Lara's Singapore Blog

Life really close to the Equator

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Book on Singapore Education

I’ve collected the blog posts on education in Singapore and turned them into an eBook.  This contains some more research and information, and presents the posts in an orderly, comprehensible way.  The title is Singapore’s Education System: How it Works, and it’s available on  Here’s the link:

The book is now (June 2012) available for Nook and as an iBook.  In these formats it’s free – just type my name into the search and download.  If you get the iBook, read it in landscape format if you want the photo galleries to work properly.

What am I, the maid?

I’m no longer living in Singapore, but found that I had one last post buzzing in my head, so here is my meditation on domestic workers in Singapore.

What am I, the maid?

In the US this is a rhetorical question generally employed by people who wish to draw their family’s attention to the fact that they are doing a lot more housework – particularly picking up socks and towels – that should be done by everyone else as well. But in Singapore the question might well be posed by any live-in maid: What am I, the maid? Employee, family member, slave, thief, or spy?

Live-in maids are so inexpensive in Singapore that they are often cheaper to hire than a weekly cleaning service. Just think of how it must feel to live in someone else’s home, not as a renter or roommate, but as an employee. What rights would you have?

Most maids in Singapore come from other, poorer countries – generally Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. Phillipine maids tend to speak more English and can more easily work in ex-pat homes, so they are more expensive. Indonesian maids were so exploited by Singaporeans that the Indonesian government demanded that they be paid an extra $150/month to deter the worst cheapskates (bringing their total pay up to a whopping $450/month). But in any case they are far from home and the protections that might be provided by friends and family – and even the protections they might claim from their own governments are tempered by the fact that the employer or the maid brokerage service keeps their passports.

It starts right away – the passports are locked away so that, if the maid turns out to be a thief, she can’t go home. Fair enough, sort of, since if you have someone else live in your house she necessarily knows where you keep all your valuables. She can meet up with some guy from her home land – say on the one Sunday afternoon off per month you are required to give her – and let him in to take your goods when you’re not home. So why trust this person you have in your house?

Face it – you HAVE to trust the people living in your house, or there’s no peace of mind. And you have to trust the person doing all the scut-work you don’t want to do – caring for your aged parents, caring for your infant children, cooking for you. But how can you trust someone you’ve hired after one interview, or because she’s cheap? Cover your ass – sequester her passport.

Or it could be for her own protection – that sweet-talking guy from her homeland can easily persuade her to run away with him, and then he can sell her into a brothel in Thailand, Vietnam, anywhere they go with their passports. At least if she stays in Singapore she has rights as a registered alien worker – assuming she has the nerve, knowledge, and language skills to assert them. She has the right to an annual trip home, paid for by her employer, likewise three or four annual medical check-ups. I believe she also has a right to have a cellphone – at least I have never met a maid without one – but even that is a prickly question. Does the maid have a right to privacy?

The husband of one of my colleagues checked through their maid’s cellphone records, and examined all the photos she had taken. She had sent someone a photo of herself in her underwear in the employer’s bathroom, which caused a huge kerfluffle – partly because she was showing a stranger the inside of her employers’ house, and partly because the employer often sees himself as responsible for the sexual purity of the maid.

Some employers sexually assault their maids – this happened often enough that maids below the age of 23 are no longer legally employed in SIngapore (I guess over 23 you’re no longer attractive). But MANY employers want to control all the social contacts their maids have, to ensure their own security. You can see how that works – if she has a boyfriend she can have him in the house while you’re away, and who wants that? – but on the other hand it’s tough on the maid, who may well want a social life.

Most maids have Sunday afternoons off – as I mentioned, they’re legally entitled to one afternoon off per month – and on that day they put on their best clothes and go to town. They congregate with others from their home countries and towns, have picnics in the parks, window shop, chat and snack. But this is also when they can make friends with the wrong kinds of people (wrong from the employers’ point of view), who may try to woo them away or worm into your house while you’re gone.

Chinese employers are notorious for overworking their maids. There are several cases a week where maids fall to their deaths from high-rises in the city – not because they were pushed, but because they were cleaning the outsides of windows, leaning precariously out to reach the corners, when already exhausted by all their other duties. Among maids, working for American or European employers is known to be the best option, in terms of workload.

