A Day-off Too Late

Jul 18, 2011

Here’s a eulogy for Miss Cawi Nei Mawi. A day off seems so little to ask, but we know it can make such a difference to maids cooped up for too long. 

She assured me that I wouldn't always be miserable like that. After a few months, I would become familiar with the work and the people and I would be alright again. After we talked, I felt that my burden had been lifted. I was relieved and had enough strength to plough on. If Aanei and Cawi had been lucky like me, and had somebody caring to talk to, who could understand and counsel them, their lives might have turned out differently.

Many surveys suggest that about half of domestic workers get a day off. The maid population has been increasing steadily. If we assume there are about 200,000 domestic workers in Singapore today, and that half the maids sign agreements to work without a day off, then it means so many Singaporeans have turned their modern furnished beautiful flats and houses into prisons for the young women from poorer neighbouring Asian countries.

In Singapore today, how many maids are cut off from the outside world and kept isolated? How many are asked to work from dawn to midnight without adequate food? How many are taking silently the physical and verbal abuses hurled on them?

Of course, most survive. The strong would become stronger through their ordeal. Some would just survive to go back home to tell their tales of Singapore. If you remember, some committed terrible, unimaginable crimes. When I stared at those young faces on the pages of the newspapers in those days, I could not believe they had killed somebody. They just didn't look like killers. I wish these horrible things will never happen again in Singapore. The force that nourished, provoked and unleashed the monster inside them must have been too powerful for them to resist.


And how many turned on themselves and truncated their own lives?

How many more are going to follow them?

Is it right to watch them from a distance with detachment?

Is it right to let them stumble and fall because they are not strong enough to survive?

Are you going to pretend you do not see them at all?


Concerned with the way some whites treated the blacks in the post-Depression American South, in her classic novel, “To Kill the Mockingbird”, Harper Lee wrote:  “It is a sin to kill the mockingbirds.” If she were a Singaporean living today, I wonder what message she might leave the younger generation of Singaporeans, about the mockingbirds who are locked inside the cage of their parents' beautiful homes, who are deprived of their freedom till their happy songs die away and they forget how to smile.

Cawi, I learnt about your tragic death from the FCFS group mail a week after your funeral took place. I am sorry about your family's misfortune and what you had been through. I also want to let you know that I am disappointed with you because you gave up too early.

In my case, my employer granted me a monthly day off after three months. When I got my first day off, as I walked along the road freely, I couldn't help grinning like an idiot. I didn't care if people thought I'd gone mad. I might have been dancing too.

A day off seems so little to ask, but we know it can make such a difference to maids cooped up for too long.

Cawi, I think we all have something to learn from your death, before it is too late.


This article was first published on transientworkerscount2