All images by Cheryl Tang unless stated otherwise.
Singapore isn’t home to just Singaporeans. I first really understood this around 2017, when my foreign domestic helper Tugi started living with us and taking care of our domestic needs.
For most of my life, I had been under the care of only family and relatives, and so the sudden introduction of a stranger into the domain of my home elicited discomfort. Here was a lady, in her late 20s, far from her home in Indonesia, and I was just supposed to … order her around?
My own sense of self-reliance, coupled with the strangeness of the power dynamic, made me reluctant for our family to hire a foreign domestic helper. But changes to our living situation would inevitably make the decision necessary. And so, a few years on, Tugi continues to live and work in my home as one of Singapore’s 1,386,000 foreign workers.
Most of what I know about Tugi probably falls within the usual range of knowledge that Singaporeans have about the foreign workers who live among us. They typically work in manufacturing, construction, or domestic sectors; downtime and day-offs mean hanging out at spots like Lucky Plaza, Little India, and other public spaces like the area around Paya Lebar MRT.
But surely there’s more to life. What about love?
Just like everyone else, Singapore’s foreign workers deserve to love and be loved.
Tugi is married with children back home, and so she tells me about her friend, a fellow foreign domestic helper living in the same condominium as us.
“She have boyfriend, from Bangladesh,” Tugi says.
How did they fall in love? Where did they meet? Did they take couple pictures? Was this a grand epic romance?
“I don’t know,” she answers, amused at my inordinate level of interest.
“She never say, only talk about it a bit when we wash car together,” Tugi adds, with an air of finality.
Rather than continue to interrogate her, I opt to leave her in peace with the rest of lunch prep.
While lunch was ultimately satisfying—thank you, Tugi—I’m not sure that Singapore’s foreign workers can feel the same about their romantic and sex lives.
In fact, when it comes to romance, there are numerous rules that foreign workers have to abide by to ensure the continued validity of their work permits. For instance, they aren’t allowed to marry a Singaporean citizen or PR without approval from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). Female foreign workers—typically domestic workers—face extra restrictions in this area; pregnancies are outright violations of Work Permit rules and can lead to repatriation.
There’s no doubt that the rules are well-intentioned, perhaps even necessary. They prevent exploitation of the system by foreign workers, and on the whole, serve to protect both employers’ and worker’s rights.
Unfortunately, they also inadvertently encourage employers to see foreign workers only in terms of their economic value. Relationships are considered distractions from a foreign worker’s valuable economic work, while sex carries with it unecessary health risks that employers would rather not deal with.
As a result, even though there are no official guidelines strictly forbidding sex or romance, common public expectations would rather they abstain from such pursuits or desires.
Accordingly, denying that romance and sex can be a part of their lives only makes it easier to feed into negative sentiments, amongst which are stereotypes presuming rampant sexual predation from male foreign workers or careless promiscuity from female ones.
Such policies only encourage their dehumanisation and mistreatment by others.
In light of these considerations, rather than muse about how Singapore’s foreign workers may still theoretically seek romance and sex, I headed down to Paya Lebar MRT station and Desker Road for some answers.
An Afternoon at Paya Lebar MRT Station
For the throngs of foreign workers that gather at Paya Lebar MRT and its vicinity, the area is more than just a physical, communal venue. It’s been formidably reclaimed as a versatile social space that serves the various recreational needs of the community.
Under the shade of public sheltered seating, surrounded by greenery, potluck gatherings flourish in resplendent bloom. Voices jostle against one another in gregarious cheer, as friends and couples enjoy each other’s company. Any and all available public space is used to its maximum potential; there are no qualms about sitting on the floor, on steps, and in open spaces. The area bustles with a rare kind of liveliness, one that makes no excuses nor apologises for its unrestrained exuberance.
At a field nearby, a birthday celebration in the form of a mass picnic sprawls across the field, the pedestrian path cutting a neat line through the middle. I notice a couple in attendance, and seize the opportunity to ask them about their relationship.
Hadi*, 25, works for an import-export company in Singapore, while Susanti*, 31, works as a foreign domestic worker. Both hailing from Indonesia, he’s been in Singapore for 7 years, while she’s been here for 10 years.
“We just friendly for many years, is like that. We working here together, then our relationship also meet longer, like about 10 years like that we know each other,” Susanti says.
The succinctness of her answer hints at the nature of their love—it’s less epic romance and more akin to a fact of reality, created perhaps out of necessity; as logical as the gravitation of celestial objects towards one another. It is what it is.
But given that the nature of her work limits Susanti’s leisure time to one day a month, how do they, as a couple make the most of their time together? What sort of things do they do on the weekends when they meet?
“Just like this Paya Lebar only, just sit relax only, never do anything.”
“Because I don’t waste time, just happy with my friend,” she adds.
Back at Paya Lebar MRT station, a sizeable crowd lingers outside Western Union, and I approach another couple.
Throughout our conversation, Mamun, a soft-spoken 33-year-old Bangladeshi foreign worker, with his girlfriend by his side, is candid but laconic with his responses.
Me: “So happy together or not?”
Me: “What do you do when you go out dating?”
Having worked in Singapore for 10 years, Mamun met his girlfriend, an Indonesian foreign domestic worker, through Facebook. They got together about 6 months ago.
Like Hadi, Mamun is also keeping his girlfriend company while she meets her friends. Beyond the jalan jalan, and these meetups with her friends, they indulge in the occasional movie.
Mamun admits that getting a girlfriend was a thought he already had when he first came to Singapore. Laughing, he shrugs it off when I ask if he found the process arduous, Glancing sideways at his girlfriend, he hesitates for just a moment before saying, “I want to say I don’t know.”
