Why Is Maid Abuse So Prevalent In Singapore?

One of the embarrassing things Singapore is known for in Southeast Asia is maid abuse. The number of such cases in Singapore has been increasing rapidly. According to the State Courts, there were a total of 26 maid abuse cases filed last year. This is nearly double the 14 filed in 2012. You can read some of the horrible stories here.

The most recent case of abuse would be that of Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan from the Philippines. Her Singaporean employers – Lim Choon Hong and his wife Chong Sui Foon – deprived her of food. The only food they provided for her was instant noodles and plain bread twice a day. As a result, her weight dropped dramatically from 49kg to 29kg! Many were enraged that the couple would at most be charged with a fine of $10,000 and one year of jail.

Many Singaporeans were enraged that the couple would at most be charged with a fine of $10,000 and one year of jail. Quoting Terry Xu from The Online Citizen:

The fact that the couple is merely charged under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, shows the kind of rights that domestic workers have. The proceedings also show how much rights the domestic workers know of their rights or where to seek help.

What the domestic worker has gone through, should amount no less than torture and illegal imprisonment or even attempted murder.

What people should be doing if they are really enraged by this incident, is not to call for the couple to be killed or a heavy punishment but for migrant workers to be given the same rights as local workers under the employment act. Are they doing any less than what locals are doing, if not more. Then why give them less rights as workers?

Another prominent case is the story of Naw Mu De Paw whose employer Mrs. Suganthi Jayamaran was only jailed for 15 months for abusing her maid. She had used a heated metal ladle to burn the victim’s skin, punched the maid’s left eye and used a metal pestle to hit her.

Some of my friends from other countries who learnt about these case through the news have asked me why Singapore had so many of such cases.

“Isn’t Singapore an advanced and developed country? Why do so many of such barbaric incidents still happen?” they wonder.

As such, I’ve decided to write this entry regarding my personal views on why maid abuse is so prevalent in Singapore.


1. Many Singaporeans judge a person’s worth based on how much they earn

One of the sad realities in Singapore is that your value as a person in the eyes of other people is often based on how much you earn and your rank in society. For instance, people would treat a lawyer or doctor with a lot more respect than how they would treat a security guard or road sweeper.

I am not saying that every single person in Singapore judges others this way. However, we can’t deny that a lot of people do.

According to psychologists, the beliefs and ideals of a society may influence bullying behaviour. For instance, if a “school really upholds sports, kids who are not good at sport are going to be victimized because they are not living up to the expectations of others”. Similarly, maids are not wealthy which is a value which many Singaporeans value.

Beside judging people’s worth based on the amount of money they have, people also seem to believe that if you are poor, it is all your fault. This perspective is ingrained into us since we are young when our parents and teachers at school will tell us “if you don’t work hard, you will become a cleaner.”

Of course, that is obviously not true. Many of the pioneer generation members worked very hard but ended up as cleaners but this isn’t their fault but due to many issues in our system that placed them at an immense disadvantage.

It doesn’t help that Singaporeans are constantly reminded about how we are the wealthiest country in Asia and in a much better position than our Southeast Asian neighbours like Indonesia and Philippines. (Though I disagree very much with this as Singapore’s income gap is one of the widest among developed countries at 0.478)

I guess this causes many Singaporeans to look down on these foreign workers to the point that they dehumanize them. As District Judge Christopher Goh had harsh words for Suganthi “You treated the victim as chattel rather than a fellow human being,” 

Suganthi Jayaraman was jailed for 15 months yesterday and ordered to pay $4,900 in compensation.


2. Many perceive ‘the boss’ to be superior to ‘the worker’

I’ve mentioned in my previous article that Singapore is a country which generally has high power distance. Boss are put on a pedestal and can do whatever they want. Speaking up or challenging their views is frowned upon. Expecting him to have civil and respectful behaviour is perceived as having a “sense of entitlement”.

Of course, this is usually the case for Asian companies and western companies based here tend to be a lot more progressive and have a more egalitarian culture. If you look at the recent rankings for the top 10 best places to work, there are only two Asians firm which are local development consultancy ROHEI and EMC Singapore. The rest are all American and British.

Given that bosses are considered to be much more superior here in many companies, some employers feel that they have the right to do anything they want to their maids.

In a recent maid abuse case by couple Khairani Abdul Rahman and Rosman Anwar, they slapped their whenever she made a mistake. They actually told their employee that

“They have the right to slap my face, to push my head and to scold me, because they are paying my salary”.

In contrast, many of the maids were not prepared for such a treatment.

“I thought they would be like my family here in Singapore… Instead, they treated me as less than human,” explains 40 year-old Filipina Travis (*not her real name) when talking about her employers.

Similarly, if you look at the top few countries where maid abuse occurs frequently, there is high power distance. These countries scored highly on the Power Distance Index.

  • Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (80)
  • Singapore (74)
  • Hong Kong (68)

It is not just maid abuse. This nonsense high power distance attitude has resulted in workplace abuse being extremely prevalent in Singapore.


3. Many Singaporeans are unhappy and choose to take it out on an easy target

Singapore is one of the most stressful and unhappy countries globally. Based on a survey by STJobs.sg, only one out of 10 people claimed they are not stressed. This is supported by a newly released study by Ipsos APAC and Toluna which found that Singapore is the second least happy country in Asia Pacific, with 24% of respondents indicating they were either “not happy” or “not happy at all”.

Psychologist have found that abusers tend to be unhappy and insecure people. Given that many Singaporeans are going through negative emotions, it is no surprise that some would end up taking their frustrations out through abusive behaviour.

Maids at home would then be a convenient punching bag given the fact that

  • Their employers consider them to be inferior
  • Many truly need their jobs for their families and are not likely to leave
  • They do not have much friends or relatives who they can turn to for help
  • Many of these women are afraid to report the abuse. They are worried about their families, the recriminations and that they will be outcasted if word gets out that they’ve been abused


"She said, 'Come here, dog. Come here. You are stupid. You are a dog. Helper come here'."Siti left Indonesia to work in…

Posted by Jil Love Revolution on Thursday, 6 August 2015


The recorded cases of abuse we are seeing in the news is really just the tip of the iceberg. According to Tam Peck Hoon, an advocacy head at the protection group Humanitarian Organization for Migrant Economics (HOME), “Not all abuse is tangible. We’re talking about psychological abuse, coercion, threat of sending them home.”

True enough, both physical and emotional abuse have led to many maids having psychological issues which they have to deal with even after their contract with the employer is over. In fact, a 2015 study had shown that

  • 1/4 of maids in Singapore were found to have poor mental  health
  • More than half of the respondents had experienced verbal abuse
  • 7% faced sexual abuse
  • 6% percent physical abuse

In my opinion, this whole maid abuse thing is pretty embarrassing and inhumane. 

I would think that maids have helped grow Singapore’s economy in some way. They freed caregivers from some of their duties for a very low cost, giving their employers more time to join the workforce.

I don’t see why people should feel superior to those who are poorer or come from less privileged countries. I mean the only damn difference between you and these Indonesian, Burmese or Filipino maids is where you were born.

Should you have been born into such circumstances, you would probably have to leave your own kid behind and work for someone else for such little pay. Would you want to be treated like this too?

I hope that society can progress and our current generation will learn to treat workers humanely and with respect. 

I am slightly optimistic that this will happen. You see, many people from our parents and grandparents generation tend to perceive animals as disgusting or dirty. However, the new generation tends to love animals more and have a stronger respect for animal rights. Thus, I hope the same can be the case in our regard for foreign workers and our perspective about the dynamics between a boss and worker.

If you would like to do your part to make a positive change, do volunteer with this charity called HOME Singapore. They are doing lots of good work for the well-being, justice and empowerment of migrant workers and trafficked victims in Singapore. Check out their Facebook page!

Do you agree with this post? Like and share it! What other factors do you think have led to maid abuse in Singapore? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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