A nomad mother in Singapore

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Meet Mr Foo

In front of the beach resort is a wooden shelter. Plastic sheets shield the sides from wind, sun, rain and peeping Toms. I’m lying on my back, and bent over my feet is Mr Foo. When he greeted me this morning, I knew straight away: this would not be an ordinary massage.


Mr Foo shushes me when I want to talk, and starts on my feet. He rubs every toe separately and tells me what ails me. Tiredness, sure. Back pain, shoulders, neck, off course. And headaches, who doesn’t have them? He tells me that he used to treat everything in his village, down in rural Penang, from cancer to diabetes, and that bone setting was his specialty. I can guess why he moved on to massaging tourists; he never charged the villagers.

I nod, and refrain from comments about Mr Foo’s cancer curing abilities, but ask about his village instead. The reflexology is relaxing, and soon Mr Foo moves upwards, rubbing my legs with fragrant clove oil. Normally, my massages are facedown, and silent. Masseurs in Singapore barely speak English. Between rubbing and commenting on the state of my body, Mr Foo shares his live story. 

His father took a boat from China to Singapore in the middle of last century. The boat trip was free, but to pay back the cost he had to work on the Singapore docks for three years, as a coolie. The docks were a dangerous place, coolies were accident prone, and soon Mr Foo senior started to develop his talents as a traditional healer. That suited him more than lugging merchandise, and when his three years were up he moved to Penang, which, like Singapore, has a large community of Straits Chinese. He met a girl in a village, started a fruit plantation, setting bones and curing the villagers on the side. 

Mr Foo has now started on my arms, prodding sore muscles and explaining where I need to knead myself daily to loosen my stiff shoulder. We talk about his village, which has fishermen and fruit plantations. He himself opted out of the fruit, leaving his family plantation to his brother. His other inheritance was more valuable to him: the wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine his father taught. Where Mr Foo senior used to order all his herbs in China, junior does not trust the Chinese. He goes into the jungle, to collect his own. His own son, Tommy, who has joined him in this ‘Father and Son’ reflexology business, refuses to join him on foraging trips into the snake-infested jungle. Now and then, Mr Foo and Tommy talk in rapid Cantonese over my head, looking and pointing at the hotel and its guests. 



We chat on, and Mr Foo tells me his children were smart, but did not manage to get into a local university. Malaysian universities only accept a small number of non-Malays, even though the proportion of ethnic Chinese and Indian in the country is more than significant. Wealthy Chinese send their children to Singapore or overseas, but Mr Foo could not afford this. 

We move to my head, and neck, and I stay quiet for a bit. ‘Your head is blocked,’ says Mr Foo, ‘especially on the left.’
I nod, as he attempts to loosen my neck, shoulders and arms.

We discuss the shiny condos that spring up to the sky all around the island, on-going construction, and soaring real estate prices in Penang. The massage business must be going well, Mr Foo has two apartments in Georgetown he rents out to pay for his village bungalow.

Then, all too sudden, my hour is over. The next client, an elderly German lady that winters in Penang, is waiting. Mr Foo is booked up days ahead.

I walk back to the pool with the noisy kids, covered in a lingering smell of cloves, loose limbed, and the feeling I got to know not only my own body, all the hotel gossip, but also Penang a bit better. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Healthy?

Trying to make sense of the challenges of healthy eating

We all try to eat healthy, don’t we? Well, we try, yes. Maybe. But it is not that easy. Learning to say no to all those yummy cakes and cocktails is one thing, but an equally difficult matter is the question: what is healthy these days?

Scanning the internet, we can find millions of conflicting opinions on what ‘experts’ (either scientifically trained or self appointed) believe is good for us. Some promote high fat, others low fat eating. Some worship meat, others ban it. There is the Eatwell plate (‘schijf van vijf’ in Dutch), 5 a day, Paleo, Atkins, vegan, superfoods, glutenfree, low fat, low carb, high protein, and much more. Can’t see the forest for the trees? You’re not the only one.

