Sat, 27 Sep 2003

Have COEs for maids

Janadas Devan The Straits Times Asia News Network Singapore

Singapore would be better off if it had fewer foreign maids. It is a First World country, and yet Singaporeans, even lower- middle-class Singaporeans, live like Third World pashas, with servants at their beck and call.

According to Ministry of Manpower figures, there are currently around 140,000 foreign maids in the country. To reduce that number to zero over, say, a decade, the Singapore government can introduce certificates of entitlement (COEs) for foreign maids, on the same principle as COEs for cars. Any resident who wishes to hire a foreign maid must first bid for a COE, entitling him to employ a foreign maid for, say, five years.

In the first year, the government might make available 100,000 COEs for maids, about two-thirds the number currently in the country, so as to ease the transition to a maid-free life.

In the second year, the number of new maid COEs can be cut to 10,000, and progressively reduced thereafter. The scheme will come to an end within 10 years, after which only companies providing commercialized domestic services will be entitled to hire from overseas.

The idea behind the whole scheme would be to make the hiring of foreign maids so prohibitively expensive that only multimillionaires would be able to afford live-in maids. That is only fair, for only pashas should be entitled to live like pashas.

Now that I've got many of you angry, let me explain why I hold these views.

For most of the year, I live in the United States. For three to four months a year, however, I'm in Singapore. I don't have a maid in the U.S. Almost all the people I know there and in Europe don't. These include university professors, civil servants, doctors, journalists, lawyers and engineers.

The only exception is a married couple (former Singaporeans, as it so happens) who are worth anywhere from 30 to 50 times my net asset value. They made a fortune building up a software company, so can afford this 19th-century upper-class luxury. In America, only people like them, and the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Bill Gates and the President of the U.S., have live- in servants. The rest serve themselves.

So how do middle-class people like my wife and I -- both working and with a child to raise -- take care of our domestic chores? Once a week, a woman comes in to clean the house. About twice a year, we hire a cleaning company to do a thorough cleaning -- windows, the gutters, hard-to-reach places.

We mow our own lawn -- and if we are too busy, we hire someone to do it. We do most of our laundry ourselves, but send clothes that need to be ironed or dry-cleaned to a laundry shop. Dishes, we do ourselves -- or rather, we stack them in a dishwasher. Meals are usually simple affairs, requiring no more than 30 minutes to prepare. And as for the child, he is in school from 8.30 a.m. to 3.30 p.m., and occasionally in day care between 3.30. p.m. and 5.30 p.m. A babysitter looks after him when we have evening engagements.

What happens when I'm in Singapore? For one thing, I've to see to my own laundry. But I always have a devil of a time finding a dhobi. In the U.S., there are three laundry shops within five minutes' walking distance from my home; in Singapore, I've to search high and low for one. Maidless Singaporean friends tell me they also have difficulty getting someone to do their house- cleaning or babysit their children.

The reason is simple: Because there is an army of maids providing all these services, Singapore lacks what many industrialized countries have: a large-scale domestic services industry.

Want your shirts crisply pressed? Get the maid to do it. Want your car polished? Get the maid. Want your windows to sparkle? Get the maid. Want your children looked after? Get the maid -- who, of course, since she has no training in childcare, will stick the child before the goggle box.

What would happen if we got rid of maids? Some Singaporeans have told me that without maids, Singaporean women cannot work and raise children. That is absurd. If American and European working women can manage without full-time live-in maids, there is no reason why Singaporean women can't.

It would help if local companies instituted flexi-work arrangements, so women will find it easier to juggle work and home; and Singaporean men, of course, would have to get off their haunches and do some housework, but that won't kill them.

More to the point, restricting the number of foreign maids will encourage the development of commercialized domestic services. There are already companies in Singapore providing cleaning services, for example, but they tend to be expensive as the market is small.

The unavailability of cheap foreign maids will result in the creation of more such enterprises providing a range of domestic services, from childcare to old-age care, from gardening to laundry. This won't solve Singapore's jobs problem, but it will help reduce the number of the structurally unemployed.

There's nothing demeaning about cleaning houses or looking after children. The people who provide such services can be trained and thus earn decent wages.

Incidentally, the manager of the cleaning company that spring- cleans my house twice a year -- he is richer than I am. He runs a business; he deserves to be. We will create many such businesses in Singapore if we got rid of this ludicrous hangover from our Third World past -- our love affair with cheap servants.