Tuesday, November 19, 2013

M for Maids, M for Murder


The recent news report of a 16-year-old girl murdered allegedly by her own domestic maid is indeed extremely sad.  There are many cruel comments online by people who immediately jump to the conclusion that this must be a case of maid abuse.  It is wicked, unconscionable and heartless for anyone without any proper evidence to lay the accusing finger on the family of the victim of this heinous crime.   Murder is unpardonable and where an employee murders the child of her employer, it's insane of anyone to try to explain away the murder with the ludicrous suggestion that the employer must have provided a work environment that wasn't pleasant and stress-free for the employee.  Folks, it's murder of a child we are talking about.  Conditions of employment have nothing to do with such a dastardly crime.   You do not sit back and try to justify an act of murder by speculating on how good or bad an employer the family of the victim had been.

Let's make no mistake about this.  The most serious crime has been committed against a child and there can be no excuse for this.  At the same time, it's not right to generalize that all maids are capable of murder.  The title of this post is of course silly and sensational.  While I cannot overemphasize the fact that nobody should try to search for a justification for the act of murder because there can be no justification for such a crime, I should also stress that there are many good maids around.  From all my experiences with domestic maids, I must say that not one of them was the murdering kind but at the same time, it would be wrong to suggest that they aren't the murdering kind because I've treated them well.  Of course the question that a maid must be well treated should not even come up at all.  It is a given that anyone in his right mind will treat his maid well.  I'm not unaware of the horrendous ways maids have been treated from newspaper reports and also from what I myself have witnessed in public and what my maids have told me about the circumstances of other maids they have met but in all these instances, the maids that are too timid to commit murder, aren't they?  I've seen employers ill-treating their maids in restaurants and sometimes, I wish these maids would be less timid and just tell their employers off.  These maids sit timidly by themselves and watch their employers eat while they starve.  But aren't they too timid to commit murder? They aren't the murdering kind, are they?

Most of us normal sane people treat our maids more like family members than outsiders.  Our maids aren't timid and most of us are glad for that; nobody wants a slavish maid in his household.  I always tell my maids that they must be bold and speak their minds.  Many of them get up at the unearthly hour of 5am and I always have to tell them that nobody in my house should get up at such a ridiculous hour.  Kids who are old enough to prepare their breakfast need not have the maid fussing around them as if they are still babies.  But most maids are servile and from my experience, they refuse to continue sleeping when the rest of us are awake or preparing breakfast.  They think it's their responsibility to prepare breakfast and they forget that they have so many other responsibilities and it would be unconscionable for an employer to expect them to do everything. They seem to think it's unlawful for them to continue sleeping even when I have made it clear to them that I have no need of their services at such an early hour.

It usually takes them more than a month before they realize that they are as important as the rest in the family and just because some of us have to get up early does not necessarily mean that they too have to get up early.  Or just because some of us are busy and will eat dinner late does not mean that they should starve themselves and wait for their employers to eat before they do.  What I want to illustrate here is maids are usually timid and even when they are given more rights than they are accustomed to, they remain rather timid.  Those of us who have employed maids know just how true that is.  How many times have we asked our maids what they would like to eat for breakfast because we are going jogging and we'd like to buy breakfast for everyone and how many times have they replied that they would rather eat bread at home?  It's not like they enjoy eating at home!  They are just too timid to tell their employer what they really want to eat for breakfast and it may take about two weeks before you discover what their tastes really are.

I'm not talking about one or two maids who behave in this timid way.  They're all the same.  They're all generally timid and shy.  How does such a timid person commit murder?  What I want to do now is to explore the psychology of the average maid.  If you understand them perfectly, you will know that they are so culturally different that in fact any one of them despite their inherent timidity is capable of committing murder.  But I'm not singling them out.  Any human being for that matter is capable of committing murder.

Of great concern to me is what is stated at the end of the news report I linked at the start of this post.  This is what it says:

It is important to dispel the common but extremely cruel notion that if a maid murders a child, the family must have been cruel to her. A lot of people online have laid blame on the family of the victim and I think this is uncalled-for.

