From rural South-East Asia to the Singapore city: The multi-scalar forces of domesticity

By Joshua Shao Hong Ee, King’s College London


Ee, J.S.H. (2022) From rural South-East Asia to the Singapore city: The multi-scalar forces of domesticity. Routes 3(1): 12-23


The mainstreaming of gender in Southeast Asian migration literature has yet to progress into studies on the intersecting oppressions faced by female migrant domestic workers (MDWs). This paper evaluates this gap in scholarship through a multi-scalar analysis on the intra-regional migration processes that bind MDWs from rural South-East Asia to households in the Singapore city-state. Through the interlocking axes of (1) transient migration, (2) fly now, pay later employment, and (3) intra-household servitude, MDWs in Singapore undergo travelling forces of domesticity that causes them to be reduced from that of a homemaker for their rural families to a live-in servant for urban strangers. 

1. Introduction

This paper critically discusses the multi-scalar forces of domesticity that facilitate the flow of female MDWs from rural South-East Asia to the Singapore city-state. Having provided contextual knowledge on South-East Asian migration patterns, female MDWs were found to be mostly travelling across intra-regional networks, from rural areas to urban cities, in hopes for emancipation from patriarchal norms. This is analysed in further detail through a case study on female MDWs in Singapore, who are transient workers by law, indebted through a fly now, pay later scheme, and treated as live-in servants. These intersecting conditions provide support for the main argument, which is that the continued relegation of females to domestic labour in the city perpetuates travelling forces of domesticity as female MDWs go from homemakers in rural households to live-in servants for urban strangers.

2. Background: rural- urban migration in South East Asia

Research on global care chains has yet to go beyond gender mainstreaming to study the underacknowledged intersections of discrimination against female MDWs, especially in relation to their local host communities (McIlwaine and Evans, 2018). Commonly referred to as the maid trade, domestic labour has been the leading cause for women’s migration in South-East Asia, and although women make up 73% of MDWs globally, they account for 83% of South-East Asian MDWs (ILO, 2016). South-East Asia is home to the world’s two largest groups of MDWs – Indonesians (2.1 million) and Filipinos (1.4 million) – whereby both account for about one-third of the global MDW population (11.5 million) (ILO, 2016). However, approximately 70% of South-East Asian migrants only move to countries within the region (UN Women, 2017). This means that the majority of these MDWs are travelling across intra-regional, rather than inter-regional, spaces. A more refined geographical study exposes highly unbalanced migration patterns, with Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand absorbing 97% of all intra-regional migrants (ILO and UN Women, 2015). 

Additionally, the feminisation of migration in the region is paralleled with the rise of a new generation of women who aspire towards urban consumerism and economic independence, to remake themselves ‘from so-called rustic peasants to modern girls’ (Yeoh, 2016, p. 78). By moving to the city, South-East Asian women gain possible emancipation from patriarchal families and communities, who largely place the burden of domestic labour onto them (Al Jazeera, 2016). Employment opportunities, coupled with higher incomes, in the urban sector allow female MDWs to renegotiate asymmetrical power relations with their rural communities through substantial remittances to both their immediate and extended family members (Yeoh, 2016). Households also prefer to send Filipinas abroad as compared to their male counterparts, who are deemed as less reliable in transferring money back home (Barber, 2000). Furthermore, single women may also be motivated to move to the city to marry men of perceived higher socio-economic status (Cheng and Choo, 2015). Rural to urban migration is therefore not just a family strategy, but also a personal strategy to relieve women from unequal divisions of domestic labour with men back home (Parreñas, 2015, p. 32).

