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 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. 


  1. Deplorable. Can you get this into any of the international papers? About time something was done FOR - and not TO - the huge population of women living and working here in these roles.

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