Middle class: Realm of the living dead?

Posted on 30 October 2011

Struggling with rising costs and long working hours, some find hiring a domestic maid both a luxury and a necessity.

By Terence Lee

Babies are a luxury. Necessity? Well... Photo: ECohen

There’s been some debate going on about giving maids more compulsory days off, and getting employers to fork out the costs of doing so.

Here’s the current situation: A standard contract between a maid and employer recommends one day off per month, with compensation in-lieu of around S$20 per day off.

Now, the Singapore government’s Ministry of Manpower has proposed that maids be given four days off a month instead.

Some find this extravagant.

“It’s a little bit too high, to employ a domestic helper and compensate four days off. S$20 times four is S$80, and the current salary is S$400. S$480 can be a little hefty for some families,” said Riza Malawad, operations manager with 9Y2 Employment Services.

As much as I think domestic maids deserve a day off a week, I can see where he’s coming from.

These days, we middle class folks are screwed in many directions.

Especially if you’re heeding the government’s call to get married and make lots of babies.

Or if you’re an anxious parent wanting the best for your child in a high-pressure cooker environment that is Singapore.

In such cases, domestic maids are both luxury and necessity: Expensive to hire, yet difficult to do without.

Trust me, I know. Yes, yes, I’m not married yet. But I have friends who are: I’ve heard their complaints, and seen the creases on their forehead.

They’re all suffering symptoms of ‘the middle class dilemma’, otherwise known as the ‘realm of the living dead’.

I don’t mean to sound morbid, but that’s what being middle class can feel like. I’m not talking about being upper middle class, owning a swanky condo in the CBD and a nice Prius. I’m talking middle middle class, like, living in a four-room HDB flat in the heartlands.

Here’s what being a middle class parent could look like: You’ve just cleared your S$22,000 university loan (with interest), and barely started on paying your S$300,000 HDB flat, which will take some 30 years.

You have to give allowance to your parents, one of whom got retrenched. You and your spouse slog long hours in the office, and by the time either of you got home, you barely have energy to take care of the kids, let alone do the housework.

That’s not all.

Children are by nature energetic and naughty, yet they need to be showered with love and personal attention.

And since Singapore has such a competitive education system, you want to make sure your kids receive the best education. That means paying $1,000 a month for private pre-school education, and giving your time as a parent volunteer to ensure that your children enter the best Primary Schools.

The expenses just pile up from there.

Faced with a shortage of time, many parents hire domestic maids to help out in the household. But any slight increase in hiring costs could mean that some have no choice but to put off the idea altogether.

I find myself asking questions like: What ROI does investing time and money in raising a child bring to me? Will it affect my career and professional development?

At this point, critics will say: Well then, if you don’t want to pay extra just so maids can have an extra day off, then don’t hire!

But they’ve forgotten that while it is easy to ask the Singapore government to do this or that, any tweak in public policy that helps one group often hurts another.

The government then has the unpleasant task of trying to appease everyone — a virtual impossibility.

So let’s give the maids extra days off then. Suppose the cost of hiring them does go up, there would be a drop in demand. That spells trouble for the owners of the maid agencies, who, like all of us, have mouths to feed, and fear what an uncertain global economic climate might do to their barely-surviving business.

The Singapore government, of course, knows about the middle class dilemma. It is very likely the major cause of our dismally low birth rate of 1.16, and their solutions so far have no bite.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Pushing Singaporeans to work their socks off to maintain a fledging, highly competitive economy is bound to have trade-offs somewhere else.

For people like me — fresh grad and holding my first job — starting a family in Singapore in a very unattractive thought, for all the above reasons.

Do I want my career and professional development to halt, even for just a moment, just so I can look after a helpless baby?

In an economy where hungry peers and cheap foreign talent are waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to take your job, that’s a risky proposition.

I find myself asking questions like: What ROI does investing time and money in raising a child bring to me? Will it affect my career and professional development?

I don’t consider myself a complainer. After all, I’m quite confident of my own resourcefulness, abilities, and skillsets. I kick ass.

And despite the difficult questions, I intend to start family. I’ll have to pay my housing loan till I’m 55 (hopefully much earlier), and juggle a job, two kids, and a wife.

I’ll find ways to be resourceful: Maximizing my income while minimizing spending. Ensure that my kids survive in the system, without getting consumed and overwhelmed. And perhaps get out of the paperchase altogether.

Forget about buying a car, public transport is the way to go, like it or not. It’s greener anyway.

Ultimately, Singapore is a great place for intelligent, resourceful, and hardworking people to live in. I once spoke to a successful Malaysian entrepreneur who, being disillusioned with the Malaysian government, is considering uprooting his entire family to Singapore.

He thinks the country is a wonderful place for his kids.

“I don’t know why you Singaporeans complain so much,” he said.

Well, sir, there are many reasons why we complain. Some, being lazy, stupid, and useless, can’t do any better. Others are born into unfortunate circumstances and feel helpless.

But there are also those who complain because they are used to the very best. We invented the word ‘kiasu’, after all.

Lastly, there are those who hate complaining. Well aware of the situation they’re in, they prefer to spend their time burying themselves in work.

All they want to do, after all, is survive.

This post was written by:

- who has written 81 posts on New Nation.

Terence is an online media nut that is obsessed with writing and publishing on the Internet. Recently, he took up photography to expand his repertoire, and hopes to learn videography soon. He has worked in both online and print publications such as The Straits Times, Today, Mind Your Body, The Online Citizen, and Funkygrad. He is currently the assistant editor with SGEntrepreneurs, a website that covers entrepreneurship in Singapore and Asia. Terence can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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