All images are RICE file photos.
In the cramped bathroom of a condominium apartment in Singapore, Annisa stared at the pregnancy test she had purchased from the Guardian pharmacy. She had suspected she might be pregnant, having missed her period by a week, then two. Now, the double pink lines were incontrovertible evidence.
She felt no joy, only terror. She was alone—her brothers and sisters were a thousand miles away in her home country of Indonesia and her mother had been dead for eighteen years. The embryo in her womb was proof she had committed an offence that, if discovered, could lead to her losing her work permit, her job, and her future prospects of working in Singapore.
It was November 2014. In January, she would have to go to a neighbourhood clinic for her regular medical examination, mandated by the Singaporean government for all foreign domestic workers. There, the government would find out she was pregnant and deport her.
Under the conditions of the work permit issued to Annisa and the 261,800 other live-in domestic helpers like her in Singapore, Annisa could not marry a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident without government approval. Employment regulations further state that “If the foreign employee is a female foreign employee, the foreign employee shall not become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore during and after the validity period of her work permit,” unless she is already in a government-approved marriage to a Singapore citizen or permanent resident.
The pregnancy restrictions were implemented in 1986, two years after the government pushed out the now-defunct “Graduate Mothers’ Scheme.” The controversial policy was designed to boost Singapore’s talent pool by promising graduate mothers with at least three children top priority in the stressful primary school registration process. Meanwhile, the government offered ten-thousand-dollar deposits into the Central Provident Fund mandatory savings accounts of couples under 30 who both did not have any Ordinary Level (a national examination administered at the end of secondary school) passes, had two or fewer children, and agreed to be sterilized. Fresh off public allegations of eugenics, the ruling People’s Action Party government enacted a pregnancy ban on low-wage foreign workers that would apply even after they cancelled their work permits.
Over three months in late 2020, I spoke to five migrant social workers and fifteen foreign domestic workers, twelve of whom were in romantic relationships of more than a year, about the challenges of dating, marriage and pregnancy in Singapore. From the Singapore to Dubai, Hong Kong to Malaysia, female migrant domestic workers are relegated to the position of second-class household servants and barred by reproductive restrictions, lack of maternity protections, or social stigmas from enjoying the fundamental human rights of childbearing and of love.
From her bathroom window, Annisa (whose name has been changed to protect her from legal repercussions) had a view of Bukit Batok, the Singapore neighbourhood where she had worked since arriving four years prior. Here, unlike in her hometown of Semarang, native rainforest trees like angsana and mahoganies did not grow unruly and wild but were planted along well-paved roads and in housing estates. The condominium she lived in was easily taller than the tallest building in her birthplace, which was a four-star hotel.
A small-boned Javanese woman with glossy waist-length hair, pecan-coloured skin and a thick Indonesian accent that made her self-conscious, Annisa had come to Singapore to work hard, pay off the bank loans she’d taken to support her husband and two sons, and keep her head down. Pregnancy was not part of the plan.
The Ministry of Manpower requires all domestic workers to undergo medical examinations twice a year, to be conducted by any Singapore-registered doctor. The women would be tested for pregnancy and syphilis twice a year and HIV and tuberculosis every two years. At a clinic, Annisa would be required to sign away her medical privacy rights, pee on a stick and have blood drawn. If any results were positive, the doctor would be obliged to report them to the Ministry of Manpower. The state enforces the policy with an iron-fist: two doctors faced disciplinary inquiries from the Singapore Medical Council in 2000 for failing to report pregnant domestic workers they treated during the Ministry-required check-up.
Annisa needed to be sure she really was pregnant, so she did something her friends called “stupid.” She went to a doctor. While doctor-patient confidentiality should ensure that Annisa’s doctor was not required to report her, since the visit was not one of the government-mandated medical examinations, domestic workers often fear that they will be reported anyway. Annisa counted herself “lucky” that the doctor didn’t inform on her. She paid fifty dollars out-of-pocket for the doctor to confirm: she was expecting.
An abortion would cost 500 to 1000 dollars. Even if she chose to have one, she didn’t have the money for it. She earned about 600 Singapore dollars a month and sent most of it home to her two young sons in Central Java, Indonesia. Her insurance policy wouldn’t cover it either. The Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations require employers to purchase personal accident insurance for their domestic employees but stipulate it must not cover “any pregnancy, childbirth, miscarriage, abortion, sterilisation, menopause, or any complication arising from any of these conditions.” In the eyes of the law, pregnancy is a legally prohibited act that should be punished, not insured.
