I read an article many years ago that mentioned the stereotype of the Filipino maid in Singapore. The article started with, “One of Singapore’s most popular comic characters happens to be a Filipino maid called Leticia Bongnino.”
I mulled this strange thought as I sat across the President of Singapore, Halimah Yacob, for dinner.
If some Singaporeans still think of Filipinos mainly as domestic helpers, I wonder how she thought of me.
It was the opening night of the 2019 International Conference for Cohesive Societies (ICCS), and I had the undeserved honor of being at Table #1 with President Halimah Yacob.
Around me, Minister Grace Fu Hai Yien who headed the Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth – the organizer of ICCS – talked animatedly with Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, the former Secretary-General of the ASEAN, and more dignitaries. The heads of Singapore’s religious organizations were also present, along with eminent scholars on religion and cohesive societies.
I was the youngest – and most under-qualified – person who had a seat in the table that night. It was unreal.
Heady with the luck I had, I still turned back to that first, strange thought.
My countrymen, domestic helpers.
A large chunk of the hundreds of thousands of domestic helpers who work in Singapore is composed of Filipinos. We take care of the kids who roam Singapore’s manicured parks in the daytime. We clean the houses before Mommy and Daddy come home from work. We make sure Auntie or Uncle gets fed or gets their medication.
As proud as I am for the hard work and grit of the Filipinos who spend years taking care of others while their own families wait for them back home, I also can’t help ask: Is this our only stereotype? Is that how you would think of us? Of me?
My dad always says, “Perception is reality.”
Yet – now more than ever – it seems that the truth to this line has become a force of bad more than a force of good.
Perception destroys when it labels a human being as a lower kind compared to another, creating a hierarchy in which someone matters more than someone else. Perception destroys when it is wielded in political games to create a common enemy that a nation seeks to topple. Perception destroys when it prevents people from realizing their full potential simply because of the color of their skin, the country on their passport, or the headwear they don.
“Perception is reality.”
Thus, during this same conference, I came to address the perceptions that hurt and to bring more compassion to reality by, first, listening.
And listen, I did.
Prior to the Opening Dinner of the ICCS, I was privileged to take part in the ICCS-Young Leaders’ Programme that gathered about 100 young leaders from all over the world who worked in the fields of interfaith dialog, counter-radicalization, religious leadership and more.
We followed an UnConference format – a choose-your-own-adventure type of summit where we got to propose our own topics, organize open-ended discussions, and basically have an atmosphere that was open, less structured, and more intimate.
In the course of that UnConference, I was blown away.
I met many young leaders who led religious organizations. Though they represented faiths with centuries’ worth of doctrines, they were – as others say – “woke” and were not afraid to talk about issues of sexuality, gender, oppression with regards to religion.
Some of the people I learned from were teachers and academics, but what stood out to me was that, in the course of their teaching, what was more important for them was how you teach values and character more than the syllabus.
Others I met were entrepreneurs testing out their Big Ideas in different parts of the world, whether it had to do with technology and faith, game-ifying dialog, or making spaces where people feel accepted.
I, for one, was happy just to listen and absorb everything. At KRIS Library, we want to go on new directions and this was a good place to start: a sort of crash course to learn what’s good and what’s best as we move forward in our work.
I was also happy to be in a place where it was okay to transcend common labels or definitions. In the spirit of cohesive societies, we didn’t shy away from our multi-colored backgrounds. My usual introduction of “Hi, I’m Arizza. My dad’s Christian. My mom’s Muslim” was met by an equal dose of “I’m half-Asian, half-European, grew up in the US” or “I’m Chinese-Indian and Muslim”.
All throughout the UnConference, we explored perceptions, the space between it and reality, and how they manifested. Along the way, we spoke of diversity, tolerance, the importance of dialog, and the various ways we can make a cohesive society.
If there’s one big lesson I learned from the young leaders, it’s that everyone has a part in that cohesion.
This isn’t something that we restrict to academics or government leaders or religious heads. This shouldn’t be some elite youth club. This is something we desperately needed to take back to our parents, our neighbors, the man on the street, the guy next to us on the train.
