“Back in 2010 I felt like I was living in a jail, I couldn’t go out except to wash the car and take the groceries out of the car. I was only allowed to sleep after all the clothes had been washed, and all had to be washed by hand. For breakfast, I had 3 biscuits and a cup of coffee. I would get my salary every 2 months, although for 8 months I had salary deductions to pay back the employment agency, so I only got $10. I couldn’t communicate with my family for 6 months. When I told them that I wanted to call home, they said they didn’t know how to do international calls to my country.
Actually, I wasn’t working for my real employer. He was the one giving me my salary, but I was working for his brother. They arranged that I would live with him and take care of their elderly mother. The couple that I was living with was an old Singaporean man and his wife, an Indonesian lady. She would act like a high class Singaporean Malay lady when she was speaking to me, although she was from the same country and even province of Central Java as me. In front of his wife the old man was very quiet and he didn’t talk much. But when she wasn’t around, he was so rude to me.
After 7 months working there, I got red pocket money for Chinese New Year and I received about $200. I managed to buy a phone after asking one of my friends to help me buy the cheapest phone. I called my family and I told them I am fine, everything is good, I am strong enough, “Commander must be strong”. My father used to call me “Commander” because of my behavior as a leader when we were helping our parents. Madam didn’t know that I had a phone until one night she caught me while I was on the line. She scolded me, she said that she had told me before ‘no phone allowed’ but I answered that it was not written in my contract, so I was allowed to buy a phone. I told her the reason why I bought the phone was because she did not allow me to call my family and she even rejected an incoming call from my family. She didn’t reply, and everything went back to normal for a while.
They went twice on holiday and they used to send me and Ahma (the grandmother) to another relative’s house until they came back. It was fine until the third time, Madam went back to Indonesia without Sir. Ahma and I were sent to the relative’s house but after a few days, Sir decided that we should come back. Without telling his wife, he asked his brother to send me and Ahma back. From that day, I was living in fear.
He tried to touch me many times and seduce me with sweet words. It made me feel disgusted. He asked me if I wanted to go and eat outside and to massage him. I refused everything. I always managed to block him away. Then one day he used a gold necklace with a capital letter N to seduce me. I asked him, “Are you trying to buy me with this necklace?… You will not be able to buy me with your money. I am not interested in your necklace or your money. I am working as a maid. I have money and if I want I can buy my own necklace. I am not like your wife who is easily influenced with money. I am just a teenage girl! You think I am easy, but you met the wrong person, I won’t give into you. You say if I want to marry you, I can go anywhere, I can eat good food, I can have a good life with old man… Well, I am not interested.”
He told me that with the money, I can get everything, and it is better than getting married for love. So, I answered: “Money can’t buy happiness and blessings. Don’t you feel ashamed at 72 years old, trying to seduce a 19 years old girl? I won’t marry such an old man like you and I will fight against this until the end!”
The necklace actually belonged to his wife. Both our names start with N. I told him to give it to his wife. I was very cautious after that, and always prepared in case he tries to do anything before his wife came back. I used to keep newspaper rolls with me as a weapon. He told me not to tell his wife because his wife wouldn’t believe me. When he was out, he used to call on the house number to talk to me and calling me ‘wife’ but I always hung up the phone once I could hear his voice. He used to buy snacks for me, but I refused to eat them, and I gave them all to Ahma.
One day I needed some money to send home, so I asked him to tell his brother that I needed my salary. He didn’t even call his brother, instead he gave me $10. I refused to take it and I told him that I wanted my salary not his money.
However, that was a difficult time and I struggled to get my salary, but I really needed it as my mother was very sick in the hospital.
I worked with them for 13 months. Then one morning, November 2011, I went to my room to look at my phone. I don’t know what Madam was thinking, but she came into my room and she asked me to pack up my belongings. And she told me they were going to send me back home. She then stayed there watching me. While I was packing my stuff, I thanked her for everything, but her answer was that I was trying to be clever, that I was an impolite person, and that I liked to answer back. I was upset at her answer, so I told her, “You taught me how to be clever, and you taught me how to talk back to you. Look at everything you have done to me. It has made me who I am now. You have no respect for other people.”
When she heard that, she got so angry she wanted to slap me on the face. So, I carried on,: “You can slap me if you think that I have done something wrong to you. But I have never done anything wrong to you, so don’t you dare even touch me!” She left the room and slammed the door very loudly. I received many SMS then from my real employer, and they asked me what is going on. Madam had told them that I didn’t do my work, so the employer was asking me why I didn’t work properly. I replied that I work well, and I work hard, and if really, I wasn’t working properly, they wouldn’t have kept me for more than a year. I was fasting on that day as the next day was Hari Haji. She asked me to eat before leaving, but my answer was “I am fasting”. She laughed at me asking, what are you fasting for? I told her, “I am a Muslim and you are a Muslim too, and you are asking me why I am fasting? You really don’t know what I am fasting for? Well I will tell you, I am fasting for myself because I am a Muslim and tomorrow is a big day for me and for all the Muslims around the world. You pray 5 times a day, but you don’t know what fasting means for us Muslim.” She was very angry after I said that.
When I left the house, I felt relieved because I thought that old man would not harass me anymore. But at the same time, I felt sad for Ahma, Especially because I saw how my lady boss had treated Ahma so badly, and how she had left her alone when she fell down. I thought they were going to send me to the airport, but instead Sir sent me to my real employer’s shop and the whole family was there. After he dropped me off, they started to investigate the whole story. I thought, are they going to believe me or not? But never mind, it’s up to them and I decided to tell them the real story. I couldn’t believe it, but I actually got a positive response from them. The rest of the family didn’t want to send me back home. They agreed for me to finish my contract, but I had to move to another family member’s house. They trusted me to take care of Ahma again, so they decided to take Ahma out from Sir’s house and she moved with me.
I have always had a good relationship with Ahma, we shared love, smiles and laughs, I loved her so much. Sadly, she passed away last year. She came into my dreams and she asked me to wake up and bring her back to China.
My experience as a domestic helper in Singapore has been such a great lesson. There is no perfect employer, they have good and bad sides but it all depends on how we are going to handle it.
From my previous employer I was able to buy a motorbike for my father. Since then, I have been working for 6 years with this family. I have bought land, I have sent my brother to study and he will graduate as a doctor soon. My sister is also following in my brother’s footsteps and she is studying hard. Here in Singapore, I joined Aidha and studied business management in 2015-2016. Now, with my family I can run my farm and my business. Next year I think I will start studying again. I want to take a new course as I have too many dreams to achieve. So, I must work hard and believe I can make it step by step.”
Interviewed by Catherine Plagne Ismail in December 2017