A Maid-In-Singapore Problem



In February this year, Indonesian president Joko Widodod announced that he plans to stop exporting Indonesian domestic workers, viewing the trade as a reflection of Indonesia’s poor socio-economic status and a source of shame for the country.

He told reporters then that he was already working with manpower officials to come up with a clear roadmap to enforce this. Reports suggest that live-in maids could be stopped as early as next year (2017).

Immediately, groans of protest were heard throughout Singapore.

Singaporeans, apparently, have grown accustomed and reliant on the foreign domestic worker. Colloquially, they are known as “maids”, even though the term does not quite encapsulate all the responsibilities and expectations that Singaporeans load on these foreign women.

On one hand, these young women, mostly sourced (and sometimes trafficked?) by manpower agents from among the poorer families scattered throughout Indonesia, are given the tasks of looking after entire families. Cooking, cleaning, child care, elderly care, too-lazy-to-do-anything adult care. You name it, they get it done.

On the other, these women are expected to behave like nuns during their stay in Singapore. Some employers, in trying to scrimp on costs, offer only the bare minimum of sustenance to these women, who in some extreme cases might only make do with bread and water for their meals throughout the long work day.

Some employers are even fearful of offering these women personal time off, instead preferring to keep them confined within their homes for the entire duration of their stay. Their reasoning? The fear that these maids will fall into bad company, have their minds “corrupted” by the bad apples, and (gasp) even get themselves impregnated. This outcome would begin an unhappy process where employers would be forced to bear the costs of medical attention and repatriation fees to send the maid home to her country. Singapore law discourages labourers on employment passes from procreation in Singapore.

The real elephant in the room however is that Singaporeans do not yet realize how privileged they are when it comes to hiring a maid. In most foreign countries, hiring a servant is reserved only for the ultra rich. Here, virtually every family knows someone who’s hired one to take care of their home.

So when Singaporeans complain about the potential higher costs of food, lodging and transport needed to afford a maid in the future (when the supply of maids will be drastically reduced while demand remains constant or even increases), perhaps it sheds more light on how Singaporeans have come to need maids more than the maids need us.

For sure, many women in Indonesia will now suffer from the loss of a lucrative source of income. They may end up working in even more meagre jobs or even end up in the flesh trade, say some netizens. But these are problems that the Indonesians will have to solve for themselves.

In Singapore, it boils down to a socio-economic problem when families have become too busy, tired or just reluctant to take charge of their own household chores and frail family members.

Who can blame them though? Singaporeans work the longest hours in the world, and many more will probably still require some form of domestic help in the future.

So is the ball now in the government’s and employers’ hands? Unfortunately, expecting a sudden shift in working hours towards the pursuit of the cliched “work life balance” mantra seems unlikely to happen for now. Even if things do change, they would most likely require decades, not months to be apparent.

In the meantime, Singaporean families will have to bear the higher costs of “owning” a maid, perhaps rightly so given the responsibilities we place on their thin little shoulders.



Peter Quah is a retired political commentator with an interest in foreign and military affairs. He spends his time reading books and drinking tea, but most of time tries to deal with the tantrums of his young grandchild.

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