Is Singapore really so civilized? New policies on domestic workers make me wonder.

Sanne van Oosten

Singapore, the country of clean streets, drinking water out of the tap, efficient public transport, jaw-dropping architecture, all the technology you can think of and brilliantly thought-out museums. It almost seems as the height of civilization. Ah, civilization, how much I’ve missed you. But, right after we arrived in Singapore I was quickly reminded that this civilization comes with some pretty icky implications, which made me wonder, how civilized is Singapore anyway?

When seeing a headline in The Straits Times on changes to “Indonesian maid policies”, I had expected the article to be about changes being made to better the situation of the domestic workers who move to Singapore. How wrong I was. The new policies were aimed at reducing risks for employers who take on an Indonesian maid. Only once was the wellbeing of the maids mentioned, in passing.

It did, however, mention the risks the employers were taking at length. “The [current] system has been criticized by employers who have had to terminate the contract with their maid early, and ended up in dispute with the maid agency over the refund of the placement fee. The new system will remove these risks…” Great, I’ve always been so worried about the risks the employers were taking. Of course the maids aren’t taking any risks in moving to another country, working around the clock for ridiculously low pay, while living in the household of their employers, being subject the sexual assault and having hardly any friends or people they can really trust anywhere around them. Nope, no risk at all…

The quote continues: “…and also lessen the financial burden on employers who have problems forking out [!] the placement fees upfront.” Oh lordy, what a burden! Poor poor employers, having to pay all that money so someone can do their laundry and clean their floor. I mean, you can’t expect someone with money to do that themselves right? The placement fees amount to about S$ 3,000 according to the article. So here’s an idea: if the employer can’t “fork out” the fees up front, why don’t they just take care of their own household and clean up after themselves?

Let’s not talk about the financial burden the maids are taking. Or, actually… why don’t we? In the old system the employers were taking the risk of paying for the “placement” and training of their maids. In the new system, the maids are forced to take a loan with the bank and pay the bank back in installments. This means that the risk is being moved from the employers to the maid herself. If the contact between maid and employer is terminated early, she is the one with the loan hanging over her head. So apart from being the one migrating and leaving everything behind, a large enough risk as it is, she is the one carrying the financial risks as well.

Exploitation of maids is not only institutionalized through legal maid agencies, but it is actually set in stone. Let me explain. Our friend we stayed with in Singapore lived in a nice, typical Singaporean apartment. Just off the kitchen is a small storage room next to an even smaller room with a hose and a squat toilet. She uses this storage room as such, but this tiny room is actually meant to house the maid of the household. The maid is supposed to sleep in a room that couldn’t even hold a proper single bed and that doesn’t have any sort of ventilation. Also, even though she would probably clean a proper toilet on a daily basis, she is not allowed to use such a toilet herself, let alone a proper shower.

Domestic workers in Singapore are practically imprisoned. In fact, where I come from, prisoners live in nicer quarters than the maids who work in Singapore. When you see with what disregard the maids of Singapore are treated, one can wonder, how civilized is Singapore actually? Isn’t a part of civilization also the recognition of a certain sense of basic human decency. Yes, the streets are clean, the malls are abundant and the public transport is well-organized, but is that enough to be called a civilized nation?

16 responses to “Is Singapore really so civilized? New policies on domestic workers make me wonder.”

  1. freetoairphoenix says :

    “if the employer can’t “fork out” the fees up front, why don’t they just take care of their own household and clean up after themselves?” typical hatred for the wealthy- or, “wealthIER”. There seems to be an awful lot of propaganda against the non-menial classes, disguised Marxism perhaps? Singaporeans aren’t inherently cruel to amahs, they’re simply insulting and cruel (not always.. ) to those in lesser positions than they are- shoe shiners, wait staff, you name it. Amahs aren’t being beaten and insulted as a matter of course, either. Most- yes MOST are thought of as members of the family. They choose housekeeping as their career, not forced.

