Thursday 11 December 2014


‘Mama, I’m cold,’ Jasmijn shivered this morning at breakfast, hugging her bare arms to her T-shirted chest. ‘I want a jumper.’ 
Admittedly, these singularly rainy weeks have left the Singapore weather fresher and cooler than average. Still, average being hot and sweaty, the temperature hasn’t dropped much below twenty-eight degrees. Twenty-five at night, maybe.

It is not the first time my tropical kids complain of cold. They often come out of the pool on a cloudy day with blue trembling lips and goose bumps all over. They don’t get it from a stranger either. I sleep under a light quilt these days, and no, we don’t have air conditioning.

When we first moved to Singapore, Tijm was scared there would be no Christmas. After all, all the Christmases he could remember had been white. He quickly came round to the concept of Christmas on the beach though, and it has been three years since we saw a European winter.

I have not missed it one bit. I have not missed spending half an hour wrapping up the kids in layer upon layer of wool, only to have the first child having taken everything off again by the time I finished number three. Or that by the time they finally all have been covered head to toe, with only noses peaking out, one will need the loo. Nor that by the time you have finally unwrapped them, put them on the toilet, wrapped them again and made it to the park, it is dark. O, yes. At 4pm.

I don’t miss any of that. I love our ‘flip-flops on everyone, we are going.’ I love the fact that when we got rained of the football pitch yesterday, and the kids thought rolling in puddles was a great idea, nobody contracted pneumonia.
The tropics suit us perfectly, and I vouched never to leave again in winter, preferring tropical typhoons to sleet and drizzle any day. Because I know winter, and I know that it rarely involves ice-skating and snowman building under sunny, crispy skies.

Next week, we will board a Singapore airlines flight to Munich. We will then drive to western Tirol and spend Christmas in the… snow. Real snow, not the bubbly kind that Tanglin Mall’s foam machines spit out. So far, twenty centimetres have fallen and we keep our fingers crossed for more. I keep my fingers crossed for something else as well: that they wont’ freeze off.

I hope Tirol is still like it is in my childhood memories, sunny and white, and beautiful. I’m sure it will be, and that my kids will love it as much as I did. Still, I am not sure what I am looking forward to most, the skiing, or the hot spot in front of the fireplace afterwards.

Friends and family will meet us in Tirol with a supply of snowsuits, mittens and boots. Let’s hope the furry fleeces Sinterklaas supplied us with, which the kids have been parading around in ever so proudly the last few days, will get us there safe. And warm.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Creating my own kraut

The beautiful kraut crock, or ‘Keulse Pot’ (Pot from Cologne) that I inherited from my grandmother earlier this year, and painstakingly wrapped in an old jumper before packing it in my suitcase and flying it to its new home in Singapore, has been eyeing me for a few moths. So when I read that one serving of homemade sauerkraut contains more probiotics than a whole jar of pills, I knew the time had come: I was going to make my own ‘zuurkool’, or sauerkraut.

I was not sure whether the hot and humid Singapore weather was going to be a blessing or a threat when it comes to home fermenting, but I assumed there was only one way to find out: I bought a large head of cabbage. 

Some research online taught me the basics, and I went about it in the way I do with most things: tackle it head on, without too much of a plan. Indah shredded the cabbage for me very nicely, and very finely, in a way I would not have been able to manage myself. I added 2 smallish spoons of unrefined sea salt to the cabbage and mixed well. 

The amount of salt you need to add to cabbage to create sauerkraut is no exact science, as every cabbage size and type is different, and the same goes for salt. Try to use a fine natural salt with no additions, I like sea salt best. Generally speaking you want around 2% salt, or roughly 1-2 teaspoons per pound of shredded cabbage. 

The best thing to do is start on the lower end and add more when you don't get enough brine, but be careful not to over-salt, the end result should not be too salty. If you add a lot too much, the beneficial bacteria can't grow. This experimental way working of suits me well as I am not too exact myself (and that is someone with a MSc in chemistry speaking, go figure), but if you find it difficult to deal with, just taste your salted cabbage. It needs to be quite salty, without being overwhelmingly so. 