Annisa remembered a classmate from the English language course she attended at a Queenstown neighbourhood mosque who got pregnant. Afraid of being sent home, the woman underwent an abortion at Lucky Plaza. Many domestic workers know that if you don’t have the money for an abortion, you can use a quick-and-dirty, clandestine solution: abortion pills. It is “a do-it-yourself method, which involves looking for somebody who would give you a tablet,” said long-time migrant worker activist John Gee. A Filipino domestic worker told me of a friend who “drank something just to get rid of the baby” and started bleeding uncontrollably from her vagina as a result. A case manager at a domestic workers’ non-profit recounted another case where a domestic worker was hospitalised for trying to use a metal tool to get rid of the foetus.
Annisa never contemplated such gruesome means of solving her problem. She knew her religion, Islam, forbade abortions. “God will punish me next time if I do this,” she thought. “Every day, I cry, cry, cry, especially at night,” she recalled. Sometimes she called her friend from English class who would cry with her. Did she want to go back home, leaving the country before her employer could find out and report her to the Ministry of Manpower, where she’d be blacklisted from returning to Singapore to work again? Did she want to have an abortion? She didn’t know.
“If I want to go back to kampung,” —village—“I got no face,” she said. In the Javanese village where she grew up, her husband, who only messaged her when he needed money, lived with her two teenaged sons. Her reputation would have been stained if she returned with another man’s child.
She had a friend from Yogyakarta, Indonesia, 15 years her senior who was like a mother to her. The friend urged her to make a decision and said, “If you want to do abortion, find abortion. If you don’t want to do, then quickly fly back, because no time already,” Annisa recalled. Weighing only 83 pounds, Annisa at two months pregnant had a stomach as flat as a canvas. But she knew the baby was not getting smaller. Every day she waited was one more day that she could be discovered and deported.
She was not led to this situation by ignorance. Before arriving in Singapore four years prior, she had spent a month at a center in Jakarta undergoing training organised by her employment agency. There, maids learned English and received training in elderly care and infant care, laundry and ironing, cooking and cleaning. Staff drilled the newly-recruited domestic workers on the rules: “cannot get pregnant, cannot make relationship with Singaporean people. They call it “house break,” Annisa recounted. They were not to participate in “illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore,” as the regulations put it.
About one hundred of 200,000-odd domestic workers who work in Singapore are sent home each year for getting pregnant, according to the latest government-provided data from 2015, though the number could be much higher given unreported cases like Annisa’s. The Ministry of Manpower did not respond to my repeated requests for more up-to-date statistics or the policy’s rationale. The public is reminded of these women’s existences mostly through news fragments and provocative headlines. “Maid hides her stillborn baby in drawer,” read one newspaper article from 2015. When the foetus was found, the 33-year-old Indonesian maid was arrested for “concealment of birth by secret disposal of a dead body” and investigated by the police.
Another pregnant domestic worker threatened her employer and her employer’s eight-year-old with a knife when she did not allow the worker to return home in May 2019. At six-months pregnant, she was sentenced to four months in prison. Self-induced abortions, knife threats, and concealment of stillborn babies are just some of the ways that these desperate women try to fix their desperate situations.
Many, like Annisa, cannot afford to lose their jobs in Singapore. A domestic worker who gets pregnant risks being blacklisted by the Ministry of Manpower from ever returning to Singapore to work. Four of the fifteen domestic workers and three of the five non-profit workers I spoke to know about the “blacklist”, though no one knew how long the ban would last because the list is unofficial. When I asked for confirmation on the existence of the blacklist, a Ministry of Manpower spokesperson pointed me to the Ministry website, which states that domestic workers who break any of the work permit conditions “may not be able to enter or work in Singapore” in the future.
“I think this law is really wrong,” said a former domestic worker who now works at Yayasan Dunia Viva Wanita, a shelter for stranded domestic workers in Batam. She added, “Being pregnant is not criminal, not like stealing.”
