Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ah Tiong, Ah Neh and Sip (by Peter Chan)

The last time we featured the female Foreign Domestic Workers working in our homes. I like to do another called Work Permit Foreign Workers (WPFW). I wonder why we got such long names but I suppose you have to leave that to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) for an answer. There are approximately 485,000 of them. MOM classify them as those unskilled or semi-skilled who work in sector-specific industries for a monthly basic pay of <$1,800. These workers are very versatile and you can find them in construction, manufacturing and F&B; taking on jobs that your typical healthy, younger Singaporean will never consider. WPFW can be found in every corner of Singapore, including the public and semi-government sectors. I sense that even our Ah Peks, Ah Sohs and the physically handicapped are finding it tough to compete as they are edged out by these workers. In Economics we call this concept to be “import substitution”. **Foreign Workers can do this…..

Photo 1: Left to Right - A “kungfu” posture as he works and puffs a cigarette. “Speedy Ah Tiong” takes customer orders and serves drinks in a kopi-tiam. Ah Tiong stands by his Singapore supervisor at Changi Airport. Ah Tiong works “10 X 7” as a store assistant in a Chinese snack shop.

**….and this also.

Photo 2: From Top Row, Left to Right - Thai painters have no fear of heights. Banglas stenciling under the hot humid sun. Under darkness Giri delivers “The Straits Times” to your homes. Cleaners at Marina Barrage make sure Singaporeans have clean water to drink. Road drilling and facing the dust. Inhaling toxic fumes each time a vehicle comes for a fill-up.

WPFW in the “sweat industries” earn a basic monthly salary of between S$350-400; $700-800/month is possible after forsaking rest and recreation. Those in the service industries start around $700/month but with incentives thrown in, could take home close to S$1,800/month. However from discrete interviews, I found many were earning close to $1,000 with incentives thrown in. Many WPFW come from traditional sources such as India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand, and to a smaller extent from Myanmar and Vietnam.

**Different ways to have your meal.

Photo 3: Left to Right; Using fingers, chop-sticks and “No Hands”. “No hands” did you say? But this is not “Bangkok No Hands Restaurant”.

Sometimes I wonder whether workers’ safety has been compromised and why it has to take so many fatal road accidents to happen before concerted actions are taken by the authorities. I am also reminded of incidents where workers are dumped by their employers when they suffer serious work-site injuries because the workers are not covered by Workmen’s Compensation.

On a visit to a restructured hospital, I came across many foreign workers in our A&E department. You might think that many foreign workers are seeking medical attention but you later find out that it is a group of foreign workers comforting just one worker who needs the medical attention. Another typical situation I often get to hear is when the A&E medical officer asked the worker, “Where is the problem?” The standard answer would be; “Doktor, I got many, many pains. I, two day already cannot standing”. Did the foreign worker meant two days of pain or “today”?

Photo 4: Left to Right - Can nap and dream because someone else drives the pick-up. Who needs safety belt as this is approved by Land Transport Authority (LTA). Riding a bicycle reminds Ah Tiong of home in Hubei Province.

Ninety percent of our population lives in public housing, we are better educated, effectively bi-lingual, and our wages are comparable to those in Developed Countries. We hear of government officials and employers talk of the negative Singapore attitude, the arguments about foreigners taking away jobs from Singaporeans and the case for raising the foreign worker quotas. Do you quibble if these foreigners hold these jobs when you just lost your job? While there are some 16,000 vacancies this year in the service sector – finance, transport, communications, hotels, restaurants, food courts and social services - according to the Employment and Employability Institute (E2I), I wonder how many Singaporeans are actually rushing to grab at these – and if they will ever stay on if hired.

It is tough work for WPFW coming to Singapore? Is there life after work for them?”

**Progress from public phone/pagers to mobile phone.

Photo 5: Thanks to Sony-Ericsson for selling cheap mobile phones; 3-way talking, “SMS” and still can take 3 megapixel pictures

When Sunday comes, it means a lot to different people; ask any NS soldier whether he can forgo week-ends. Some WPFW go shopping at City Plaza, some choose sight-seeing of Singapore on a bus. Some might even think of the corner of Lorong 22 and Geylang Road or Flanders Square. Occasionally we might encounter some exceptions like the story of Raja and Rani. It will certainly make any employer “eye-ball” pop out. Fraternizing of this sort is not tolerated because it can lead to other undesirable consequences such as unwanted pregnancies. Most household employers prefer to terminate the maid’s contract and send her home but at the end of it all, Raja continues working in Singapore.

