Dear Employer

History of FDW

FDWs Well Received

First-Time Employers

Mother's Helper or Novice

Situation Today

when there were no foreign maids

Dear Employer,

In the days before foreign domestic helpers started to come in ever larger numbers, less affluent Singapore employers relied on local young (and sometimes not so young) women to help them in the home. The helpers came in various categories, ranging

  • from the part-time live-out washerwoman who collected soiled clothes from neighbours and returned them a day or two later washed and ironed
  • to the full-time live-in domestic workers (often called servants then)
and others in between.

The more affluent ones employed the so-called black-and-white amahs (not maids, not servants) who came from China. In time to come attrition took its toll, the black-and-whites were a one-generation phenomenon. They were unique. When they retired and went home to China, employers increasingly relied on local servants, to use the expression current in those days.

When Dr. Goh Keng Swee, one of the founding fathers of modern day Singapore, thought it a great idea to reclaim the swamps in Jurong, there was no guarantee that the reclamation exercise would not turn out to be Goh's Folly. Still, Dr. Goh had a crystal ball and he could see the future before others. Everybody knew that the British Army, employer of one in ten Singapore workers and contributor of 20 percent of our GDP, would leave over a period of five years, giving us time to adjust. And leave, they did, but not in stages as earlier scheduled, but in a hurry, in 1971. Did Dr. Goh see in his crystal ball that the pullout would not be in stages?

At any rate Goh's Folly or, more appropriately, Goh's Foresight came to the rescue. The newly reclaimed Jurong industrial estate was soon filled with multinational corporations who set up their factories there. They soaked up hitherto unused labour and then some, and soon there were no servants to be found. Who would want to be a live-in servant when she could find a more dignified job elsewhere!

Those who had a steady comfortable income looked to Malaysia for domestic servants, more politely referred to as "S". Malaysians, like Singaporeans, preferred to work in the new factories. But the older ones who were less nimble did not mind working as a live-in "S", like Ah Soh, close to 60 years of age, whose family cocoa smallholding in Muar was not doing so well. Until very recently, many employers still considered a maid approaching 40 to be too old!

Even now, employers generally avoid hiring senior citizens, i.e., older workers. So much so, the government has recently launched a blitz to educate employers and convince them of the wisdom of hiring more experienced workers and viewing them as wiser, not older, workers. To make assurance doubly sure, the government has given employers a financial incentive to employ wiser workers.

Younger women from Malaysia who worked as "S" in Singapore, like Ah Choo had a different motive. They were not really motivated by the paltry sum they earned as an "S" but in the fringe benefits: 3 meals a day, free accomodation and learning a trade (dressmaking in Ah Choo's case). Ah Choo was a foreign student first, an "S" second. She was more like a "working student" and being an "S" was secondary. It must be remembered that Ah Choo did not have a deep pocket like the parents of foreign students from China who did not have to worry about having to pay for accomodation or their meals.

At 6 o'clock, after cooking dinner, Ah Choo would down tools and go to her dressmaking class. When she had completed her course, she went back to Batu Pahat to open her own dressmaking shop. The pay she earned as an "S" was peanuts, after all.

Working mothers in those days were quite resilient, unlike their modern day counterparts. They could pursue a career and still take care of the home. Of course their children were also helpful. The older girls would cook for the family and take care of the younger ones, etc. And when Ah Choo left her family, life went on. Madam managed with the help of her eldest girl. The children were trained to pick up after themselves, etc.

But of course, life was so boring.
A working mom's life full of care
She had no time to set her hair,
No time to shout, no time to sing;
Someone had to do the cooking,
Unless help came from Manila,
Colombo or Jogjarkata.
Then she would have time to shout and sing.
And then life will not be so full of care
And she will have lots of time to stand and stare
And lots of time, besides, to set her hair.

Conclusion: Without the help of foreign maids, working mothers in days of yore took care of the housekeeping with their children's help. They did not die.

If you are currently having some difficulty in your current helper and would like to "get it off your chest", we will be happy to hear from you. You can write to us at We will try respond within 24 hours.