The Burmese in Singapore tell their stories
By: Sunny Tan Keng Sooi
The riots in Little India that occurred late last year in Singapore have been blamed on the migrant workers from Tamil Nadu, India.
This incident raised questions about the country’s policy on migrant workers, while at the same time created interest about the migrant workers from other countries. Who are they? Are they like the Tamils from India? What do we know about them?
Singaporeans know so little about them, they think they are “…low skilled economic digits with whom we want to have as little to do as possible.” (Han Fook Kwang, A world apart and invisible, Sunday Star, Kuala Lumpur, 29-12-2013. Asia News Network.)
The average Singaporean is aware of workers from other countries, be they Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Vietnamese, mainland Chinese or Malaysians.
One nationality that has been here for 20 years is the Burmese. But they are not on the radar screen of Singaporeans.
Perhaps it is the Burmese complexion, a light coffee colour, that usually enables them to merge seamlessly with the other foreigners. The Burmese are often mistaken for Laotians, Cambodians, Malays or Indonesians.
But the Burmese should be visible because they have their own Mecca, the de facto Little Burma, located in Peninsula Plaza, just a stone’s throw from Raffles Place in the heart of Singapore.
Peninsula Plaza: The Mecca Of The Burmese In Singapore
Most of the foreign workers here have their own enclaves in this city state. Little India is where the Indians and Bangladeshis congregate. The Thais go to Little Thailand, located in Golden Mile complex, near Raffles Place. The mainland Chinese and Vietnamese go to Chinatown. The Filipinos, especially the maids, go to Lucky Plaza, located in Orchard Road, the glitzy shopping street of this city.
In these enclaves, they gather to speak to one another in their mother tongues and to soak in the atmosphere that is basically native to them.
Such enclaves play an important part in giving them the reason for their existence, the life force, the inner strength and the spirit to plod on with their daily tasks expected from them by their employers in exchange for cash.
Sunday is the day of rest for all. On this day one can see a sea of Burmese swarming all over Peninsula Plaza and the crowd spills over to the hallowed lawn of Saint Andrew’s Cathedral.
They are not intruders as the pastor has given them access to his turf.
The Burmese come to Peninsula Plaza to meet their fellow countrymen, dine on Burmese food in the four restaurants here, shop for food items that come all the way from Burma, and to carry out other activities.
This Mecca has outlets that sell air tickets to and from Myanmar and to other places, job agencies that can get jobs for them, internet cafes, unisex beauty parlours, fashion houses that that specialises in Burmese attire for men and women , legal firms that caters only to the local Burmese, real estate agents that sell condominiums in Burma, and time piece outlets.
Maids from Myanmar
Hiring Burmese maids is getting popular in Singapore as they are cheaper than Filipino and Indonesian maids. Indonesian maids are paid as much as S$500 per month, more than the salary of Burmese maids, which is S$400 to S$500.
Filipino maids are paid S$600, mainly because of their knowledge of the English language.
However, as a Burmese maid acquires some working knowledge of English, her employer is likely to increase her salary to S$450 per month.
The four Burmese maids I spoke to are Chins, an ethnic group from the mountains of northwestern Burma and they said there are four sub-groups in it: Falom, Mizo, Haka and Denim. They share many similarities so that they are able to understand one another’s dialect.
On Sundays, they go to four different Chin Christian churches located in four different places in Singapore, and each conducting the service in its own dialect.
These four maids regard their stay here as temporary, a transition to marriage and to raising their families in Myanmar.
One of them, Cindy, is going to marry her Chin boyfriend, who will soon graduate from a Bible college in the United States, and plans to be a pastor in Burma.
Sophie, 27, who said she is feeling the biological clock ticking in her body, is going to Yangon to marry her boyfriend, a Chin pastor, sometime in the future.
On this Sunday, she wore a natty hat, short shorts, body hugging blouse, knee length suede boots and with her Snow White complexion she looked all geared up to go one of those roaring 1920s party in a speakeasy in New Orleans.
Gillian, 23, is going to marry her boyfriend in three weeks time and she is looking forward to being with him. “At times I think of him and I will cry. When I have money I will call him and when I hear his voice I will cry, my tears gushing down from my eyes like water falling off a waterfall,” she said.
Her employer’s home is a three-room HDB flat. Because of the lack of space, she sleeps in the same room with her employer’s two young children.
The working hours of the maids, like other maids, is long – from early in the morning till as late as 10.00 pm.
