Source: The Sunday Times, Jun 19, 2011
Sympathy knows no borders
Foreign maids are no less deserving of help and understanding
By Lee Wei Ling
Sympathy knows no borders
Our Indonesian maid Siti has worked for my family for more than three years. She is a small woman, no taller than 1.42m, and slender. She understands English but does not speak it fluently. So I practise my Bahasa Indonesia with her.
From the moment she came to our house, she impressed us with her diligence.
She is awake and working by 5am. She puts away the crockery that had been washed and left to dry after dinner the previous day. Before dawn has arrived, she would have swept the area around our house.
She would clean and tidy our rooms whenever we are out. She would vacuum all our carpeted areas every day. She does her work conscientiously without trying to impress us. We were happy with her but I noticed that she often looked sad.
One day, I asked her about her family and her life in Java. She said her home was in a town called Banyuwangi, near Surabaya, where her father planted padi on a rented field. He also planted vegetables, and reared chickens and sheep. Yet they were so poor they were able to eat meat no more than three or four times a year. Their main source of protein was tempeh, a traditional soya product originally from Indonesia.
She told me that her elder daughter aged 18 had graduated from school and could work as a junior pharmacist. But she hoped to go to university to study pharmacology and was waiting for her entrance examination results just then.
Siti’s son was in eighth grade and doing well. He also hoped to get into university.
Life has been unkind to Siti. After graduating from 12th grade, she got a job in a tuna factory, packing tuna. There she met her future husband, a fisherman from a kampung two hours away from Banyuwangi by car.
Ten years after they married, her husband said he was bored with packing tuna and asked his wife for $1,000 to pay an agent to find him a job overseas. He went to Malaysia.
Siti phoned him several times but he did not answer her calls or write to her. A year after he left, he returned to Banyuwangi. By then, Siti was working in Singapore.
A month after he returned, he brought another woman to his daughter’s school, introduced the stranger to his daughter, and told her this was her mother. The daughter cried and refused to greet or talk to the woman, and telephoned her mother to inform her of what happened. Siti was heartbroken.
Now she was alone in providing for her children. She continued to work in Singapore to earn money. Meanwhile, her husband, who had not yet divorced her, began a new family in her village.
As she related all this to me, her eyes brimmed with tears, but she blinked them back. I told her that if she were properly divorced she could remarry, but she dismissed the idea. Her children are now the centre of her world.
When she first joined our household, my mother was still alive. Together with another maid and a nurse, Siti helped to wash, turn and feed my mother, who was bed-ridden. It was tiring work. Siti never complained.
I took a liking to her and gave her dresses, blouses, and T-shirts that her daughter could wear at university. I also gave her vouchers that I had for a department store.
My daily routine is variable and I have no definite meal times. In the case of our previous maid, I did not want to inconvenience her, so I would ask for hard-boiled eggs with the yolks removed for my meal. A few weeks after Siti arrived at our household, without my asking, she began cooking proper meals for me and leaving them in the fridge for me to warm up when I was hungry.
When I was ill and resting in my room, and at most appearing once a day to get a bit of food and drink, she would notice it and alert my mother’s nurse so that somebody would check to see I was not seriously ill.
We had another maid, a Myanmar lawyer aged 29, who spoke better English than Siti did. One day, Siti told me how that maid had made disparaging remarks about her.
Siti had gone for cooking lessons from my paternal aunt, an excellent cook. When Siti tried to show the Myanmar maid how to cook Peranakan food, she felt insulted and belittled.
Initially, she appeared calm as she related to me what had happened. But soon her emotions got the better of her and she was trembling and crying.
I had noticed myself that the Myanmar maid was haughty in her interactions with Siti. I comforted Siti and told her that if one maid had to go, we would keep her. Eventually, she calmed down.
We later returned the Myanmar maid to the maid agency and got a 29-year-old Indonesian in her stead. This new maid is younger than Siti, so treats Siti as her elder sister. So now, all is fine on the domestic front.
I write this simple and perhaps common story to remind readers that foreign maids have often suffered either emotionally and/or physically. That they are not Singaporeans does not mean they do not deserve our sympathy and our help.
The recent suicide of a 26-year-old Indonesian maid who had failed her English literacy test thrice is a tragedy. Perhaps the exam should go back to the old form that Siti had taken. There were pictures in addition to the questions in English. Both of our Indonesian maids and I felt very sorry for that preventable death.