1. The Unpaid Debts
Before she came to Singapore to work as hired help for a Singaporean family, Annisa worked in a canning factory five minutes from her home in Semarang, Indonesia, tinning mushrooms for an American food company. She had gotten married to her secondary school boyfriend at fifteen, after her conservative Muslim father told her to get married if she wanted to continue seeing him. The boy, three years older than her, made her feel protected in a way she hadn’t since her mother died of a heart attack when Annisa was thirteen.
But the young couple’s married life began to crumble under financial strain, especially after Annisa gave birth to her second son. Every month, she would have to visit the bank to take out a loan. There was never enough money to pay rent, the water bill, her sons’ school expenses, and allowances to her mother- and father-in-law. “Lucky I never suicide, hang myself and die,” she told me. When her debt swelled to eight hundred dollars, “then become big problem.” she said. “Then all the family blame me. Then after that I want to run away.”
She decided to find work in neighbouring Singapore as a domestic maid to pay off the loans. She left her two sons with her mother-in-law, packed her bags and departed for the wealthy island city.
Annisa found employment with a Singaporean-Chinese couple whose daughter, coincidentally, was adopted from Indonesia because the mother could not have children. Looking for an employer is like entering a lottery: Some bosses beat and verbally abuse domestic workers, withhold their wages, or confiscate their phones. Yet other employers treat the hired help as part of the family, bringing them on vacations and instructing the children to call them “auntie,” a nod to their roles as second mothers. Annisa got lucky. During Hari Raya, the Muslim celebration commemorating the end of the festival of Eid, her boss gave her fifty dollars in a traditional red envelope, called a “hong bao” in Mandarin. She fondly remembers giving massages to her Ma’am, the lady boss, who had pancreatic cancer, and feeding the family’s small dog, who she treated “like my child,” she said.
At the end of the two-year contract, she managed to pay off the eight-hundred-dollar loan. Around that time, she met the man who would change her life in the best and worst ways.
Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations state that a work permit holder “shall not go through any form of marriage or apply to marry under any law, religion, custom or usage with a Singapore citizen or permanent resident in or outside Singapore, without the prior approval of the Controller” of Immigration. These rules apply even after the work permit is cancelled, unless the worker acquires a S-Pass or Employment Pass, which are work visas for more highly skilled and highly paid foreign workers.
The day before she graduated from her mosque class, Annisa decided to visit the neighbourhood market to buy a new watch; she hoped to look nice for the graduation photographs. She weaved between the throngs of Saturday shoppers, racks of clothing, mounds of garlic and ginger, and frozen heaps of fresh fish, to a small watch shop. She picked out a cheap one, which at just six dollars was within her modest budget. Then she noticed a tall Chinese man with thick forearms, a crown of silver hair, and the sun-kissed skin of a day labourer staring at her.
He said he wanted to buy the watch for her. He asked, “How much is this one?”, she recalled. “Six dollars?” he said, apparently incredulous. He bought it for her, but not before slipping his number into her Nokia cellphone. She never got his name and so saved his number as “Bapaku,” meaning “my father” in Indonesian, so that when he called, her friends wouldn’t ask questions. The nickname felt appropriate and made her laugh. After all, he was in his mid-fifties, around her father’s age, and made her feel cared for in a way she hadn’t since her father remarried. She also would get “malu” around him—slang for ‘embarrassed’— “like he was my own father,” she said.
Eight years later, Annisa would speculate that he wanted her because “he think I small small girl, haven’t married.” With a petite 4-foot-9 frame and big, doll-like eyes, Annisa had a ferocious energy and cackling laugh. She started calling him “darling” and he reciprocated with “sayang,” a Malay term of endearment. His English was poor and so was hers—sometimes she would not understand his text messages. But they still wished each other good morning and sent kissy face emojis. After a year of Annisa talking to him almost every day, her friends asked her why she didn’t save her “darling’s” name in her phone. Annisa said she didn’t know it. “I think it’s not important. He call me ‘sayang’ and don’t know my name,” she recalled years later, laughing.
One Sunday two years after they first met, he pulled up outside her condominium in his Hyundai—a car he bought on his crane operator’s salary, which Annisa said made him seem “like he’s rich people.” He had taken to ferrying Annisa to her weekly English classes at a mosque in Queenstown. She slid into the passenger seat, and he pulled out two crisp Singapore fifty dollars bills, slipping it toward her bag.
