By Nissa Mai
“I will kill you ah!” She very angry, angry. She smack me four times. I say, “I’m a human, I’m sorry!” [Then], Amah show me the big knife. She say, “[If] you argue, I cut you with the big knife.”
That’s when Surya (not her real name) ran away for the first time.
One of the the first things I notice about Surya is her insatiable thirst for knowledge. While waiting for her consultation at the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), she spots a rack of newspapers in the corner. She plucks off a copy of The Straits Times, opening it to the World News section. “You can read?” I ask, surprised because common knowledge has it that most Indonesian domestic workers can barely speak English, much less read it.
As it turns out, Surya’s English literacy is a hard-earned and well-deserved accomplishment. In her short life, she already has made many, many sacrifices for her education.
Surya explains that she came from a “broken family,” and from a very young age was shuffled between aunts and uncles. “When I’m small, I follow anybody. I just want to [attend] school.” But moving around so often was difficult, she says. “I’m so tired — change school, change school.” When she reached secondary school, she asked her aunt to send her away to an orphanage, where she would be allowed to attend an affiliated madrassa continuously through high school. Although she wouldn’t be close to her family, she could take chemistry, physics, English, and biology. “I say maybe that place better for me.” The aunt agreed.
After graduating high school, she decided to find a job in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. “I need some money for my future. I have a dream to continue my education, go to university.” It was in Jakarta where she learned from a recruiter that she could earn a better salary in Singapore as a domestic worker. After weighing her options, Surya took the opportunity.
A year on, her loan was paid off, but she had never been given the salary owed to her. Once, after her employer — Ms Ang —received complaints from the agency in Jakarta, she remitted some money to Surya’s family back home. Ms Ang said she was putting Surya’s salary in a bank account — one that Surya didn’t have access to. Surya didn’t have access to her work permit or passport either. She was overworked and tired, often getting only four or five hours’ rest a night, sometimes only two or three, on the kitchen floor.
On Saturdays, she was sent to clean Ms Ang’s mother’s house; the extra work exhausted Surya even more.
Food was scarce and irregular: most days, she ate only bread; some days, she didn’t eat. Occasionally, Ms Ang would give permission to purchase peanut butter, coffee, and sanitary napkins. Then she would would show Surya that she was keeping the receipts—not that Ms Ang ever paid her anyways. It’s not as if she couldn’t afford to do so, either — she is the regional business development manager of a huge multinational company, a company whose name is instantly recognisable worldwide. Walk down any food aisle in a supermarket and you will see its various products in several sections.
The night she ran away, Surya slept in a park. In the morning, she met a man who took her to the police, who returned her to Nation Employment Agency. Nation called her employer. Surya, terrified of returning to Ms Ang’s condominium, asked if she could find a different employer.
“No, you are not allowed to transfer,” Ms Ang said. “If you want to leave, I will send you home!” But going home wasn’t a viable option. Recognizing that the salary from most of her first year in Singapore had been spent paying off the placement fee, Surya decided to risk her physical and mental well-being in order to earn the money she had come for. She agreed to stay with her employer for another year.
She would be trapped for another twenty months before running away again.
 Since women wanting to work in Singapore from neighbouring countries seldom have enough cash upfront to pay employment agents their fee, loans are typically arranged. A domestic worker’s salary for the first seven to eight months is then diverted by the employer to the agent, in order to pay off the loan. Even in the best of circumstances, the domestic worker does not see any of her pay until the eighth or ninth month. In Surya’s case, as the story explains, not even that.