A False Necessity: Singapore’s Maid Trade

In my gleamingly modern home town of Singapore, trading in women has been refined to a stomach-churningly efficient art. The women in question are foreign domestic workers (FDWs), locally known as “maids”, who travel from poorer countries – principally but not only the Philippines and Indonesia – to live in private households and provide cleaning, cooking and care services. So ubiquitous is their hire – in the hundreds of thousands, in a country of 5 million – that online portal bestmaid.com.sg confidently declares, “In Singapore, maid is not a luxury, but a necessity.

Fortunately, “maid agencies” are to hand to assist with procuring these necessities. Visit one of the offices that dot the island and you can see FDWs displayed like so many wares, often in uniform haircuts and agency-branded T-shirts. To determine if you’re getting value for money, you can’t engage with the woman in front of you – you have to fill in a form with your preferences so that the agency can consult their comprehensive catalogue, neatly enabling you to locate a maid with the desired height, build, nationality, age, skin colour, religion, marital status, number of children and other vital qualifications for the job.

But I’m behind the times – rather than making this trip you could also consult maidlibrary.com, the “maid search” function of which helpfully divides into “married” and “not married” columns by default.

One sought-after trait, which sadly cannot yet be reliably gauged by even the most competent businesses, is quiescence. The maid mustn’t get ideas above her station, like thinking she is entitled to one day off a month, or considering changing employer if her current post isn’t working out, or – worst of all – eating biscuits, thus forcing you to beat her. Savvy employers sometimes pick Indonesian workers because FDWs from the Philippines are reputed to be more knowledgeable and assertive about their rights, as well as being likely to speak English, the local lingua franca.

“It’s when they speak English that the problem comes,” one employer said to me confidingly. “That’s when they start to make friends.”

At a loss, I replied, “God forbid anyone should have friends.”

She hastily clarified: it wasn’t friends she was worried about, it was boyfriends. Particularly the foreign men who carry out the vast majority of Singapore’s manual labour and typically come from poorer Asian countries, such as Bangladesh. This brings us to one of the less endearing features of Chinese Singaporean racism – and you might have guessed the competition is fierce – namely the hypersexualisation of foreign workers with darker skin.

There is no other way to put this: the nation is obsessed with the possibility that some of these people might shag. Given that having sex is all that foreign women might conceivably wish to do with themselves, to prevent this horrifying contingency, they must not be allowed to communicate with anyone, ever. Ostensibly, this fixation arises because FDWs are forbidden by law to give birth in Singapore, but in a country where contraception is freely available and abortion is perfectly legal up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, there’s clearly something else going on here, psychologically, with employers.

Human Rights Watch documents the results:

“I can write letters but I can’t make phone calls, I have to do it in secret. I’m not allowed to have a boyfriend. My employer wouldn’t like it, she would send me back to Indonesia.” …

Many domestic workers are forbidden from leaving the workplace unless they are in the company of their employer or, for those who are so lucky, on days off. Some domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported being locked in their workplace from the outside. More commonly, domestic workers reported that their employers discouraged or prohibited them from talking to neighbors, other domestic workers, or to friends on the phone. …

Almost all of the domestic workers that Human Rights Watch interviewed were required to obtain permission to leave the household where they worked. Many domestic workers were not allowed out of the apartment unless they were in the company of their employer, even to go to the market.Some employers locked the phone so domestic workers could not use it during the day. …

“They would lock me inside the house with the baby. I was not allowed to make phone calls or send letters to my family. I wasn’t allowed to say anything or talk to the neighbors, I had to just keep quiet.” …

“If I left the flat to throw out the trash, I had to return in exactly three minutes.”…

“They don’t give me more off days, because they’re worried that I will get a boyfriend.” …

Singaporean progressive blog Barnyard Chorus also picks up on one employer’s – not unrepresentative – letter to the local papers, bemoaning the willingness of agencies to arrange the transfer to another employer of a FDW who appeared to have formed social relationships with men. The baffling idea that this ought to disqualify her from employment is remarkably widely shared.

Much of this racist abusiveness and dehumanisation is closely related to Singaporeans’ fear and anxiety over the country’s post-colonial survival. The national narrative has us plucked from the jaws of devastating poverty by good governance and hard work (both presented, with varying degrees of explicitness, as specifically Chinese virtues), and positions Singapore as a unique success story in a region of backward societies whose misfortunes are testament to, and constitutive of, the unreality and insignificance of their inhabitants. Thus, Human Rights Watch documents a case where an employer justified withholding wages for eight years of a FDW’s work with: “I’ve done a lot for you. Because of me, you got to breathe the air in Singapore. I gave you a luxurious life. Whatever we have done for you is enough.” In other words, because she came from a poorer country, slavery was the best she could legitimately hope for. Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister for 25 years from independence and whose son is now Prime Minister, has brandished maidhood as part of the ultimate threat to the nation’s well-being: if the 45 year-long dominance of the ruling party were to end, he cautioned, “your asset values will disappear, your apartment will be worth a fraction of what it is, your jobs will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries”.

I suspect that for many Singaporean women, abusiveness towards FDWs is also connected to fear and anxiety about our own place in society. Patriarchal attitudes simultaneously devaluing and gendering care work and domestic work are well-ensconced in Singapore, but the prevalence of FDWs staves off, to some degree, arguments about the role of Singaporean women in private and public spheres, by replacing the grossly undervalued labour Singaporean women would have been expected to do with grossly undervalued labour that foreign women are made to do. The hierarchy and unfairness remain in place; we’ve just changed the demographic on whom the worst burdens fall. Which is, of course, from a humanitarian perspective, little change at all.

We need a rethinking of existing ways, and an understanding that care work

and domestic work are work, and the people who perform this work, whomever they may be, should be accorded proper respect and status. Instead, we have imagined into being a hellish necessity: that there must be maids, who must be subjugated; and only by meting out the ill-treatment that defines this degraded role can we reassure ourselves of our own precarious superiority over it.


Although this is a particularly stark issue in Singapore, many of the forms of abuse and dehumanising attitudes discussed are also highly relevant to migrant domestic workers in the UK. Please read Kalayaan’s 2008 report (previously linked by The F Word here) to find out more.