The South-East Asian region is therefore more than a geographical container of migrant sources and destinations; it is a spatial network of rural areas and urban centres, driven by both familial and individual socio-economic aspirations (Herrera, 2013). However, it should be noted that there remains no single way to theorise international migration within the region (European Commission, 2022; Fong and Shibuya, 2020). As an adaptation of the neoclassical theory, the new economics theory of migration may offer some insights for it explains that migration is a collective decision, usually undertaken by the household to increase streams of income (Massey et al., 1993). Yet, such a theory diminishes the agency of individual female MDWs who are seeking personal emancipation from patriarchal norms. Although the world systems theory perceives cross-border movements to be a phenomenon occuring between developing and developed economies, this theory does not appreciate how migration patterns in South-East Asia occur between developing countries (Massey et al., 1993), whereby importing countries like Malaysia and Thailand do not yet qualify as advanced economies. As such, it would be inadequate to apply traditional, Euro-centric theories on migration within South-East Asia. Instead of seeking to offer grand theories on migration, this paper provides an in-depth, locality-based case study on oppressions against female MDWs within the South-East Asian country with the highest proportion of MDWs; the Singapore city-state.

3. Servants of Singapore

3i. Migration Status: Transient Workers

As the second smallest Asian nation, labour-scarce Singapore is cognisant of its widening care deficit due to rising female labour force participation rates and a rapidly aging population (Yeoh et al., 2020). Their answer to its shortage in domestic labour: a low wage and transient workforce of live-in MDWs (Yeoh and Huang, 2000; Koser, 2010). Singapore records the highest proportion of immigrants in the Asia-Pacific, with low-skilledmigrants accounting for over 20% of its total population (Hamid, 2015; MOM, 2020). In 2020, there were a total of 252,600 MDWs in Singapore, with nearly 94% originating from South-East Asia (Figure 1). All MDWs in Singapore are females because only females can apply for the MDW Work Permit visa, which is renewed every two years (Yeoh et al., 2020). MDWs also face extensive ‘boundaries of citizenship’ (Cheng and Choo, 2015, p. 660), being denied long-term residency, the freedom to marry, reproductive rights and the rights to family reunification (Appendix A). With temporality legally enforced, the Singapore city presents itself as an assemblage of shifting South-East Asian ethnoscapes, with each cohort of MDWs replacing the one before it.

Figure 1. Percentage of MDWs in Singapore, by country of origin (Tan, 2014; HOME, 2015; Devaraj, 2020).

3ii. Employment Process: Fly Now, Pay Later

MDWs in Singapore are employed through a fly now, pay later scheme (Parreñas, 2015). The first few months of their wages go towards repaying either their employer or maid agency, who had initially paid for their migration costs, inclusive of airfare, training and more (Appendix B). During the repayment period, MDWs usually receive no more than $40 in monthly allowances, whereby about two thirds receive $10 or less, and 8% receive no wages (Parreñas et al., 2020; Yeoh et al., 2020). Filipinas generally have the highest wages and incur the lowest migration loans, while MDWs from Myanmar have the lowest wages and incur the highest loans (Figure 2). Although the minimum wages of MDWs are set by government authorities from their countries of origin, an estimated 48% of Singaporeans would not pay MDWs more than S$600 a month (Mahmud, 2019). Debt bondage, coupled with repressed wages, places the MDW in a situation of forced labour as they are compelled to work for their employer, and sometimes under abusive and exploitative conditions (Al Jazeera, 2016). 

Figure 2. Breakdown of MDW migration debt (Tan, 2014; Seow, 2017; Devaraj, 2020).

3iii. Intra-Household Relations: Live-In Servants

Under the Work Permit regulations, MDWs are not allowed to (1) work for another employer, (2) work outside of their employer’s residential address, or (3) do part-time work, less they be deported (MOM, 2020). The legal residency of a MDW is dependent on staying with one employer in one address, whereby this lifestyle resembles that of a live-in servant (see Parreñas, 2015). Operating almost exclusively within the private sphere, the daily duties of MDWs include cleaning, cooking, and eldercare, to name a few (HOME, 2015). A 2016 survey with 429 MDWs uncovered that not only do MDWs work for 14 to 16 hours a day, but 75% of respondents had less than two hours a day to themselves (AWARE, 2020). Although entitled to a weekly day off, between 59% to 80% of MDWs do not consistently receive their weekly day off (AWARE, 2020; Parreñas et al., 2020). During the time that they do get to rest, MDWs seek permission to use the television or access the food pantry, and they usually do not consume their meals at the family dining table (Parreñas et al., 2020). Due to imbalanced power relations with their employer-sponsor, the site of the household features a blurring of work and rest spaces, to the point whereby both are replaced with servitude. 

