Someone to Watch Over Me

A year ago, Thomas Lim’s aunt installed cameras in her house to keep tabs on her foreign domestic helpers. He shares with us how that act of surveillance unnerved him, but also inspired him to write about privacy and trust in his new play, Supervision.
Patrick Teoh and Umi Kalthum Ismail in Supervision

The genesis of Supervision can be traced back to a Sunday afternoon from a few years ago. I was visiting my maternal grandparents. The helpers were out on their off day, so my aunts and uncles were around to stand in for them.

When I walked into the house, I was greeted by a strange sight. My aunt had had someone install cameras inside the house, and she and my mother were adjusting the angles of the cameras so that there would be no blind spots.

Later, I was asked to download the accompanying app on my phone. I think it was called ‘Eagle Eyes’. It basically allows you to look at any camera in the house through an internet connection. With the app, I could watch the helper cooking, my grandfather sleeping and my grandmother looking out of the window, all at the same time. It was uncomfortable, and it felt like I was waiting for something bad to happen.

There are more than 200,000 foreign domestic workers currently in Singapore. A recent survey by HOME showed that about 1 in 5 report that they have cameras installed inside their rooms. This means that there are people who are watching their helpers sleep, change and pray. Many of these foreign domestic workers keep quiet about the cameras in their rooms for fear of losing their jobs.

When we went to talk to a few Indonesian domestic workers on their off day, they shared that it is not as simple as getting a job, saving their salaries and then returning home. Most, if not all, of them have to use months of their salaries to pay off their agent fees. It makes sense, then, that they would not do or say anything that would risk their jobs.

But the most interesting part of my research was talking to employers. Over the past couple of months, when people asked me what I was working on, I told them about Supervision and watched their reactions within the first few seconds.

The responses were quite polarised. Some frowned on the practice. Others unconsciously took on a defensive position, and justified their use of cameras based on the various stories of abuse and theft that they had read about in the news or heard from friends of friends.

I’ve never lived with a foreign domestic worker before, but I’ve always found it strange to observe my grandmother’s helpers. Their relationship is not simply that of employer and employee. In the absence of her children, they take care of my grandmother – they feed her, bathe her, answer to all her requests. Our home is the ‘office’ they work in and their ‘office’ is where they live, eat, rest, pray.

The more I think about a single place being – at the same time – a home to the employer and a workplace to the foreign domestic worker, the more it confuses me. If the justification for the cameras is that the employers are simply watching their employees at work, then when exactly are they ‘off work’? Shouldn’t they have a separate place of accommodation away from their ‘office’ to rest? Are the measures we are taking proportionate to the perceived fears and threats?

Now, whenever I visit my grandparents, their helpers seem to have taken the whole situation in their stride. Even my grandparents appear unaffected by the cameras, which, incidentally, are watching them too.

They look like they have accepted the constant presence of several watchful eyes as a part of their daily life, in return for some sense of security.

Now that is scary.

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