Clubs' barring of maids: 'Good, old-timey discrimination?'

Privacy and overcrowding cited as among the reasons, but some people cry foul

Almost 20 years ago, Adjunct Associate Professor Angie Chew was banned from the Singapore Cricket Club (SCC) for speaking out publicly against its policy of not allowing maids to enter its premises, igniting a fierce public debate that reached publications such as Britain's Telegraph newspaper.

So when she read about a similar episode involving a maid who was allegedly spurned by the club and asked to wait in the carpark while her employers had dinner two weeks ago, she was not only hit by a sense of deja vu, but also disappointment that the club's mores have not evolved on this front.

In the latest episode, actor Nicholas Bloodworth, 33, posted on Facebook to protest against the treatment of his brother's Filipino maid Mary at the SCC.

His father, an SCC member, had taken him, the family and Mary to the club for dinner on Nov 23 but the club refused to sign Mary in as a guest, with a staff member saying they "don't allow maids here".

While the SCC started in 1852 as a men-only sports club, Prof Chew, executive director of a charity, pointed out that it has updated its by-laws in other areas, such as admitting female members in 1938 and giving female members voting rights on club matters in 1996.

"The club has its right to set its rules and the club is made up of members, so the members are the ones who are behind the upkeep of these rules, which I think reflects very poorly on them," said Prof Chew. "The discriminatory policy is just unbecoming of Singaporeans in 2018."

Prof Chew, now 55, was a club member when her Sri Lankan maid was asked by a waiter to leave a restaurant at the SCC in 2000. She wrote to The Straits Times to complain and was later barred from the club for her public criticism. She did not renew her membership.

VERY POOR REFLECTION

The club has its right to set its rules and the club is made up of members, so the members are the ones who are behind the upkeep of these rules, which I think reflects very poorly on them. The discriminatory policy is just unbecoming of Singaporeans in 2018.

PROF ANGIE CHEW, on how club members are the ones who decide on the rules.

In his Facebook post, which has gone viral, Mr Bloodworth said that such a policy is reminiscent of colonial-era social segregation and was "good, old-timey discrimination".

He also told The Sunday Times that the club had not made the policy clear on its website, which led to the unpleasant situation of the maid being turned away at its door.

At least three other clubs here also ban maids from entering - the British Club in Bukit Timah, the Tanglin Club in Orchard, and the Tower Club in Raffles Place.

The British Club makes an exception if maids are attending a function organised by the club for them. A spokesman said the policy was put in place "quite some time ago" as some members were uncomfortable about having maids around. The spokesman added that the club can get crowded on weekends and the policy can help to alleviate this issue.

The other clubs did not respond to queries.

WHAT CLUB MEMBERS SAY

Some club members defend their by-laws. A Tanglin Club member of more than 20 years, who declined to be named, said that such rules are meant to preserve a certain atmosphere in the club. "I know it sounds snobbish, but coming here is my way of being away from the marketplace, and we pay a premium for that." The policy is in place, she added, probably because members do not want the club to become like a public "chalet".

PAYING A PREMIUM

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 TANGLIN CLUB MEMBER, who defended the club's rule to bar maids. The 50-year-old retiree declined to be named.

The 50-year-old retiree, who used to work in marketing, added that other rules also aim to maintain the atmosphere in the club. For instance, club members may face disciplinary action if their guests talk loudly on the phone in some areas.

Such by-laws can be put up for review at annual general meetings (AGMs). Members proposing any change need to be backed by at least one other member before it goes to a vote, and the process of lobbying members to vote for a change can often be protracted.

At the Tanglin Club, the policy on maids has not been raised at AGMs for at least the last five years or so, according to members.

Veteran club membership broker Fion Phua said that SCC could have handled Mr Bloodworth's family more tactfully, such as by giving them a warning instead of turning the maid away at the door.

However, the 49-year-old said such rules exist for a purpose. For example, they encourage family bonding by signalling to members that they should be the ones looking after their own children in the club. Some clubs also have space constraints, Ms Phua added.

UP TO THE CLUBS

The club's premises are private property and the club has the prerogative to regulate admission to the premises through its by-laws.

LAWYER CHIA BOON TECK, on how clubs can set their own rules as they are private premises. 

But Tanglin Club member Cho Pei Lin, 40, countered that the issue of space constraints can be easily addressed by setting a limit on the number of guests allowed at the club during peak periods.

The managing director of a public relations firm found out about the club's policy on maids only four or five years ago, when her friend's maid was asked to leave when they were dining at a restaurant.

Later she wrote to the club to ask for the policy to be waived for her family, as her younger sister, a single mother, needed her maid's help to look after the children when they used club facilities like the pool. The request was denied.

"It's a discriminatory and ridiculous by-law. If I had brought in my hairdresser or tuition teacher to have a meal, they wouldn't have done the same thing," said Ms Cho, who does not employ a maid.

Not all maids have been turned away from the SCC.

A 31-year-old Filipino maid, who wanted to be known only as Sie, said she had been to the SCC at least four times with her employers over the past year. "All the waitresses were accommodating to me and smiled to me as if it was normal for them. The policy doesn't seem clear," said Sie, who said she made it a point to wear formal attire there.

The Sunday Times understands that SCC rarely asks guests for proof of occupation.

Prof Chew added that her expatriate friends have also taken Caucasian au pairs to the SCC, and friends' confinement nannies have also been allowed into the club. "It seems like they are also discriminating based on the colour of your skin, which is not fair."

 
 

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck said that while anti-discrimination laws exist in Singapore, such as those that protect workers against wrongful dismissal, none of them applies to such club practices. "The club's premises are private property and the club has the prerogative to regulate admission to the premises through its by-laws." A club also has the prerogative to define who falls into the category of a "domestic helper" or "driver", he added.

A WIDER ISSUE OF DISCRIMINATION

An SCC member from the Netherlands said that the ongoing debate about club policies is missing a wider point.

Even outside of clubs, maids are often treated like second-class citizens, said the 61-year-old education consultant who declined to be named. In hawker centres or restaurants, it is a common sight to see maids not being allowed to eat even as their employers enjoy their meals, she pointed out. "It is easy to bark at the establishment, but equal rights for maids also includes what we do in our daily lives."

Corporate communications professional Matthew Loh, 42, agreed. About four years ago, his maid, who had been sitting on a garden bench near his condominium's back gate as his daughter and other children were waiting for the school bus, was told by another condominium resident that she could not use the bench. "The underlying discrimination is much more entrenched than we think," said Mr Loh, who is not a club member.

Some condominiums, including the Costa Rhu in Tanjong Rhu and the Makena in East Coast, have rules barring maids from using some condo facilities.

A Filipino maid, 34, said that even though her employer had given her an access card to use the gym and swimming pool in her condo in Paya Lebar, a security officer told her she could not do so.

"My boss was mad when she found out... To me, it feels like a kind of deprivation, but I can't blame this society if they think lowly of us, since we are just here to earn a living," she said.

National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the ongoing debate on club policies reflects how such institutional practices "do not sit well with the value shift occurring in our society".

"However, there is also a need to ensure that they are not practised at the interpersonal level between employers and their domestic helpers, away from public view."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 02, 2018, with the headline ''Good, old-timey discrimination?''. Print Edition | Subscribe