  2. juliet@myvoice says :

    I totally agree with you all. I’m a domestic worker myself and for the last 6 years of my stay in Singapore, I’ve seen the worst treatment of domestic workers. Way back in the Philippines, I’ve admired Singapore for their success economically and i’ve wished that one day i’ll be given the chance to be in the country and yes here I am now. Domestic work is the easiest way i can get in the country, I’ve had 7 months salary deduction, paid an agency in the Philippines for my application process, yes indeed terrible but that’s the only option i can have to be able to work here. Working for long hours without pay and without an off day for 7 months is emotionally and financially draining and worst without a day off for the 2 years duration of the contract. What I’m trying to understand is the fact that why some employers can be so selfish and insensitive towards us. What if they try to put theirs in our shoes, will they realize how we feel? The new law on domestic worker’s day off will kick in by the start of 2013 and still a massive objection from employers are popping out on newspapers and on the web. I just thought that some employers are becoming too dependent on domestic workers and yet they don’t want to reciprocate by giving them the right to a rest day or giving a simple appreciation.

    • Sanne says :

      Dear Juliet,

      What a horrible story! I had heard of such stories but reading it here as a comment shocks me just like the first time I heard it! Not even a day off and 7 months pay deduction, that is just horrible! If you feel like it you can always write a blog about it, we’d be happy to post it!



      • juliet@myvoice says :


        Thank you, i will try to consider your offer, hoping i can get much time. I am writing for an online newsletter for domestic workers in Singapore. If you wish to see, you can view them on

        click on the “My Voice”..

        I am very happy to know that someone like you cares for us, really appreciate your thoughts and those people who continue to see what is just and humane for everybody.


      • jena says :

        My experience is a lot worst than I expected. I arrived end of Oct. 2005, my employer is indian, they were christian, when interviewed me, they say I don’t have off days for two years, as Juliet said its the easiest way we could get a job is to find domestic job abroad. I agreed for no off days as they will bring me out whenever they will go out. When I arrived after few days my employer take me home. I was expecting them to be nice as I know christian are very religious people. I was so wrong, just I arrive in their house they started shouting at me and calling me stupid. They keep on shouting at me saying the goverment are protecting them blah blah blah… They did not let me sleep until 1am. And ask me to wake up 5am. You have to work non stop.The next day the husband even say fuck you to me and keep on shouting at me again, in that situation I was traumatise and shaking and could not sleep even that one night I prayed to God it’s better for me to die so I could go home already, On that night I did not afraid to ask God to get me on that momment as I could not take it anymore. I was shaking and feeling nervous at all time I ask my employer to buy me sleeping pills, from that word shes gone mad and bring me back to my agent, i was so happy but that happiness turn into dissmay. My agent was scoulding me and humiliating me saying i’m so black and nobody wants me,they will send me home and pay 60,000pesos(equivalent to $2,000) With this experience I encounter I’m sure there are a lot more out there still suffering,

      • lisazaini says :

        i have no off for 2 bloody years…….!and the next year only 4 times a year….!and i really wonder what were they think that just happily looking to a helper that work for bloody years without rest……

  3. seayouthsayso says :

    One of the aspects of this whole debate that I find often left out of conversations is the deeply ingrained dependence of Singaporeans on domestic helpers. We need to re-examine our entire system to figure out just how we got so reliant on cheap domestic labour, so much so that blatant exploitation seems not only justified, but a necessity.

    For many of us, it’s really easy to say, “If you can’t afford the levy or to house, feed and pay a helper properly, then don’t get one!” But we also need to take a look at the whole psyche and lifestyle in Singapore – the long hours and the slightly pampered mindset that comes from being the richest and shiniest of the region.

    Beyond our laws to protect domestic helpers – which sorely need improvement – we also need to change the mindset of the people so that they realise that this is NOT okay. But for that to happen, we also need to re-examine the whole structure that set us up for this.

  4. MediaTantrist says :

    Thank you Sanne for your compliment, I will definitely consider it.

  5. Sanne says :

    And a good two cents it was! There are always two sides of the story, and you gave a good insight on what could be the “other side”.

