It’s been 33 years, said Isaac Tan, since foreign domestic workers started moving into Singaporean households. A generation of young people has grown up with them. How have their presence impacted our lives?
Together with his friends, Abhiroop Basu, Dawn Toh and others – “creative types”, according to TWC2 president Russell Heng – Isaac hit on the idea of an online memory project.
He said: “These stories can be from anybody, and be about anything, so long as they pertain to maids in Singapore. By doing so, we intend to show people the significance of the role that maids have played in the Singapore story and so accord them the dignity that they deserve.”
Thus was born Maid By Me. The final result is even simpler than the original concept. All it asks for is a picture either of the maid who spent a good part of her life with you, or of something that reminds you of her. Add a little caption, the more poignant the better, and voila, you’ve contributed to our collective memory.
It is hoped that, in time, a full body of contributions will give us a comprehensive view of the many ways maids have shaped a new generation. Thus social history.
“Maid stories [in Singapore’s public sphere] rarely go beyond being oppositional; party A versus party B,” said Issac, pensively. “The stories rarely get beyond abuse, for example. But what about the fact that many grew up with them?
“What happened to all those memories?”
To the question whether the project might over-romanticise the subject, Isaac said it wasn’t the case. “I see fully that maids are not perfect. There are some who cheat, lie or steal.”
“That’s why Maid By Me is very neutral, from all angles,” added Abhiroop.
The point however is that having someone live within the home for years must necessarily mean engagement that is multifaceted and quite deep. “Our maid was someone I would fight with. ‘You have to do this, and do that,’ she would tell me, just like a second mom to me,” recalled Dawn.
It therefore came as a bit of a shock to her when in describing the project to her friends, a common response was Why are you doing this?
Abhiroop explained that technically, the website was simple to develop, taking all of one afternoon, but the real obstacle may well be disbelief among others that it serves any purpose.
Said Dawn: “It’s like, to them, maids are invisible. Clothes are magically washed and folded, dinner appears by itself.” The maid is seen as little more than an appliance, “like the fridge or the washing machine, and why would you have a memory project about such things?”
Hopefully, such views are the minority and Maid By Me’s collection of photo vignettes will grow and grow.