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A small island situated on major international trade routes, Singapore’s history has long been marked by migration. Both before independence and since, numerous women have travelled here – whether to make a living or as part of a family – and their lives and experiences have been shaped by the nation’s evolving understanding of gender and nationality.

Early migration

In the late 19th and early 20th century, immigrants to Singapore tended to be men, coming to the port city for work and opportunities. However, the colonial administration introduced the Aliens Ordinance to control unemployment after Singapore was hit by the Depression in the 1930s, which restricted the flow of migrant men while female migrants continued to be able to pass through. 1

Many of the 200,000 women who entered Singapore between 1934 and 1938 worked as manual labourers, forming sisterhoods and taking vows of celibacy. 2 As many came from the Sanshui district of Guangdong province in China, they became known as ‘samsui women’. 3

Other female migrants worked as domestic servants, typically for expatriate or wealthy families. Known as amahs, these women did housework or cooked; women who specifically took care of children were known as ‘baby amahs’. They were often treated as one of the family, with few reports of abuse. 4

The number of amahs began to decline as women retired from service in the 1970s. They were then slowly replaced by foreign domestic workers from neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia.

Foreign domestic workers

More and more Singaporean women began to join the workforce in the 1970s, but there was no shift in responsibility for housekeeping and caregiving toward the men in their families. To plug the gap left, the government moved toward migrant domestic labour, amending the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act in 1978 to allow Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) to obtain visas for a limited period of time. 5 These FDWs were – and still are – always women, reflecting the continuing view of their labour as ‘women’s work’.

The role of foreign domestic workers in contemporary Singapore

Thousands of women from countries such as Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines come to Singapore every year to work as Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs). In a society where equal sharing of housekeeping and caregiving labour across genders has yet to be achieved, and employment structures have been slow to accommodate worker with domestic responsibilities, the burden of this work has fallen increasing on FDWs as Singaporean women increase participation in the workforce. The fact that FDWs live with their employers, compounded by their exclusion from the Employment Act, often leads to abuse and exploitation such as the denial of time off.

Related themes Civil Society

This characterisation continued to affect the work and living conditions of FDWs for decades to come. The initial legislation did not stipulate any minimum wage for their employment in Singapore – a situation which has persisted till today. 6

These FDWs were – and still are – always women, reflecting the continuing view of their labour as ‘women’s work’.

Strictly categorised as “transient” in nature, the government has regulated the number of FDWs through restrictions that make it difficult – if not impossible – for them to settle in Singapore. Women who want to settle in Singapore after working as FDWs generally find it very difficult, if not impossible, to do so.

In 1986 the government introduced a bond of $5,000 that employers would have to put up for their FDWs. This bond would be considered forfeit if conditions of the work permit were breached by either the employer or the worker, or if the employer breached any of the laws or regulations in relation to the hiring of a domestic worker.

Work permits also had to be renewed every two years. On top of that, restrictions were introduced prohibiting work permit holders – including former work permit holders – from marrying Singaporean citizens or permanent residents without permission from the government. From the beginning, workers could quite easily be repatriated, with little chance for appeal.

Furthermore, FDWs were – and still are – excluded from the Employment Act that covers most other categories of workers in Singapore. When debating the bill in 1968, legislators said that the work done by domestic workers was “not amenable to regulations by ordinary labour regulation.” 7 Without the protection of the Act, FDWs were left without written legislation on the maximum number of hours they could work in a day. This – compounded by the live-in aspect of domestic work – has left FDWs vulnerable to exploitation as well as abuse.

Exclusion of domestic workers from the Employment Act

FDWs were excluded from the Employment Act as policymakers did not feel that domestic work was amenable to such regulation. As a result, there is no stipulated maximum hours of work for an FDW, and they continue to lack protections provided to workers in all other industries.