In 2009, there was a maid called Kumaeroh who worked for an employer who was decent to her. The family celebrated her birthday to make her feel more at home and she even wrote in her diary that she was treated well by her employer. One day, she went berserk and she took a chopper and slashed the hand of her employer's seven-year-old daughter. Because she was attacking the girl, she did not pick up the elder daughter from school and the older girl called her father who rang home and heard his daughter screaming. He rushed home to see his daughter lying in a pool of blood. Although the girl survived the experience, she was very badly traumatised by the incident.  You may read the news report of this incident by clicking here.

First, we must understand the circumstances these maids are in.  All of them are incredibly poor. We can't even understand how poor they really are because it's the kind of poverty that we cannot possibly envisage.  Maids who work in Singapore are paid much less than those who work in Taiwan and Hong Kong because the Singapore government imposes a maid's levy which is borne by the employer.  The maid's salary is worked out so that what should be paid to the maid in Hong Kong and Taiwan is split in two and paid to the maid and the government.  In other words, the Singapore government levy effectively takes away a large part of the maid's salary.  It's not that Hong Kongers pay more for their maids.  It's just that the Hong Kong government does not impose a high levy on the maids and so what the employer pays goes entirely to the maid.  I think it's more equitable if the maid's salary in Singapore is increased to equal that paid in Hong Kong.  However, most Singaporeans would be very unhappy if they had to do that because then it would mean they have to pay much more a month for the maid than their Hong Kong counterparts because of the Singapore government levy.

Because of this, every maid aspires to go to Hong Kong because every penny paid by the employer goes directly to her and there is no high levy imposed by the government there. The maid agencies have to decide who goes to Hong Kong and who goes to Singapore.  If it's a matter of choice, all of them would want to go to Hong Kong.  The better ones get to go to Hong Kong.  Just speak to your maids and they will tell you how this works - they have no say in this at all.  The Hong Kong rejects work in Singapore and these, without exception, are all the maids we have here.

The average maid is very strong.  You may be surprised if I say this but your Indonesian maid who looks as small as the average primary school child in Singapore is probably much stronger than you can possibly be.  I once caught my maid lifting a heavy load and I chided her for doing that.  I told her she would break her back if she did that.  I told her that if there was anything heavy that she had to move, she should call for me.  She laughingly told me that she was stronger than I.  This maid, although initially timid, had been conditioned by me to speak her mind; most maids would never say this to their employer, so timorous in nature they universally are.  To my horror, she went to the large container of rice and lifted it with one hand and held it above her head and she didn't even sprain a muscle.  She then told me she carried 30kg of rice from the paddy field to the shed near her house every morning, after which she would transport the same rice out of her village to a factory a few miles away.  She did all that by hand and on foot every morning.

In the many conversations I've had with maids, there is a dark side that they usually do not reveal to their employers.  The first is their superstition.  All maids believe in the underworld and all of them claim to have seen ghosts or heard them or even smelt them.  Yes, you may find this amusing but all the maids I've spoken to have smelt ghosts.  What is the body odour of ghosts like, I would ask? It's not the body odour but just a very foul smell like that of rotting flesh.  Sometimes, the ghost can smell of sweet perfume and sometimes, it's the smell of the kind of flowers used in a Muslim cemetery.  In other words, any smell can be the smell of a ghost.

They also believe in dreams.  If they dream of something happening, usually at home, they really believe it has taken place.  This can be more insidious than it sounds.  Coupled with this is something which I find inexplicable but it's very common among maids.  It's a kind of mental instability called "latah" in Indonesian and it's something experienced by old Malays in Malaysia and Singapore too but it seems to afflict Indonesians of all ages.  Whenever a person prone to "latah" is startled (it's usually a woman who is affected by this), she will "melatah" ie she will say something or do something unconsciously even though she is fully awake.  This loss of consciousness may last for a minute or more.  What triggers off this "latah" differs from person to person and the severity of it varies widely.  It may be the uttering of a long meaningless sentence to running and grabbing hold of something or someone.

There is something else about superstition that I should talk about even though it's quite disgusting. There is a universal belief among Indonesians (and I'm told the same belief is prevalent among kampong Malays in Malaysia) that you can endear yourself to your employer (or anyone else) by boiling your used sanitary pad in his drink.  This belief is common in Malaysia - if a nasi lemak stall is frequented by long queues of customers, rumours that used sanitary pad is boiled together with the rice may circulate.  I've heard this from a Johor Bahru friend of mine about a famous nasi lemak stall.  From my conversations with Indonesian maids, all of them are aware of this belief but they usually claim that they either don't believe in it or they don't practise it.

