The debate on foreign talent has raged on long and hard in Singapore for over a year already. One would have thought that it would have died down after the parliamentary elections, but things seem to be getting more and more heated as the months pass.
Go to any restaurant in Singapore and chances are, you’re going to be served by staff that are not local. It’s a telling description of the dynamics of the workforce – local talent, many of them university graduates, do not want to take on many of the roles that need to be filled to make Singapore run. Yet, emotions ride high when we ask why we need to share our jobs, our income and our benefits with foreigners, why they don’t assimilate well in our culture, why they aren’t speaking our language, and why they take up valuable space in our crowded little island.
Well, I’ve played host to foreign “talent” in Singapore since I was born. I’m one of those privileged enough to have a maid – or what more would understand better as a foreign domestic helper that lives with a local family and basically, looks after all the household chores. While this is a concept that is foreign to many who aren’t local, and almost unthinkable to some, it is quite common here. For a three figure sum a month, young women in the neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia come to Singapore in search of a better future. Some of them may have left behind futures, careers, families and children where they come from, but the wages in Singapore as domestic house help promise a better life, even with their university qualifications, than they could ever dream of back home.
I remember that when I was back in school, I was particularly traumatized during a talk by a foreign workers’ rights group that told us that many of them only earned US$2 a day back home. Thats about $80 a month in our currency, the amount I would spend on a nice meal. For myself. I came home, and immediately went to the kitchen to look for Lhanie, our helper, to ask her if this was really true. She immediately dismissed it in the most dramatic fashion, yelling, “Nooooo, that’s not true! Only $1 a day lah!”
My heart sank. Lhanie has spent over 15 years with us, and she literally watched me grow up. She makes sure that I’m well fed, that I can find everything in the house that I may need because I’m not organized to keep them myself, and she manages my constantly exploding wardrobe. More than that, I consider her part of my family. I remember an incident a couple of years back where a guest in my house asked her to clear up the dishes and help to iron her clothes. I was livid. If you wouldn’t ask my mum to clear up after you as a guest in my house, ask her to wash your dishes after you’ve eaten, or iron your dance costume, there is absolutely no reason why you should be able to do the same to Lhanie – even if she’s domestic help. She’s a member of my family and she makes sure things run every day. Your personal servant, she is most definitely not.
A couple of weeks back, we welcomed a new addition to the family. Rogi, my maid’s husband. She had gone back to her hometown in the Philippines last year and married her childhood sweetheart. I am sure working overseas for so long must be tough, especially to someone single, since it literally kills a lot of the chance that you have for a future of your own, for finding true love, for starting a family, for growing old and retiring and leading a relaxed, comfortable life.
Even then, I was extremely apprehensive about this marriage. I mean, childhood sweetheart or not, they had not really seen each other for 15 years while she was with us. That’s PLENTY of time for people to change. And I only want good things for her. I do realize that the day will come where she leaves us to go pursue a life of her own, so when she let us know that she wanted to go home earlier this year, I knew we couldn’t keep her, even though I would likely be lost in my own house without her around. When she changed her mind and decided to stay with us because the financials were just not right for her to return just yet, I was relieved. And then we found out that in exchange for not seeing her for another year, her husband would be coming to stay. For a month.
I had no idea what to expect of this guy. It really is the ultimate judgement, like meeting the extended family! I’m a judgmental young lady, but am also very pleased to say that after over two weeks around him, I’ve decided that he’s a good, good man.
The real reason that Rogi is here is to try to find work so that he can be with her. Its incredibly sweet. Both of the have worked away from home for years. Her here, and him, as a cook in a restaurant in Saudi Arabia. And boy can he cook up a storm! He’s almost completely taken over the kitchen at home, and goes grocery shopping with my parents all the time, cooked almost every meal, and get this. The man bakes. HE BAKES. And now, when I’m lucky enough to be home for dinner, I’m greeted with a full table setting and dinner treats like this:
With him around, Lhanie’s workload is reduced because he tries to help out around the house in exchange for free lodging, and so that if she finishes her chores earlier, they have more time to spend together. He’s happy to just stay at home everyday and tells us that he doesn’t need to see the Esplanade or the Merlion to have seen Singapore. I like him. A simple guy, but I know that whether they choose to stay here or go back, at least he will look after Lhanie well, and for that, I am happy and wish them many years filled with laughter together!