Related themes Work & Economy

“In theory, all workers covered by the Employment Act have the right to appeal against unfair dismissal, though in practice, it is very difficult for migrant workers to do this. Domestic workers don't even have this right in theory,” wrote John Gee, head of research at migrant rights NGO Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), in an email interview for this feature. 8

Civil society organisations have, over the years, stepped in to provide support and resources for FDWs. Father Guillaume Arotcarena, a French Catholic priest from the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP), founded the Geylang Catholic Centre in 1980 to provide support for migrant workers, battered women and current and former prison inmates. Many Filipino domestic workers found their way to the centre for classes, and a small community away from home was formed. The centre was shut down in 1987 after social workers, lawyers and activists – among others – were detained without trial in a sweep known as Operation Spectrum.

Another headline-grabbing case attracted public attention in 1991, when Filipino domestic worker Flor Contemplacion was convicted of murdering a fellow worker and a four-year-old child and sentenced to death. Although Contemplacion confessed to the murders, witnesses later said that she had made her confession under duress. 9 The Philippines also claimed that their own investigations had suggested that it was highly unlikely Contemplacion had been guilty of the murders, but Singapore did not agree with their findings. 10

The case caused severe strain between the Singapore and Philippines governments, with outrage from Filipinos over what they saw as a harsh and cruel punishment. The pressures and stresses on FDWs in Singapore were also scrutinised.

Following the closure of the Geylang Catholic Centre, it was some years before organisations focused on supporting migrant workers emerged once more. Two non-government organisations, the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME) and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), were registered in 2004 to respond to the needs of migrant workers.

Both organisations work with FDWs, providing support and advice in the event of abuse, as well as running modest shelters providing accommodation for workers – including victims of human trafficking – required to stay in Singapore for ongoing investigations. The two groups also advocated strongly for better protections of migrant rights and improvements in working conditions.

“When an employer can easily compensate a worker to forgo her days off… this law… becomes meaningless.”

In 2008, HOME, TWC2 and what was then known as the National Committee for UNIFEM (now UN Women), launched the Day Off Campaign to advocate for a day off a week for FDWs. It was the first time the three organisations had worked together, and the campaign was a large-scale affair, with collaterals displayed at bus stops and on the MRT. A microsite, petition and brochures with frequently asked questions were also produced.

The campaign was controversial, attracting backlash from some employers, but eventually succeeded in convincing the government to mandate a weekly day off for domestic workers in 2012.

Yet this decision by the government was not a complete victory for FDWs and their advocates, as employers were still allowed to pay their workers in lieu of a rest day. Meant as a way to allow FDWs to negotiate terms with their employers, this exception has often been criticised as a loophole allowing employers to deny time off to their workers.

An article published in The Straits Times following the passage of the law found that many employers were still reluctant to offer their FDWs a weekly day off, choosing to pay them in lieu instead. 11

“When an employer can easily compensate a worker to forgo her days off, or arbitrarily dismiss and repatriate her because she requests for weekly days off, this law, couched as a way to protect a fundamental labour right, becomes meaningless,” wrote labour rights advocate Jolovan Wham in 2013. 12

“I just ate the leftovers they didn’t want anymore.”

Many domestic workers continue to work in households across the island without any time off. Thu Zar Myint was one of them; in the months that she worked in Singapore, she never received a day off. She was paid $434 a month, $404 of which was deducted by her agent to pay off her recruitment fees. 13

Thu Zar Myint’s experience also showed the many other ways in which FDWs can be exploited, beyond lack of rest days and low wages. Although she worked long hours, the food her employers provided her was not always adequate.

“My employer’s wife didn’t seem like someone who would be willing to give me good food. She just asked me to keep the leftovers in the fridge. If the food was good they would keep it for themselves, and I just ate the leftovers they didn’t want anymore,” she said in an interview. 14

Her experience is not unique. Research carried out by HOME in 2014 revealed an increase in complaints over food and nutrition from FDWs. Out of the 43 women living in HOME’s shelter for FDWs, 40 per cent said that they were always or often hungry while living with their employer. 15

Migrant sex workers

There have long been migrant sex workers in Singapore. Brothels proliferated as waves of male immigrants entered Singapore through the 19th century and in the early 20th century. With little protection for female sex workers, abuse was common and sexually transmitted diseases spread. Reacting to exploitation and pressure from women’s groups, the colonial government banned women from migrating to Singapore for sex work in 1927, and brothels in 1930. 16

…it is better that the Police know where these areas are and enforcement action can be taken, rather than to disperse these brothels to the whole of Singapore…

The practice of containment and control, as opposed to complete eradication, has continued from colonial times through to Singapore’s independent government.

