At 5.30am on weekdays, Neli Oktaria’s alarm goes off. She dutifully turns it off, gets a glass of water and takes a shower while it is still dark outside and the house is peacefully quiet. Oktaria is from Indonesia and a big believer of positive affirmations. She looks at the mirror with a smile and tells herself, “Neli, you can do it!” Her work begins, a myriad of tasks that includes cooking, cleaning, laundry, and looking after her employer’s children.
Just a stone’s throw away from Oktaria’s home, Myanmar-born Maw Lwin is chanting Buddhist prayers for herself and the family she works for in the early hours of the morning, when the sky is just starting to see a hint of the day’s first rays. She then heads to the kitchen, ready to prepare a healthy breakfast for the household.
Oktaria and Maw Lwin are part of a group of women employed as foreign domestic workers (FDWs)—more commonly known as domestic helpers or maids—in Singapore. According to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), there were a total of 261,800 FDWs at the end of last year. This figure means that one in five households employ an FDW at home.
The job scope of an FDW in Singapore is wide-ranging. The quiet fabric of our society, FDWs in Singapore are generally hired to take care of children, elderly parents or pets, as well as manage household chores, so their employers can focus on their careers or resume their usual daily activities. As FDWs live where they work, the line between work and rest is frequently blurred.
“On Sunday, I’m a different person. I can put on eyeliner or lipstick and I feel like a superstar. We are beautiful on Sundays”
Often, these women leave their own families and young children behind to care for another family in hope of a better future and financial freedom for their loved ones. FDWs are usually the main breadwinners for their families back home. “My work here is really important for my kids,” says Elizabeth Libre Gong, an FDW from the Philippines. Gong came to Singapore when her three children were aged three, six and nine years old respectively. “I don’t touch my salary at all—it’s just for my kids.”
Beyond cooking their employer’s preferred meals, doting on the children they care for and keeping homes in mint condition, FDWs here have lives that many are not privy to. Oktaria, for example, juggles her domestic duties with the instant-coffee business she started in 2015, hoping to find financial independence and secure a stable future for herself and her family. When Vogue catches up with her, she passionately shares that while “women are not supposed to work, let alone run a business where she comes from”, this has never stood in the way of her chasing her dreams. Gong is no different in strength and ambition. She has completed a business management course in Singapore, champions for various social organisations and aims to make it abroad with her family one day.
Sundays are a typical FDW’s day off—when they can get dolled up and feel particularly special. “On Sunday, I’m a different person. I can put on eyeliner or lipstick and I feel like a superstar. We are beautiful on Sundays,” says Gong with a grin. FDWs from across Singapore usually hang out together, playing games or sharing their favourite treats. Their joyous laughter and excited chatter fill the air, but their stories are not broadly heard. From the heartbreak of not seeing their own children grow up, to facing verbal abuse and discrimination, Oktaria, Maw Lwin and Gong sit with Vogue and tell us their personal tales, which they’ve kept etched in their hearts till now.
Neli Oktaria, 37
Over her 13-year stint as a domestic worker in Singapore, Oktaria has faced many highs and lows. Her first five years, however, were decidedly the hardest. “It was very, very tough at the start. Helpers now own phones and get off-days, but back then, we didn’t have any of those things. For five years straight, I didn’t take a single break—I just worked, worked and worked some more.”
“I wasn’t even allowed to keep a picture of my son. I was so afraid that as time passed, I was going to forget what he looked like”
The heartache of being apart from her son, who was just 18 months old when she first left Indonesia, was also immensely difficult to bear. Having to go months at a time without speaking to her family—whom she had nothing to remember by—only made things worse.
Oktaria recounts her arrival at one of Singapore’s domestic helper training centres in 2007. All her personal items were promptly confiscated—from family photos to items of clothing that were deemed unnecessary for the job. “I wasn’t even allowed to keep a picture of my son. I was so afraid that as time passed, I was going to forget what he looked like,” she says through tears.
But her tenacity through the gruelling half a decade ultimately paid off. In 2012, Oktaria was able to return to Indonesia with $7,000 in her bank account. The money went towards fulfilling her biggest dream: buying a house for her family.
She fondly remembers that special moment; in particular, how proud her father had been. “The most amazing thing about him was that he never wanted to touch a single cent of the money I had earned. When I asked for his blessing before buying the house, he just gave me the biggest hug.”
Oktaria chokes up while reminiscing about her father, who passed away in 2015. It was also around this time that she had begun contemplating retiring from domestic work after eight years, but her plans were derailed as her father’s untimely departure dealt their family with great emotional and financial blows. With the only other working member of the family now gone, Oktaria decided to return to Singapore, this time with the main goal of putting her younger brother through university. “My mum begged, ‘Don’t leave again, who will take care of us?’ And I did want to stay, but I couldn’t abandon my brother.”
Today, with just a few months to go before her brother graduates, Oktaria is getting ready to finally go home and be with her son, who is now a teenager with a fast-growing rebellious streak.