    When I was in high school in the Netherlands I worked as a cleaning lady in a families home. Even though pay was not very high, I thought it was really as it was one of my first paid jobs. I started work in the morning and sometimes the family would be home over lunch. They always offered me lunch and we always had a nice chat. Also, whenever they weren’t at home they always left a note saying how thankful they were that I was there to clean their house. Sometimes they wanted me to be a little bit more thorough on something so they would say so in the note, but they always packed their requests in compliments and words of appreciation. It was a great example of how one can have help in their household without exploitation and I think a lot can be learned from how I was treated back then. If it is so hard to find good help, as the Singaporeans are experiencing, maybe they should try this approach. I know it made me work harder back then.

    You write very well and if you ever want to put your two cents worth in in the form of a blog, just check out the join us page and send us a message!

  6. MediaTantrist says :

    I agree with you that ‘maids’ [sic – domestic helpers] need their human rights to be affirmed and enforced. I believe they should be given a day off and be compensated fairly and be decently accommodated. I know that many employers here treat their help deplorably. On the other hand, there have been many instances where employers are taken advantage of and have had their trust betrayed. Having been burnt a few times, employers brace themselves and harden their hearts.

    Having lived in Indonesia for a brief period, I must point out that there is a cultural awareness gap between both parties. Most assume that the maids understand Malay, not realising that Bahasa Indonesia can be quite different, and Malay just does not cut it. Indonesian culture, saying no to a request is considered impolite, and euphemisms and what we’d call ‘convenient lies’ have to be seen from the lens of Indonesian culture, where listeners have to read between the lines. Some (many?) singaporeans have become accustomed to being direct and not being able to ‘listen’ effectively taking context and non-verbal cues into consideration.

    Additionally, most of the help in Indonesia do not know how to use appliances and certain utensils Singaporeans are used to, and agents and employers have the responsibility to educate them on the use of conveniences such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, pressure cookers, non-stick crockery, etc. Little things we all take for granted living in a country of plenty. The women who leave their parents, children and spouses to build a better lives for their loved ones come from impoverished backgrounds.

    Ultimately, I think that more stringent rules need to come to force. Barriers of entry for foreign domestic help must include psychological assessment and adquate training and perhaps even experience in working for expatriate households in Indonesia.

    Agencies must rise above a reputation as ‘snakeheads’ and act professionally and have a humane ethos in their operations . Maids should not bear the costs of training and pay ridiculous fees to agencies which then become a millstone weighing the already poor worker to a situation akin to slavery.

    Singaporeans claim it is impossible to live on a single salary in Singapore, hence their reliance on foreign help. If they do need domestic help that badly, they have to be responsible and accountable for their workers’ welfare, manage their own expectations and respect that the worker is a human after all, even if they themselves work in dehumanised corporate environments.

    Just my two cents.

    • alice says :

      The writer is a stupid tai tai sitting at home with too much money to blow around! Get on the street woman and see the world – it is the employers and not maids who need protection. Of course rich tai tai’s will always talk about why are people starving on the street – they should eat cake!

      • Ng Cher says :

        Agree with you sister!

      • MediaTantrik says :

        Having lived in Indonesia, I think most Singaporeans who employ Indonesian maids could do better to understand Indonesian culture; their way of life, their values and social norms. One cannot simply expect them to understand and assimilate into a new life with different, “Uniquely Singaporean” values and perceptions of existence. If that seems unviable, Singaporeans are free to choose more adaptable domestic help from other countries. And yes, I am a true blue Singaporean. If they have any grouses about how much a maid levy costs, they are free to voice their dissent to the appropriate regulatory departments.

      • MediaTantrik says :

        I think I am fairly well-travelled having visited many cities around the world and having lived in a few, in my humble opinion. Singapore remains one of those countries where employers seem to feel that by giving someone from the developing world an employment opportunity, they are bound to serve them with a minimum of dignity, human rights and civility.

Share your thoughts on this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s