Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Foreign Domestic Workers: The elephant in the room/house/flat


As promised, from my 6th September 2015 Nomads post I am looking at another elephant in the room that has been totally ignored during this GE. Sort of, as I learned yesterday that a PAP candidate did mention Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) when he tried to argue his case against Minimum Wage for foreign workers.

According to government statistics we have some 222,500 FDWs in December 2014.

My friend ranted on her Facebook page how she had found it impossible to hire any Singaporeans who (1) bothered to attend interviews, (2) did not want to work on weekends, and (3) went on sick leave or simply did not show up for work when the going got tough.

I feel sorry for her and other SME owners like her. (I understand that the MNCs do not have the same issues.) She wanted the freedom to employ foreigners.

Is there any connection between the young Singaporean attitude towards work and the 222,500 FDWs?

I cannot prove this, so you can stop reading here. Most of my evidence is anecdotal but ah, the thinking is original, I hope.

Things happen, and people change, and this type of change is often evident after just one generation. I researched the Chinese in the UK. A respondent tells me that when the Hong Kong Chinese first arrived here to work in the Chinese restaurants, they had one goal: work hard, make money and go home.

Claiming benefits did not even occur to them. But within 25-30 years -- about one generation -- she noticed how younger Chinese were saying, "Why bother to work so hard when the government gives you so much money just for sitting around?"

That generational difference is sometimes translated into the more scientific sounding "cohort effect". So my mother's generation was a generation of hoarders because the cohort had nothing during the Japanese Occupation. My late mother refused to throw away a single rubber band. That was the measure of her previous 'nothingness'.

What then is the cohort effect of children being brought up by FDWs? The first ones arrived in a trickle in the mid-1980s. Then the floodgates were opened in the 1990s, it seemed.

Where previously only the professional families could afford FDWs, suddenly FDWs became a status symbol and lots of households had FDWs although the second income only marginally covered the cost of the FDW. Why?

Some say that FDWs were necessary because couples found it difficult to meet their mortgage payments on just one income. Some intimated that the pressure for women to continue working was exceedingly high, whatever their income.

Few women -- and men -- would admit this: It's much more fun working in an air-conditioned office where you can enjoy banter and gossip with grown-ups than staying at home to look after young children. It gives us much greater esteem: "I did not go to university to wipe my children's bums, you know."

I know. I worked in an NMC. Went on to get a PhD. Then I stayed home to wipe my child's bum. I wonder if Dr Huang (Dr Chee Soon Juan's wife) also -- at times -- felt the same resentment that I felt.

My friends in Singapore have very different attitudes towards their FDWs. Some are introduced as valued "helpers". Some are spoken to as if they have no right to exist. Others are rendered completely invisible. We might as well have been served by a ghost.

Once I asked my nephew to bring me a glass of water. It's the sort of thing I did when I was his age. Auntie visits, we go fetch her a drink. What did my nephew do? He shouted for his maid to bring me a glass of water.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Is it any wonder that this generation of young people do not know the meaning of service? Is it any wonder that my friend found it difficult to hire good service staff? To them, "service" equals "servitude". "Service" is NOT the same as "servitude". 

You can give abysmal, mediocre or excellent service. There is no such thing as good or bad servitude.

So, a generation of FDWs means a generation who feel they are above giving service. The chickens have come home to roost, as they say.

(I had words with my nephew. His family went without a maid as soon as it was possible. Nephew is a lovely young man now.)

Has anyone tried thinking outside the box to ask: How long do we want our children to be brought up by FDWs? What is the alternative to FDWs? How do we mesh in the need for FDWs, the PWP, HDB, etc. with facilitating the return of mothers to the work place?

I hope to explore this is greater detail in a later piece, backed by real research. After the GE.

Video? What about this? For the mothers.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

There is no such thing as a perfect manifesto

Image result for i used to be conceited, but now I'm perfect

Contrary to what some "perfect" people might believe, there is no such thing as a perfect party and therefore there is no such thing as a perfect manifesto.

1984, my Sociology Honours classmates said, “Why don’t you form your own political party?” Then, as is now, there wasn’t a single political party with goals and philosophy that I can completely agree with. Fast forward to 2015, having looked at their manifestos -- which is a reflection of the party ideals -- there still isn’t a single party that completely represents my values.

I like the emphasis on “freedom of expression” and a free press by the Reform Party, the call by SDA to return the use of CPF for retirement instead of for housing and education, the proposal by WP (and SDP?) for Parliamentary Select Committees to scrutinize bills, definitive objectives in reducing class sizes (SDP, WP), and support for Small and Medium Enterprises (Singfirst, WP, SDP, RP, PAP). I think the call for a “separation of powers” (particularly between the legislative and executive) by the PPP is laudable, but they still have a lot of ideology to work through. The NSP manifesto, while it resonates with down-trodden Singaporeans, is too vague.

