It’s just sinking in that we’re here and we’re here to stay. For a while at least. The apartment is starting to feel like home with all our stuff here, the weather and humidity is no longer unbearable, and we’re finding our feet out and about. It’s been a month of first’s, this past month, lots of first-times for all of us, and it’s exciting but SO, so stressful. Everyone said we’d love it out here, the standard of living is amazing, the kids will adapt, the opportunities are endless, the people are friendly, the food is great, life is good. And yes, everyone was right, life is good here for the most part. But there are somethings about this place I’m still getting my middle-class white European head around, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to Singapore in all it’s hot and sweaty glory. I don’t know if I want to, to be honest.
I find the helper phenomenon slightly unsettling, not in the sense that families have helpers (who wouldn’t want an extra pair of hands?), but who these women are and how they are treated leaves me somewhat uncomfortable. “Helpers” are usually women, usually Phillipino, and usually here working as a family dogsbody for a pittance. Don’t get me wrong I’m sure there are many who are treated really, really well by their employer, but that is still only a relative term. The helper often seems to sleep in what is called the bomb shelter. In our apartment it is a small, windowless, box room behind the kitchen alongside the service entrance. It’s barely big enough for storage, let alone for putting a bed in. Infact, you usually can’t fit a bed in them, and it’s completely acceptable to provide a grown woman with an IKEA kids bed to sleep in. In an airconless, windowless room. These women come to Singapore, leaving their own children left behind if they have them, whilst they work with only Sunday’s and Public Holidays off, doing whatever tasks the employer requires. All for a princely sum of around S$400 a month (massive ish there, as wages are a private arrangement between employee and employer). But that’s still only £200 a month for all maid duties, childcare requirements, cooking, cleaning, anything. If they’re lucky they have an employer who gives them more than the typical two weeks off every two years. I don’t get it, and I won’t pretend to. But it’s a part of the culture here. The divide between angmoh’s (white expats) and other migrant workers is vast. And that’s accepted as the norm. It’s fine to pay a helper a criminally low wage because that amount of money is still considered a decent amount when they inevitably send it back home. And yet the angmoh’s are here reaping in eye wateringly generous salaries and offshore packages, because they fall into a different class of migrant worker. Granted, the angmoh’s are highly educated and skilled, and would earn big bucks wherever they are in the world, because that’s how privilege works and always has done. The angmoh’s come from a background of societal and cultural investment, education, wealth, and opportunity. Where do the helpers come from? Who are they? What are their stories? Why are they here? What are their plans for the future? Is this ever discussed?
Disclaimer: I’m not for one moment suggesting that the domestic workers are exploited in anyway, they wouldn’t be here in their thousands if they were, it’s clearly a win-win arrangement them being here. I’m just saying, it’s not for me. I’m too white, too European, too twenty-something, too feminist, and too generation Y to not feel really uncomfortable with the current level of acceptable treatment of these women.
It’s safe to say that after a month I still have a lot of adjusting to do. And strangely not so much to Singapore itself, I’m quickly falling in love with the mish-mash of Asian cultures and traditions on offer here, but I have A LOT of adjusting to do when it comes to the expat life. I’m such a little British duck out of water. And it’s that which leaves me really homesick. I’m not homesick for home as such, or people really, but I really am homesick for my values. I miss going to playgrounds, parks, softplay centres, kids clubs etc with the kids and happily being surrounded by other coffee swigging parents all hoping to capture a pic or two to whatsapp the grandparents. Here, I’m pretty much surrounded by little clusters of helpers, all nattering away to each other, daring not to talk to the angmoh. It’s really isolating, and really unexpected. Where are the parents, the mothers? Does everybody here work all of the time? Is this the definition of living in Singapore?