The four Chin maids get two Sundays off per month. For Cindy, she will leave her house at 10.00 am and come back by 10.00 pm on the same day. Even on her rest day, she has to work from early morning till 10.00 am before she can start her off day.
During their working days the maids look forward to their off days as they have so few free hours per month. When they are together they appear so happy, in their facial expressions, the way they come close to one another, and how they accidentally touch one another.
Maids in Singapore are recruited by recruitment agencies. Irene, a member of the Kachin tribe of Burma, recruits only Kachin girls from her home area to work as maids here.
Irene has her biases against recruiting Chin women to work as maids here. This is because she already has a network in her own tribal area. She also said that Chin women are too pretty and can pass off as catwalk models. On top of that, they like to drink alcoholic drinks and can be flirtatious.
Against such a backdrop of partly ethnocentric and partly personal biases, she recruits only Kachin girls as she thinks they are plain, tend to work hard, and are traditional in their outlook.
Such a form of stereotyping is not an isolated case. With over 100 ethnic groups in Burma, it is certain that each and every one of them has stereotypical images of one another.
In spite of all the stereotyping, and in the Singapore context, there are cross-cutting allegiances among them and this is reflected in the sentiment that they are all Burmese and members of this larger group.
Movers And Stayers
Pho Li, a Burmese woman, 30, decided to be a temporary stayer in Singapore. Such a decision is very much influenced by the fact that she is not able to bring her three year old son in Myanmar to study in Singapore when he reaches the age of six.
She is not qualified to do so because the combined monthly income of her family is below the S$4,500 threshold, a stipulation of the Ministry Of Education for any foreign worker who wants to bring their offspring to study in this city state.
Given such a situation, she is planning to go back to Myanmar in a few years as she fears that if she delays her departure from here, it may be too late to develop a meaningful mother-son bond.
In the meantime, she and her husband are doing their level best to save money to start a private school in Myanmar.
She knows that the profit from the school will not match their combined salaries in Singapore, but then she will be with her beloved son. She believes this will more than compensate for the reduction in income.
Min Tu, who is working here as a professional, also has the intention to move back to Myanmar.
An engineering graduate from a university in Myanmar, he has been working in Singapore for 15 years with an aerospace company and it is listed in the local stock exchange.
Married to a Burmese woman, they have a four-year old son. Home to them is a three-room Housing and Development Board flat.
Min Tu is happy with his work. He is kept busy by overtime work but he plods on as a good professional.
What is bothering him is his plan for his son’s future. Min Tu knows he has to bring him back to Myanmar in order to get him to internalize the customs, mores, folkways and values of his people.
He is convinced that if his son stays here until he becomes an adult, he will never become a Burmese who is steeped in the ways of his people.
According to his plan, he will bring his whole family and himself back to Burma in six years’ time when his son turns 10.
On his return he would like to continue to work at the job that he is good at and which he had been doing in Singapore – repairing the big kites.
He knows he will be earning less money in Myanmar but he is confident he will be in a senior position and be given ample opportunities to impart his knowledge to young Burmese aircraft engineers.
How about the old Singapore hands – the Burmese who had been here for years and years? Will they settle down in Singapore?
One of them, Ta Nu, came to Singapore in the 1980s and started a small air ticket sales agency. In 1993, she moved to Peninsula Plaza and she is still there.
Some years back, she expanded to importing consumer goods from Myanmar to Singapore and vice versa.
She has decided to sell her business in four to five years to return to Burma and retire. “Doing business in Singapore is stressful because of the high rental and labour costs, and these make me worry about how much money I can make,” she said.
She added that her planned move back to Myanmar is not an isolated case as some of her fellow Burmese business colleagues also have such an intention.
One group of Burmese who are likely to become stayers are those who are young and who have spent some years in the schools in Singapore.
When they are schooling they unconsciously absorb many of the local ways and such experiences make them become Singaporeans in their ways and outlook.
Since there is no formal Burmese language classes in Singapore, they become proficient in the English language and at the expense of their mother tongue.
When they go to Burma during the holidays, they find that they do not understand all that is being said by their fellow Burmese and they are also ill at ease with the subtle nuances of their native culture.
They are more at home in Singapore than in Burma and this dovetail into their plan to work and live in Singapore
The Burmese who tell their stories all have dreams. Their dreams are like our dreams and like the dreams of all human beings on this planet. Surely, for Singaporeans to think of the migrant workers as economic digits is a fallacy as it implies that they are not like us, and do not have hopes and dreams, like us. Is it time for us to change our attitude towards the migrant workers?
The Invisible Burmese in Singapore
The Burmese in Singapore tell their stories