Two Sundays ago, while working on a script, I looked out and saw a domestic help cleaning windows, on one of the top floors in the next building. My mind was still in the scene of the movie script, but my eyes were taking in what seemed to be a disaster scene unfolding in real life. The helper stood on a chair with someone holding her waist. She started to reach out to clean the outer window panels. When she tried to moved precariously forward, I shouted. I was brought back to reality from the reel world and opened my own window to shout louder. Asking this helper to stop. From afar, she looked at me. The person behind, probably her employer, pulled her back. The window was quickly closed and the curtains drawn. It took a while for me to make sense of what just happened. Or what did not make sense. What is it about windows that some Singaporean employers are obsessed with cleaning? Risking lives. Not theirs. Or their loved ones. But those they employ. Who leave their loved ones to come here to work for them.
This week ‘Ilo Ilo’ opens. The first Singapore film to win the coveted Camera d’Or prize. About the relationship between a boy and a maid. I am reminded of a Sunday in July last year. When we were still staying in our corner terrace. When I woke up in the morning, I thought it would be another usual Sunday. Siti, our domestic help, told me her friend would visit her in our house. I thought nothing of it. But when her friend arrived, I knew it was more than a casual visit. An emotional scene started to play out at the back of our house. Her friend was here to meet her younger sister who worked in the house behind us. They have not met for 7 years. Her sister’s employer did not allow visitors. So they could only talk through the fence. I offered to talk to the employer, my neighbour, but Siti advised me against doing so. When the sisters saw each other, the long awaited reunion was heartbreaking to behold. They were laughing and crying. At one point, the younger sister used a raffia string to ‘pulley’ up the Kampong food specially cooked for her.
Maybe if the helper were to explain to her employer, she would not need to meet her sister this way. Then again, maybe not. While I must refrain from judging how employers treat their domestic help, for they will have their experiences and reasons, that a pair of siblings could only talk through a fence in secrecy, in this time and age, is appalling. That some of us are justifying no off days, and in this case, no visitors, no phone calls and no talking to another maid, is reflective of a people focused on self-interests and self-protection, at the expense of the interests of others, people not in a position to protect their own interests. If this was an episode in a movie, it would appear somewhat unreal. So sometimes real life can be sadder. I remember taking comfort and counting the blessings. That through a series of letters, phone calls and as fate would have it, such a meeting between two sisters materialised. And that a young girl enjoyed the Kampong food cooked by her elder sister. Looking back on this Sunday morning, in my own backyard, I see all the makings of a happy sad story…
‘Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.’