In Singapore, the media has a very important role in manufacturing perceptions of foreign workers. In the past three months I have witnessed how the media can shape local perceptions of foreign domestic workers, such as news reports of incidences where domestic workers have murdered employers and vice versa. I have also seen the mental health of domestic workers discussed in the news. These sorts of reports become a part of discussions about domestic workers among the public. For example, I have heard many individuals in Singapore vocalize that the most prominent reason for disagreements between domestic workers and Singaporean employers is that the domestic workers are not mentally prepared. Even when reports of the employers harming the domestic workers come out, local discussions tended to focus on the problems with the domestic worker. There is certainly more emphasis on issues surrounding the domestic worker, rather than things that the employer could improve on. Though the portrayal in the media can make life challenging for domestic workers in Singapore, some domestic workers have reported that the constant criticism from employers and negative images of them portrayed in the media have actually helped push them to improve their work ethic and capabilities.
Social media has also played an important role in manufacturing perceptions of domestic workers in Singapore. There are Facebook groups for Singaporean employers, in which they fully disclose their issues with their domestic workers and will warn other employers not to hire those individuals. The stories which employers post are not verified and could either be completely false or completely true. The problem for the lack of verification is that these stories are often taken at face value and affect the future employment of mentioned domestic workers, regardless of if the stories were actually true. There are many cases where employers have used social media to blackmail domestic workers who reported their mistreatment to others. Along with hearing the stories of mistreatment, witnessing how these reports have negatively impacted domestic workers when they were not in the wrong has been one of the most difficult things for me to cope with throughout the duration of my research. The domestic workers all come from very poor families and have many people relying on the money they send back home, especially their children. Thus, when a domestic worker is unable to work because of a false story reported on social media, it can be very detrimental for both the domestic worker and her family for a prolonged amount of time. For what I’ve understood through my research thus far, the number one reason why most foreign domestic workers work abroad is to pay for the school fees for their children, as in countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, public education is not free. The individuals who suffer most in the mistreatment or false reports of domestic workers are often their children who are back home, because they rely on their mothers’ employment to continue their education. This knowledge has been emotionally challenging for me.
A few of the women I have worked with have asked me to use my research to counter the ways in which they have been portrayed in the news and social media. They have been very happy to express their opinions about their experiences and have asked me to help create a positive image of domestic workers in Singapore. These women have extremely limited channels to share and communicate their ideas, and very little control over how they are portrayed in public. Thus, my work has given the women an opportunity to express their thoughts, beliefs and experiences in a safe, non-judgemental way. I have finally seen how my research can positively impact the women who I work with in an overt way. There is so much room for advocacy of domestic worker rights, as well as the need for a platform for domestic workers to openly share the experiences from their perspective. My work aims to do both.
I have now been in Singapore for two months. The joys of fieldwork have now kicked in and I have formed many wonderful friendships. The struggle I now deal with is realizing that I may never again see some of the participants whom I have become quite close with. Since my research delves into deep issues and explores the layered and rich experiences of domestic helpers from an emotional perspective, it is only natural that close bonds develop between my participants and myself. I struggle with not being able to help them in a direct way, as well as with the fact that I will be very far away and I know that it is likely that I may not see them again. I have found myself lying to both my participants and myself about when I will be coming next, simply because I do not want to face the reality that this might be the last time we see each other.
The emotional fear of my departure is a good experience for me to have, as these women have to face this all the time, and with people who they are much closer with, such as their children and parents. One of the way in which I have not been able to relate with the women in a direct way is the pain of having to leave their children. I experienced this with my little brother, but since I do not actually have children of my own, I really do not know how hard it is for these women to leave their children to work in a foreign country. I made a small trip last week and met an 8-month-old child who I instantly became attached with while waiting in transit. When my bus came, I was very sad because I knew that I would never see the child again. Although I only knew this child for a short period of time, I was crying for a large portion of my bus ride. I then thought, “How do foreign domestic helpers do this with their own children?” The age of the child I met was around the same age as the children of the helpers are when they migrate for work. This experience allowed me to realize how strong these women truly are. And not only do they leave their children to get themselves out of poverty, but they also become breadwinner for their entire families, including parents and siblings. Many of the women have paid the school fees for all of their siblings and have built homes for their family memebrs. As well, many have saved up enough money to start a business back in Indonesia, and are actually maintaining their businesses back home, while they are working in Singapore!
One of the ways in which migrant workers overcome the pain of leaving their families behind is through forming new bonds with other migrant workers and engaging in group activities, such as playing music. Tuesday was National Day in Singapore and I attended a migrant worker’s showcase, where male and female migrant workers showed off their musical talents. A choir made up of Indonesian domestic workers sung about their experiences in Singapore and a band made up of Bangladeshi construction and marine workers performed beautiful Bangladeshi songs in honour of Singapore’s birthday. The male workers had a band of about 11 members, each one with an instrument in hand, and the two singers were unbelievably good. I could not believe how talented these guys were…if I hadn’t known, I would have thought they were professionals. The women had beautiful, angelic voice, but filled with depth and soul. Both performers wrote their own songs and poems, which were better than anything I have heard on the radio in the last coupleof decades. The passion was bursting out of these performers, in a rich and beautiful way. I had not heard such passion from a performer in a very long time. I was in so much awe that I cried after the performances! The amazing thing about how talented these performers were is that the workers are only able to practice on a Sunday and many have other activities that they are involved in on Sundays as well, so their time to practice is very limited. Many of the workers actually end up working on their day off as well, so many will only practice once a month. They all had been through some very rough times, and are very far away from their families, including their own children, and somehow that pain is transformed into pure, soulful art. One man said that playing music is a way for them to relieve the stress of working so hard and the sadness of being far away from his family. Both foreign domestic workers and migrant construction and marine workers work extremely hard and for long hours, doing the jobs that most people would not to do if they had a choice. Yet they do it with pride, strength, and perseverance. Though both the men and women voiced that they have a very hard life and experience sadness, they demonstrated that they are very proud to be able to support their families. The showcase was a way to give voice to these workers, which was really important for a day like National Day.