We fail this UnConference if we keep the lessons we learned within the walls of those halls. We have to make sure we don’t go on converting the already converted.
As a play with two parts, the second was the ICCS conference proper. Though not as sexy and daring as the UnConference, the structured, formal conference was dense with content and insight.
There were so many quotable quotes and so many compelling questions raised that I tore holes in my notebook as I forcefully underlined some notes several times.
But if I could share just one moment that, to me, characterized the spirit of this conference…
I clearly remember a panel that consisted of celebrated names in the fields of counter-radicalization and counter-extremism. One of the panelists was an actual Lord from the United Kingdom.
During the Q&A, one panelist had a statement responding to a question posed.
Another panelist looks at him and goes, “Excuse me, may I argue with you on that?”
The first panelist, sweetly and kindly goes, “I very much welcome that.”
At the tail-end of the conference, as if being in Opening Night Table #1 wasn’t enough, I was picked as one of the few youth leaders chosen to have a chat with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat – who is expected to be the next Prime Minister of Singapore.
I clearly remember waiting in the VIP room for the DPM with my fellow youth delegates. I was fidgeting. I was nervous.
Again, I questioned my luck.
Again, I felt insignificant, under-experienced and undeserving.
Again, strangely, the image of the stereotypical Filipino helper came to mind.
What would Singapore’s next Prime Minister hope to achieve by conversing with a bunch of millennials? What would he get out of me – a mere Bachelor’s holder, non-Ivy League, and running a small business in the Philippines? Was I really supposed to be here?
And that’s when it hit me.
The government of Singapore tries not to see the stereotype – whether due to age, or religion, or ethnicity, or profession. It tries to see, instead, merit in anyone.
Whatever the reason they put me in that table, in that room, in that conference, it’s because they saw something in me: some potential. Something that’s not expressed by the labels that people attach to other people.
I’ve written before on how Singapore has tried for decades to honor the concept of meritocracy and equal opportunity. And, to me, it still continues to deliver.
The lesson of Singapore, the lesson of ICCS, is not that we should aim just to be a cohesive society. More than that, we should aim to be an empowered one – one in which everyone should hopefully get a seat at the table.
A seat to shatter stereotypes. A seat from where one could be a voice. A seat from where one could make something out of one’s self.
In the Philippines, a domestic helper is called a “katulong”, which literally means someone who helps.
The stereotype of the Filipino maid exists not only in countries with thousands of Filipino domestic helpers – such as in Singapore and Hong Kong – but also in the Philippines itself.
Many of our domestic helpers dropped out of school at a young age. Many left their home provinces and ventured to cities to find work. Some will leave little children, families behind in hopes of having a better life.
Here in the Philippines, they are paid lower than most other professions. Here, on their own soil, they experience abuse at the hands of fellow Filipinos. They work for most of the week and usually get only a weekend or less than a day to rest.
Growing up in a household with a helper was a struggle for me. My parents were fair and caring but they still paid our helpers lower than the minimum wage. On one hand, this is how it’s always been. On the other hand, it just wasn’t fair.
What then to do?
First, we should perhaps be listening.
We create stereotyped roles of maids on local television and movies, but do we really know what they need and what their biggest problems are?
Second, we should then be giving them seats at the table.
For starters, shouldn’t we be seating them alongside our families when we eat for any meal? And more than that, shouldn’t we also be giving them seats to make laws, propose reforms for their profession, and address the issues that themselves know best?
By definition, they help. Don’t they deserve our help too?
Don’t they deserve to feel empowered and in control of their own lives? Don’t they deserve our utmost respect and compassion?
Come to think of it: Doesn’t everyone?
In that seat directly across President Halimah Yacob, I sought to find an answer to what got me there in the first place. But I think she – and Singapore – would rather I focus on what’s ahead of me.
Given this seat and this opportunity, what can I do?
I can strive to give seats to those who have none. I can strive to bring cohesion and compassion where there is little of these. I can strive to empower others with a voice in the silence.
I can continue to remember – and ask others to remember – this fine quote that, to me, captures the essence of what each of us should be striving for, regardless of color, ethnicity, religion, profession or any label:
You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand. – Woodrow Wilson