The paradox of licensed brothels in Singapore

The process of licensing brothels is extremely opaque, making it difficult for advocacy groups like Project X to understand how establishments are selected.

“There is obviously an official policy to regulate the sex industry. Hence there are licensed brothels, hence there are procedures in place to recruit sex workers, to maintain brothels, etc. But this policy is secret. The government does not acknowledge that the brothels are being regulated by the police. They only say they are tolerated, but in actual fact there are regulations that govern how they are run,” said Vanessa Ho of Project X.

Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng spoke on this issue in 1999:

“We all know that no country has ever succeeded in eradicating prostitution and therefore we have taken a pragmatic approach in ensuring that only certain areas have such activities taking place. And it is better that the Police know where these areas are and enforcement action can be taken, rather than to disperse these brothels to the whole of Singapore, and we have a cat-and-mouse game chasing after them or, worse still, drive them underground and they will be operating everywhere.” 17

Despite legislation prohibiting the importation of sex workers to Singapore, many women have continued to enter the country for sex work. According to Vanessa Ho, coordinator of the organisation Project X which advocates for sex workers’ rights, a large percentage of workers in licensed brothels are migrant sex workers.

Navigating law and regulation for fair rights

This contradictory situation has led the government to find a workaround: Ho says that migrant women are allowed to be sex workers, and are given yellow cards and contracts with fixed terms that operate as a temporary reprieve from the law. 18 Once the term is up, these women have to leave Singapore, and face a travel ban that prevents them from entering the country again.

Yet these travel bans are not uniformly applied; it varies from one red light district to another. “For licensed brothels in Geylang, the workers are given two-year contracts, and when the contract is up, they will have a lifetime travel ban. But for the brothels around Desker Road, they are given six-month contracts which are renewable. And when it's up, they get a three-to-five-year travel ban. And when you are a freelance sex worker, working illegally, you get a three-year ban if you’re caught by the police. Then you can come back to Singapore after that,” said Ho in an interview for this feature. 19

As a result, many women have chosen to work illegally as freelancers – the ban is only three years, and they won’t be required to deal with brothel owners. Yet these freelancers have also been vulnerable, at risk of discrimination, violence and mistreatment.

Migrant sex workers in brothels tend to have good access to condoms and screening services for both sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, there has also been a growth in the number of migrant sex workers operating in entertainment establishments such as karaoke lounges and nightclubs. These activities are illegal and take place outside of the Medical Surveillance Scheme that was set up to monitor brothel-based workers. 20 Challenges continue to exist promoting the use of condoms and health screenings to these workers.

The struggle against trafficking

Trafficking has been a major problem within the sex industry, but it has not been exclusive to sex work. Female migrants in a variety of other industries – including domestic work – have found themselves victims of labour trafficking.

Trafficking takes people into an extreme situation of disempowerment.

“Trafficking takes people into an extreme situation of disempowerment. Often this is because they feel unable to seek help and protection because they are in breach of the law in some way: they may be women who have entered Singapore on a tourist visa, worked illegally as sex workers and then failed to leave before the expiry of their visa, for example, or be workers who came to Singapore on the promise of a job that does not exist, and then agreed to work illegally in order to pay off the debt incurred in the first place,” wrote Gee. 21

As a Nominated Member of Parliament, Dr Kanwaljit Soin in 1995 brought up the issue of Singaporean men engaging in sex with minors overseas, urging the government to introduce laws that would criminalise child sex tourism.