There are a few organizations around town which also aim to provide foreign domestic workers with the platform to express themselves through art. One of the ways in which art becomes an apparent way to relieve the stress of living in a foreign country is through dance. Many domestic helpers take dance classes or teach each other how to dance on their day off. One NGO provides a “dance studio” for the women to practice for free, and many other organizations provide dance classes for these women for a small fee. Around the public spaces on Sundays, one can see the domestic workers practicing their choreography, dancing a varied range of styles, from traditional Indonesian dance to Bollywood. Many of these women also learn how to play musical instruments and sing. The women have told me that dance and music are really important for them while they are in Singapore. Not only do they feel happier when they are engaging in these activities, but the community atmosphere also brings joy to their lives.
I hope that my work will be another platform for some migrant workers to voice their experiences.
Alright, until next time, Selamat tinggal!
Hello friends of the blog-reading world,
I thank you for taking the time to read about my journey in Singapore thus far. As you may recall from my first blog post, I am researching the food and eating experiences of Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore for my master’s fieldwork in anthropology. During my time here, I have had the opportunity to interview many domestic workers, employers of domestic workers and representatives from organizations who work with foreign domestic workers in various capacities. The findings have been quite thought provoking and insightful. Though I am not able to reveal the details of my research findings just yet, I will provide with a short preview of what is to come as well as some personal reflections which have arisen from my fieldwork.
In my four weeks here, I have had the honour of being invited to various community gatherings with my new domestic helper friends. Indeed, these invitations have been a wonderful surprise. The women have been very welcoming and consistently generous in every encounter, always offering me tasty delights and invitations to participate in activities. These gatherings are very special because foreign domestic workers in Singapore only have one day off a week (Sunday), at most, and many have only 1 day off a month or no days off at all. So when the women finally have the opportunity to meet, they certainly make the most of their time out! The spaces where these women hang out are always vibrant on Sundays; energetic music and dancing, aromas of wonderful food, and laughter filling the air, as these women connect with fellow migrant workers who have now become their family. Thus, when I had the privilege to attend these various outings, I developed a deep understanding of how important these social bonds are for the health and well-being of migrants in a new country. Some of the events I have attended have included a sports tournament, Hari Raya (known as Eid Mubarak in Canada) gatherings, and a beach party. Regardless of who I am with or which event I am at, I am always welcomed with open arms. I am deeply grateful for these experiences.
Though there have been many wonderful experiences, I have experienced some natural challenges as well. One of my personal hurdles is the guilt I have for the privileges I have been afforded with, of no doing of my own. My participants are not able to access the resources that I am able to, yet they are constantly showing me acts of generosity. Indeed, this has been a personal struggle. However, a positive outcome of this guilt is my realization of the importance of making my work impactful. In return for all their generosity that these women have given me, I can share their stories of bravery and perseverance. Through giving them voice, I can also present their queries and concerns with their current living conditions in hopes of creating a positive change.
My interviews are all conducted in English because I am not fluent in any of the Indonesian languages. As the great Branislaw Malinowski demonstrated, I am certainly not the first anthropologist to experience the struggle of not knowing the local language. I realize how limiting and unfair this is for the women. Not only are they expected to voice their experiences in a language that is not native to them, but also they may not be able to voice all of their experiences in the ways in which they would like because they may not know the English words to communicate such experiences or such experience may not be communicable in English. I have been slowly trying to learn Bahasa, but there is really only so much I can learn while out in the field for such a short time. Nevertheless, through this experience I have learned the necessity of being fluent in the language of my participants when I conduct my PhD.
Before I end this blog post, I must note one more important finding; many domestic workers have expressed gratitude for being able to migrate to Singapore. Some women have voiced that they have been able to afford and attainuniversity degrees while working as domestic helpers, as well as learn multiple languages, which they would not have been able to do back home. However, many of these same women also experienced hardships along the way and have vocalized the importance of assisting other domestic helpers achieve the same success which they have. They have voiced the importance of my work in allowing them to share their experiences, in hopes that it will help future domestic workers.
Okay friends, that is all for now. Thank you again for reading my blog. Please leave me any comments, questions or feedback, lah (Singaporean phrase)!
April 29th, 2016
Introductory Interview with Charli Mohammed. She discusses with Janice that she will be doing her research in Singapore with Indonesian domestic workers from June to September 2016. She talks about her project and what she hopes to gain from her experience in Singapore.