“I give you,” he said. Annisa asked him, “You give me this for what?”
“Ya. Never mind, not a problem. To buy things with,” he said, she remembers.
After class that day, she went to Clementi, a residential and shopping neighbourhood with two of her friends and spent all the money on food, a new T-shirt, and a pre-paid StarHub card to send 20 dollars of text messages. She lent fifty dollars to a cash-strapped friend.
That night, she could not sleep, the thought of the unpaid debt growing weightier in her mind. As a Muslim, she believed that “I cannot take the money free,” she said. But she also could not afford to return it. She even contemplated asking her boss for a loan. After several sleepless nights pondering this question, she decided to become his girlfriend. The debt had to be repaid somehow. It was only right.
Later, when they had been together for six years, she would stress that she did not just love him for his money. “I became very in love with him, love like ‘black magic’,” she said. “I don’t go to other boys.” Annisa would occasionally wonder about the deeper psychological reasons she had for loving him. One of her speculations: “I had no love from my father and mother, so maybe I want love like this.”
They started having sex, meeting on Sunday afternoons at Hotel 81, a budget hotel chain best known for being the location of choice for paid sexual rendezvouses in Singapore’s red-light district. For 30 dollars, they would get two hours uninterrupted in a soft bed—a rare chance at privacy. Being intimate in her employer’s home was unthinkable and showing affection in public even more so.
Sex with her husband had been very different, she said. “He is Muslim, when make love is simple one.” But with this much-older Singaporean-Chinese man, she experienced for the first time intimacy with someone that “wants to make me happy,” she recalled. It was during these afternoons, sealed off from the rest of the world, that Annisa fell in love. When he fell asleep, she would study his bare feet. They were extremely small in contrast to his tall Herculean build. “I see the feet, then I like, very pity him,” she recalled years later, laughing. “Maybe I like him because he sayang like that. I fall in love with him because he is good.”
Whenever Annisa had sex with her boyfriend, he would give her a pink-and-white blister packet of two round pills, reassure her that it wasn’t poison, and tell her to take one before and one after sex. She complied. It was Postinor-2, also known as the “morning-after-pill,” which prevents pregnancy with minimal side effects. The problem? Both pills are meant to be taken after sex; one within 72 hours and the other less than twelve after the first.
Less than two months after they started having sex, Annisa learned she was pregnant. She consulted her auntie, her mother’s youngest sister, about what she should do.
Her auntie told her over the phone, “Then you have the kid. I look after for you, then next time you can come back to Singapore to work,” Annisa recalled. Her friends from the English courses at the mosque encouraged her to keep the baby. “The Chinese baby will grow up beautiful,” they said. Annisa concurred: she envied fair skin.
She decided she would return home to give birth. To protect her ability to return to Singapore to work, she lied to her employer and told him that her mother died and that she needed to return home (the same mother who had died almost two decades earlier).
“He was sad because his wife died, and I looked after her and his mother. So he believe me,” Annisa recalled. “He said, ‘You good to my family, I also want to return you back.’”
Annisa asked him for a loan of a thousand dollars. She needed the money to pay for prenatal care and the birth. He gave it to her, just as he had given her a red packet four years prior. The debts owed were an unspoken promise between them that she would return again to work for him.
She left Singapore on a plane to Jakarta with a secret growing inside her. Women who are less fortunate than her, with less sympathetic or gullible employers, get sent by ferry to the nearest Indonesian island of Batam because it is the cheapest way to repatriate someone. Like Annisa, they are often alone and ashamed to return home. A staff member at Yayasan Dunia Viva Wanita, the Batam shelter for domestic workers, said they would house about ten pregnant women each year, feeding them, bringing them for medical appointments and when the time came, driving them to the hospital to give birth.
The last Annisa had spoken to her boyfriend, the muscular man with the small feet, he had said he didn’t believe her, that the morning-after pill should have worked, that the baby must be from infidelity. Enraged and indignant, she told him, “You don’t believe me? I’ll go back, give birth, and be healthy. Never mind you never take responsibility for me, never mind, as long as God give me long life and health, then I can go back to kampung and give birth.”