In the nineties we were led to believe that eating too many eggs would raise our blood cholesterol. So we limited our egg intake, or didn’t but felt guilty at every bite. Then, a few decades later, the big news came: the effect of dietary cholesterol, like the one found in egg yolk, on our blood cholesterol is minimal. Even the heath authorities admitted their mistake. We can gorge on eggs again.

Then there is meat. Protein is good for you, it makes you strong, gives you energy, so if we stick to lean meat we are good, right? No, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says, red meat and particularly processed meat like ham and salami, will increase the risk of cancer. A worldwide outcry from meat lovers resulted. Many disagree, especially followers of low carb, high meat diets like Paleo, where you eat only things that were available already in the era of cavemen. Whether cavemen were particularly healthy is unknown, and beside the point, believers claim that the evolution of our digestive system is so slow that it has not yet adapted to ‘modern’ additions like dairy, potato and grain.

Are you still there? Let’s take an easy one now: fruit. Fruit tastes delicious, and has an amazing reputation. Fruit is healthy, say five a day preachers, as it is full of fibre, vitamins, and minerals. So can we unanimously applaud fruit? No, say some, fruit is full of sugar, and whether sugar comes in the shape of a can of coke or a round red apple, it is still sugar. And sugar is bad, that is the one thing experts seem to agree on. Not only does it increase risks on obvious things like diabetes, tooth decay and obesity, it has also recently been linked to blood cholesterol, cancer and heart disease.

So do we need to further discuss sugar? Can we just agree that sugar is bad for us? What about the difference between naturally occurring fruit sugars, unrefined raw sugars, honey, maple syrup and highly processed table sugars or worse, the high fructose corn syrups that are so cheap and therefore popular in the food industry? Different types of sugars have a different effect on our blood sugar levels, yet have the same amount of calories. And yes, they all provide energy, but apart from that they have mostly negative effects on our bodies. Having said that, naturally occurring sugars are balanced by the fibre, vitamins and enzymes in fruit and vegetable, which help the body deal with the sugars more easily and give added benefits. Refined sugars, on the other hand, are mainly ‘empty calories.’

Fat then, you ask, what about fat? It is surely bad for you too? If we can’t rely on simple facts like ‘fat will make you fat,’ we will completely lose it. For sure, public opinion is still very much anti-fat. Products claiming to be low fat, or even fat free, fly of the shelves. That the fat is replaced by other ingredients like sugar, starch or chemical additives, is conveniently hushed up. While most official food authorities still take the anti-fat stance, many others, often backing themselves by scientific studies, will disagree. The thing is that, like with sugars, one fat is not the other.

You knew that already, it’s the saturated fat that is bad for your, right? It clogs up your arteries, raises the risk for heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer, you name it.
Sure. Following that line of thought coconut fat, one of the most saturated fats in the world, coming in at a whopping 80%, would be the worst for you. In comparison butter, which contains only 55% saturated fat, should be much healthier.

Yet, in recent years, foodies have hailed coconut oil as the best thing since cod liver oil. It is a miracle, and can cure most diseases under the sun. With my degree in chemistry and 10 years of experience in the food industry, I have to scratch my head here.

To brush up my knowledge on saturated fat, I google ‘why is saturated fat..’ I wanted to add ‘bad for you’ but my eye fell on the first two suggestions google gave me for my query: ‘why is saturated fat bad for you’ and ‘why is saturated fat important.’

The food industry loves saturated fats. Why? They are stable, solid, and have many other properties that make them easy to use in ready-made food products, like increasing stability, mouth feel and shelf live. Highly saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature (butter/ ghee, cocoa butter, coconut fat) whereas the more unsaturated ones are liquid (olive oil, sunflower oil, canola/ rapeseed). Every fat is in fact a blend, and to really judge a fat you need to look at the entire profile, but I won’t bore you with too much chemical detail. Simply put: highly unsaturated fats are seen as ‘healthy’, and saturated ones as ‘bad.’