In response, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Home Affairs Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee said that Singapore would not introduce such legislation as there would be “substantial practical difficulties in enforcing such a law.” 22

The question was again brought up in Parliament by Nominated Member of Parliament Braema Mathi in 2004 when she asked Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng if there was any “provision in the law for Singaporeans who commit child-sex offences overseas to be brought home to face trial”. The Minister reiterated the answer that was given to Dr Soin in 1995. 23

The United States included Singapore in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in 2004, saying that there was “newly available information indicating it has a significant trafficking problem.”

The National Committee for UNIFEM also supported anti-trafficking initiatives. In 2004 they launched a campaign to stop the sex trafficking of women and children, raising public awareness through the media while also working with other organisations and government agencies on related issues.

The United States included Singapore in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in 2004, saying that there was “newly available information indicating it has a significant trafficking problem.” The report urged Singapore to adopt stronger anti-trafficking laws and better protections for victims. 24

In April 2005 the National Committee for UNIFEM, along with the War Against Trafficking Alliance, Malaysia-based Tenaganita, Foundation for Women, Batam-based organisation Yayasan Mitra Kesehatan dan Kemanusiaan (YMKK) and the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, organised a conference called “Tackling the Demand for Child Sex Tourism and Sex Trafficking”. The conference drew on participants from both within the Southeast Asian region as well as from Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The National Committee for UNIFEM and HOME, together with ECPAT International, also worked with The Body Shop on its Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People campaign, which was launched in 2009. By reaching out to its customers,The Body Shop was able to collect thousands of signatures for a petition to call on governments to raise awareness on the issue of child sex trafficking, as well as to provide protection and services to victims. 25

Despite the dismissal of questions posed in Parliament in both 1995 and 2004, in 2007 the Penal Code was amended to criminalise participation in commercial sex with minors overseas.

“[I]n doing so, we join other countries in doing our part to prevent the sexual exploitation of children around the world by denying sex tourists a safe haven back home if they exploit children in these countries,” Ho Peng Kee, now the Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament. 26

In an effort to deal with trafficking, the government set up the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Trafficking in Persons in 2010. In 2014, Member of Parliament Christopher de Souza tabled the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill to provide a comprehensive legislative framework to assist law enforcement agencies and victims of trafficking.

In response, AWARE, HOME, human rights NGO MARUAH, Project X, TWC2 and the Singapore Committee for UN Women launched the StopTraffickingSG campaign to address issues related to human trafficking and to lobby for improvements to the bill.

The campaign shared stories of trafficked victims and the difficulties they face, pointing out that there is no “perfect victim” scenario in which cases are clear-cut. It urged for more victim-centric legislation, stressing protections for victims so that they would be willing to report cases of trafficking, exploitation and abuse. Other points emphasised included the right to work, so that victims will not be put off by the loss of job security, and immunity from prosecution for immigration offences. 27

Despite criticism and feedback from StopTraffickingSG, the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill passed in Parliament in 2014. In 2015 Singapore also acceded to the UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons, though how it will be implemented remains unclear. Advocates continue to anticipate difficulties in efforts to deal with the complexities of trafficking.

“There is a grey area because trafficking is a process in which workers may be complicit themselves at certain stages - such as coming through passport control, when they may lie to officials about their purposes of coming to Singapore because they are hoping to get a good job, or are willing to go along with a trafficker because of their need to pay off a debt: how will this be assessed - as wilful deception by a free agent or as an integral part of an ultimately coercive and exploitative process?” asked Gee. 28

According to the US’ 2014 TIP report, Singapore continues to face issues in dealing with trafficking, particularly in identifying victims and building evidence in cases. “After investigating 294 new labour cases and 53 sex trafficking cases, the government substantiated 24 sex trafficking cases and one labour trafficking case,” the report said. 29

Transnational families

Migrant workers are not the only ones who have run into migration issues in Singapore. As ease of travel has allowed more and more people to study, work and live abroad, globalisation has often come into conflict with traditional ideas of family and citizenship.

In 2014, four in ten marriages involving Singaporeans were between a citizen and non-citizen.