2. A Strain On the System
Even if Annisa wanted to marry her boyfriend and even if he could divorce his wife, the couple would face immense legal challenges. The reason dates back to 1973. Singapore, then an eight-year-old, newly independent country, was facing “a big shortage of servants,” according to a newspaper report in the nation’s second-largest English paper. Amidst rapid post-independence economic development, locals aspiring to the middle-class did not want to work as low-paid domestic help. Singaporean women torn between the competing demands of being mothers and being productive workers were increasingly hiring foreign maids as a solution to their childcare needs. They were aided by the 1978 Foreign Maid Scheme, which allowed locals to import foreign maids on special visas, subject to less stringent work regulations. Within ten years from 1978 to 1988, the number of foreign domestic workers would grow from almost zero to 40,000 and with it, so did the number of romantic relationships between Singaporeans and foreign workers.
To control legal immigration into the country—a nation the size of New York City— the government decided to restrict the ability of low-wage migrant workers to marry into Singapore’s resident population. Thus, the government unveiled the Marriage Restriction Policy of 1973. The law is enshrined within Singapore’s Employment of Foreign Manpower Regulations, which state that a work permit holder “shall not go through any form of marriage or apply to marry under any law, religion, custom or usage with a Singapore citizen or permanent resident in or outside Singapore, without the prior approval of the Controller” of Immigration. These rules apply even after the work permit is cancelled, unless the worker acquires a S-Pass or Employment Pass, which are work visas for more highly skilled and highly paid foreign workers. In effect, work permit holders face a virtual lifetime restriction on marriage to locals.
On 28 March 1985, then-Minister for Home Affairs and Second Minister for Law Shunmugam Jayakumar delivered a speech in parliament justifying the marriage restriction policy. It was the second of many parliamentary addresses made by ruling party politicians over the years that would appeal to pragmatic, Singaporeans-first justifications for excluding low-wage, low-income foreign workers from the right to marry Singaporeans. “Is our policy strict? It is strict.” said Jayakumar. “But for whom is a strict immigration policy designed? Is it designed for me? No. Is it designed for the Cabinet Ministers? No. It is designed to promote the well-being of Singapore citizens.”
The island-state had to avoid being “swamped with hundreds of thousands of people who want to come to Singapore,” who would “put a strain” on the country’s resources, minister Jayakumar said. Yet, the country seemed to have ample space when it came to marriage for the rich—the criteria for immigration was one’s potential to contribute to Singapore’s “economic advancement,” Jayakumar said. Today, more highly paid foreigners seeking to marry Singaporeans need only find a fiancé, file a notice with the Registry of Marriage, and hold a solemnisation ceremony.
In contrast, the application for work permit holders to marry more closely resembles a welfare application than one for wedlock: the couple have to submit pay slips and education qualifications. The local fiancé has to hand in their income tax bills and statements of Central Provident Fund contributions, which are government-mandated savings for working Singaporeans and residents. A ten-minute-long online application form and four-week wait later, the couple will receive an email informing them of the outcome.
Although not explicitly stated in the government regulations, the factor that determines whether couples can marry is not strength of love or length of relationship but the income level of the Singaporean or permanent resident spouse. One Singaporean man who applied to marry his Filipino domestic worker girlfriend was rejected 20 times over four years by the Ministry of Manpower. He was told that “his monthly $1,700 income was deemed too low to support a family,” according to a 2008 article published in the Singaporean newspaper The New Paper.
Despite the government’s attitude that long-term romantic relationships were a privilege, not a right, for women like Annisa, she found love anyway. But she knew her relationship would invite judgement and even condemnation. Once, a neighbour spotted her having dinner with her boyfriend at the nearby food court and informed her employer. Annisa defended herself, said that the man was a stranger and “not the meaning that I makan,”—eat— “with some man is my boyfriend.” Her employer believed her and said that as long as she only makan with a man, they would have no problems.
“Inside you can feel romantic. Outside is never hold hand, never anything,” she recalled. “He has family, wife and scared. I have employer, and he scared my employer will see me got problem.”
3. The Marriage Chore
Legal barriers aside, Annisa saw marriage as more trouble than it was worth. Even if she were free to marry without government interference, she is not sure she would have wanted to marry her tall boyfriend with the small feet.