Now comes the fun, and hard part: you need to massage, knead, squash, push and work the cabbage until the brine comes out. Yes, with your (cleanly washed) hands. The salt will set off the process of osmosis (that’s the chemistry degree talking), and water will leak from the cells of the cabbage to the outside, mixing with the salt to make brine. The kneading breaks cell walls to assist this. The salty brine that is formed will stop the bad bacteria from growing, whilst encouraging the nice, healthy lactobacillus that will help ferment the cabbage and improve your gut health. You need to create enough brine for the cabbage to be fully submerged, as any bits sticking out risk going mouldy. If you don’t have enough brine, you might need to add more salt, but before you do that, leave it to stand for a bit and work it some more, you don’t want to oversalt, as this will ruin the batch. You can push the cabbage (which will wilt down to a lot less volume) down firmly to get the brine to the top. If you really can't get enough brine you can top up the kraut with a 2% saline solution, but this is really a last resort when nothing else works. 

Now the kraut is ready to go into your pot, and don’t worry if you have not inherited a nice vintage crock, any jar will do. You need to weigh down the cabbage so it stays down under the brine, if you don't have fermentation you can use a plate, large stone, or a ziplock bag filled with pebbles (which I did) or 2% salted water (don't use unsalted water, if your bag leaks that will ruin your kraut). If you want you can put in an additional layer underneath he weight, consisting of some whole cabbage leaves to keep the shredded kraut from floating up. Don’t put a tightly closed lid on the jar, the CO2 formed in the process needs to escape. You can cover it with a clean cloth instead, or if you do cover, make sure to burp regularly to let the gas out. If you want to go very professional you can buy a jar with an air lock: that way gas can escape and no air can get in. If you struggle with mould on your kraut this is a good way to prevent that. 

But don't worry too much about getting mould, traditionally this was just scraped off. As long as the cabbage underneath is not affected, this is safe to do. 

Then you wait. Check your kraut every day to make sure it is still submerged, as this will prevent unwanted bacteria and moulds to grow, Depending on the circumstances fermentation will take one to several weeks. Mine was delicious after just one week in the hot Singapore weather, after which I transferred it to a Tupperware jar, and put it in the fridge for safekeeping. If you want to know whether it is ready, the best way is the simplest: taste it. If you want to be more technical, you can measure pH, it needs to be below 4.5. But the best measure is you, if your kraut tastes great, it is great!

Mine was, but it still took copious amounts of applemoes (applesauce) to convince the kids of the edibility of Mama’s newest project. 

You can cook all your favourite dishes but I love to eat it raw, that way preserving all those hearty probiotics. Mix it with some (dried) fruits and nuts for a quick side salad or lunchtime treat. 

However I eat it, I'm loving it, and have already started on my next project: a more spicy, oriental version of this traditional Dutch recipe: Korean Kimchi, ladled with chili. Something tells me no amount of appelmoes will convince the kids to eat that one…

Meet the girls

After two and a half weeks in our garden, I am happy to say: our hens have settled in nicely. They love their spacious new home, and have quickly started to lose the unnatural behaviour they acquired in the cramped quarters of battery cages. When they first arrived they had no idea what to do with themselves. But now, they are starting to behave just like, well… chicken. They scratch the muddy ground, dig sand baths, lay their eggs in the nest boxes, and eat a varied diet of kitchen scraps, vegetables and chicken food. I even caught one snapping up a small cockroach this morning. They have learned to go inside in a thunderstorm, or when night falls, and some even understand the principle of sleeping on the roost, though others, despite my repeated attempts to hoist them up there after dark, prefer to huddle underneath, sitting in their own poo. They also learned that life in our garden might be more fun, but that it also carries more risks. The monkeys lolling about on their roof no longer bother them, but after observing a large snake strangling and eating a squirrel a mere ten meters away, some stopped laying for a week. The 5-foot monitor lizard snooping around the run probably did not help either. Since we have seen nor snake nor lizard for a while, they are back in action, and we struggle to keep up with the 4 to 5 eggs they produce a day. The fresh air and good food is doing them well, their feathers are fluffing up, their combs straightening, and becoming less pale. 