“Sometimes, he threatens to leave home to go live with his father,” Oktaria says. She and her ex-husband had split before she first came to Singapore, shortly after the birth of her son. They are not on talking terms and he doesn’t support either of them financially. “My son may feel like I don’t care about him since I’ve been away for so long. So I tell my family, please hold on to him. Everything I have done is for you. I hope you can do this for me.”
Her worries about her son have only intensified in the face of COVID-19. “It’s harder to homeschool in Indonesia; they don’t have online learning like they do here in Singapore,” she shares. Her son is among the many students in rural parts of Indonesia who are suffering due to school closures, owing to an absence of technological facilities. “He is struggling by himself at home and he’s really lonely too.”
Although she misses home dearly, Oktaria’s present life in Singapore does have its upside. Being here has turned her fiercely independent and she is now able to pursue her own interests alongside domestic work. This, however, has not always been the case. She used to spend her Sundays feeling lonely and lying in bed, until one day, her employer gave her a nudge. “She said to me, ‘We are not going to be in Singapore forever and neither are you. You have to learn something and plan for your future’.”
Having enjoyed business classes in high school, Oktaria decided to join Aidha. The registered charity-cum-business school was a perfect fit. It was there that she truly came into her own as an entrepreneur and solidified her desire to make something of her own. Having graduated from the institution in 2018, she now swears by the skills that she learnt, from effective money management to building a social media presence. She also picked up terms like ‘liquid investment’, which she peppers our conversation with like a seasoned professional.
“The best investment is jewellery—you can convert it to money at any time,” she laughs, fiddling with a gold ring on her ring finger. The ring has immense sentimental value to her. It was the first valuable thing Oktaria had purchased for herself with her own money after moving to Singapore. When asked about other significant jewellery pieces that she has bought, she glows with pride. “I bought my mother a gold necklace in 2013. It’s something we would not have been previously able to afford, but I worked hard and earned it. It proves how much I have grown.”
Looking forward, Oktaria has plans to become a food mogul back in Indonesia. Sharp and business-minded, she animatedly rattles off all the projects she wants to put into motion once she’s back. “I’m going to take care of my businesses—I have one for coffee and another for crackers. My aim is to make the best, most authentic Indonesian coffee. I also really want to own a grocery store, like a mama shop. My brother is helping me run my vegetable plantation, but I’m definitely going to take over once I’m back,” she laughs. “But above all, I want to spend some time at home and take care of my mum and son.”
Maw Lwin, 36
Maw Lwin is coming up on her eighth year of working as a domestic helper in Singapore. Yet, she doesn’t look a day over 30 years old. When we catch up with her, she is dressed to the nines. Her slender frame is wrapped in a silky, shin-skimming cobalt blue dress, replete with gracefully dangling earrings. “My English is not the best,” Maw Lwin says sheepishly, her delicate features set in a nervous smile. She warms up quickly once we reassure her that we understand her just fine.
From her laid-back demeanour, you would never guess the heavy news Maw Lwin is living with—six years ago, the doctors had found a lump in her left breast. The growth was accompanied by unbearable pain and rapid weight loss, she recalls. “It got so bad that I couldn’t sleep or eat, or even lift up my left arm.”
In spite of the agony, Maw Lwin resisted going home as she had next to nothing in her pocket. Of the nine months of work she had completed by then, the salary for seven months had gone towards paying her agency fees. “I needed to support not just my children but also my parents and my school-going sisters,” she explains. But when her excruciating pain got in the way of her work, she was forced to make the trip back to Myanmar.
Maw Lwin eventually returned to Singapore after a few months of rest, this time armed with a regimen of home remedies to manage her pain. “I took very good care of my eating. No sugar, no sweets. I didn’t even drink coffee or tea, only hot water and potato juice,” she says, counting the number of things she tried on her fingertips. “I took natural medicines that I found in Myanmar, which worked, but only for a while.”
Temporary relief from Maw Lwin’s natural treatments has helped her stay on in Singapore for the last few years, but the distance hasn’t been easy on her relationship with loved ones back home. “My husband and I are both busy, so we don’t get the time to call. Sometimes, we’ll only talk once in a month.”
When they do speak, Maw Lwin’s husband, along with the rest of her family, nags at her to come home and recuperate, but so far, she has paid them no heed. “They say I’m difficult to talk to because I won’t listen to them, but of course, they can’t control me,” she quips, revealing a glimpse of the fiery independent streak that has kept her happy here for nearly a decade.
“I think of my employer’s children as my own. I would like it if my employers could treat me like their family too. That means more to me than my salary”
If there’s one thing that bothers her, it’s the growing chasm between her and her two children, now aged eight and 13. “They are closer to their father and my sister. Sometimes, when I call the house, they don’t even say hello,” she says, her expression stoic even as her eyes glaze over. “But I’m ok with it. One day, I think they’ll understand.”
