A Memoir of a Domestic Worker: Working in Singapore and Completing My Studies Despite Being a Secondary School Dropout

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Fely's early years in Singapore

Tens of thousands of Indonesian migrant workers are currently residing and working in Singapore as a domestic worker. Due to their weak financial background, they must leave their village and migrate to our neighbouring country, working so hard, to support their family back home. A number of them, in between of their work routines, never give up on dreaming big and achieving higher. Fely, one of the Indonesian domestic workers in Singapore, managed to complete higher secondary school and an undergraduate degree during her time working there. This is an important story to share and may it be our source of grittiness and hopes!

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I came from Cirebon, west of Java Island in Indonesia. When I was very young, I once had a dream of becoming a journalist and a writer. My interest in writing has sparked since my Primary School days. I love writing, I write a lot, and I believe it has been a part of me ever since.  “Daddy, daddy… one day I want to be a writer, I want to be a journalist!” told the younger me to my father, as if there was nothing that could stop me.

However, life is not always rainbows and sunshine. As soon as I finished lower secondary school, my family faced financial difficulties as my father declared bankruptcy. Money was tight and life was difficult. My once vivid dream of becoming a writer became just a glimmering hope… A hope that I still carry up to this day.

The initial struggles I faced

I kept thinking of ways that I could do to help my father to come back from his bankruptcy. So by the time I finished my lower secondary school, I followed my uncle to work in Jakarta as a cashier at the age of 15. I learned how to work hard, pray hard, and how to never give up. Even though I worked in Jakarta where I received a bigger salary compare to where I came from, it was barely enough to cover my rent.

I knew that I can do better than this, my father is the only source of motivation why I was working so hard and I wanted to help him and made him proud. The opportunity came; there was an agency that was looking for a domestic worker to work in Singapore. I thought to myself… “why don’t I give a shot?”

“Are you crazy? You only graduated from a lower secondary school in the middle of nowhere. How can you be working in Singapore? Come back and study instead”, my father told me. He asked me to continue my study but I refused to listen to him and I had made my own decisions. I loved my father and my family so much. So much that I could not stop thinking about our financial situation and how I can help the family. Not only my father’s bankruptcy had dragged us down to a hole that we might not recover, my father still needed to repay his mortgages and I still have 2 younger siblings that I needed to take care of.

So I took the chance and went for it, even though I was aware that being a domestic worker in Singapore would definitely be more difficult than my relatively comfortable job as a cashier in Jakarta. But, what do I have to lose? Singapore is a very comfortable place and it is quite near to Indonesia. I also want to hone my English further.

When things got better in Singapore

I managed to set foot to Singapore despite the initial resistance and I managed to convince my father that my decision was the best of him and my family. However, it was a little bit of a shock initially when I first arrived in Singapore. I must say that everything takes time. Success does not come overnight and everyone needs a process in order to get a better life.

The first time I learned how to be a migrant domestic worker, I felt frustrated. I complained to myself why my life was like that, working in Singapore as a domestic worker while my friends’ lives were so much better. Things got harder when the agency that helped to secure me employment in Singapore turned out to be a fraud and they scammed $1000 out of me. I was unemployed for some time and I did not know what to do.

I can finally read some of my favorite authors in Singapore!
I can finally read some of my favourite authors in Singapore!

But in those darkest moments, I came back to my initial resolve: Why am I doing this? To whom am I struggling? My father and my younger siblings are the only ones that came into my mind. So I made a promise to myself that I will never come back to Indonesia before my dreams come true, before I can have sufficient money to build a house for my parents in Indonesia, and before I can secure enough funding for my siblings’ education. I prayed and believed in myself that if I want something, miracles would happen to me. If I want my dreams to come true, of course, I also have to work hard, pray hard, and improve my mindset.

I prayed to God and a miracle happened to me. After the agency situation that I had previously, I met a good employer out of serendipity in Hougang Green bus stop, and he became my employer until now. I managed to get the employer that I wished for as they are very understanding. After practising for a while, the frustration of working as a domestic worker slowly faded away and things eventually got better. I learned a lot from my employer’s family including to respect each other regardless of the religion. Praying and believing were the key and I would like to thank God for giving me such a wonderful, kind, and understanding employer whom I can work for.

Have hopes and never give up: “Paket C” and my steps to becoming an author

Things were getting better and it worked out very well. I am on track in helping my parents’ financial situation and I can help to finance my siblings’ education. From there, I sincerely believe that I can achieve anything with hard work, faith, and prayer. So my childhood memory came to me and I rekindle my dreams of becoming an author.

