“Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.” – Rumi
Our domestic helper has been with our family for over thirty years. She cooks the most delicious biryani, matenga (pumpkin) curry, and appams just as they make them in her home state of Kerala. She has journeyed with us through the deaths, births and mélange of events that pepper life in any family. We are her family, especially since she never did start one of her own.
She left her hometown at a young age to seek a better future for herself and her family. In her mind, that was the noblest of all endeavours, and she never entertained dreams of furthering her education or pursuing a career. In spite of her contentment, I always wondered if our family could have done more for her. We offered to sponsor classes for her to learn new skills, allowing her to move beyond working around the house and in the kitchen. We ask her if she’s happy; the answer is always a resounding yes. But others are not so fortunate.
Singapore’s households hum because of the sweat of the domestic workers who watch over our children, cook our meals, and tend to our aged parents. We go about building our lives while theirs remain almost static. Some are lucky and get to travel with their new families while leaving their families and children back in their home countries; others are paid low wages and are granted little time off, with limited access to mobile phones, and trips home only once a year.
Many are referred to as “maids”, a term which barely masks the servile nature of their circumstances. The privileges of life that we have come to expect as normal don’t seem to apply to the almost six hundred thousand foreign domestic workers and construction workers in Singapore.
Not all of Singapore is as openly accessible to them either; our helper feels uneasy whenever she does come out for meals with us as she is usually the only helper around who’s not actively tending to young children or the elderly. There are furtive glances first at her, then at us as the people around us register her presence.
It is easy to see how enclaves like Geylang and Little India have become the de facto community spaces for these “classes” of foreign guests as they search for places where they can be accepted and enjoy the company of their friends. Even the heartlands, where so many of these workers live save for their occasional days off, are not theirs to savour.
Our helper, who is in her early sixties, will be returning to India next year as her work permit can no longer be renewed. She’s in good health and desires to stay, but unfortunately, we will have to say our goodbyes. Her legacy isn’t one of towering achievements or grand projects, but having cared for no less than two aged grandparents, an aunt stricken with cancer, six children, the countless guests who have visited, and eight dogs.
In her place, another helper will be welcomed into our home and we will do all we can to love and care for her as a member of our family. We will, over time, discover her dreams, understand her worries, and become friends. She will also eventually move on home, but it is my desire that she will do so equipped and empowered to serve her own family.
The day may come when we can no longer afford to have such workers to do the jobs that we currently shun. In many countries, this is already a reality and we will need to rediscover what it means for Singaporeans to look after and build their own families and country.
For now, our paths cross for a little while and it is my dream that until that day arrives, we all build closer relationships with and come to treasure the oftentimes faceless and nameless helpers and workers in our midst. If the Singapore story is one of hope and possibilities, it should be one that everyone has a part in creating not just for themselves, but for all who pass through our thriving island on their journey of journeys.
Shaun is an experienced aviation professional with a passion for volunteerism, and writing. He holds a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) from the Singapore Management University.
This essay was first published as ‘The roads in our heads’ in The Birthday Book 2018: The Roads We Take. As Singapore turns 53, the book includes 53 reflections on the journeys and paths we take, as individuals and as a society. The book can be purchased here.