Journal article Open Access

A Tale of Two Siti's: Parallel Representations of Foreign Domestic Helpers in their own Poetry and in Singapore Society

Woods, Paul

This article presents a comparison of two different representations of foreign
domestic workers in Singapore. In the Singapore mainstream, which I
understand as government policy documents, newspaper articles, advice from
main agencies, and blog content, domestic helpers are portrayed either as
victims of abuse by employers or as lazy, devious, or stupid functionaries. By
contrast, in deeply personal poems entered into recent Migrant Worker Poetry
Competitions the domestic helpers represent themselves as bringers of
change, survivors, and thoughtful people at the margins. This bifurcated representation
I call, “A tale of two Siti’s”, borrowing a name common among
Indonesian domestic helpers to make the pun.
The treatment and portrayal of domestic helpers in the Singapore mainstream
reveals elements of neo-colonialism, exploitation, and a strong binary
between self and other which seem to have continued through Singapore’s
colonial and decolonial experience, and on into a new situation in which the
island nation is in some way a neo-colonial power within Southeast Asia.
This article attempts to give voice to domestic helpers from Indonesia and
the Philippines, by analysing and quoting from poems they entered into the
2015 and 2016 migrant poetry competition. The poems themselves, and reaction
to them and their authors are shown as negating a neo-colonial binary
and celebrating the humanity and self-sacrifice of these women for family at
home.

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