Saturated fats are also expensive. That’s why the food industry has found a trick: hydrogenated oils, also called trans-fats. Basically, you chemically trick liquid oil into being solid fat. These artificially saturated fats are especially bad for you. And our coconut fans claim the naturally occurring saturated fat, like the one in coconut oil and butter, is a whole different story.

In a similar way, margarine tricks liquid oil into being a spreadable substance by adding emulsifiers. Originally invented to save costs (butter was dear), margarine was later recommended for health reasons. After all, it is made from liquid, unsaturated fats. And by adding more additives, even less fat is needed to make a spread. Food authorities still promote non-dairy fat spreads like margarine, particularly low fat varieties.

Are they right? Who knows, but one thing is clear: there is more to fat than saturation. Highly processed vegetable oils like sunflower and rapeseed contain high amounts of omega 6 fatty acids, which can be harmful in excess. In contrast to the omega 3 fatty acids, which you can’t really get enough of. These beneficial fatty acids are found in flaxseeds, walnuts, (soy)beans, olive oil and fish.

I could go on for pages about fat, but let’s leave it in limbo for now.

What about those additives, you wonder? Health authorities claim they are researched, approved and therefore safe to use, but the opposition cries murder. There is often no clear evidence to prove them right, but even I, a trained (food) chemist, struggle to believe that all these chemicals can be good for you. So sorry, no univocal answers there either.

Now for the good news, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on: vegetables. Vegetables are good for you. Vegetables are the best. Yeah.

I thought one option at least was safe. Until I recently visited a nutritionist. I had to sum up what I liked to eat, and as I am such a vegetable lover I was sure to get kudos. I smiled when I read out my list.
On spinach, she shook her head. Full of oxalates.
Beet roots? No, root vegetables are full of carbs, better avoid.
Tomatoes, I offered, hesitantly, or aubergine, my absolute favourite.
The look on her face said it all. Oh no, nothing in the nightshade family.
Apart from sweet peppers. They were the best, she said.
And onion and garlic were super healthy too.

The thing is, I hate the taste of sweet peppers, and onion and garlic make me so bloated I look 3 months pregnant.
So at that point, I gave up.

Right now, to me, only one thing is perfectly clear: Nutritional science is very complex. If even the experts disagree, how are we supposed to understand what is good for us? I have decided on a different approach: common sense.

I feed my family a varied diet, rich in wholesome, natural, unprocessed products. Low on processed carbs, sugars and chemical additives. High on flavour. I avoid products where my experience has shown they cause adverse reactions in my own body. And sometimes we cheat. We are, after all, only human.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Cheep cheep

*** cuteness alert ***

A soft, intermittent cheep cheep sound is what I am hearing when typing this post. Fairly soothing, definitely way more so that the racket I am hearing from outside in the chicken run, where a new pecking order is being established, and loudly, chucklingly so. 

The cheeping comes from three little fluffy chicks. Our flock had been diminished by the visit of large Mr Python, and some smaller but equally vile stomach parasites. Then, some of our hens stopped laying altogether, supposedly from old age, and we were down to one egg a day. Not enough to feed a family of six. So, it was time for some new blood. 

Next to Marigold the aged hamster, in a small rabbit hutch, are the cheepers. When the children came home from school yesterday they ran to them straight away. The three chicks were swiftly divided, one each, and off course they all named their own little one. They spent most of their time eating, poo-ing and sleeping, just like all babies. And cheeping. 



We can't stop staring at their overt cuteness and fluffiness, and hereby I proudly present the new members of our household: 

Daisy

Jasmijn opted for the smallest, yellowest fluff ball and named it after her favourite flower. 

Jasmijn and Daisy

Linde went for the largest yellow one, and called it little Fien, after large Josefien who is still in the run outside for now, but will leave us soon. Josephine was Linde's favourite chicken, named after the late Oma Jose and Linde's own middle name. 

Little Fien

And, last but not least, our little brown one: Ronaldo! Which I hope will turn out to be a Ronalda, although Tijm has different ideas on that. 