And off course, like real hens, they bicker. Life in a coop is strictly hierarchical, and slowly the pecking order reveals itself. So without further ado I present our leading, laying ladies. 


Josephine is a large, full feathered hen, and the leader of the pack. She is especially popular with Jasmijn, who calls her my ‘knuffelkip’ (cuddly-chicken), as her feathers are lush and soft and she loves a cuddle. Josephine is a sociable hen, one of the first to rush over when anyone enters the run. As her position as top hen requires, she sleeps on the top roost, overseeing her flock. When there is food to be had, Josephine will put herself in prime position, standing in the middle of the dish, ensuring she gets first dibs. 


Keetje (a Dutch name sounding a bit like Katie) is our ragamuffin, and Linde’s favourite. Curious, cheeky and bold, she was to first to dare eat from our hands, and she rushes over if there is anything to be done or seen (or eat). The rear of her back has a large bald spot, her comb is mangy, her head featherless, and the feathers she does have are scruffy, making us suspect life at the farm has been hard on little Keetje. She seems to have found her proper position in this flock, and is turning into one happy hen, whose attention is fought over by all the neighbourhood kids, that urge Linde to ‘share’ ‘her’ hen with everyone. 


Wilhelmina is a large and regal looking hen, hence her royal name. Wilhelmina always looks immaculate, with never a feather out of place. She had a pale, golden colour, with a white-flecked neck. Wilhelmina is beautiful, and she looks like she knows it. First we thought she was arrogant, and aloof, and suspected her of being top hen. Later we found she is just shy, and Wilhelmina is the only one that still won’t eat from our hands. She will hover in the corner until I am well out of the way, and those other pesky hens give her enough peace to eat. Her chosen sleeping position on the floor under the roost is another indicator that, despite her royal looks and demeanour, Wilhelmina’s position in the flock is low. 

Feetje and Leentje

Feetje and Leentje look very much alike, to the extend that I still struggle to keep them apart. Both have large, drooping combs that hang over their eyes like a fringe that needs trimming. Both have knotted tails with its feathers cut off. Both have bald spots on their long necks. The main distinction is that Feetje is slightly larger than Leentje, and that her comb is even larger and floppier. Both are friendly, cheerful hens, happy to drop by when there is food to be had.


Last but not least there is Tilly. Tilly is a fierce looking hen, with a dark red comb, and bright orange feathers with white, fluffy bits sticking out. Like Feetje and Leentje, Tilly stays a bit more in the background, but she is getting more confident by the day, and I suspect that when her feathers are fully recovered from life at an intensive farm, she will be a beauty indeed.

Thursday 30 October 2014

They have arrived!

A nomad that dreams of having her own backyard farm. That sounds a bit strange, right? Well, that’s me. This week a lifelong dream got fulfilled: I got my own hens. 

This wasn’t easy to achieve in Singapore, a city where most people live in high-rise flats or polished marble houses. They don’t have a garden, let alone raise their own livestock. Singapore’s kampongs with their free roaming chickens are long gone, and keeping poultry is now only allowed in a confined run. Which brings us to challenge number one: building the run.
Obviously, since no one keeps chickens, there are no ready-made coops for sale. DIY is not our strong suit either, so we needed ‘a guy’. As the hens won’t be allowed outside, the run needs to be spacious, and off course predator proof. To my big relief Singapore does not have foxes, but there are plenty of other lurkers on the loom. I don’t know if our monkeys will actually attack chicken, but am pretty sure they will appreciate the eggs. And then there is the big bad python, and other, smaller, sneakier snakes. Not to mention the huge monitor lizards, I am not even sure what those eat.

I won’t tell you the exact quotes that we got initially for getting this built, but they blew me away (ok, I will tell, one asked 8000 dollar)(++) After we finally found someone to do it for a slightly less extravagant number it took time, debate, redoing, and delay by massive rainstorms but finally: It was ready!