This has sometimes led to difficulties in terms of determining belonging and citizenship. “Singapore subscribes steadfastly to the traditional concept of the family based on the legal marriage between a man and a woman and any resulting children from the matrimonial union,” wrote Eugene K. B. Tan in his article Troublesome Women and the Nanny State: Drawing Boundaries and Legislating Bifurcated Belonging in Patriarchal Singapore. 30

…the man is the head of the household and that women will marry men and then follow them wherever they go…

This concept has led to policies that reflect the positioning of men as the heads of their households. Prior to 1999, a stark difference existed when it came to immigration policy: there were no preconditions for foreign wives to be sponsored for permanent residency by their Singaporean husbands, while foreign husbands could only obtain permanent residency on his own merit (i.e. by finding full-time employment that would qualify him for a work visa). The implication was clear: foreign wives could depend upon their husbands to provide, but foreign husbands had to show their ability to earn an income.

“The assumption is that the man is the head of the household and that women will marry men and then follow them wherever they go – which is not necessarily the case,” Member of Parliament Dr Aline Wong told The Straits Times in 1989. “If the foreign man is not so well-educated, he doesn’t get in. But it doesn’t matter if the foreign wife is not so well-educated. That’s where the discrimination lies.” 31

This policy was changed in 1999, allowing Singaporean women to sponsor their foreign husbands for permanent residency.

In 2003, around 23 per cent of marriages involving at least one Singapore citizen were between a citizen and non-citizen. 32 The number rose dramatically over the subsequent decade: in 2014 four in ten marriages involving Singaporeans were between a citizen and non-citizen. 33

Jumping hurdles in transnational marriages

Singaporean Corrie Tan and Burmese Yan Naung Oak got married in 2014. Yan had studied in Singapore as a child and a teenager, and had previously held an Employment Pass to work in Singapore, but had his application for permanent residency rejected.

The visa process has often been opaque, with no reason given for rejections, but the couple managed to speak to an officer who could shed some light on their rejected application and appeals.

“We hadn’t been married long enough,” Tan said in an interview for this feature. “So I said, how long is long enough? She said, ‘Why don’t you try next year?’” 34

A gendered difference also applied in government thinking and policy when it came to the citizenship of children: previously, children born abroad to Singaporean fathers received citizenship by descent, whereas those born to Singaporean mothers had to apply for citizenship. Citizenship laws were only changed in 2004 to make citizenship by descent gender neutral. 35

Another gendered issue has also had a strong impact on transnational families over the years, especially in unions between Singaporean women and foreign husbands: National Service. In 1967, the government introduced military conscription of all male citizens and permanent residents; those who gave up their citizenship or residency to avoid National Service generally found themselves penalised when it came to returning or working in Singapore. This has thrown up problems for couples where the foreign husband was either unable or unwilling to serve in the Singapore military.

Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho examined the barriers for transnational couples in her paper Stories that Refuse to be Told: Overseas Singaporean Women, Foreign Husbands and the Citizenship Terrain:

Despite the public recognition accorded to National Servicemen who serve and the shame and penalties meted out to those who evade conscription, National Service is not solely a matter in the public domain. …In the context of this paper, Singaporean wives living abroad who wish to return to Singapore are made to pay a price if their foreign husbands who are liable for National Service have not or are unable to enrol in the military. This is a regulation to which Singaporean men marrying foreign wives are not subject because women are not liable for National Service in Singapore.

With the government trying to regulate the number of people given permanent residency in Singapore, a new visa category was created in 2012: the Long-Term Visit Pass Plus (LTVP+), meant to help foreign spouses who could not yet get obtain permanent residency to live in Singapore and be eligible to certain social and work benefits.

'If you don't do certain things, I'm sorry I am not going to put in your permanent residency, I'll send you home.'

However, some foreign brides have faced other troubles. Depending on their spouse for sponsorship to remain in Singapore – and often also on household finances – put them in vulnerable positions.

"It is very easy to threaten a foreign wife to say that 'if you don't do certain things, I'm sorry I am not going to put in your permanent residency, I'll send you home', that is a huge fear factor,” AWARE president Braema Mathi told The Straits Times in 2005. 36

Dependent on their husbands and cut off from the support of their family members back in their home countries, many foreign brides found themselves isolated and ignorant of where to turn to for support.