Ronaldo


Little Fien and Daisy

Meanwhile, outside, Keetje II and Lizzie are fighting their way into the run. Like the others before them, they look slighlty dazzled and frumpy after life in a farm cage. At many spots feathers are missing, their combs are pale and drooping, and they have no clue about natural chicken life. Not only do they have to get used to walking on sand (or mud, in yesterdays weather), seeking shelter from rain, sleeping on a roost, and eating bugs and vegetables, they have to do this under the not so watchful eyes of Josefien, Tilly and Fee. 

Since Josefien has not been her imperious self lately, Tilly seems to be ruling the roost. She is our top layer, and now top hen too, but even so, she is a scrawny little thing with a very bare bum, that after almost a year and a half out of the cage still has not regrown its feathers. Tilly fluffed up the few feathers she has in her neck to seem larger, and strutted around the newcomers haughtily. 

Josephine tried to assert some of her former leadership by chasing Lizzie and Keetje away every time them came near the food. I strategically placed three bowls in different spots in the run, hoping that Lizzie and Keetje will manage to get at least some of the food. 

I keep a much more watchful eye, and am looking forward to gorging on all those eggs again!

Keetje and Lizzie

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Our Tropical Christmas Tree

The monkeys by the tree
When I walked into the garden centre the smell of pine hit me in the face, hard. The scent evoked strong memories. Memories of toilet cleaner, pine fresh. ‘Enjoy a merrier Christmas with the sweet scent of Fresh Christmas Trees this season!’ banners announced.

When we first bought one of these US imported trees in Singapore I was positively amazed by the strong scent. It invaded every corner of the house, and after a few hours I was less impressed. The tree started to give me a headache. The Norway spruces I was used to in Europe smell much more subtly. Only if you bury your face between its branches the lovely smell will envelope you. Walking past, brushing the twigs ever so slightly, will let bells in the tree ring, and send a small whiff of pine scent into the air.

After a week or so in our house, with no air conditioning, the Singapore heat had turned most of the needles or our US Noble Fir brown. The scent, however, permeated from the barren stalks as strong and fresh as ever. It was then that I realised the truth about the ‘sweet scent of fresh Christmas tree’ the garden centre promised. A spruce in the tropics, who was I fooling?

So this year, when the pine fresh toilet cleaner hit me, I decided on a different approach. I wandered along several garden centres until I found something that would fulfil my purpose: a small Monkey Puzzle tree. In a pot. At a fraction of the cost of the US Noble Fir.



When I took it home, Linde was immediately excited. A tropical Christmas tree! Tijm, less so. It is not a real Christmas tree, he moaned. It took some explaining, telling stories about the spirit of Christmas, about the cluster of branches of the casaurina tree that I had as a Christmas tree growing up in Borneo, that with their long, droopy needles looked even less like the real thing, to persuade Tijm of how cool our Monkey Puzzle was. But after we decorated it, we all agreed it was just perfect for our jungle house patio. 




Just a short distance from our tropical Christmas tree, across from the gate into our garden, stands a full-size Monkey Puzzle tree, fifty feet high. Our furry neighbours, the macaques, love playing in it. How will they react to the baby one filled with colourful decorations and sparkling lights? I’ll tell you once I find out.

Only, our Monkey Puzzle has one little problem: it does not smell. Maybe I should buy some air freshener? Pine fresh


Merry Christmas to everyone!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Haze. Part 2.

Almost a month ago I wrote a post about The Haze, that carpet of acrid smoke that has been blanketing south East Asia for the last few months. I had not expected to write about this subject again, simply because I had not expected it would be necessary. I thought The Haze was this annoying, well, more than annoying thing, that would dissipate in a week or so and then would be forgotten. We would go back to purchasing palm oil containing products until next year, when we would be annoyed again.

That did not happen. The Haze is as bad as a month ago, so it is time for an update. What happened in the last month? The honest answer? Nothing. The haze is as bad as it was. The next question I like to scream out loud is: WHY?


