Bitter Leaves

By Tabatha Stirling

A novel that will bring you to the dark heart of Singapore's maid culture

Monday, 16 January 2017



First off, I want to thank you all for supporting my writing and my long-held ambition to be traditionally published.  52 percent is a huge milestone, it means that the likelihood of OUR book getting published is becoming more and more of a reality.

So I think a resounding group ‘WOO HOO’ is in order.  

I wanted to write a little about Sawtoh, the very young Myanmar helper who lived next door to us when I first moved to Singapore.  And what a hardcore introduction to Singapore’s less than shiny record of human rights abuses, it was. 

Shammi, one of the ‘voices’ that narrate Blood On The Banana Leaf is based on Sawtoh and her experiences.  


Sawtoh came from Rangoon in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and was 23 when I knew her.  She came to Singapore to work for my next door neighbour, a wealthy Chinese Singaporean woman.  Sawtoh had no family in Singapore, no cell phone, no computer and no salary for 5 months to pay back the ‘agency’ fees.  Her employer kept her passport locked up so she couldn’t run away back home.

Her employer wouldn't let her examine her own contract.  She was never allowed out by herself.  She was forbidden to talk to anyone at all and her employer had set up security cameras to keep track of her.  

Sawtoh had no off-days for five months, working from 5.00 am to 10.00 pm every day and I can verify this as I saw her every, single morning washing their damned car before the sun was even up and, digging the garden late into the night 

Clarie, my helper, and I made friends with her and waved and tried to communicate as she’d often stare forlornly into our garden, at the contentment there.  

Then one afternoon she started to cry, sobbing so hard she began to shudder with despair, gulping air through her tears as she stretched her thin arm out to us through the bars of the imposing iron fence that fenced in next door's garden. 

We managed to coax her to come over (it took 50 minutes) because her ’employer’ was out.  She wouldn’t sit in a chair, only on the floor because Sawtoh was forbidden from using the family’s plates or utensils, drink from their glasses, eat in front of them or sit on their furniture. 

I held her for at least 30 minutes, murmuring in soothing tones but I felt completely useless.  I couldn’t speak Burmese and her English was very limited but eventually, she calmed down and after a cup of tea and watching cartoons on Nickelodeon she stopped crying and began to smile tentatively.  

She wouldn’t let go of my hand for a very long time and I realised, in that moment, that the physical affection I offered was priceless.  She was being seen for the first time since her arrival.  This young woman was expected to be neither ‘invisible’ or ‘mute’ around us. It was really humbling.

After that, she visited often, hopping over the garden wall with a huge smile on her face.  She would hug me for hours and follow me around the house like a friendly shadow.  Clarie and I would put chocolate, money, vitamins, fresh fruit, bread and pretty dresses in the hollowed out base of a huge cane shrub that bordered both properties.

And we wrote messages of love and support, in Burmese, in huge letters and pasted them onto the wall of our property, tormenting her dreadful employer who couldn't translate them.

Maid abuse is horribly common in this Singapore.  We lived in a wonderfully clean and safe city-state where the service is bordering on obsequious, drug traffickers are hung by mandatory sentence and some of the poorest women (and men) in the world are living in darkness.  Paralysed by fear and anxiety that to lose their jobs mean that their children might not eat.

For many women in South East Asia, there are two employment choices.  Either going into service or to embark on a risky & humiliating career in the sex industry.  This is why getting my book published is so important to me.  It might be naive to expect the S'pore government to change anything but at least there might be some dialogue about it.

Next week, I will give you an exclusive extract from the book and tell you all about Clarita Dumadora Baer.  My friend, my heart-sister and helper.  An extraordinary woman without whom none of this would be possible.

And lastly,

A huge thank you once again.  To all of you.  From the bottom of my heart.  We are making such great progress but still have a little way to go so if you have friends or relatives that you think might be interested, do tell them about the book & my campaign.  

Have a great week.

Love, Tabby  x

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Diane Dickson
 Diane Dickson says:

Going great guns there. Keep it up. Your story is so very familiar to me. As you know I spent many years in the middle east, mostly Saudi but also Jordan and the Gulf and this story is replayed over and over. There are Phillipino maids in jail, and there families think they are dead, there are girls who are made to sleep on balconies etc. etc. All strength to you Tabby, it's an important story

posted 17th January 2017

Fran Macilvey
 Fran Macilvey says:

A lovely story, which shows that all small acts of kindness make a vast difference. Thank you for highlighting this menace and exposing the true human cost to everyone involved in slavery and exploitation.

posted 17th January 2017

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