A group of Monmouth College students, graduates and professors will share their findings several times this spring about their research about migrant domestic workers in Singapore.
Last summer, Monmouth professors Jialin Li and Marlo Belschner led a team of five students on a three-week trip to Singapore, where they conducted research on migrant domestic workers.
They will share what they have learned this spring at one of the College’s Great Decisions meetings on Feb. 28, the College’s annual Scholars Day on April 23, and at the April national conference of ASIANetwork in Atlanta. The ASIANetwork helped fund the Monmouth trip.
“We applied before COVID and didn’t get the grant, so we reapplied after COVID,” said Belschner, who teaches English and has a background in feminist theories and issues as well as transnational feminism. She helped make the trip possible through her knowledge of working with different grant agencies.
Li, who teaches in the College’s sociology and anthropology department, provided historical background on Singapore, reporting that 60 years ago, the Southeast Asian nation was one of the world’s poorest countries, with widespread poverty and unemployment. To reverse that trend, government officials placed a high value on women’s education.
“It was around 1978 when the government wanted highly educated women to go to the labor market, and so they needed workers who can continue domestic labor,” said Li. “So they opened the door to allow migrant domestic workers to apply for a temporary visa so that they could come and work in individual households in Singapore.”
That government action attracted migrant domestic workers from several nearby nations, including Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
Learning beyond the textbook
The Monmouth group’s effort was heavily reliant on visualization and observation skills. Students and instructors traveled to three malls – Peninsular Plaza (for Burmese migrant domestic workers), City Plaza (Indonesian), and Lucky Plaza (the Philippines) – to observe the lifestyles of other cultures, especially on Sundays because it was the busiest day for the migrant domestic workers.
“We were well-prepared for our trip by taking a half-semester course surrounding education about foreign domestic workers and about Singapore, in general, before leaving,” said Kylie McDonald ’23, who signed up for the experience, in part, because it would be an “extraordinary” addition to her profile for graduate school.
Female migrant domestic workers in Singapore commonly spend time caring for the elderly and children, cooking and conducting other domestic chores, and even walking dogs. While those menial tasks might not appeal to many people, it is typically far better than the situations the migrant workers experience in their home nations.
“It wasn’t until traveling to Singapore and talking to these women personally that I understood how complex of an issue this work really is,” said McDonald, who graduated last May. “Despite the negatives, these women repeatedly expressed gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. Many chose to stay in Singapore long-term. I suddenly realized that no matter how horrendous their treatment in Singapore could potentially be, their home life was much worse.”
Even on Sundays, the migrant women – who aren’t permitted to bring family members with them to Singapore – work to improve their qualifications so that when they return home, they may assist others.
“Most of our work and observations were on Sundays at the malls, and we also went in and spent some time with workers at the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs),” said Belschner. “There were also some taking classes, including a large group taking certified nursing classes. They were doing it to help increase their qualifications as a worker, and they also talked about being more qualified to help people back home. We spent some time talking and eating with them. And our students also sang, played music with them and ran a tie-dye workshop at one of the NGOs.”
Finding common ground
The five students, which also included May graduates Addison Cox and Jacinda Garcia, as well as Michael Andal ’26 of Crystal Lake, Illinois, and Ethan Forsberg ’24 of Carbondale, Illinois – were extremely active and completed their tasks – such as conducting one-on-one interviews with the workers – efficiently, said their professors. They also spent time getting to know the city, participating in various activities such as visiting Singapore’s zoo.
“One of the advantages of this trip is that the students were able to bear witness to the workers’ personal stories, discovering realities that were not stated anywhere else,” said Li. “During one tour we made to TWC 2 (Transient Workers Count Too), our students interviewed a construction worker from Bangladesh. We also learned a lot from the director of that organization regarding the obstacles and social injustice Bangladesh workers are facing in Singapore.”
McDonald said: “We learned that they really love to dance. and we were taken out behind the mall where plastic tarps stretched across the grassy area. Women camped out with friends for the day. They had a big speaker set up and dozens of women danced around enjoying their day off. We were pulled into the chaos and danced around with the women. In the meantime, many lined up to take videos or pictures with us since we were Westerners. Eventually, it felt like we were celebrities at a meet-and-greet with fans. We had to get our professors to come pull us away.”
***Courtesy of Barry McNamara, Monmouth College***