 

My classmates at Siglap
My classmates at Siglap

I realized that in order to become a good writer I need to study. I googled to find a school to go during my day-off from work. I went to the British Council on Napier Road. I really looked forward to studying there and the placement test was free. I got in but I decided to ignore the offer because I won’t be able to pay for the high tuition fees.

Sekolah Indonesia Singapura at Siglap
Sekolah Indonesia Singapura at Siglap

Later, I was introduced to Sekolah Indonesia Singapura at Siglap. I went there to meet a fellow domestic worker to catch up but I ended up meeting different people that day. From them, I learned that everyone has a unique view in life, various ways of thinking, and different ways how they live their lives. Then, I decided to enrol in their programs. I took a course on leadership and money management, and I graduated from the course in 2017.

Following that, I surfed online again to find information on Paket C, which is basically a Non-Formal Education Program as an alternative to the Indonesia Ministry of Education’s SMA or A-levels. I graduated then continued my undergraduate study at the Open University (University Terbuka). I could rebuild my passion to be a writer! I always spent my day off on Sunday to study. And during work days, when I was done with work or had free time at night, I would do my schoolwork and spent late nights to complete my submission. It was not an easy journey, but I am forever grateful for all the opportunities. 

Epilogue and my message to fellow Indonesian diasporas

Despite the turmoils that I have been through, I am happy to be a migrant worker in Singapore. I learned many things along the way. From the bottom of my heart and from being faithful to never give up on my dreams, I thank God for all my years in Singapore that had shaped me to who I am today.

I want to pass three lessons to other Indonesian diasporas out there, especially my fellow domestic workers: never give up, be kind, and take ownership of your actions.

On never give up. Although life may hit you hard, always remember that badai pasti berlalu (storm will be over). One good song that I know of and it happens to be the title of my favourite author’s book, Chandra Putra Negara, “Always believe and tell yourself that you are bigger than your problems. You will never give up and you will stay strong.” Chandra always says “Even if we are faced with mountains of issues ahead of us, we have to step in and believe that there is hope, that there is good coming for every hardship that we face.” In hindsight, all my struggles were a good opportunity that God had given me to develop myself in Singapore, to be an independent woman, and to be a wiser person.

On be kind. In addition to being strong and always believe in our dreams, we must also be caring and think about others and their feelings, as much as how God cares about us in our daily lives. It pleases God if we think of others, but God may not think of us if we do not care about others.

On take ownership of your actions. Do not be complacent in life and take ownership of whatever actions that we made. Life is about choices; every human must make choices. However, it is not always about making the right choices. Sometimes, when we are bombarded with many choices, when we are confused about what to choose, just choose one anyway and take ownership and responsibility of that choice. Enjoy the ride and bear the consequences! In life, we will face many problems, obstacles, and tests; It is totally normal. But your view on these issues and how you deal with each of them is what makes you exceptional.

 

Aim for the stars and never give up!
Aim for the stars and never give up!

Lastly, I would thank God for testing me and giving me bittersweet moments. From every happiness to the sad ones. Day and night, I always ask God to help me with my problems and He always answers me with His miracles. That keeps me going even if I sometimes life does not go well as planned. For you, diasporas out there, stay hungry, stay humble, be grateful and continue to pray to God and talk to Him about your worries, and ask Him to give you courage and strength to achieve all your dreams especially on the days when you feel the obstacles just keep on coming.

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This memoir is co-written by Sri Mulyaningsih Fely and Aditya Hendrayana, the Content Director of Indonesia Mengglobal for Asia/Middle East/Africa region and edited by Siti Octrina Malikah, the Editor-in-Chief of Indonesia Mengglobal. Fely, in her own words:

“Sri Mulyaningsih Fely is an Indonesian domestic worker working in Singapore. She reached out to Indonesia Mengglobal to let the world know about her story that anyone, even a domestic worker, can have and achieve big dreams.”

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Photo Source: Sri Mulyaningsih Fely

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Aditya (Ignatius) is the Content Director for Asia/Africa and the Middle East endeavor of Indonesia Mengglobal. Born and Raised in Surakarta, Aditya is currently pursuing an Engineering degree at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore. He is also a recipient of the Credential of Readiness from Harvard Business School. Professionally, Aditya worked in a wide range of sectors: startups, academic R&D, management consulting, and financial services. Prior to joining Indonesia Mengglobal, Aditya ran education online classes and campus tour with Inspirabook in Singapore, spearheaded pro-bono consulting projects, took the public relations officer position at PINTU (Pelajar Indonesia NTU), and handled the Business and Corporate endeavors of PPIS (Perhimpunan Pelajar Indonesia Singapura). Aditya is a friendly, supportive and inquisitive person, and he always eager to connect with others. Feel free to find him at his Quora, LinkedIn, and Facebook pages at the description below or drop an email to ignatiusadityah@gmail.com.