(photo Greenpeace)


Just to briefly recap, what causes the haze is peat fires. The wetlands in coastal areas of Sumatra and Borneo are mostly peatlands, where decayed organic material has been deposited over centuries. These peatlands are being drained to be used for agricultural purposes (wood logging, paper production, mining, but most of all: palm oil plantations), leaving a highly dry and flammable organic material. Some companies (illegally) set fire to dried peatlands to clear them, but even without that, many still catch sparks and set ablaze naturally during the dry season. Peat fires burn underground, making them not only produce this acrid haze, but also very hard to put out. Peat fires produce more smoke and toxins than regular forest fires. While we here in Singapore struggle with unhealthy levels of air pollution (especially people like myself that suffer of auto–immune disease, or those that have long afflictions), in Sumatra and Borneo the haze levels are much, much worse. Levels of carbon mono-oxide and ozone are hazardously high. People and animals are dying. The Indonesian government is proposing to evacuate children from the affected area’s, which is great for them, but does nothing towards actually solving the problem.

So why has the haze problem still not been solved? Apart from declaring a state of emergency months ago, the Indonesian government has done amazingly little. Why is not everyone linked to fires in jail? Why are open fires still allowed? Why is not a significant amount of money allocated to the fire-fighters working in the burning area’s? And, most importantly, why is the international press not making a stampede?

Do they not realise the seriousness of this disaster? Let me sum up the reasons why The Haze needs to be addressed:

- Human suffering: The health of 40 million people across South East Asia is affected, and many people have already died.

- Ecological disaster: Areas of tropical rainforest are being swiped away, animals including endangered orang-utans are dying.

- Economic damage: Indonesia itself estimated the loss of economic growth and damages to businesses was worth US$ 35 billion. Other estimates are higher, and these still not take into account losses in the wider region. Many people in affected area’s, which are already poor, have lost their livelihood. Agricultural yields in the whole region will be much lower as sunlight cannot reach the crops. Bee populations stagger, which will affect future crops badly.

- Global warming: The amount of CO2 that has been emitted over the last few months by peat fires is higher than the whole of the US emits in one year.

Summing up, this really is the largest ecological & humanitarian crisis of recent years.

But why is The Haze such a difficult issue to tackle? There are some obvious actions that need to be taken by the government of Indonesia (make this a national priority, install a complete fire ban in certain regions, massively scale up fire fighter efforts, rehydrate peatlands, stop developing and draining peatlands, punish those responsible for illegal burning). For some reason the Indonesian government has done few, not nearly enough, of these things. Other factors hinder a solution as well:

- This year’s El NiƱo makes for an extremely long dry season, predictions are it might not rain until early next year. What is really needed are monsoon rains to quench the fires. Putting out peat fires is a tricky thing, as basically the whole area needs to be doused with tons of water to be effective. Peat can burn up to 10 meters underground, and the smallest smouldering ember left behind will get the whole thing going again.

- Vast areas of peatland have been drained lately, so fires spread very easily and very far.

- Not allowing open fires is more easily said than done. In rural Indonesia people mostly cook on wood fires, and burn their garbage since there is no waste collection.

- Fire fighters on the ground are short of equipment, manpower, water and everything basically. For example, Borneo has 3 (!) fire fighting helicopters, a more daunting figure if you realise the surface area of this island is larger than that of France.

-  
Indonesia is a developing (or let’s be honest: poor) country and it is hard to blame them for making economic development a priority. However, corruption in Indonesia is widespread, raising the question where profits really end up. The very powerful palm oil lobby is entwined with politics, and will inhibit finding a real solution.

- Who cares about Borneo and Sumatra anyhow? Obviously neither the Indonesian government on Java, nor the rest of the world. When tsunamis and earthquakes strike, ‘rich’ countries donate millions. Now, when this is in reality a global environmental disaster that affects us all: nothing.


A lot of people ask me: 'What can we do?' This is a question I ask myself daily as well. We can’t just keep complaining, can we? So what can we do?