Losing touch with family back home has made finding her kin in Singapore important to Maw Lwin—even more so than the money she earns. “I think of my employer’s children as my own. If there are elderly in the house, I take care of them as if they were my parents. I would like it if my employers could treat me like their family too. That means more to me than my salary.” Fortunately, Maw Lwin has found that synergy with the family she now works with. “I can be open with them and I can tell them if something happens back home. We also eat together, which is nice.”
Her future in Singapore, however, remains uncertain. As much as she would like to stay, prohibitive costs and a language barrier make seeking treatment for her condition here an unfavourable option. “The doctors say that they may need to take out the lump surgically, which will be extremely expensive to do here. I don’t always understand what they say, so they recommended that I take my medical reports back to Myanmar so a local doctor can explain my condition.”
For now, Maw Lwin is enjoying a quieter life in the midst of the global pandemic. “I don’t like going to crowded places. I have no interest in shopping,” she declares. “I prefer going to parks or fields with a few friends, just to chat and relax under the trees.”
An old soul at her core, she dreams of one day owning a private garden in her native country—a personal sanctuary of sorts. This goal, along with her sanguine spirit, has kept Maw Lwin positive through ups and downs, especially the battle with her illness. When we tell her that we’ll be praying for her recovery, she leaves us with a piece of sage advice: “Don’t worry, I’m happy. What’s the point of worrying about something I can’t control?”
Elizabeth Libre Gong, 41
Gong is beaming from ear to ear when she steps through the front door of the shophouse we are shooting in. She is dressed impeccably, in a dove grey spaghetti-strap top and a denim skirt fitted beautifully over her petite frame. Her hair is a bed of gloriously luscious curls—“I used straws and followed a YouTube video,” she admits with a laugh. The other thing one is immediately drawn to is Gong’s perfect berry lip. “I use Maybelline’s No. 695 Divine Wine. It makes me feel lovely,” she says, professing to be a full-fledged make-up lover.
“My employers are full of encouragement and appreciation in every small thing that I do. Even if the food is not good. They’ll say, ‘Ah ok! Next time just add more salt’”
Gong has been in Singapore since 2011 and considers herself blessed to have worked for her current employer for the last four years. “They don’t want me to call them ma’am and sir!” she exclaims incredulously. “At first, I needed to practise calling them by their first names. They really treat me like family and I’ve never felt like I’m just a helper. They are full of encouragement and appreciation in every small thing that I do.” She stops and twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “Even if the food is not good. They’ll say, ‘Ah ok! Next time just add more salt’.”
But Gong’s journey has not always been straightforward. After her own father passed away in 2009, she reached a point where she desperately needed money for her family to survive. Her family (her then-husband and three young children) lived in Metro Manila in the Philippines and could not afford regular meals. Her kids would often go to school without breakfast and Gong scrimped on food for herself so they could have their meals. It was her ex-husband who encouraged her to work in Singapore, and filled with much trepidation and fear, she left her kids (aged three, six and nine at that point) behind to start afresh here.
The first five years in Singapore were particularly challenging for Gong as she navigated being away from her family while facing discrimination from her previous employers. They disallowed her from eating whenever she wanted, monitored how much she ate and frowned upon her speaking to other domestic helpers.
It took a stroke of luck and a mindset shift for Gong to be where she is today. She is a student ambassador at Aidha and a team leader and social media correspondent at Uplifters—an organisation that uses online education to empower underprivileged communities. She attributes the kindness of her present employer to have played a vital role in who she is today. “When they interviewed me, they offered to send me to school,” says Gong. When she finished her business management course, her employer cried alongside her. “I really felt like she appreciates what I’ve achieved.”
When Gong’s wind-down time at 8.30pm comes around, she facilitates courses and goes on social media, occasionally conducting Facebook Live sessions for the organisations she advocates for. She chats to her three kids (now 12, 15 and 18 years of age) via Facebook Messenger. She runs five kilometres twice a week. Because of COVID-19, she also makes masks of various patterns and designs. However, the work-life balance she enjoys is not something she takes for granted and is aware that it takes two to tango. “The [employer-domestic helper] relationship is about trust and give and take. For domestic helpers, don’t break their trust and always tell them when you have a problem. For employers, if you get somebody to join you in the house, you have to give them trust,” says Gong.
“It’s just money that will force foreign domestic workers to come to Singapore,” explains Gong as she places her hand gently under her chin. “You literally earn 10 times more here. I really like Singapore because it is safe.” Apart from her children, Gong supports her siblings and tells us it is common for domestic helpers to have no savings. “They give it all to their family. Once my family asks me to help, I can’t say no because I don’t know how to. My employers always tell me, ‘You know the rules in the aeroplane? Put on your own mask first before helping others.’ But I love to help people, especially my siblings.”
Her end goal? Gong hopes to settle in Australia with her family one day and believes that her eldest son is the answer to getting them there. “I keep telling him that he has to finish studying because it’s the only way we can break the cycle of poverty,” she says, her eyes twinkling with laughter. “Girlfriend is fine, just don’t make her pregnant, please!”
Photographer: Lenne Chai, represented by ADB Agency
Photography Assistant: Jonathan Liu
Special thanks to Figment