The help – Singapore style

Hands up, who remembers this picture?

singapore-maid-ns boy

It’s pretty old, but it exploded into a plethora of memes, debates and jokes when it first appeared.

“OMG, how safe can we feel if the people in charge of defending us can’t even bother to carry their own bags??”

As exaggerated as some reactions may have been, I felt this anecdote was quite telling of the over-bearing role we Singaporeans have given to maids.

It seems like everywhere I look, there’s a family made up of perfectly healthy and balanced individuals being served by a maid, catering to their every need, no matter how big (pretty sure it’s illegal to have your maid help you selling stuff in your stall) or how small (what, you can’t open you own car door?).

Today, we can’t even use the word “maid” anymore. It’s “domestic helper”.

But I can’t help but find the change of words quite interesting; it shows that maids have gone from doing traditional cleaning duties (dusting, washing, ironing, or cooking) to basically running entire households (shopping, baby-sitting, budgeting, car-washing, etc.).

In many cases, “Domestic helper” even includes such random tasks as helping the kids with homework, helping mum with cooking, helping dad repair the car, walking/grooming the family dog, helping grandpa go to the toilet, helping the neighbours organise a BBQ, helping the NS man carry his heavy bag, etc.

I know what you’re thinking… nothing wrong with that type of work right? After all, they are being paid (a-ha, the magic word) to do their job. But since they’re doing the job of a parent, teacher, cleaner, baby-sitter, admin assistant, pet-carer, and who knows what else, shouldn’t they also get the salary for each of these roles?

Of course not! Instead we whine and cry when they ask for one day off a week.

I’ll be fair – not all maids are in the same boat; my neighbour’s maid has got to be one of the highest paid maids in the country – she’s had a % pay bump every year since 1992, and she happily supplements this by cleaning other people’s houses on her days off.

She spends next to nothing and has sent most of her income back home over the years, such that her husband now runs a successful business back in the Philippines. They are landowners and – beat this – she told me a few years back that they’d hired a maid to take care of her grandson. How ironic, right?

Let’s not hide the fact also. Some maids in Singapore live in very dire conditions, either by not being paid or getting abused. But I hope these cases are a minority and will never lead to them being brutally killed as has happened in other countries!

The bottom line is: maids play an important economic role in Singapore. Thanks to their hard work, mothers can take time to work, families can get out of the house and spend money, and their families back in their country can live better than before.

But what I don’t get is this: how come there are many countries out there who live just as well as we do, and don’t feel the need to delegate everything to someone who’s poorly paid (and sometimes poorly treated)?

Do we really need to rely on maids for everything?

Think about it: what sort of impact will this habit have on Singapore in the long run? Aren’t we just contributing to raising a generation of people who have never done anything for themselves, who don’t like effort, and who are used to getting things their way?

How is that going to impact Singapore society as a whole in the future?

Let me look in the crystal ball: professionals become extremely sensitive and can’t take criticism; they’d rather quit a job rather than accept their flaws and work on themselves.

University students aren’t used to taking initiative or facing obstacles, so they instinctively take the easy way out when it comes to tough projects.

And even full-grown citizens seem to be very happy letting other people come up with solutions to their problems, as long as it means not dirtying their hands more than necessary. Even voting is a huge effort to them!

I think the real issue is that people see the maid as someone who will take over their responsibilities and do everything for them, instead of someone they can count on as support to help them balance their responsibilities.







  1. A lot of good insights here. When privileged Singaporeans immigrate to North America, they are often among the newcomers who seem to have a particularly difficult time adjusting. I think you’ve summed up why–at home their life is very easy and privileged. When Singaporeans try to raise children in North America, they often complain and feel very hard done by doing the average, everyday things that most North Americans wouldn’t think twice about. I’ve also noticed Singaporean Chinese (in North America) cannot cope with the type of hard discussions that most North Americans wouldn’t think twice about or even the slightest perceived criticism. Also, I’ve noticed many Singaporean Chinese who move here are very classist–I suppose that would be a natural outcome of having maids catering to you. Whatever is going on in Singapore, it doesn’t seem to be resulting in the creation of warm, kind, strong, selfless people. Also, I notice that the Singaporean Chinese who move here can’t do basic things like take care of their homes, garden–they’ve never had to learn how to struggle or how to cope, so they become very angry and very resentful when they move here.

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