Photo 6: For Raja and Rani, language, religion, looks, color and no money are not important. You see life can be so simple with “You ok, I ok. Everything ok.”


Victor said...

I just renovated my toilet. Took 3 days and 6 WPFWs to do the job - 1st day, a Bangla hacked out the old tiles and applied grouting; 2nd day morning, another Bangla applied waterproofing while in the afternoon, 2 Banglas came to pour in waterproof screed; 3rd day, 2 Malaysian Chinese came and laid the tiles and installed the pedestal toilet.

2 days cannot standing? The doctor sure prescribe Viagra or Cialis.

Lam Chun See said...

I passed by the FW dormitories at Upp Jurong Rd/Pioneer Rd North area a few times in the evenings and see them playing cricket. Very interesting. Must be from India or Bangladesh.

I think many Sporeans assume that in their evening free times such WPFWs will always indulge in 'notty' activities.

Peter, you must follow your friend's example (one you accompanied to Keong Saik Rd) and do a proper research. A few photos here and there cannot tell the fair story.

Zen said...

When I see photo 3 where indian workers are seen eating from pavement, it reminded me of my work at Keppel Wharves (PSA) in the sixties. Back then, I saw indian labourers eating heartily from cemented floor pavement of buildings. Lunch food were bought mostly from easily the ever popular Maidin's food stall at Tian Lye street (now part of the tg pagar container port). Maidin had an everday promotional makan item named 'pukul mati' meaning hammered until you die - why such an impressional name? It meant that by purchasing a packet of his delicious curry rice one could have unlimited helpings of cooked rice (plus gravy) ONLY - so it literally meant that eating until you collapsed. I had a greedy colleague who had a huge appetite, made frequent lunch visits to this stall and had so many helpings that Maidin himself felt like chasing him away. I was telling myself why so many of our port-workers large bellies - could it be overeating at Maidin's food stall? - especially the rice.

peter said...

I like to know how Indians used their right hand to roll the rice/dishes into a "ball" and then put into the mouth. I know it's a technique, tried before but made a mess of things.

Zen - I think there is a Indian vegetarian restaurant down at the corner of Selegie Road and Mackenzie Road where, like you describe, rice is unlimited helping. Think it's S$5/pax for lunch.

Has anybody tried the free food that is given away at some Buddhist temples?

Chun See, I heard about this cricket games but these are far and few. Got photos to share?

Zen said...

There is one picture in the section (photo 2) which depicts an indian guy riding a bicyle carrying some kind of a wooden (or is it plastic?) shelf-like rack at the back of his bicycle. This reminds me of the old kampong days when an indian guy riding a bicyle selling loaves of bread in the same mobile and portable manner, except that his bread and other barang barang were stored in a large wooden box with partitions for different items. His service included: slicing the home-baked bread with a long knife not uncommonly seen in the present day bakery, spreaded over them with either margarine or kaya - probably home-made also, but with no toasting, so as to make things easy for the customers. I think chun see had written interestingly on this topic (with pictures?) some time back and therefore I need not elaborate further on it.

Lam Chun See said...

If you ar interested to read about Zen's account of the food stalls at Tian Lye Stret, you can find the article here.

And that reminds me of the Indian sarabak stall outside Braddell Rise School in the 60's, which I blogged about here

There was also an Indian sarabak stall outside our school. We liked to watch the cook prepare the pratas and toseis. What amazed me was the water. The Indian workers who ate here simply scooped the water from a big rusty 55-gallon oil drum. Amazing isn’t it.

Lam Chun See said...

Sorry Peter. I don't have any photos of the foreign workers playing cricket. I was driving by on a late Sat afternoon I think. I have also seen other such workers who lived in a factory near Lokyang - Kian Teck Drive area playining cricket using their own makeshift equipment.

Unknown said...

Are you gonna thank the photographer? You could have done that here:

peter said...


Would you like to drop Chun See your email address for me to get in touch with you please?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
peter said...

What exactly do you mean "....mail you through franknijs and then use hotmail address"? Hard to comprehend.

What email address is franknijs?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.