As women from rural South-East Asia make their way to the Singapore city-state, dreams of emancipation from domesticity eventually awake to realities of servitude (Mahler and Pessar, 2006). The deprivation of urban sociality means that discriminations against MDWs in Singapore are compounded within a single site – the household – where they are rendered ‘as defeminized, desexualized, and subservient workers’ (Cheng and Choo, 2015, p. 661). As a result, two out of three MDWs do not complete their two-year employment contract (Awang and Wong, 2019). Within urban Singapore, instead of acquiring urban modernity or economic independence, MDWs from rural South-East Asia grapple with a worsened form of domesticity, called servitude.

4. Intersecting forces of domesticity

‘Estela (Filipina): Men cannot work as a maid. 

Interviewer (Singaporean): Why not? 

Lorna (Filipina): Who will hire? OK, you tell me! Tell me one Singaporean family.’

(Yeoh and Huang, 2000, p. 419)

The Singapore city-state presents itself as a key geographical context for the study of the forces of domesticity, which is persistent in its relegation of females to domestic labour (Parreñas, 2008). This intensified gender-based discrimination is best articulated through the theoretical framework of intersectionality, which analyses how oppressions are constituted through various, interlocking axes of social categories, such as gender, class, and nationality (Herrera, 2013; MclIwaine and Valenzuela-Oblitas, 2019). Additionally, this multi-scalar study on female MDWs in South-East Asia answers ongoing calls ‘to move intersectionality to unexplored places’, especially those beyond the United States (Carbado et al.,2013, p. 4). In Women of a Lesser Cost, Sylvia Chant and Cathy McIlwaine (1995) showcase how migration, employment and household intersect to compound the struggles of women from the Philippine Visayas. Applying this to Singapore, the intersections of transient migration, fly now, pay later employment, and intra-household servitude reveal how female MDWs go from perceived emancipation from rural domesticity to servitude in Singaporean households. Whilst in their hometowns, these mothers and daughters care for family members, but in the city, they become servants for strangers.

The travelling patriarchies that stretch from rural South-East Asia to urban Singapore show how a multi-scalar analysis can highlight the persistence and intensification of domesticity across borders (MclIwaine and Evans, 2020). It is furthermore uncertain whether the convenient disregard for gender-based oppressions against MDWs in Singapore is due to ignorance or support for the one-sided ideology that domestic labour is natural for women. What is certain is that the reiteration of women as homemakers means that ‘no Singaporean employer will employ a man for domestic work’ and (rural) women will somehow be flexible enough to put themselves through servitude (Yeoh and Huang, 2000, p. 421). These stereotypes complicate the futures of young South-East Asian women because, instead of upgrading to the formal sector, MDWs in Singapore may continue to be relegated to the lower echelons of the economy, even back in their home countries. Whether the diasporic journey to Singapore has enabled MDWs to develop transformed identities is thus highly debatable. 

5. Conclusion

From rural to urban South-East Asia, this multi-scalar study uncovers the travelling forces of domesticity through an in-depth study on female MDWs in the Singapore city-state. Instead of experiencing personal and economic independence in the city, female MDWs face intersecting oppressions of temporality, debt, and servitude. However, since domesticity in Southeast Asia has been spatially extended into an assemblage of intra-regional migration routes, there exists not just travelling patriarchies, but emancipatory opportunities through strategic essentialism (Chakroborty, 2010). Future research can investigate how the shared culture of migration offers Southeast Asian MDWs a chance to come together and resist the persistent relegation of domestic work to women. This should occur in reference to theories from other developing regions, such as decolonial feminism by Latin American scholars (Bhambra, 2014), which could bring feminist scholarship one step closer towards establishing a framework for cross-national solidarity (Mohanty, 2003). 

6. Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Professor Cathy McIlwaine for her supervision and guidance on this essay.

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8. Appendix A: boundaries to citizenship in Singapore for MDWS

Source: Parreñas, 2015

9. Appendix B: sample of loaned migration costs

Source: Arshad, 2020

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