- Not buy products with palm oil in it (it is debatable whether there is such a thing as sustainable palm oil) and pressure companies into sustainable sourcing. Mind you, this is a long-term solution, not one that will help in the short run, if at all. The palm oil supply chain is long, and the product often ends up in unrecognisable derivatives, making it almost impossible for consumers to identify. A problem of this scale in my mind needs to be addressed by international policies, laws and regulations. As consumers, all we can do is to demand our companies and governments to implement these.

- Donate to Indonesia’s fire-fighters. They need equipment, suitable protective clothing and masks.

- Help the affected people on the ground. The majority of people in Indonesia do not have suitable facemasks (the Indonesian government distributes surgical masks only, which are proven not effective against haze.) The expensive N95 masks cost over a day’s wages for an average Indonesian.

- Spread the word. We need to get the world’s attention for this global disaster.

- We need to convince the government of Indonesia to stop developing peatlands. The international community and NGO’s should help Indonesia with looking for alternative ways grow the economy and create jobs, rather than simply judge them for burning their rainforest.


If anyone has other suggestions, or knows of any charities that work on the ground and need funds or assistance, please give me their details and I will share their links. I find it shockingly difficult to find ways to support haze fighting-organisations, but I am sure they must exist. 


Sow good links on how to help fight haze:


https://www.generosity.com/fundraisers/fire-fighting-respirator-packs
http://sickbubble.com/2015/10/22/5-powerful-things-you-can-do-in-5-minutes-to-stopthehaze/


http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/the-guilty-secrets-of-palm-oil-are-you-unwittingly-contributing-to-the-devastation-of-the-rain-1676218.html

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

What we did on our holiday

This morning, as I was nit picking my four-year-old daughter’s classmates, I leaned in to the teacher asking Jasmijn how her holiday had been. I could not hear her answer, but the teacher’s response was clear: ‘Wow, you hiked up a mountain for twenty hours?’ He was suitably impressed. 



So was I, and I subtly chose a little head closer to her table to check for head lice. With wild gesticulations Jasmijn regaled of her other adventures, about how we first stayed in a room, and later in a little house on the beach, and that we went in a boat that had a glass bottom beneath which we could see fish.

Her big brother kept a diary of the same holiday, which makes an interesting read. It tells us what Tijm had for breakfast every morning, whether he had club sandwich for lunch, and who won with Monopoly Deal (he did), kwartet (the Dutch name for go fish) and the other card games we played. He adds, almost as an afterthought: ‘Oh yes, and I snorkelled with a turtle.’



My own memories of this holiday are slightly different. We did hike up a hill, for about twenty minutes; from the top of which we witnessed one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen over the rugged shoreline of southern Lombok. 


We relaxed on the beach, explored tidal pools, climbed more hills, played Frisbee with local kids on the beach, and ate some very tasty Sasak food. We saw traditional weavers, Sasak villages, and went to a tourist trap pottery. And we did play an annoying amount of card games, which I mostly lost.


And yes, on the Gili’s we swam with sea turtles. Our first turtle encounter was on the snorkelling trip with the glass bottom boat. The guide jumped in, the rest of the group followed suit, and when the guide yelled ‘turtle’, we all swam over to chase the poor animal. With a lot of elbow shoving everyone fought to get a selfie with the unsuspecting creature, which glided on unperturbed, as if it did not understand what all the commotion was about. After several skirmishes I gave up, and decided to focus my attention on the colourful fish and corals, which were more than worth our time. And much more peaceful. 




The next day we snorkelled from the beach of our hotel, and found our very own turtles. We followed one around for almost an hour, grazing on the ocean floor, popping up for breath every once in a while. The amazingly graceful creature glided through the water, again not at all bothered by our kids swarming around it. Even Linde petting it, against my strict instructions, did not upset his serenity at all. 