Which brings me to challenge number two: getting the chicken. You can’t just buy them at a pet store, nor anywhere else for that matters. Smuggling them in from Malaysia, where they are freely available at any market, did not seem a good plan either. Thanks to the Internet I met a fellow crazy expat who kept chicken and behold, she knew ‘a guy’, who knew a guy who had a chicken farm. After a delay of only a few days (some issues with farm regulations, off course, this is still Singapore) he delivered. Six brown fat hens now range across our run. 

Observing the chicken has proved a lot of fun. Not only we like it, the curious monkeys love using the top of the run as a trampoline, and seeing how far their arms can reach in. Birdie, our free ranging cockatiel, does not seem too bothered that the hens have taken over his temporary residence, and he has found a new perch in a branch above. The wild cockerel has gotten exited too, strutting his stuff circling the run. Both parties seem pretty miffed at the barrier between them.

Off course there are challenges with keeping chickens coming from a commercial egg farm. 
These girls have been living in a small cage all their life. They have not seen a vegetable in their life, and the looks I get when I put some in their feeding dish are very much the same as those my kids would have given me. They sleep under, rather than on the perches we so carefully constructed in the henhouse, just like they have no clue what to do with the fancy nest boxes. They lay where they walk. And laying, these ladies can! 

We all enjoy the clucking, cackling, squawking, and cooing. We observe our new hens, which are a great addition to our urban safari lodge. And, most of all, we enjoy our farm-fresh eggs.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Prepare to be amazed

A weekend city trip with 3 young kids can leave you with an acute need for a quiet vacation on the beach. But that does not mean it is not amazing. 

Our trip started in chaos, running around Changi airport to buy a last minute Bangkok city guide before the gate closed, and me racking my brain to dig up all those great tips that people shared in the last few weeks. After an elaborate study of the guidebook on the flight, in between games of Uno, hangman and reading Stickman for the fifteenth time, we settled on the museum where the Royal White Elephants used to be kept for that first afternoon. 

Bangkok is a busy, full city, and after our taxi, flight, and taxi ride to the hotel we walked, rode a sky train, and a tuk-tuk to get to the museum. When we arrived it was 3pm. The museum was closed.

Hot and weary, we rambled around the park, clutching the guidebook, unsure what was next with three overheated, worn-out kids. All of a sudden hordes of Chinese tourists, wrapped in colourful cheap sarongs over shorts, swept us up. Groups of them followed umbrella-holding guides to a large, renaissance style building. The tourists, guides nor the locals seemed to speak much English, but we took our chances. We bought tickets. 

More in-depth scrutiny of the guidebook revealed that we were in the Royal Throne Hall, which was even more impressive on the inside than the outside, with golden domes and ceiling frescos of naked angels, elephants and garudas. The hall was cool and vast, and housed an exhibition of gold and silk handicraft by royal artisans. The vastness of the golden halls silenced even the tourist groups, even our kids, into a serene site of glitter and glamour. We were amazed. There were golden boats, intricate woodcarvings, luminescent embroidered silk tapestries, and much, much more. The children were awed, and so were we. Our Bangkok trip had kicked off with a bling. 

The next few days showed more glimmer and dazzle, when we visited the Royal Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Again, neither hordes of tour groups, nor the blistering heat, spoiled our amazement. 

To cool off and chill out we then sailed Bangkok’s canals in a longtail boat, and the river on the ferry. Old houses, and ramshackle shanties were alternated with gleaming mansions and, off course, golden domed temples. Without too much purpose or planning we let a few more of the many, many faces of Bangkok amaze us. We fed fish for good luck.

We ate delicious food, hot, fragrant and spicy, less so for the kids. We relaxed by the pool, and got tortured with Thai massage. Our lack of preparation was not a problem. We were amazed any way. 

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Four Dutch girls, two tandems and 14.000 kilometres

Where I just went backpacking in South America for a few months after I graduated from university, these four young Dutch girls are looking for a bigger adventure. In just over a year they will cycle from Jakarta to Amsterdam. On two tandems. Not only that, they do it for a good cause: to raise awareness for women’s rights. A ‘Ride 4 Women’s Rights.’

