This letter has been contributed by Jasmine Wong, 41
My mum used to work as a domestic helper (aka maid, amah, housekeeper) for the expatriates back in the 70s.
Back in those halcyon days, life was economically unpredictable. Odd-job labourers earn very low wages. My mum’s expatriate employers would stay between 3 to 5 years in Singapore before they are deputed somewhere else. By the time I was in primary two, my mum had changed 3 jobs and we’ve moved numerous times – everything from servant’s quarters to interim rental rooms.
I also had to transfer schools as these expatriates live in different districts (Bukit Timah, Tanglin Road and Farrer Road).
My mum once landed a job with an American banker. Mummy taught me to greet them with “Sir” and “Ma’am”. But “Ma’am” was quick to correct me and said “you can address me as ‘Anne’ or Mrs P. Ma’am makes me feel so old! ” Yes, she was a very nice lady.
The P family already had a housekeeper who was responsible for the cleaning and laundry. They had a “Kebun” (gardener) who takes care of their gardens and our “Sir” had a chauffeur who drove him to/from work. My mum was hired to take care of their two boys (three & five years old) and cook for the family.
I like Mrs P, and felt good as we moved into Mrs P’s servant’s quarters. Her house was a sprawling colonial bungalow in district 10. Mrs P says I can play with her boys and help my mum take care of them. The boys were fun to be with and they owned a ton of toys: Lego, Duplo and Playmobil. In no time, I was friends with the neighbour’s children as well and learned to adjust to a new school and making more friends.
Mrs P’s oldest son was born prematurely and the poor boy had pretty bad eyesight. I remember him wearing thick glasses with the coke bottle lens effect. He may look funny to some people as he’s very curious and he peers at people and things, with his head cocked to a side (for a better view I guess). My mum taught me to be kind, so I treat him like I would any other children and a friend. He was really intelligent and reads widely, he’s also very willing to share his toys with me. So I like him.
Barely a few days into my mum’s new job, I came home from school and realised that my mum was very distressed about something. Concerned young me overheard her telling my dad (he’s a taxi driver and comes home for lunch) “I hope she tells the truth….”
To cut a long story short, I learnt that the lady who was responsible for cleaning and laundry accused my mother of hitting the children, and she’s going to lodge a complaint with Mrs P that afternoon. But there wasn’t an ounce of truth in this.
My mum was very afraid. How was she going to clear her name?!
My mum loves the children and doesn’t want to expose the children to the ugliness of adult feuds. With restraint, she quietly waited for Mrs P to come home and bit her tongue, never arguing with the accusatory laundry lady.
That was the longest afternoon of my life. “Perhaps this is it….” I thought sadly. Maybe I should pack my bags, and get ready to move to an interim room while mum looks for a new job.
Before long, Mrs P’s car pulled into the driveway and I ran to close the gates behind her. The children were taking their afternoon nap and my mum was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. I squatted under the kitchen window outside the house, hoping to get an ear’s glimpse of what will be of us.
Mrs P walked into the kitchen and my mum greeted her. Mrs P was in a bad mood, flustered because of the Singapore weather. She asked how my mum she could tolerate the humidity and work in the kitchen.
Then the cleaning lady walked into the kitchen, and my heart froze.
“She really is going to tell Mrs. P! …She really is!” I thought to myself. In my little heart I could see how my life would be turned upside-down.
I bit my lips.
The cleaning lady told Mrs P a story about how she was doing the laundry, when she heard the children cry. Rushing into the room, she saw the younger boy crying and my mum with her hand in the air ready to hit the boy. The room was a mess so she thought my mum was frustrated with the boys and took to hitting them.
I heard my mum deny it. I know my mum, she has a very even temper and doesn’t get angry. I know my mother would never hit another child and I wanted to stand up and defend my mum! My mind froze and until today, I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.
That evening, after Mr and Mrs. P had their dinner and my mum was done with the dishes, she came home to our quarters. By then I was sitting in our kitchenette alone, afraid, waiting for her. She saw me and flashed me a wry smile, and told me “Don’t worry sweetheart, everything is ok.”
That night, I overheard my mum giving my dad an update. The “Sir” had a word with his children and the children said they loved Auntie Pauline (my mum), and that Auntie Pauline takes care of them, and no, Auntie Pauline does not hit them.
The air had cleared.
I felt an immense sense of relieve, and remember myself crying! I cried because my life wasn’t to be turned upside down again and I can keep going to the same school, and more importantly, Mrs P was not angry with my mum and continues to trust her children in my mum’s care.
Now that I’m grown up and through the years watched the world unfold before me…I wonder: if we are falsely accused of something are we at the mercy of the accuser?
How do we defend ourselves?
Who will be our judge and who will testify for us?
How will we be judged?
What if the accuser wins public sympathy , with careful story telling? Flipping one side and flopping another?
Would an innocent man and his family have his world turn upside down by the accuser’s tales?
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