Maid murders in Singapore – Who’s to blame?

Photo: KC Wong/CC BY 2.0

Spate of maid-related crimes in Singapore point to a greater need in matching employer mindsets with domestic helper expectations in Singapore.

By Melissa Chen

There have been a spate of maid-related murders and crimes in Singapore in recent years. While no official statistics are available, the anecdotal evidence is apparent.

In June 2017, an Indonesian domestic helper murdered the elderly couple that she was working for, and was arrested after she fled to Sumatra. In a separate incident, another Indonesian maid was arrested for the murder of her 77-year-old wheelchair-bound employer after just one month of employment.

In 2014, a Burmese maid stabbed her employer’s 87-year-old mother after being scolded by the elderly lady that morning. She was diagnosed with acute depression with psychotic symptoms.

These accounts are just a few of many more incidents of maid-related crimes. But, one must not ignore that maid abuse cases seem to be on the rise, too. One couple was jailed and fined in 2017 for starving their Filipino maid – they provided her with only two meals a day, causing her to lose 20kg over a 15 month period.

To reduce the numbers of maid-related crime, the mental health of foreign domestic workers (FDW) needs to improve, and this can be achieved with a better match in employer-employee expectations.

Poor mental health among foreign domestic workers

The increase in maid-related crimes is largely related to the issue of poor mental health among these foreign domestic workers.

A 2015 study conducted by Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) revealed that 24% of 670 foreign domestic workers surveyed are facing poor mental health. In addition, while the FDWs are required to undergo basic physical health screenings when they arrive in Singapore, their mental health often goes unexamined.

Another likely reason for the poor state of their mental health is due to the differences between what the maids and the employers want and expect. Employers fail to see that the FDW are making an enormous sacrifice – often missing their own families and children – in favour of making a living away from home.

Dr Mok Yee Ming, Chief of the Institute of Mental Health’s general psychiatry department, explained that “Mental illnesses are “multifactorial”. He adds, “A new and unfamiliar environment, a different culture, as well as social isolation are certainly stressors.” In addition to a person’s personality and maturity, these factors can affect a person’s ability to cope.

How Singapore employers compare to their Asian counterparts

The number of foreign domestic workers, or FDW, employed in Singapore has increased rapidly over the years. 206,300 were employed in 2011. This number has risen to 237,000 today, and the number continues to climb.

Indeed, many rely on FDW as caregivers to their children and elderly, and to keep up with the chores at home. FDW are generally paid around SG$550 to SG$600 (US$400 to US$435) monthly. If you have a young child, or an elderly or disabled person living at home, you are eligible for a concessionary levy rate of SG$60 (US$43.50) per month. This makes it relatively affordable for the average Singaporean family to employ a maid.

This is a comparison between three Asian countries that employ a significant number of FDW.

Singapore Hong Kong Saudi Arabia
Numbers 237,000 354,000 Estimated 1.5 million
Wages Minimum of SG$550 (US$400) a month, for Indonesian and Filipino FDW Minimum wage of HK$4,310 (US$551) a month Minimum of SAR600-800 (US$160-213) a month.
Off-days Once a week, or compensated otherwise. Once a week, as well as Statutory holidays and a minimum of 7 days paid annual leave. Once a week, plus annual holiday of at least 30 days after two years of employment.

FDW in Singapore are paid slightly less than their counterparts working in Hong Kong, but significantly more than those working in Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, they aren’t entitled to statutory holidays, or annual leave, compared to those in Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia.

So, a crucial problem is the amount of off-days that FDW in Singapore are getting. Everyone – whether you’re a white-collar worker or a FDW – needs rest days. Overwork and inadequate rest can cause significant physical and mental health problems.

While employers may still be stuck in the “workhorse” mentality (that the more you work, the better the employee is), the demands of maids in Singapore today are rapidly changing.

Changing expectations of domestic helpers

The demands of foreign domestic workers are a far cry from those a couple of decades ago. Most want a day off every week (which is mandatory, according to the Ministry of Manpower), and demand a higher salary.

They know their rights – countries like Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar have raised the minimum salaries, and even considered ending the practice of sending female workers overseas to work as domestic workers.

Many domestic helpers today also state mobile phones and Wi-Fi access as their requirements, as they want to be able to contact their friends in Singapore, and family back home. They are increasingly educated – with many who even have diplomas and degrees from their home countries.

The problem is, that employers are not recognising the changing needs of the FDW today.

Outdated mindsets of employers

While many domestic helpers expect to be treated as part of the family, the reality is that a large proportion of employers in Singapore still treat them as outsiders working in their homes.

With this perception, it is easy for employers to feel superior to their subordinate – the domestic worker, in this case. They feel like they are in the better position simply because they earn more (the average household income for households living in HDB 5-room and executive flats is SG$12,270 (US$8910)).

In addition, the notion that Singapore is a wealthier country compared to its ASEAN counterparts reinforces this mindset of superiority.

GDP of ASEAN Countries, according to International Monetary Fund’s April 2017 estimates

Country GDP per Capita
Singapore US$90,724
Indonesia US$12,432
Philippines US$8,270
Myanmar US$6,360

Associate Professor in Sociology, Tan You Yenn from the Nanyang Technological University, once wrote in a Singapore newspaper that children learn that their domestic helpers are different from them when they “see their ‘aunties’ sleep in spaces with little privacy”, or when they see that they attend social gatherings to “help with menial tasks”.

She adds that children hear adults flippantly discussing their maid problems, or “barking orders and making loud demands”. Such practices cause the boss-subordinate mindset to be passed down to the younger generations.

What can be done to improve the mental health of FDW in Singapore

Improving the welfare of FDW in Singapore by giving more time off and mandatory annual leave is needed, if one is to improve the mental health of the FDW.

In addition, there should be better mental health screenings before the maids enter Singapore. Employers should also be more open to the shifting expectations of FDW.

Being overworked and ill-treated is a possible reason why maids commit crimes, and they can, like any other human beings, be pushed over the edge.