A few weeks after their departure from Jakarta Carlijn, Monique, Lidewij and Sophie arrived in Singapore, staying with a friendly Dutch expat couple that took them under their wings. The next day I took them to HOME, the NGO I work for. HOME supports migrant workers in Singapore, and the Dutch girls were invited to join in my Dreams Class, where we dreamed about our prospective futures together with domestic workers staying at the HOME shelter. We found that, although the contestants came from very different countries (the Netherlands, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Greece and India) their dreams were not that different. We all wanted to start our own companies, build our dream house and be able to take care of our loved ones.

The day after the four girls cycled on, over the causeway to Malaysia, but luckily there was time for a quick interview. I was curious how they got the idea for this challenging journey. It turned out not to be the first time these women, that have been friends since primary school, travelled together. This time they wanted to do something different. ‘It was on our last trip that we realised that students like us are very self-centered. We took all our opportunities for self-development for grated, without stopping to think how special they are. Because we are all quite sporty, we wanted to add a challenge. To be aware, for 400 days, whilst cycling, of women’s rights, will be an unforgettable exploration. So that is how we started the ‘Ride for Women’s rights.’

The four women will visit various projects from Plan International and Care International during their journey, as well as other local projects that support women’s rights, and share their stories on their website. So far the group cycled through Indonesia to Singapore, neighbouring countries but which are worlds apart. Singapore impressed them as being ‘futuristic, grand, visionary, and full of expats.’ The ladies of R4WR don’t like to judge. Their journey is one of exploration. Yet they have to admit that Singapore is more modern, and much wealthier than Indonesia. The visit to HOME showed them that ‘beneath the veneer of Singapore there is a darker area, where for instance migrants rights are not always heard.’

How does the public respond to four cycling Dutch girls? ‘When in the busy Indonesian traffic two red tandems appear, men, women as well as children laugh their heads off. There is astonishment, but we also get positive reactions, when we tell that we will cycle 14000 kilometres from Jakarta to Amsterdam to raise awareness on women’s rights. Four girls cycling? Really…from Jakarta to Rembang? O no, all the way up to Amsterdam?’ They had not expected all these positive reactions, and the sign, conversations and meetings that came forth made a lasting impression on the four.  

Apart from the Far East they will also cross the Middle East. All countries that are not as safe as Singapore. Are they never afraid? ‘In the Netherlands we did training on how to handle aggressive situations. This was also a prerequisite for our parents and sponsors. Safety remains very important to us. In Indonesia we often slept at police stations, a golden concept. In every town or village we’d knock on the door at the local police office. After the first week police offices started to feel like home! Every office we slept at (on our mats) would provide us with a letter of recommendation for the next one. When we arrived at the last one, in Bali, we had 17 letters. Let’s hope this trick will work in other countries too.’

After Singapore, Sophie, Carlijn, Monique and Lidewij will cycle through Malaysia, then Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar before entering the Middle East. If you want to follow their adventures, do check their website at www.r4wr.or or find them on facebook as R4WR.

And if you have suggestions for projects to visit, or places to stay in any of these countries, don’t hesitate to drop them an email at

Sunday 28 September 2014

When the cat’s away…

Roel went to Europe, and when he gets back, his first comment is that we have turned the house into a zoo. Our garden 
resembled a safari park already, but apart from a bunch of gecko’s and a hamster, as pets went, it was pretty calm. 

First, we find a rat’s nest in the beanbag. I don’t know if you have ever had a baby rat, eyes still closed, lying in the palm of your hand? Our pest control efforts all of a sudden seem mean and cruel, and my suggestion to give the little thing to Louis, the neighbour’s cat, as a present, is received with horror by the kids.

Next, Indah spots a bird in the frangipani tree. Nothing special in itself, but this one, with it’s yellow grey feathers and proud quiff, is not a local one. Indah soon lures it down from the tree, and has it eating linseed and breadcrumbs from her hand. It stays the night her room, perched in a laundry basket. Google tells us it’s a cockatiel, native to Australia and a common pet. The cockatiel is a bit under the weather, and at first we are not sure it can fly properly. A few days of bread and seeds get it’s strengths up. It darts out of the window. And the day after it is back. 

