“Born in the Wrong Environs”: Amanda Lee Koe and The Inequality of Love and Labor
When you think of Singapore, you might think of our obsession with fusing nature and city (Exhibit: Gardens by the Bay). Or you might think of three 55-storey towers topped off with a luxurious rooftop shaped like an obnoxiously large ship. In other words, you think wealth, prosperity, excess — reinforced by the narrative of economic progress and meritocracy — and solidified by, most recently, god forbid, Hollywood (looking at you, Crazy Rich Asians).
But Singapore is not without its social inequalities. We have socialites who live in Sentosa Cove bungalows with yachts docked in the marina, while low-income families are crammed into one-room rental flats. You can also see the extent of social stratification in our reliance on foreign domestic labor, and in the ways this labor is exploited. A study conducted in 2017 suggests that about 60% of foreign domestic workers in Singapore are being subjected to exploitative conditions. We know these things happen. We may know people who contribute to this problem. But it is in Amanda Lee Koe’s twin short stories “Two Ways to Do This” from Ministry of Moral Panic, where we get a glimpse of the power dynamics at work behind the class and gender structures that perpetuate this exploitation.
Lee Koe’s debut short story collection won the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize and has been instrumental in capturing the intricacies and submerged realities of our social fabric. “Two Ways to Do This” does just that by offering two renditions of a story following Zurotul, a young woman from an Indonesian village who is sexually violated and driven to Singapore to join a maid agency. Both versions begin the same:
“Zurotul was made for love, only she was born in the wrong environs for love to occur.”
The declarative tone of the narrator mimics that of the folk story, a didactic narrative where the end is foretold and the fate of the protagonist is contained within the story. Lee Koe’s characters are often trapped in the fictive worlds they inhabit, a narrative device that is also symbolic of the socioeconomic and cultural systems that entrap them.
These systems of inequality have become a major talking point with the emergence of sociologist Teo Yeo Yenn’s book This is What Inequality Looks Like published by Ethos Books this year. Dr Teo’s book is an ethnography of inequality in Singapore that speaks of the systemic problems and societal myths that contribute to social stratification and hinder social mobility. Singapore is, as Teo says, an “extremely status-conscious society — where there are people who serve and people who are served, and people are expected to manage their bodies, to adjust their tones, accordingly”. In an essay republished in New Naritif, Teo stresses that the myth of self-reliance is the gatekeeper of social membership, that failing to perform self-reliance via full employment “puts one at risk of being left out of these important goods and therefore social membership”. The myth of self-reliance — not unlike neoliberal cultural rhetoric that co-opts social movements, that stresses self-optimization while ignoring socioeconomic inequalities — obscures the fact that the terms of social membership are often class-inflected and gendered. We forget that we gain self-reliance by depending on others who cannot afford it.
Subjugation is shaped by geography, gender, cultural backgrounds, position on the social hierarchy, and most importantly, language. At the maid agency, the women are taught English and the first few phrases they learn are:
“Good morning, sir, good morning, ma’am, sorry, yes, I don’t eat pork, I don’t understand, could you explain again please, I understand, sorry, sorry.”
Zurotul is never shown that she can say “no,” an integral act of asserting agency, be it in professional, social or sexual encounters. The repetitive utterance of “sorry” allows maid agencies, employers, and society to reinforce the assumption that a foreign domestic worker is not worthy of social membership, for her self-reliance is negated by her assumed and conditioned subjugation to her employer. But ironically, as Dr Teo points out, “the doctrine of self-reliance depends on women’s unpaid or underpaid labor within the domestic sphere.” People are empowered to do wage work and retain social membership because they rely on domestic labor to run their households. But the language of subjugation that fuels the self-reliance myth allows us to dismiss the “nos,” to regard domestic workers as unworthy of the desire and material privileges — “no boyfriend, or you get sent home. No handphones unless your ma’am and sir say okay” — that are available to those who meet the terms of self-reliance determined by capitalist and neoliberal ideals.
Love in this story seems to be a form of enslavement. Zurotul recalls the day before she left the village where she visited the dying village hag in her decrepit hut. Her last words to Zurotul are: “Nether blood on a full moon will win his heart.” Love here is dictated by a prescribed heteronormative desire. At Zurotul’s birth, the village hag proclaims: “She will be made for love” — a bestowment of power which turns out to be a curse. Thus any reclamation of the female body and assertion of sexual agency seems counter-productive when it hinges on this prophecy. In the first version of the story, Zurotul is attracted to a married man, who arrives at Happy Maid Employment Services Ptd Ltd with his wife to choose a maid. When she isn’t chosen, she surprises herself with her disappointment, by her capacity to express want. But the nature of Zurotul’s desire and agency is ambiguous. Does Lee Koe provide a more empowering representation of domestic workers in Singapore? Or is Zurotul’s expression of love and agency only conferred on her by the village hag and echoed by the narrator, appearing like a subtler form of internalized sexism?
In the second version of “Two Ways to Do This,” Zurotul is employed by the couple and eventually fulfills her desire for the husband. She heeds the mystic advice of the village hag and hesitantly spikes his morning coffee with her “nether blood.” It is also ambiguous whether the husband makes sexual advances on her because of the ritual, or as an escape from the emotional abuse he endures from his wife. Either way, the narrator declares: “Zurotul was made for love, but she was also born to lose.” The wife catches them in the act and Zurotul is repatriated. The power dynamics of exploitation are encompassed in a heated exchange between Zurotul and the prudish wife — Zurotul confesses her love for the husband, which renders a slap across her face from the wife.
“Love? The wife gave a bark of laughter. “What do you think you know about love?”
It is an ironic assumption, but one that is laced with the uncomfortable truth that status-conscious Singaporeans have internalized the myth of self-reliance and are complicit in domestic violence and labor exploitation. It has bred a belief that some women are more worthy of love than others. That any expression of desire, of agency, by a social “other” is rendered invisible and is punished.
When Zurotul returns to her village, she does not go to her family home. She takes the path the villagers avoid and enters the abandoned shack of the village hag. She puts on a tattered robe leftover from the deceased woman, and visits her grave stone which she had dug with her own hands. Here, we find that Zurotul is pregnant with a girl. The scene portrays a trinity of women trapped in a curse of disenfranchisement. Zurotul symbolically takes on the role of the village hag, conferring the same words on her unborn daughter, this time as a “prayer:” “She will be made for love.” On one level, it appears the women are trapped within a cycle of sexism and prescribed heteronormativity which they perpetuate among themselves. But as the narrator first declares, “she was born in the wrong environs for love to occur.” They perpetuate this cycle because they seem to be unaware of the larger systems of power that sustain these “wrong environs,” in relation to the prosperous and privileged environs that define our social membership.
The promise of an alternative ending usually provides hope for redemption, for closure or positive resolution. But Lee Koe does not offer us the satisfaction of a vindicated heroine. As I’ve said before, her narratives are contained. The narrator has already declared Zurotul’s fate. It is Lee Koe’s way of demonstrating the enduring effects and insidious tragedy of when we aren’t aware of the larger systems that control us, that allows us to keep people in the “wrong environs.” It is her way of showing us that some heroines don’t get the endings they deserve, and we must continue deconstructing the myths that make it so.