And now comes the part which is gruesome and my advice to those who are squeamish is to stop reading now.

All of us must have come across online chilling and violent videos of lynchings in Indonesia, the Philippines and Africa.  Most of the time, we don't think of the people who are involved in the lynching.  We do not really address our minds to the question of whether our maids might at least have witnessed the torture and murder of another human being even if they have not joined in the murder or contributed to it.

Because I communicate very well with my maids, they tell me a lot of things they don't normally tell their employers.  For example, all my maids have seen lynchings of all kinds.  None of them has (so they tell me) participated in them.  The most recent lynching told to me by a maid happened last year when an old woman was burnt to death by the whole village because of "witchcraft".   Neighbours accused her of witchcraft because children in the village were falling ill and since she was a very old widow, they suspected she must be guilty of "black magic".

I find it very hard to watch a lynching video and I usually delete those that are sent to me by friends without watching them.  For the purpose of writing this article, I sat through an entire video taken by a handheld phone and I now post the screen captures from the video.  It may not be very clear because it's from a video and I have censored those parts that may be offensive to my readers and I choose the least violent parts.

This is a video of a lynching that was carried out this year in Indonesia.  I believe it's in the island of Java but it really doesn't matter.  It could be anywhere in Indonesia, the Philippines or Africa.  It may be happening right now as I type this post or as you are reading it.  A man is accused of some crime and is caught by villagers.  He may be perfectly innocent but wrongly accused.  This usually happens.  He is stripped naked and his hands are tied behind his back.  Two men drag him by his tied hands and make him walk a considerable distance through the village and onto a trunk road that leads to a forest where they will tie him to a tree and burn him alive.  Along the way, villagers are encouraged to photograph and film the event and many are invited to beat him up while he is held up by his captors.  On many occasions, he falls on the road but he is immediately picked up to continue with the walk or to allow his abusers to continue the beating.  On one occasion, when he is pulled back to his feet, a pool of blood can be seen on the spot where his mouth was.  The viewer can see a long procession of villagers on motorcycles and bicycles following the doomed man.   Laughter can be heard and it's obvious that this is great entertainment to the villagers.  Sometimes a villager goes to the front of the procession to take a photograph of the badly beaten naked captive. The two men will prop him up for the photo shot and one man will hold the captive by his hair to turn his face to the camera.  I must confess the smiles on the people's faces and the jokes they make as they wait for the cameraman to snap a photograph send chills down my spine.

Because of the violent content of the photos, I will leave them to the bottom of the page.  I strongly advise those who are below 18 and who are not comfortable with images of extreme violence not to scroll down.

I will conclude what I want to say here.  I am not criticising the culture and homeland of our maids. I am merely saying that they have a very different culture and experience from the rest of us.  I can safely say that they have at least seen the torture and murder of a human being with their own eyes. In the images below, I have included screen shots of the people who followed the doomed man in a merry procession and they include young children, young women and old women.

All I'm saying is many of us in Singapore do not know what our maids have been through and we take them into our homes without any investigation into their backgrounds.  I'm not saying it's necessarily a bad thing.  It's unreasonable for anyone to conduct background checks on the maid and let's face it - millions of people all over the world engage the services of domestic maids and only a few of them turn out violent against their employers and their families.  At the same time, let's not forget that even one murder of a child is one murder too many.


A passerby punches the captive repeatedly before
he kicks him in the groin.

The captive is trussed up for a photographer on the
right of the pic.  Notice the smile on the face of the
man on the left.  He has no fear that this is evidence of
his involvement in the torture and murder of a man.

This happens in broad daylight and on a major trunk road too.

Look at the youngsters on bikes busily taking photos 
and filming the tortured man.

These are the onlookers who accompany the captive and
his torturers to the forest where they are about to burn him.

Even a young girl is here to watch the violence.

A mother exposing her young child to torture and murder.

This woman may very well be the maid who 
sleeps in your house and looks after your children

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