RECENTLY, a new memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, ending a two-year freeze on Indonesian maids working in Malaysia.
Many working women in this country, including teachers, must have been delighted to hear this good news.
Besides being the most affordable compared to their Cambodian and Filipino counterparts, Indonesian maids also speak Malay, making communication relatively easy.
Many of my Chinese and Indian students have told me that their first knowledge of Malay came from the Indonesian “kak” (sister) who worked in their house.
Although many Malaysians can adjust to life without maids, in some cases, having a maid is essential, especially in helping to care for the elderly or the sick. Good maids are also useful when a young family cannot get reliable baby-sitters or live separately from their parents or in-laws.
My husband is currently based in Indonesia. When I am in Jakarta, I am often asked by the locals there why Malaysians behave so badly towards their maids. You have to be there to understand how angry they can get as a nation when they hear of Indonesian girls being abused and exploited.
Of course, I point it out to them that by and large, Malaysian employers are very good to their maids. It’s a pity that it’s always the ugly stories that make it into their newspapers and ours.
Having been privy to teacher talk in the staff-room, I am also aware of some of the horror stories associated with recalcitrant maids – for instance, those who run away, abuse children, cheat, lie, steal and fool their employers.
But the majority of girls who come to work as maids do so with the intent to earn an honest living. To their credit, they often do a highly commendable job.
I, for one, am indebted to all the amiable, hard-working Indonesian maids who have joined my household over the years.
As a teacher, I particularly appreciated my maid’s help on days when I had loads of examination scripts to mark, had to go for out-station courses or had to stay back at school for meetings or co-curricular activities.
Since I have had good maids for the past two decades, my teacher friends tell me that I have been blessed as far as maids were concerned. I personally think it was a combination of several factors.
Firstly, the girls who came to me were all intrinsically of good character. Secondly, I never assumed that they knew what it would take for them to do their job well.
The day they entered my house, I trained them all from scratch. Be it cooking, cleaning, mopping, washing up, ironing, folding clothes, keeping food in the fridge, organising crockery, using gadgets (like the microwave, the burner, the juicer or the toaster). I began with the basics and progressively took them higher up the scale.
I believed in their ability to learn, improve and move forward, and I employed the same methodology for coaching and mentoring them as I did with my students at school.
Simple language, explicit instructions, clear explanations, practical trials starting with “here’s-how-it- is-done” demonstrations to “now-let-me-see-you-do-it” sessions, judicious praise to boost their self-confidence, forgiving mistakes and never shouting or condemning – all these techniques assured me of success.
My current maid has been with me since 2005 and plans to work for me for another two more years.
The way I look at it, the relationship you have with your maid is a two-way street. Just as the rapport a teacher enjoys with her students is a measure of the investment she has made in the process, so it is with maids.
In general and if they are of good character, you will find that the more you accord them the respect they deserve when they do a good job with integrity, diligence and reliability, the more they accord you the same.
At school, I noted that I often became more effective whenever I connected with my students in terms of understanding and fulfilling their needs. At home, the efficacy of my training increased whenever I extended the same benefit to my maids.
In my experience, young learners (be it students, newly qualified teachers or new maids) benefit tremendously from skillful coaching, mindful supervision and effective tutelage from a caring mentor. Constant monitoring, highlighting the positive and stressing the development of strengths help too.
In getting the best out of them, it helped that I understood that they, like many of my rural students, came from impoverished homes and from a different cultural context. Thus, it was schooling and education they needed, not harsh words, burning criticism and definitely not abuse in any form.
Another thing I learned from being a teacher is this: to engage your students effectively and to lift tedium, you have to inject bouts of relaxation in your lessons (fun, humour, games, music, pop quizzes) and thereby, achieve your goals.
Similarly, at home, I held firmly to the belief that maids deserve some leisure and joy in life. All my maids had their rest periods and I allowed them to go out.
You reap what you sow. My first maid, whose name was Upe, stayed with me for a total of 12 years. Her name sounds like the word “salt” in the Tamil language and caused some mirth among us.
Yet, she was my best maid ever and a true “salt-of-the-earth” type – a hard-worker who blossomed under our care from being a simple village girl to a graceful, remarkable au pair.
Over time, my faith in her learning ability brought out the best in her. I loved the way she treated my two growing daughters with patience, amused tolerance and kindness. In fact, they would run to her when I lost my cool with them!
When she finally had to leave, I cried. To this day, the thought of her brings me back memories of my life as a young wife, mother and teacher.
I will never forget how she used to take care of me when I was sick and how she helped me take care of my two daughters from the time they were born.
Isn’t it ironic that we think our students should thank us when they do well in their examinations but feel reluctant to say “thank you” to a maid when she serves us well?