It is illegal to beat a maid in Singapore, and the frequency with which maids are beaten shows in the fact that they had to pass a law to make it illegal. While I was there a police commissioner was found guilty of beating his maid, because (he claimed) she was stupid. He was jailed, and rightly so, but he was one of the few caught and brought to book.

Maids are trained by the brokerage agencies to please their employers by doing whatever they are told. Yet, of course, if you’re asking someone to run your household, watch your children, care for your elderly, you need someone who will use her best judgment. Being a maid militates against exercising judgment – any initiative in any direction is likely to offend the employer. So if the six-year-old demands a pencil from you so she can do her homework, you go get the kid a pencil. One of my friends found her children growing so lazy and demanding that she got rid of the maid – that way the kids at least had to fetch their own pencils.

And finally, maids have to deal with their own families back home. Those cell phones are in constant use, keeping in touch with maids’ own children or husbands, or with parents. Generally this is a good thing, right, to console the maid for being so far away from her loved ones. But it can also be poisonous – the people at home, unemployed, gambling and drinking, can demand more and more money from their industrious daughter/sister, guilting her into handing them her entire paycheck without any provision for her own future security.

So what am I, the maid? What is the maid in Singapore, or anywhere? Trusted family member? Charity case? Spy? Slave? Thief? This question is at the heart of the incessant nattering in Singapore – and any place where hiring domestic help is part of the culture – about the servant problem, the maid problem, the unreliabilty of foreign workers, etc. etc. etc. I found these conversations interesting at first, then tedious to listen to, because there is no answer, and the maid never gets to participate. What is the maid? This question so puzzled me that I couldn’t stomach hiring one and did my own damn work.

Poster at a Japanese Tea Shop: Hung Over Crap

We were in a mall that houses many Japanese shops yesterday. The place was bustling, which is kind of unusual, and I wonder if there were special deals that sent money to Japan for earthquake relief. Anyway, we walked past a shop that has incredibly beautiful tea sets, and saw this sign in the window:

I believe the phrases for which they were grasping were “Tokyo Towers” and “held up carps.” But I could b wrong

Hornbills at our house

I was doing yoga this morning, when I saw a pair of hornbills fly into the tree outside the window. My spouse took some photos, and here is the best one, cropped and blown up:

Or a closer look:
Sorry it’s a bit grainy.  I think it might have been clearer with a manual focus, but this is pretty good for amateur opportunistic bird photography.

There is a pair of hornbills in the neighborhood; I don’t know if this is the same pair that visited the garden of the cafeteria at my office building, but I hope so. That pair parked in a tree and watched people eat for about 20 minutes. They are really large birds, with tails about a foot long, but when they sit still they’re nearly invisible – odd how something so huge can blend in with a green and gray tree.
Anyway, I like them and hope you do too.

Singapore election!

Everyone’s excited about this, because of the 87 seats in the Singapore Parliament, 80 are being contested.  In the U.S., that would be like 89 Senate seats and 398 House seats being up for grabs simultaneously.  And for the first time there are a lot of people opposing the single-party system, and they’re not just the usual superannuated communists left over from 1963.  There’s a lot of discontent among young and educated people, who seem to feel that those in government are paid far too much compared to anyone else.  Why all this discontent in such a well-run country?  A general perception, I think, that those in power are reluctant to share the goodies or let anyone else in.  And that they’re corrupt: for every four good Members of Parliament, says a colleague, there’s one cockroach – a crony MP, a wife or cousin who shouldn’t be there.

It doesn’t help that the ruling party also rules the media and airwaves.  You never read or hear of the activities or platforms of the opposition parties, although they do exist.  Several years ago the ruling party had a rally in a stadium, and a long shot appeared on TV showing the crowd.  An even greater crowd filled the stadium at the opposition Workers’ Party rally, but no long shots were shown; the crowd was too big for government comfort, because so many people went to the rally to hear the speakers – that was the only way they could find out what the opposition was saying. So nobody knew how popular the opposition rally was until some brave soul put a long shot of it on the internet.

Recent government policy – surprise! –  outlaws putting political events on the internet.  It’s widely anticipated that in the wake of this election there will be many lawsuits against violating Youtube account holders, as the government follows its traditional policy of slowly, legally squashing the opposition through use of the law.