One morning, I notice the hamster cage roof open. I want to blame the kids, but I know, off course, it has been me who left it open last night. It is not the first time either. I close it quickly, and forget about it

That afternoon Indah points at Louis in the back garden. 

‘What does Louis have? A mouse? A baby rat?’

Louis drops whatever he is holding, and as it hops through the grass I notice two undeniable, and worrying, facts: The thing has stripes. And no tail. 

‘That’s no mouse,’ I scream, the open roof flashing through my mind. 
I jump, out the window, over the plant beds, up the hill, and grab it. 
Poor Marigold’s hind leg bends in a funny angle, and he has a cut on his right shoulder. 

A few days later Linde tells me, ‘Mama, have you not noticed Louis sitting next to Marigold’s cage?’
‘What the ghrfumble,’ I shout, chasing the tom out. 

Our bird, perched on his bamboo fruit basket, observes cooly. It has not moved much the last few days, even free to fly it prefers to laze around the seed bowl. But the tiger in Louis has awoken. Marigold might be locked safely inside, our free-ranging bird demonstrates he can fly fast and far, by dashing out of the house screeching, followed by a fierce looking Louis. 

Louis now prowls around the house, stalking our pets, in a killer mood. The cockatiel resides in the high palm tree before the house, while Marigold licks his wounds (or the antibiotic cream I applied) in the furthest corner of the cage. I had thought the cockatiel would be safer in our house than in the jungle. Now, I am not so sure. 

Thursday 11 September 2014

Boontjes met vlees

Kids and vegetables, always a tricky combination. It is not that long ago that Linde looked at me, head cocked, stating with a weary voice: Mama, you know I don’t eat vegetables. She did not say it, but I could read the why do you keep serving them in her eyes. 

Yet a few months ago when I asked what she wanted to eat on her birthday, she summed up, without hesitating: green beans, broccoli, pink fish (salmon steak) and rice. In that sequence. I am still  recovering from the shock. 

Green beans especially have been a firm favourite in our household for a while. We have had fights over who could get the last ones, and those were fierce fights too. The other day we served two large packets of beans, and I had naively assumed that after three of my kids would have feasted on those, enough would be left for Indah’s dinner. No. They ate them all. 

I remember how much I hated green beans growing up, especially those served at my grandmother’s house. Memories of green beans boiled to death in the classic Dutch way still make me shudder. We never have those. I have not boiled a vegetable since I-can’t-remember-when. We stir-fry. 

Credits for the popularity of green beans can be granted to a dish we call, very prosaically, ‘boontjes met vlees’. This translates into, well, ‘beans and meat.’ The dish is as simple as it is yummy, consisting of stir fried, ehm, beans and beef. 

Roel claims to be the inventor of this famous dish, the recipe of which has been further perfected by Indah (and we will tactfully ignore the fact that it is in fact a classic Asian disc). Last Monday when we (we meaning Indah) cooked this dish I brought it out to five children, ready at the table, chanting ‘boontjes met vlees’, while banging their knives and forks on the table to the rhythm. Our little guests (who had had it before and had requested it) complained that when their aunty made it for them, it was just not as good. 

And since I know that all you parents out there are now dying to get this famous recipe that will get your kids to gorge on green beans, without further ado I present Indah’s version of: 

Boontjes met vlees 
(stir fried beef with green beans)

500 g stir-fry beef, in thin strips
2 or 3 (~200g) packets of green beans, cleaned and in 3-5cm pieces
1 onion, finely chopped
1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
kechap Manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) 

for the marinade:
3-4 tablespoons light soy sauce
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon corn starch
pepper and salt

I have given indicative quantities for most of the ingredients because we don’t really do exact measuring in our kitchen, and also because it depends on your personal preference. You can’t really go wrong much, and you can always add more soy sauce or oyster sauce later. Mix all the ingredients for the marinade, and add it to the beef. Let it sit for a while, at least half an hour. 

