#Opinion Of The Day

Lessons in life and love from our domestic helper

I have never set foot in Myanmar before, but it feels like a familiar place to me.

The opening refrains of the nursery rhyme Row, Row, Row Your Boat strain at the corners of my memory in Burmese; I grew up bopping to cassette-tape covers of Madonna's pop songs in the same language.

At the age of eight, I was already aware of the central role that Buddhism played in Burmese society, and of how Myanmar had been ruled under a military dictatorship. Sometimes, I still hanker after the tangy, spicy burn of Burmese rice and bean salads that I wolfed down in front of the television set when school had ended for the day.

I owe this knowledge to a Burmese woman whom my brother and I called Auntie Moe Moe - our domestic helper who spent more than five years with our family, taking care of us and the household chores while our parents worked.

At the hundreds of maid agencies scattered all over the island, domestic helpers are often spoken about as if they are mere tools. Advertisements reduce them to their economic functions - what languages they can speak, or what kind of cleaning tasks they can perform.

In the face of regular news reports about maid abuse, it is only natural that advocacy groups have lobbied for better employment rights and protection for the more than 200,000 domestic workers here.

But none of these perspectives seems to adequately fit into the story of who Auntie Moe Moe was to me and my brother.

Unlike the meek and subservient maids often caricatured in local sitcoms, Auntie Moe Moe was exuberant, intelligent and commanded authority.

I cried when I read an article last year about how a 22-year-old Singaporean had decided to travel to Indonesia to take care of his cancer-stricken helper. It hit home, because I could understand what had compelled him to do that.

She melded easily into our lives; she was a great cook and quickly picked up local recipes from my mother. She not only put up with, but also took part in the childish antics that my brother and I got up to. She learnt Mandarin from watching drama serials on TV, and people mistook her for our mother when we were out and about.

She was neither friend nor parent but somewhere in between, taking us out on conspiratorial visits to the mamak shop, but chiding us when we did not do our homework or talked back to our parents.

For children like us who had scant opportunity to travel at that age, she was also our first window into a foreign world.

While the Government made it compulsory to give domestic workers weekly rest days from 2013 onwards, Auntie Moe Moe took us out on her days off, proffering fresh flowers and fruits at the Burmese Buddhist Temple, and shepherding us past racks of sarong-like longyis and jars of thanaka cream before buying lunch for us at Peninsula Plaza.

While a survey last year found that four in 10 maids had to share their rooms and thus had limited privacy, Auntie Moe Moe tucked us into bed in our shared room and uttered a prayer for us every day before she turned in.

Listen to your parents and treat people the way you would want to be treated, she often told us, trying to inculcate in us the values and life philosophy that her Buddhist upbringing had imbued in her.

When a friend mournfully spoke of how she recently had to bid goodbye to her Cambodian helper, who had lived with her family for over 20 years, something tugged at my heartstrings.

I still remember starkly the sadness of seeing Auntie Moe Moe off when I was 11. She had left to work for another household after my parents decided that we were old enough to become latchkey kids.

I cried when I read an article last year about how a 22-year-old Singaporean had decided to travel to Indonesia to take care of his cancer-stricken helper. It hit home, because I could understand what had compelled him to do that.

For many of my generation and beyond who were among the first to grow up with domestic workers in our homes, we were blind to cultural, economic and social barriers that potentially divided us. The simple truth was that my brother and I loved Auntie Moe Moe, and she loved us back.

In February, I attended a dialogue that tackled the question of how to make our students "globally ready" in a fast-changing, interconnected global economy. Instead of exchange or volunteering programmes in the region, or incubators for social entrepreneurs, Auntie Moe Moe came to mind.

I still recall our conversations about her life in Myanmar - how she grew up in a single-parent family and did well in school, but never had the opportunity to study further because her family was poor.

And about how she bought lottery tickets almost every month, her eyes lighting up as she spoke hopefully of what she would do if she won: further her studies and help set up a charity or school in her hometown, so that less-privileged children could get an education and good jobs instead of having to go abroad to work, like she did.

I did not know what to call it when I was younger, but the influence that Auntie Moe Moe exerted in my life was nothing short of powerful.

She demonstrated what it took to assimilate into a foreign environment, opened my eyes to the ethical dilemmas that came with globalisation and the privilege I enjoyed as a Singaporean, and showed me that it was possible to forge a deep personal connection despite differences in race, class and nationality.

I took a special interest in South-east Asian history during my A levels, because I realised that Myanmar's history formed a backdrop to Auntie Moe Moe's personal story. I recalled the life lessons she taught me when I travelled overseas as a university student, and experienced what it felt like to be rudimentarily labelled just because of my ethnicity and appearance.

Some may protest that the very existence of a migrant worker population here is tantamount to class exploitation. But until the economic conditions in neighbouring countries like Indonesia or the Philippines match Singapore's, it is highly probable that domestic helpers will continue to be a big part of our lives.

Legislation or lobbying alone will not dramatically improve the working conditions of many domestic workers here if people continue to treat them as mere tools.

But I wonder whether employers will respect their maids more and treat them better if they realise that their own children are watching their behaviour and will take their cues from them.

The fact that helpers often play an instrumental role in bringing up Singaporean children and influencing their world views, especially in terms of sharing personal experiences and imparting cultural awareness, also seems to have gone unnoticed by parents here.

I have lost touch with Auntie Moe Moe since she moved out and, though I have tried Googling her over the last few years, I have not been able to track her down.

But when I finally make my first trip to Myanmar next month, I can at least attempt to see the country through her eyes - in the same way that she took bits of my home and made it her own, leaving an indelible mark on all of us in the family.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 09, 2017, with the headline 'Lessons in life and love from our domestic helper'. Print Edition | Subscribe