In 2005, Channel NewsAsia reported that AWARE had been receiving more calls for help from foreign brides who had been victims of abuse and emotional harassment. AWARE followed up with a report in 2006 on foreign brides, looking into the practices of international matchmaking agencies, coming up with recommendations to implement more regulation and protection for women. 37

Despite this, it was reported again in The Straits Times in 2013 that foreign brides were reporting cases of abuse. The article reported an average of about 300 cases of foreign wives seeking personal protection orders from their husbands in the preceding five years before 2013.

Interviews with social workers showed that these cases were more often than not about power and control. "Some of these marriages seem more like a transaction than a marriage. The women often marry for a better life here and their Singaporean husbands feel they can lord over them as the women are totally dependent on them,” Chia Kwok Ying, a counsellor at the Marine Parade Family Service Centre, told The Straits Times. 38

More measures were implemented at the beginning of 2015 to help transnational couples. From January 2015, people on LTVPs could be employed without counting towards a company’s foreign worker quota, and could apply for a Letter of Consent from the Ministry of Manpower to work. This allowed foreign spouses a better chance at being able to find work and be financially independent from their Singaporean spouses, so as to lessen the power differential within the family, as well as to help support the household.

Roadblocks for Long-Term Visit Pass holders

LTVP holders were previously not allowed to work, and were often overlooked by employers who sought Singaporeans and PRs.

Rules were changed in 2015 to allow LTVP holders to apply for a Letter of Consent from the Ministry of Manpower when they find full-time employment. There is still no option for LTVP holders to work part-time or freelance.

Related themes Work & Economy

These changes allowed couples to submit an application for a Letter of LTVP Eligibility up to year before marriage, so as to find out if the foreign spouse would be eligible to receive a long-term pass to remain in Singapore. If eligible, the letter could then be used to support their LTVP application upon marriage. Although the letter is merely to provide an indication of eligibility – rather than a guarantee of a long-term pass upon marriage – such a process sought to enable couples, especially those who have met via international matchmakers, get an idea of the likelihood of the foreign spouse’s ability to settle in Singapore before marriage. The process was also intended to assist couples in discussing their financial situation before commitments were made.

The government also began to provide more voluntary marriage preparation and support workshops for transnational couples, covering issues such as language barriers and cultural differences, as well as marriage enrichment programmes.

Long-term passes require sponsorship; in the case of illness or even death of the Singaporean spouse, foreign spouses find themselves with no guarantee of staying, even if they have Singaporean children.

However, the longer-term impact of these recent measures remains to be seen, and difficulties still remain for some transnational families, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds. Although long-term passes allow foreign spouses time to remain in Singapore without Permanent Resident status, these passes are still in regular need of renewal, and often do not provide the level of stability and peace of mind that families need.

Lee Lilian, a member of Parliament for the Workers’ Party until the 2015 General Election, said that she constantly saw transnational families with immigration issues at her Meet the People sessions. Without citizenship – or at least permanent residency – foreign wives are excluded from certain welfare schemes, such as childcare subsidies. Long-term passes also require sponsorship; in the case of illness or even death of the Singaporean spouse, foreign spouses then find themselves with no guarantee of being able to stay in Singapore, even if they have Singaporean children. 39

Lee spoke on this issue in Parliament in March 2015, urging the government to prioritise permanent residency and citizenship for foreign spouses.

“We should prioritise long-term stays for foreigners married to Singaporeans, especially when there are children involved. They are a group that is naturally integrated in the Singaporean core, and priority should be given to them when granting new citizenships,” she said. 40

Migration in Singapore affects a large swathe of the female population, from workers to wives and mothers. Yet even in this patriarchy looms large: the concept of domestic work being ‘women’s work’ and therefore of low economic value has a huge impact on the status of FDWs in society, while the idea of men as the breadwinner and head of the household permeates into ideas of citizenship and belonging for foreign spouses.

As the world continues to shrink with the ease of travel increasing, such issues are likely to crop up more and more often, increasing the need for change to respond to a dynamic situation.

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