Heat a wok with a generous glug of oil and fry the garlic and onion for a few minutes. Add the beans, and stir-fry these for a few minutes as well until they are almost done, before you add the beef. Make sure your wok is hot and you stir well. When everything is cooked, add a generous glug of kechap manis to taste. Serve with plain rice, and sambal for those who like some added bite.

Thursday 4 September 2014

The other side of Singapore #StopTraffickingSG

Singapore is an excellent city to live in for expats. Shining lights, clean, safe, with good schools, and amazing food. All the comfort you need, topped with an exotic sauce to give it just that hint of Asian flavour, without the dirt, hustle, bustle and hassle of many of its neighbouring countries. 

Some foreign residents, in their expat bubble, are not aware of another, much darker side of Singapore. They might have heard of some of the goings-on in Orchard Towers, or Singapore’s infamous red light district Geylang. They might have seen the foreign construction workers toiling on the newest high-rise buildings. Or they have seen domestic workers spending they Sunday morning washing their employers cars. 
But unless you look very, very closely, it is hard to see the plight of some of these workers. To see what sacrifices they made to get here. And what problems the more unfortunate migrants encounter. They are expats in Singapore too. Yet the advantaged position of expats on Employment Passes, in condo’s and with kids in international schools, is lifetimes away from that of a low wage migrant worker with a limited grasp of the English language, who travelled to support a family left behind in their home countries. They will work long hours for a low salary, sleep in squalid dormitories or store rooms, and get fed only just enough to sustain their hard labour. And that is when all goes well. It does not always. 

Trafficking in persons is a serious crime and a violation of human rights. Every year men, women and children are deceived or coerced into leaving their homes and moving to Singapore, only to end up in jobs and working conditions they did not expect. Leaving is difficult, because of huge debts owed to recruiters. These men, women and children often face long working hours with inadequate rest, or even physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. They may also be verbally abused or threatened by their employers and recruiters.

A few months ago Singaporean MP Mr Christopher De Souza proposed to draft a Private Member’s Bill dedicated to combating human trafficking in Singapore. The aim is to present the Bill in parliament in November 2014.
Singaporean Non Governmental Organisations (NGO) advocating human rights welcome the new Bill, and hope it will be a significant step in combating human trafficking in Singapore. HOMEAWARE, TWC2, HealthserveUNWomen and MARUAH have taken this occasion to raise awareness of human trafficking issues in Singapore, and jointly organised the StopTraffickingSG Campaign.

StopTraffickingSG urges the government to adopt a victim-centred approach in the drafting of the Bill on Prevention of Human Trafficking. The campaign organisers feel that without this, the Bill will not be sufficiently effective in combating Human Trafficking. 
StopTrafficking SG recommends the following to be considered:

· Victims have the right to accommodation, food, counselling services, legal aid, medical treatment, compensation and social support while their case is on-going.

· Victims are not prosecuted for being an undocumented immigrant or for working ‘illegally’ or for any illegal immigration infractions inadvertently committed while being trafficked.

· Victims have the right to work and a decent income while their case is on-going.

Victim’s rights need to be taken into consideration to ensure detection and prosecution of traffickers and trafficking-related crimes. If not, many victims will opt to return to their home countries without making a formal complaint to the authorities, rendering the Bill ineffective.
At the moment, trafficked victims are often reluctant to file complaints and claim justice. Investigations and legal proceedings may take several months or even up to two years before being resolved, during which time the victims are obliged to remain in Singapore. It is not guaranteed they will have the option to work during investigations, and many, being the breadwinners of their families, can simply not afford to stay to file a complaint. Sometimes victims are prosecuted themselves for being undocumented immigrants, or for working illegally, often unknowingly and due to the actions of their traffickers. The victim’s fear for the authorities stops them from seeking help.

Inclusion of victim’s rights will also align Singapore’s laws with international standards. A clear framework to protect victims of trafficking in Singapore strengthens relations with our neighbours, who are the main source countries of victims trafficked through and to Singapore.

