Hanis came to Singapore in August 2009 from East Java for a job as a domestic worker. Like so many others, she hoped to make enough to help support her husband and two children — a four-year-old son and a daughter aged 11, whom she left in the care of her mother. Her husband would be busy farming and selling produce at the market.
The first family she worked with lived near Bedok Reservoir Road, and her main job was to look after the elderly lady in the family, someone she referred to fondly as Ah Mah. She was happy there. “Very good people,” was the way she described that family, “never scold me.” Unfortunately, six months into her contract, the old lady passed away, and the family decided that there was no point keeping her. Shortly after, she was transferred to another employer, also an elderly couple. The husband was aged 65, the wife aged 60, but felled by a stroke.
When Transient Workers Count Too caught up with Hanis in mid-2011, she was about to be deported. Except for the first six months, she had not been working. “In Singapore . . . I never make money,” she said, summing up her experience. She was someone we might call a runaway maid, and hers might be the kind of story Singaporeans pass around as salutary examples of how we should be watchful of our foreign employees before they get up to no good.
Hanis, by then, was, and had been for close to a year, an inmate at a government-run dormitory for female foreign workers. It is not a prison, but ‘inmate’ is an apt word, since the individuals are effectively confined and seldom allowed to go out. She was put back there by the the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) after police had caught her at 3 a.m. living — if one could call it that — among the bushes in Bedok Reservoir Park. Hanis said she had been in the park four months, lying low.
How did she manage to survive that long? TWC2 never got to the bottom of it. She denied doing any illegal work, yet she managed to get food to eat, though there were days when she had to do without. She also denied having been anywhere near the Geylang red light district. “I also never go Geylang, not even one time. I don’t want to do. I never lie. Because, I thinking after my body spoil then how, who take care of me?” she protested.
“Also, money cannot use lah. [If] I do dirty work, so I give money my daughter cannot use lah. That’s why I don’t want to do Geylang.”
Bedok Reservoir Park was not the first place where she lived rough. Prior to that, she had spent a month at East Coast Park. At about that time, she entertained the idea of sneaking back to Indonesia via Batam, which may explain why she chose at first to live near the beach. However, park ranger patrols were quite frequent and it soon became impractical. But why was she living rough? Because she had run away from the same dormitory where she was eventually put back to.
She had been very frustrated there. “My MOM officer [at the dormitory] very strict. Never give day off. She never interview me [and] never inform me about my case,” recalled Hanis. “Nothing to do, very boring. No books to read.” Nor was she allowed to leave the camp except on rare occasions. And so she hatched a plan to escape from the dormitory, which led to a sojourn at East Coast Park, then Bedok Reservoir Park and finally back to the dormitory again.
Once again, she was going half mad with boredom. Through her second stay at the dormitory, her MOM officer “also never interview me,” she reported. Except for the interview at the police station fresh after being caught, she was treated like a non-case, left forgotten.
The details so far suggest that her misfortune was entirely her own making and there should be no reason for TWC2 to look into her case. She should not have run away — not from the dormitory, not from her second employer. Resourceful and spunky she might be, but if workers don’t want to work, they have only themselves to blame.
However, at this point, some readers might wonder if there was more to the story than that. Why wasn’t she charged with overstaying? Why such leniency with domestic workers who repeatedly run away?
“Second boss, I work only two weeks,” Hanis told TWC2. Her 65-year-old employer, “has three wives,” she said. “First wife, Singapore Chinese. Second wife, Indonesian Chinese. Third wife, somebody tell me Singaporean also. I look after first wife.
“I take care of my Mam. My Mam has stroke already.”
Two weeks into her job, the second wife left for Batam, leaving Hanis in the flat with the disabled first wife and the husband. “He ask me to massage him, he want to molest me.”
And so she ran away, and thus began the downward spiral ending up with no money to show for spending two years in Singapore. And for all the initial hopes, no help at all to her family back home.