoned in textbooks and historical archives. But its success would have been impossible without those who cook, clean, and raise children at home—the silent partnerships, the twinned lives, of women from here, and women from elsewhere.
Written by: Kellynn Wee
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign