They all have a story

  • Living
  • Saturday, 18 Jan 2014

The person who washes your clothes, mops your floors, cleans up after your children, cooks dinner shouldn’t be invisible.

ILO Ilo is a movie about a young woman from the Philippines who comes to work as a caretaker with a family in Singapore during the 1997-98 financial crisis. It tells the story of the bond between the woman and family’s son, who at first treated her badly but in time grew attached to her. Made by Singaporean director Anthony Chen and released last year, the film was also a window on a struggling family trying to make ends meet during tough times.

It’s a splendid movie – beautiful, heart-warming and honest. But most of all, it took me back to the days when I was that little boy – well, girl – growing up with a caretaker. I saw so much of myself and my relationship with my caretaker in that movie. My caretaker was Kakak, a local girl from Langkawi and she looked after my brother and me from when I was a toddler till I was about 12 years old.

Like the boy in the movie, I was a nuisance. I remember being tied to a chair for lunch because I just wouldn’t sit still to finish my meal! Of course, if a maid were to do this to a child today, it would be called child abuse, but in those days it was simply called discipline. Kakak slept in my room, or rather, I slept in Kakak’s room in a pull-out bed just like the one in the movie (this must be a feature of the 1990s!).

My parents worked a lot and we spent a lot of time with Kakak. Sometimes Kakak would even appear during parent–teacher meetings on my parents’ behalf and then take me to KL’s Central Market after that. We would then go home on a pink bas mini.

During the heyday of Siti Nurhaliza, when she used to grace the covers of Malay celebrity magazines, she once appeared in an overall that I really wanted. Kakak gave me one as a birthday present. It was white ... I can still remember that overall!

Sometimes, Kakak would go back to her hometown for a break from the terrible twos and my mother would get a temporary caretaker named Mak Minah. For some reason, we didn’t like Mak Minah and went to great pains to make that obvious to her. We sprayed her with water, we taunted and terrorised her to the point that she refused to come back.

Kakak was always able to handle us, though, for she had the energy (and strictness) to deal with our misdeeds, because she would have none it. Mak Minah was older, kinder. Easy target.

Kakak left us to get married. She was already in her 30s then. I knew it was time but I didn’t take her departure well. We loved her, but also feared her. I don’t think we ever treated her as apart from the family, but a part.

The relationship between family and maid in Malaysia seems to have changed drastically since then. Perhaps it has to do with our attitude towards immigrants. We see them more as labour than as human beings. Domestic work has become a type of modern day slavery. We read article after article about maid abuse to the point that Indonesia imposed a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Malaysia in 2009 which only ended after two years and much diplomatic manoeuvring.

Even though the moratorium has been lifted, the supply of domestic workers still cannot meet the demand for them. To quote an article published in December in a local daily, “... the number of Indonesian maids brought into Malaysia by foreign worker agencies is too low to match the demand from Malaysian employers who need about 30,000 maids annually”. With our reputation for ill-treating domestic workers and providing unattractively low pay, Malaysia continues to grapple with the maid issue.

Not that it is a new issue. Last year, fellow columnist Dzof Azmi wrote about the case of Nirmala Bonat whose employer was sentenced in 2009 to 12 years jail for scalding her with hot water and an iron (Malaysian Bullies, Contradictheory, Sept 29, 2013): “While we hope this is an isolated incident, the ugly truth is that maids are treated as second-class citizens and – even worse – that this is accepted by Malaysian society.”

Behind closed doors and tightly shut windows, they are at the mercy of their masters and mistresses. Maids have reportedly been made to eat scraps left by the employers, they get no rest days (except Filipina maids who get Sundays off), they can’t go out without the risk of getting caught without a passport, some get locked indoors, they are cursed at, screamed at, slapped, and have their salaries withheld. They can’t have boyfriends – because if they do, surely they will get pregnant and then what?

Maid abuse is not an issue only in Malaysia. Just recently, domestic workers and human rights activists protested in Hong Kong, demanding justice for a maid allegedly tortured by her employers and for overall better protection of domestic workers in the country. Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia reputedly also have the same problem. In fact, the extensive abuse of Indonesian maids has prompted Indonesia to announce a complete ban on sending maids abroad by 2017.

As Dzof asked, “... if Malaysia is such a caring and polite society, then why do we treat maids so badly? Could it be that as a society, we are structured to condone and accept abuse when it is meted out by somebody in authority?”

It is not just a matter of class. I think it’s more sinister than that. The person who washes your clothes, mops your floors, cleans up after your children, cooks dinner ... is invisible.

That’s why I appreciated Ilo Ilo. It portrayed the caretaker as a young woman with a child of her own, trying to make an honest living. She herself is burdened, just like the family she cares for. She came from somewhere, she has a hometown, she is just like us, travelling for work. She has a story. They all have a story.

Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at

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