I struggle, though, with many of the proposals calling for minimum wage and universal benefits, because I have to deal with the fallout from such policies week in and week out. These policies are not only about money and reserves. Development studies have shown that throwing money at people groups alone does not make them richer or more viable.

A simple benefits system might be a good short-term answer but it is almost impossible to prevent “mission creep”. A comprehensive benefits system requires an onerous social and bureaucratic infrastructure. Perhaps more about this in a different post.

There is also a lot of common ground amongst the opposition parties with regards to the Population White Paper, CPF, HDB, income gap, putting Singaporeans first, etc such that it is difficult to distinguish the minutiae of one party manifesto from another. Maybe they should heed the SPP call for “collaborative, collective Government” (ie starting with a collaborative opposition). Thankfully, there are few three-corner fights and voters merely need to decide on one or the other.

How much more difficult it is to vote with our feet and join a political party!

There have been mumblings about certain candidates who, on the party election platform seems to espouse one set of causes, but had, on another, clearly opposed them. Are these candidates true to themselves? Are they worth our X beside their name (or party)? These causes could be LGBT, smoking in restaurants, shelters for cats, or lowering voting age to 16, anything close to your heart.

This, again, illustrates the important distinction between party and the person.

Personally I believe that children thrive best in two-parent families of opposite sex. But as a volunteer at my charity I have extended my help without bias to numerous single mothers and fathers. Am I a hypocrite? Dishonest? Maybe. But at least I have trained myself up to help those who most desperately need my help.

When these individuals come to me at my charity I put aside my prejudices because I have signed up to the principles of the charity. If I were to discriminate against a client on the basis of his age, sex, religion, sexuality or illness, I will almost certainly be asked to leave.

Similarly candidates who support "your" cause might not be able to vote in its favour while those who do oppose this same cause  might be required to vote for it for so long as they are “under the party whip”.

So, a day may come when I decide, “Enough. The nature of this charity has changed from when I first joined it. We are spending too much effort in (just as an example) helping people who are clearly involved in benefit fraud. That is dishonest.” I can leave this charity. I might even join another.

Likewise, some candidates move between parties. Several British politicians (including Winston Churchill) have “crossed the floor”. Sometimes this is solely for personal political gain. Sometimes our personal values change. Sometimes it is the party that has changed. Always they are trying to find the party that best represents their personal worldview.

Otherwise everyone would be needing to form their own political parties.

We are all imperfect beings. Political parties are made up of imperfect beings. They have imperfect manifestos.

Come Polling Day, the thing that matters to us is which party manifesto better (best in the three-corner fights) reflects the personal values I hold and the direction I wish our government to take.

Video: This could possibly be considered the manifesto for a perfect world. Dream on.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Nomads: love them or loathe them?

Some thoughts about political musical chairs

Anthropologists love nomads. I worked with a manager who said she wanted to go live with the Bedouins. Some people do find the idea of a group of people traversing huge expanses of land just to find water and food rather romantic, whether these groups are hunter-gatherers, pastoralists or peripatetic minority groups like Romani or Irish travellers (sometimes known -- derogatively -- as gypsies).

My dear second sister -- and many others who have grown up with Enid Blyton books might identify -- used to say she wanted to be a gypsy. At one point I saved enough money to buy a few Matchbox models. One was a caravan.
Image result for matchbox caravan

"Travellers" in the UK do not have a good reputation. The term refers normally to Irish travellers who used to move around from place to place to offer specific services including entertainment, crafts, tin-smithing, knife-sharpening, etc. I think these are the ones featured in Enid Blyton stories for which she was condemned a "bigot".

They have a totally different lifestyle from us sedentists, but who is to say that we are morally or spiritually superior to them? They have their own set of rituals, rules and regulations. They abide by their own code of conduct.

The Mongols, Genghis Khan and all that, they were nomads. They plundered. They conquered. Or the other way around.

Nomads can also be peaceful pastoralists. They move their livestock around, searching for greener pastures literally. Over the years, however, they have worked out a method or cycle of moving around in such a manner that the ground has enough time to heal, for another set of nomads to settle. All very civilized, really.

Those of us who care for the environment will be familiar with how some mega-farms are farming the same bit of earth to death, after which they use man-made fertilizers and pesticides to increase yield which end up poisoning the ground and water.

Compared to these mega-agriculturalists that rape the earth, nomadic pastoralists are angels.