Guaranteeing the victims’ safety, livelihood and sustenance in the Bill will give victims of Human Trafficking the incentive to report, identify and testify against perpetrators. This will aid the effective prosecution of employers and recruiters involved in trafficking persons into Singapore, and in turn assist the destruction of trafficking syndicates as well as bring justice to victims and reduce crimes that threaten the security of Singapore.

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Tuesday 26 August 2014

Guests of honour: traditional Javanese wedding

Together we bend over the phone, but the map is not of much help. It shows a muddle of small roads without any names, landmarks, or anything else recognisable. When I asked Indah for her address, she shrugged. Her village does not have names or numbers. In vain we search for any pointers. Finally, we agree on meeting her and her uncle tomorrow by the sugar cane factory half an hour away. He will lead the way on his scooter. 

Indah, cleans, washes and babysits at out Singapore house, and visiting her village is the end, and the highlight, of our Java trip. Not only because we get to see her beautiful yellow house, the charming and quiet village surrounded by rice fields, but also because we have been invited to attend Indah's friend's village wedding. 

We are the first ‘white people’ to visit this village, in the Karang Anyar area near Solo, so we are quite a sight. Indah’s uncle stares into Linde’s eyes, and asks what we put in them to make that icy blue colour. Because of my six foot height and long legs, girls giggle I look like a Barbie doll. 

All the aunties and uncles spoil our kids with boiled soy beans, krupuk and sugary sweets and cuddles. The lunch we get served, cooked by Indah’s aunties, is the best we had in Java. My favourite crispy fried tempeh, pecel vegetables with peanut sauce, tapioca leaves in coconut milk, krupuk and chicken for the kids. 

Indah tells us that this morning her auntie tried to catch one of the kampong chickens roaming around the house for us. It fled into a tree, and Indah bought a chicken at the market instead. 

The music down the road lures us to the wedding. There is a band, a traditional gamelan orchestra, three professional singers, and a sound system that could blast across the sea to Singapore. The guests sit waiting, women in colourful kebaya’s on one side, men in batik shirt and black peci caps on the other.

The wedding has not yet started, and we are whisked into the bride’s neighbour’s house to greet the happy couple, just in time to see her traditional make up being applied. The couple looks stunning in their blue robes; both bride and groom heavily made up, and decorated with long tresses of sweet smelling jasmine flowers. 

At first uncertain whether we are welcome, we are quickly put at ease (and slightly embarrassed) as we are ushered in as guest of honour, with special seats reserved next to the bride’s parents. During the lengthy ceremony we will be showered with sweet tea, food and snacks. 

The bride’s house has been remodelled with superb woodcarvings and wooden thrones, and is decorated with bamboo, fruit and flower ornaments. A wedding planner walks around, directing all the guests in their roles, whipping the bride into shape if she slacks from her upright position for just a minute. 

Halfway the formal ceremony a lady comes over to invite me to come and see the kitchen, bring your camera, she points, and smiles. Behind the scenes are as many people as in front. These are the villagers, explains Indah, traditional Javanese weddings are a village affair, and everyone helps out. Dozens of ladies cook, scoop and prepare food, which gets served out by lads in matching pink shirts. Everyone smiles from the excitement of me dropping by, and I need to taste all the delicacies. In the corner more ladies wrap left over food in djati leafs, which we will be handed to leaving guests. 

Back at the wedding, the official ceremony gets wrapped up by the couple having their pictures taken, and then leaving to get changed in another stunning outfit. In the meanwhile the singers entertain the guests, and food gets served. By now I have eaten more than I normally would in a day, but it just keeps coming. 

The bride and groom return in gold, and we make more pictures while some of the guests have a go at the microphone. They try to coax me to sing a tune as well, but I shake my head, grinning. It would not be pretty.

When the wedding is over we press thick red packets into the hands of the bride, happy and thankful to have been part of their amazing day. Later, on our walk around the village we encounter the groom on his scooter. We struggle to recognise him at first in a simple t-shirt and without his make-up. He grins shyly, and we wave and thank him again. They will later go over to his village to celebrate again. We are off too, back to Singapore, where we can look at the pictures and marvel at this amazing day that we wil never forget.