“Next time husband not good, I also suffer,” she said. Her estranged first husband had taken a second wife and used to regularly ask her for money—Annisa had paid for his motorbike in monthly instalments. “That’s why I single. Better independent. Independent, happy, good working, nobody control.”
Six of the twelve domestic workers in relationships who I interviewed wanted to be married to their long-term Singaporean partners; one already was. But only three had gained government approval to do so. One who didn’t was Dian, a 36-year-old Indonesian domestic worker with a Skrillex haircut, who did not want her real name published. She realised that to marry her boyfriend, she would face a troublesome array of obstacles, which caused her to give up her dreams of a Singapore wedding.
In 2017, a year after Dian met her Singaporean partner, a 56–year-old university social studies professor, the couple decided to get married. She loved how he would deliver kueh—Malay cakes—to her ahmah, the elderly woman she worked for, to win her over. He gave her old Indonesian novels which she would carefully store in her suitcase, wrapped in plastic, to add to her treasured book collection back home in the rural province of Lampung, Indonesia.
But she heard from friends who were married to Singaporeans that the process would involve being unable to work for at least six months, during which she would not be able to support her two sons from a previous marriage. (She would have to cancel her work permit, apply for a long-term visit pass, wait up to six months for it to be approved, then wait another three months before being eligible for legal permission to work.)
“I don’t want to make my boyfriend support my sons, because this is not his sons. This is my sons.” Dian said.
For now, Dian and her partner have their hearts set on a new dream: getting married in Indonesia and settling down in her hometown after he retires. He had fallen in love with the laid-back “kampung” lifestyle, Dian said, and liked hiking the padi fields and mountains surrounding her village when he visited. In preparation, she is teaching him the local dialect, Javanese, so that he can speak to the neighbours.
Dian will be taking a risk by getting married without the Singapore government’s permission, which is required even if she gets married overseas. If found out, her privilege to work in Singapore could be withdrawn and she may be prevented from entering Singapore for a period of time.
“Every human should have that kind of right to have relationship with anyone,” Dian said. “The law should not be driven by MOM,”—the Ministry of Manpower— “or the status of you working as domestic worker. I feel very sad about that. I feel so dispirited. Because I’m a domestic helper, it’s very difficult for me to get married to people who we love to.”
What might have happened to Annisa had she been married to her boyfriend when she got pregnant with his baby? A foreign woman who marries a local gives her future children the full privileges enjoyed by citizens as they will be Singaporeans by blood. But Singapore, unlike the U.S, does not guarantee foreign spouses of citizens the right to permanent residency or even to remain in the country. If the foreign wife makes a mistake, the promise of protection can evaporate in an instant. That is what happened to Anna and Derek Ong.
Anna, a slim Javanese woman from Sumatra, Indonesia, with sparkling eyes and an infectious laugh, arrived in Singapore as a domestic worker in 2011 before getting married to her Singaporean boyfriend, Derek, in 2016, after a half-year-long process of applying for and gaining government approval. The Controller of Immigration must have decided that Derek’s salary of $2100 at an IT services company was sufficient to support Anna.
In a newly built three-room public housing flat in Tampines, a large residential estate in Singapore, the married couple now raise five cats, dozens of plants, and their three-year-old daughter. On the wall, colourful craft paper hearts encircle a photograph of their daughter receiving her crimson-coloured Singapore passport. Born premature at 26 weeks old, she was immediately admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at Singapore’s oldest, largest and best hospital, Singapore General Hospital. Within 99 days, she was released, healthy.
“Luckily my baby is Singaporean, so the government helped,” Anna said, her voice grim. “That’s why I owe a life to Singapore. Because the child who died was in my country. That one I can’t forget.” Her first son, who was born premature in Indonesia four years prior, did not survive past his first day.
When they first got married, Anna, bored and stuck in Derek’s parents’ Singapore home on a tourist visa, decided to work two cleaning jobs to supplement the couple’s income. Unbeknownst to her, she was not authorised to work. In September, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority found out she had been working illegally and told her could not return to Singapore for two years, she recounts. And so, three-months pregnant with Derek and her first child, Anna retreated to Batam, Indonesia.