In the context of the Singapore GE2015, what I do not understand is how some forms of nomadism are lauded, while others are decried.

More to the context: complaints that MPs only come around when it is election time (plunder and disappear?). Opposition MP-wannabes work the ground in between GEs. Constituency boundaries change -- some say arbitrarily amidst accusations of gerrymandering, but we won't go into that -- and MP-wannabes who have been "working the ground" (an agricultural metaphor, note) might suddenly find that all the goodwill they have cultivated (more farming imagery) has crossed borders.

Nomadic MP-wannabes or nomadic constituents? Who controls these constituent boundaries and on what basis are they altered? A mystery to all outside government. [Aside: election boundary setting should be made by an independent committee, or at least a cross-party group. Surely.]

What about nomadic PAP candidates? So my old schoolmate has returned to Aljunied and is billed "the prodigal returns". People of Aljunied, time to slaughter the fatted calf. Or is it the sacred cow?

The former "Son of Punggol" is now Step-Son/ Son-in-law/ Second Cousin Once Removed/ some other fictive kin of Ang Mo Kio.


[I hereby give notice that I am "daughter of Tiong Bahru/Tanglin Halt/Tanjong Pagar". Don't say I don't say.]

Indranee Rajah (whose creative energies I had to rein in -- twice -- when she was head of a publication at an NUS group many years ago) reminded my fellow constituents that PAP MPs know their constituents well. This is a plus point for them. Surely.

So why does PAP re-deploy some of their MPs to other constituencies as if they are playing political musical chairs? As if the relationships built up do not -- suddenly -- matter any more? As if, for the sake of a political victory, constituents can now be abandoned? Who is going to write all those letters for the constituents?

Dr Lily Neo, for example. I saw her clinic at Tanglin Halt being decorated (renovated) when she started her practice. She was especially kind to an old neighbour who was a bit of a hypochondriac. She has also treated me. Where is she going next? 


I have been away from Singapore for a long time. (Too long, some say.) Still, I recall Singapore leaders admonishing Singaporeans to venture outside Singapore to find work, to start businesses, to tap the Chinese/Indian markets. So we went.


Whenever I sign up for a major anthropological conference I need to use a software called Nomadit: Nomad IT. When I looked them up, I discovered that "NomadIT is a team of down-to-earth freelance administrators, event organisers and IT specialists who work remotely using internet and email technologies to assist NGOs, educational and voluntary sector organisations to run their organisations and events".

I have no reason to believe that anyone within this group is either wealthy or corrupt, or both. But boy! this software is really useful from setting out calls for panels to calls for papers, to the minutiae of organizing cross-border and sometimes cross-discipline conferences.

You may not be an anthropologist, but it is OK to be love a nomad.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Even the perfect needs help

[Manifesto watch: Housing the elephant in the room or should it be "Housing: the elephant in the room"?]

When I was in secondary school my elder brother who is six years older bought me a Webster-Merriam dictionary for a birthday. I don't know how long he had to save to get me that. On the flyleaf he wrote, "Word is power. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Such powerful words that I can almost still see his uniquely-angled left-handed writing on that page.

Pondering ESM Goh's recent claim that PAP are able to provide their own checks and balances I wonder why he thinks that he and his fellow MPs and candidates are so super-human that they will not, ever, not a chance in hell for an eternity, succumb to the temptation of corruption.

Corruption is not confined to accepting bribes. Consider King David, a king so pure and so fervent in his love and dedication to Yahweh that David is often described as "a man after God's own heart".

When David acquired absolute regal power he committed adultery with Bathsheba who fell pregnant and he tried to cover it up by instructing Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, to sleep with her. Uriah was so dedicated to David and the battle he was fighting he refused to lie with his wife. Eventually David had Uriah killed. (David had the power, remember?)

I wonder what is it that made ESM Goh think that he and his colleagues are such perfect specimens of humanity. Super-human or robotic? If neither, then it is possibly more strategic to accept that politicians -- both in government and opposition -- are capable of corruption and that we can all do with humbling ourselves to be subject to the checking and correction by others.

Here is a link to a page which tells us about the origin of the phrase "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely". (NB. The second part of this shrewd observation is "Great men are almost always bad men.")

I don't think anyone has been able to disprove this sagely statement by finding any human being who is totally incorruptible.

I cannot, for one moment, think that out of the blue, 89 totally incorruptible saintly politicians will simultaneously be found in Singapore come September the 12th.

Isn't it better to admit, "O Lord, it is hard to be humble"? (Enjoy this video, by the way!)

As a certain Mr Teo said, "What do you think?" Do add your comment.