Everyone’s memories are different, but we all had a great time, fresh air, and plenty of sunshine in beautiful Indonesia. Back at Changi Airport we breathed in, coughed, and swore at that same Indonesia, where the fires still roar that pollute our South East Asian air. We enjoyed our outdoor time in Lombok, upwind from the fires, and brace ourselves for yet another period of staying indoors. Let’s hope the rainy season will start soon.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The pursuit of happiness


People all over the world are on the move. And I don’t mean expats booking their autumn break in Bali to escape the Singapore haze. No, I am referring to people leaving their countries in a less comfortable manner, with the help of traffickers and flimsy rubber boats. Europe, for example, is flooded with migrants from other, less prosperous continents. A crisis, it has been called. In the Netherlands the public seems to identify two kinds of migrants: the refugees, the ones that fled war and violence, and are more or less deserving of our help and attention. Then, there are those commonly referred to in Dutch as gelukzoekers.

Gelukzoeker is an interesting word, it can be translated (and interpreted) in two ways: someone searching for happiness. Or, someone looking for a stroke of good luck. I can’t help but wonder which of the two people mean when they use this word. 


Asia has its portion of people on the move too. Meet Siti, single mother from Indonesia, a country not torn apart by war, where no terrorist organisation threatens her or her children’s life. Siti left her young sons with her mother to find her happiness, or maybe just a small slice of good luck, in Singapore. Why, I ask her.

Siti rolls her sad eyes. Life is hard for a single mother on Java. Working in a sugar cane factory, she barely earned enough to buy food for her two sons, let alone school uniforms or books. Then she lost that job too. No jobs ma’am, on Java.

Siti did not flee from war, but from poverty. She got a loan from an agent and boarded a plane for a job as a domestic worker in Singapore. Now, eight months of hard work later, she just paid off her loan, and would have been receiving her first salary. But that did not happen. Siti was unlucky.

Her employer made her work from five in the morning until after midnight, with little rest in between. The amount of food she received was too little for the hard work. She never had a day off. She never heard a friendly word. Siti became depressed, and ran away.

I met Siti in the shelter of HOME, the charity I work for. With the assistance of HOME, Siti filed a complaint against her employer to the Ministry of Manpower. She was unlucky again, and her request to be transferred to a new employer was not granted. Siti’s former employer, angry about her running away, is sending her back to Indonesia. With empty pockets.

The difference between the Singaporean approach to migrant workers - welcoming them in, but under strict, sometimes harsh conditions- , and the European way, where getting in is tough (and sometimes lethal), but if you do get in you are treated well, has widened my view on migrant issues worldwide. Unfortunately, that does not bring me any closer to a conclusion, let alone a solution.

The truth probably lies in the middle, and both parties could learn from the other. I am stuck with a growing frustration about inequality in the world, and that birth-lottery that is so grossly unfair. Neither Asia nor Europe seem to handle things in a way that I'd consider well, humane, and to the best of their ability. Xenophobia and 'own people come first' sentiments thrive all around. We could do so much more, for refugees and economic migrants alike.

I have learned one thing, economic migrants like Siti, gelukszoekers, are not looking for welfare, charity and free houses. They simply want a job. Safety from violence and privation. An opportunity to make a living and provide for their families. And some protection from exploitation, human traffickers, abusive employers and dire work-, and living arrangements. 
But migrant workers are out of luck. In Europe these days, poverty, no matter how dire, is not seen as a justifiable reason to flee a country. 

In Singapore many migrants find what they came for: a job, and money to send home. A certain amount of hardship they take for granted. The life of these migrant workers is not easy, but they do what is needed for their families to survive and thrive. Do they find their happiness? Maybe some do. Happiness is a luxury not everyone can afford.



HOME is a Singaporean registered charity that works for the well-being, justice and empowerment of migrant workers and trafficked victims in Singapore. As a non-profit organisation they rely on private donations to fund their work. Please visit www.HOME.org.sg for more information, or if you want to contribute by donating or becoming a HOME volunteer. 

Photo by Dominica Fitri, HOME

 * Siti's name has been changed for privacy reasons. The woman in the photograph is another Indonesian domestic worker, who stayed with HOME a few years ago, and has agreed to her photo being used from HOME promotions.