The system is modelled on the British Commonwealth one, where candidates are nominated (tomorrow) and campaigning occupies about 2 weeks. Long enough, says my friend, for nasty rumors to really get going but not corrected.  Then on May 7 the election is held, with teachers and other civil servants required to man the polling stations (they get a holiday some other day in May), and we’ll see what happens when the dust settles.  Will the PAP (People’s Action Party) retain its majority in the Parliament?  I think they currently have 90% of the seats.

So on the eve of nominations, everyone in the office is really excited, chatting of little else. It’s contagious.

Chinese medicine in Singapore

My officemate from Beijing seems to have more or less given up on western medicine for her aches and pains. She goes to a guy in the back room of a Chinese herb shop (one of a prominent chain in Singapore), and he does things to her that leave her with slight lacerations and scraped skin, but which she says work. She had her shoulders scraped to get rid of stiff shoulders and neck pain, and her husband asked her to wear a turtleneck to work so people wouldn’t think he’d been beating her. And last weekend the Chinese doctor pinched the skin between her eyes and shook it heartily, then did the same with the skin on her temples, leaving interesting red marks that are almost covered by her glasses. She says it worked miraculously on her stuffy nose and head congestion.

Scientifically, I’d love to know how this sort of thing works! (Aside from my private theory that the treatment hurts so much that it distracts the patient’s attention from the original condition.) But until there’s some sort of regulation of research systems in China, it will remain a mystery. Alas.
Here’s a token problem in Chinese medical research (Thanks, Mei!):

Singapore real estate…

OK, buying an apartment in Singapore is a highly controlled affair. The Housing Development Board (HDB) controls what sizes of apartments are built, how many, where they are located, and who can buy them.  So limiting, lah!   But I just heard from my officemates that Singaporeans get a 2.6% interest rate, which my Singaporean friends think is too high! Permanent residents get 3%. Other people are stuck with market rates.

There are similar regulations in Malaysia.  Very hands-on control of real estate and banking in this part of the world.

A Chinese friend says in Beijing it’s 7%.  Everyone groans over this terribly high interest rate, which is lower than the US average over the last 30 years…

Just FYI.

Melbourne – food

I went to Melbourne for a conference 2 weeks ago, and it was lovely to get out of the tropics for a while. Just think – when you open the hotel window, the air outside is COOLER than the air inside – what a concept! And if you towel yourself off in the bathroom, you actually get dry. Again – who knew?

Aside from conferring, I did a certain amount of walking around the city. It’s clean, airy, full of lovely sidewalks and interesting buildings and parks – in short, a wonderful place to walk. One of the places I went was the Queen Victoria Market, where Australians sell their produce. They grow organic stuff: And also non-organic produce (I originally typed “inorganic produce” and then realized what nonsense that would be):This is the Apple Corner of the market, which is essentially a couple of long sheds with a daily farmers’ market going on in them. Towards noon the prices fall precipitously, but where was I going to put a forty-pound box of oranges? Anyway, I did buy some fruit, and was surprised at how good it is to eat relatively locally – Singapore does NOT grow any veggies or fruit (well, some hydroponic greens, but that’s it), and I ate apples that tasted as if they’d been plucked off the tree that morning. What bliss.

But it’s not all outdoor sheds. There’s a huge deli hall, where you can get lots of Turkish/Greek food, pizza, cakes, poppy and sesame and nut-based pastries, and cheese, cheese, cheese, all made locally. Wow. And then if you keep walking you hit another building where they sell meat and fish. Herewith, some photos of beautifully laid out and super-fresh meat and fish. Note the buffalo and kangaroo roasts on offer:
Seafood below: scallops with their shells and oysters ditto, in little plastic trays: And I don’t know if you can see them in this photo, but the little garfish, the yellow/translucent ones with long noses, still have bright clear eyes. I’d never seen these (when not snorkelling) except when they were threaded on a skewer and grilled in japanese restaurants:

A note on bathroom (and other) maintenance

I was telling my officemates about my affection for the Sarawak Museum, but had to mention (of course) the strangely nasty toilet facilities there. Why is there such a contrast between the exhibition halls and the fairly simple matter of clean toilets?