Anna gave birth to her first son on Christmas day 2016 in Batam at a small, three-storey hospital. Born after 27 weeks and desperately premature, he needed to be put in an incubator. But Anna had no Indonesian insurance, her and her husband’s wallets were empty as they had maxed out the daily ATM transaction limit paying for the delivery room, and because it was Christmas, no bank was open. The hospital refused to move their son until they paid up.
“Because of the stupid money, I tell you everything is money,” said Anna. “When this stupid money doesn’t come out of the deposit for the baby room, they don’t put in incubator immediately.” For hours, her son went without an incubator. He died that evening.
“That day, 25 December, made me realise I don’t want to stay in Indonesia anymore,” she said. “You got money, you can live. All my life…I’ll pay for it in my heart.”
Anna witnessed first-hand how money and citizenship wielded power, but Annisa would never get that chance. Two years before Anna’s daughter was born in Singapore, Annisa, heavily pregnant, was waiting to give birth in Jakarta. She stayed in a tiny, two-room rented shophouse with her aunt and uncle, helping them run their restaurant selling Javanese rice and dishes. Afternoons passed quickly as she chatted to customers, serving up spicy rendang and dried anchovies on rice, but the nights felt interminable.
“It’s difficult, pregnant no husband,” she recalled. “One day felt like one month. At night, I was very sad, very lonely, only cry and cry. I miss and hate my boyfriend.” Yet she resolved to keep the child alive. The “pain in your stomach,” she told herself, would become a person who could one day “make your life different.”
She went into labor around midnight at a small, five-room clinic in West Jakarta. Her daughter was born the following morning at 10am, eight months and two weeks old. Annisa said the delivery was “pain because no money” and she could not afford an epidural. Exhausted, angry and elated as she cradled the newborn, Annisa gave her daughter three names: her mother’s first name, her father’s surname—“in case next time they want to grow up and find the truth,” Annisa said—and her own, the word for “graceful.”
The last time Annisa saw her daughter was the day Annisa was to return to Singapore, where her previous employer who she owed one thousand dollars had re-hired her as his domestic help. She recounted the day she left as she sat in a food court beside the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority headquarters almost three years later, eating curried fish on rice.
“I never say anything. I only cry, cry, cry, only,” she said, laughing humourlessly. “Maybe now she forget already, because last time she still baby. Don’t know me already. Know my auntie as mother.”
Almost every day, before Annisa starts her routine of bringing her employer to kidney dialysis appointments, she calls her daughter. She is a spitting image of her father, with fair skin and a button nose. The girl calls Annisa “kakak”, which means sister. She calls Annisa’s aunt “ibu”, or mother, and the uncle “bapak”, or father. Annisa sends 250 to 350 dollars to her aunt each month to take care of her daughter’s needs.
As I approached her in the food court for our interview, Annisa seemed like any other carefree, young domestic worker on her off-day. She wore bright purple cosmetic contact lenses that made her irises glow and a sunflower-print dress that swept her ankles. She showed me a photo of a chubby-faced, fair-skinned baby, smiling in her arms. In another, the girl is older, squatting against a craggy concrete wall. Two tiny ponytails sprout from her head and with big black eyes, she stares at the camera, mouth agape as if in shock.
“Next year maybe, after COVID-19, I want to see her because…long time,” Annisa said. A gold necklace given to her by her boyfriend—the one who got her pregnant—clung to her collarbone. The pendant was heart-shaped with ribbons of gold that adorned a gem set in the middle. Annisa had no explanation for why her boyfriend, in her words, “become good” after she returned to Singapore. He could never marry her, Annisa said, but told her he wants to give his CPF savings to her when he dies.
Her boyfriend has urged her to find a younger man. “You go lah, find some man lah, I old already,” he would say. But Annisa would repeat that she “don’t go to other boy.”
“I feel the love is grown now,” she said about her boyfriend, who has since bought a 50,000 dollar house in Batam in her name. “He say, ‘if I die or anything, I already bought a house for you and your daughter.’ With this one, I’m happy.” She plans to move there when she retires from work as a domestic maid. She wants to open a shop with the money she has earned from giving her prime years to a city that wouldn’t let her stay, even if she wanted to. One day, if her little girl with fair skin wants to meet her father with the small feet, Annisa will bring her to Singapore for the family reunion.
This story was originally published in the Yale Daily News Magazine 2021 Wallace Prize issue.