Based on Susanti’s and Mamun’s accounts of their relationships, it seems that the typical relationships that foreign domestic workers can have are limited by their one off-day per month. Time and space are luxuries that are rationed between socialising with their friends and their significant others.
While these couples were lucky enough to have found a relationship in Singapore, what about those for whom love remains elusive?
The answer to that lies with 28-year-old Bernadeth who’s single, and enjoying Chickenjoy with her cousins, Eden and Christine, when I approach them for a chat. Given that Eden’s a 34-year-old single mother while Christine’s a 41-year-old married mother, Bernadeth’s the most available bachelorette of the three Filipino domestic workers.
But Bernadeth doesn’t think about finding a boyfriend in Singapore, “Because mostly the guys here are not interested.”
“Yeah you can see, most of the guys here are naughty—I’m not saying that you are, but most, right?” she says as she glances around the area, eliciting laughter from the rest of us.
Bernadeth isn’t hopeful of her chances with local Singaporean men either.
“I don’t know if they will like me!” she says, her self-deprecating tone drawing further guffaws.
“She’s trying but it’s difficult. Sometimes relationship is very difficult to find,” Eden chimes in.
“I’m not picky but—I’m just securing myself, yeah like that,” Bernadeth explains.
When it comes to love, these ladies value commitment and serious engagement. But the men they encounter often don’t have these in mind. Even if Bernadeth were to meet someone while out, she’d ignore him.
“They want to say ‘can I get your number’, they talk like that, they don’t engage.”
After all, she’s been the target of unwanted inappropriate propositions.
Men have said to her, “I give you fifty, come with me, I give you fifty”.
While she’s heard of other foreign workers meeting through Facebook, she’s doubtful of the sincerity of such relationships.
“True love haha, they say true love, but I don’t know,” Bernadeth muses.
Romance, however, isn’t completely absent from her life. When I ask if she’s tried Tinder, she talks animatedly about her encounter with a German man she recently matched with. They had only met once, in the company of Eden and Christine.
Smiling effervescently, Bernadeth recounts, “I thought that guy will not come because we are a lot, my friends. But he’s very brave, we still met. And that time, rain was heavy and there was thunder but he still come.”
The story quickly takes a sour turn: “And then I block him because you know, he’s high … person like that, and I’m just … working in a house like that, so I feel like I’m down, something like that,” she confesses.
She quickly brushes it off, but I can only imagine how painful it must be to come to that kind of conclusion about your own romantic prospects.
Further elaborating on what she expects of a potential boyfriend, Bernadeth says she would simply want him to go to church with her, and meet her family and friends.
As for physical intimacy, the ladies agree that there’s a lack of space and time to have that with a boyfriend.
This is despite the fact that I’d argue that casual and purely physical relationships are a matter of individual preferences and priorities; it’s easy enough for those who want it to find the time and space in the sanctuary of budget hotel rooms.
Ultimately, Bernadeth is rather level-headed about her singlehood: “I can live without guy, because long time ago I haven’t been in relationship.”
“But I know for others maybe, very difficult for them not to have a boyfriend.”
Night Scenes at Desker Road
As night falls, the alleyways of Desker Road are dimly lit in red by the lanterns adorning every other doorway. Women sit within awaiting patrons, while others loiter outside the doorways looking to attract someone into their rooms.
While Desker Road’s brothels remain well-known, the sex trade in the area seems to be in decline.
In his 60s, Muhammed Anwar tells me about the comings and goings of the alleyways that he continues to observe from his vantage point as shopkeeper of the adjacent provision shop.
“20 years before was so crowded, both sides you cannot go inside,” Anwar tells me.
The ladies are mainly Malaysian, and are “number 9”—Anwar repeats this several times to my confusion, before some additional gesturing helps me realise its an euphemism for the transgender nature of the brothels’ ladies.
“All foreign workers, not Singaporeans,” he says of patrons who frequent the area’s establishments.
One of Desker Road’s ladies further elaborates, “Our customers are mainly Indian, from Bangladesh.”
As I loiter around the alleyway, walking up and down, a 33-year-old foreign worker from Bangladesh standing outside one of the brothels makes eye contact with me.
Several sheepish smiles later, we’re chatting about his experience of Desker Road’s brothels.
Warming up to me, he shares that while he enjoys his time with the ladies, satisfaction isn’t always on the table. Speaking of his preference for certain ladies over others, he talks of how interaction can feel harried and rushed.
“Only go in chat, take money, after that, go go, finish,” he says. At S$20 per visitation, the ladies have the final say in how the encounter proceeds—from the length of time spent with each patron to whether patrons get to have sex with them.
While he personally prioritises sex during his visits, he’s also aware of friends who are happy enough to simply chat and spend time with the ladies.
Eventually, he admits that while he’s been working in Singapore for 8 years, finding a girlfriend in Singapore still seems impossible.
Before I can get his name, he excuses himself, and walks off further into the alley, his shadow outlined in red, reminding me that amidst the carnality of Desker Road’s brothels, a sense of longing for something beyond the mere pleasures of the flesh persists.
If there’s one thing clear about my encounters at Paya Lebar MRT station and Desker Road, it’s that, just like everyone else, Singapore’s foreign workers deserve to love and be loved.
It’s unreasonable to expect anyone to completely abstain from sex or romance in any line of work. Rather than denying and attempting to censure the intimate lives of Singapore’s foreign workers, it’s perhaps more productive and important to address these concerns openly. The right thing to do is to set realistic boundaries and expectations that honour their work obligations, while also accepting their humanity along with the feelings and desires that come with it.
And if Bernadeth sees this, I hope she gives herself and her German beau another chance.
*Subjects have been given pseudonyms out of respect for their privacy.
Found out something you didn’t know about Singapore’s foreign workers? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.