Turns out it’s not simple. In the first place, the whole building and contracting tender system in Malaysia is conducted behind closed doors, so nobody knows what the lowest bid was. So nobody knows how much a builder or services contractor gets to keep in his own pockets once a contract has been “won” – a better word is “awarded.”  Easy money for contractors!

OK, said I, but surely it can’t be so difficult to hire some poor but honest person to clean the bathrooms once or twice a day? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile in a tourist-oriented place?

Well, turns out it is difficult, and that’s because of the easy money problem. Nobody wants to earn a simple living by cleaning stuff (or actually performing any services) because the whole culture revolves around the notion of easy money – of skimming off the top. With toilet cleaning, there is no top. Unless you run a cleaning firm. So let’s say your cleaning firm wins a contract to clean toilets at the museum. You of course don’t mind overseeing the actual cleaning person, but doing the work yourself is out of the question. So you hire someone to do it it for a pittance. That person may or may not do the cleaning – you don’t surpervise them very closely, because you already have your cut from the contract and don’t care if the toilets are clean. And the cleaning person probably doesn’t care either – nobody’s checking to see if the job is done, nobody’s in a position to receive or act on negative feedback from customers. So money may be spent, but nothing gets done.

This is apparently a big problem in Malaysia, where the bidding process is closed. In Singapore, by contrast, the uncle or aunty who cleans the bathrooms is accountable to their supervisor, and if there are complaints from end-users the supervisor makes life miserable for the cleaner. (In turn, the cleaning company is not paid if the cleaning is not done – a condition that seems not to obtain in Malaysia.) The bidding process in Singapore is open, so everyone knows who is responsible. People claim that there’s an easy money mentality in Singapore too, at least for the already-wealthy, but it doesn’t seem to trickle down to the point where nobody does anything, because they’re always hoping for a cut from an uncle in the construction business.

Art and aesthetics in Kuching: Museums!

Let’s start at the airport, where you can see this lovely fern.  The curving green silhouette is a nice contrast to the usual right-angled gray bleakness of airport architecture.

And so to the Kuching Museums!  Our hotel was right next to the museum complex.  I like the exterior of the Natural History Museum of Sarawak – a colonial building surmounted by a giant bug:There’s this carved boulder outside the Sarawak Art Museum.  So dinosaurian, or water-monitorian – whatever the reptile, it’s distinctly representative, and highly decorative.A local artist specializes in some of the ubiquitous materials – soda cans and slices of corrugated iron roofing – to create giant chickens.  Here’s a cock-fight:Carved doors are a good status symbol. Here we have indigenous carving designs, with the later addition of islamic calligraphy.  

I am very fond of this statue.  This fierce man is wearing a pangolin hat.

Nearby in another colonial building is the ethnological museum, which has good exhibits on indigenous cultures upstairs, and a lot of stuffed animals downstairs – badly stuffed, and pretty dusty. But the 30-foot python skeleton is impressive. And they have a few lovely touches in museum architecture that remind me of the grand museums of the west. Here’s a nice arched doorway in this colonial building: And here’s detail of the artwork around the inside of the arch.

Cross a footbridge over one of the main streets in Kuching and you get to the newest of the Sarawak museums, which has a really good series of exhibits on burial traditions in Borneo among the various populations. Outside there is a huge totem carved from one tree, with a little house on top that would typically have contained ancestral bones.

Burial traditions are important because there’s a long tradition of burying ceramics with the dead, and the ceramics are both native and trade items. So they can tell you a lot about local history, which is handy if there’s no extant textual evidence.  Trade with India and China has happened in Sarawak for thousands of years. There’s a quite good collection of enormous Chinese decorated urns, and a really terrific exhibit on native pottery traditions. Then there’s a good solid scholarly archeological exhibition, which shows how the nearby caves have yielded pottery shards that provide evidence of rice cultivation about 6000 years ago – perhaps the earliest in southeast Asia. Well, I was excited about this, although the rest of my family found it expedient to hang out in the gift shop reading books for the extra hour that I spent in this area. We emerged with a few goodies from that shop, including a book entitled “Man-Eating Crocodiles of Borneo.” Who could possibly resist?



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