#OpinionOfTheDay

'No maids, please': Why the problem goes beyond just country clubs

When we arrived, Junarti was sobbing and wailing.

A domestic helper from Indonesia, she had been by my grandmother's side when she took her last breath, and called us at once.

Watching Junarti grieve, it struck me that in some sense, she knew my own grandmother better than I did.

In my grandmother's last days, Junarti had cared for her as one would for a family member. And to us, that's what she was: family.

Memories of that moment which took place five years ago resurfaced when I read last week that a foreign domestic worker had been barred from a restaurant in the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC).

Had my family been told Junarti could not eat with us, we would probably have left and blacklisted the place.

I was heartened to see many speak out strongly online against the club's policy. But there were many others who sided with the club.

'GOOD, OLD-TIMEY DISCRIMINATION'

A Facebook post by actor Nicholas Bloodworth on SCC staff barring his family's helper Mary drew attention to the club's policy.

The Sunday Times reported that several other clubs have the same "no-maids" policy.

When asked, a long-time Tanglin Club member said: "I know it sounds snobbish, but coming here is my way of being away from the marketplace, and we pay a premium for that."

A club membership broker said such policies signalled to members that they should interact with their own children while at the club, and not rely on helpers.

A British Club spokesman cited space constraints, and added that it made some members "uncomfortable" to have maids around.

Such snobbery tends not to stand up to scrutiny.

If the issue is overcrowding, then a seating quota would do the job.

If the idea is to maintain a club's exclusivity, all non-members should be refused entry, not just domestic helpers.

And if it takes a by-law to make sure you and your children spend time together, I don't think the real solution is in a country club.

The last excuse given - club patrons feeling "uncomfortable" with maids - thus seems to hit closest to home, especially since Mary was refused entry explicitly because she was a domestic helper.

So what exactly were those club members "uncomfortable" about?

That someone those members deem not worthy, due to their perceived low social place or perhaps even nationality, has sullied the clubs' hallowed halls?

No doubt the British colonials were also "uncomfortable" when they saw "dirty" non-Europeans in their exclusive clubs.

Perhaps then the discomfort cited is nothing but an euphemism, for "good, old-timey discrimination", as Mr Bloodworth put it.

It just goes to show that money really can't buy you class.

NOT JUST AN ELITE ISSUE

Of course, it's easy to wag our fingers and blame "atas" (Singlish for high social status) clubs and their members.

But such discriminatory attitudes are not limited to those who fancy themselves society's creme de la creme.

I'm not just talking about extreme cases where employers hit or otherwise inflict physical violence on their helpers; abuse can take many forms.

 
 
 
 

Online forums and support groups are replete with stories of how foreign domestic helpers are underfed or made to eat the scraps of a meal (often prepared by themselves for the family), or given sleeping quarters in the kitchen or even the bathroom.

Plenty of middle-class families in Singapore hire domestic helpers, and not being members of the SCC has not stopped them from having their helpers sit at separate tables during mealtimes.

On Dec 1, The Straits Times published a letter by an employer who was unhappy that the helper she had hired had tuberculosis.

What surprised me was that the letter writer showed little to no concern for the ill helper.

Instead, she lamented the paperwork she had to do to admit her helper to hospital.

She also saw nothing wrong in waiting two weeks before she took her helper to a doctor for treatment for the latter's persistent cough.

Overall, the letter read like a complaint to the supermarket about rotten produce - except her helper was the "product" and the authorities were the "supermarket".

There was also an incident early last month where a security guard at an executive condominium broke in, molested and threatened a domestic helper.

The news report drew hundreds of comments but no commentator asked how the helper was doing after the ordeal, or what measures were being taken to help her.

'MAID': WHAT'S IN A WORD?


The British Club and The Tanglin Club are two of the country clubs here that have a "no maids" policy. ST PHOTOS: GAVIN FOO

What do these incidents say about us?

What is most glaringly missing was the recognition and consideration that we are discussing fellow human beings, not "just maids".

It reveals that many people in Singapore consider domestic helpers as inferior - and it shows in the words we use.

Many here refer to foreign domestic helpers as "maids", thus defining them by their position of servitude.

I shared Junarti's story earlier precisely because to my family, she wasn't just an employee or servant.

My late grandmother had not been an easy person to care for. She had dementia, threw tantrums and was very fragile.

Yet Junarti had always been patient, good-natured and meticulous in her work. She had gone beyond the call of duty and earned our trust.

Perhaps I shouldn't paint with so broad a brush. Some may say my family was lucky, and many have been "burnt" by bad experiences of domestic helpers who instead of reciprocating kindness, took advantage of it.

But I would argue that while employers can be cautious, they need not be cruel or unkind.

What is often lacking is empathy for migrant workers.

No one would travel hundreds of kilometres for a job just to jeopardise it.

But emotional and mental abuse, coupled with the anxieties and stresses of trying to earn enough to feed one's family and of working far from home, can make anyone crack.

SO WHAT CAN WE DO?

First, I would ask Singaporeans to boycott places that discriminate against domestic helpers. Speak with your wallets, and show these establishments that you don't stand for such unfair treatment.

Second, question policies and procedures of organisations you're a part of which perpetuate and reinforce such discriminatory behaviour. Silence is complicity.

Third and perhaps most importantly, examine your own behaviour. When was the last time you said anything kind to your helper? Do you think of her as a fellow human being with her own set of needs and issues?

I don't think uniform treatment for all helpers across families is possible or desirable.

But some values, such as compassion and respect, are universal and should hold true whether you are interacting with your helper or a member of an exclusive country club.

And for heaven's sake, stop using the word "maid".

#opinionoftheday is a column for younger writers in the newsroom to write about issues that matter to them and their peers.