Samsiah with Khaisah, Zaza's daughter, during a trip to Surabaya.
Samiah with Khaisah, Zaza’s daughter, during a trip to Surabaya.

There are an estimated 400,000 foreign domestic workers in Malaysia. The majority of them are from Indonesia. Despite recent tensions between the Malaysian and Indonesian governments on the issue, Indonesian women continue to come to Malaysia each year – often taking the role of house maids for an average salary of RM700 – RM800 per month. They clean, cook and also care for children and elderly members of the family.

Some stay just a few days, but others stay for decades: living in the limbo between being an employee and part of the family, while also sending remittances back to their hometowns. Many domestic workers will fade from memory after they leave these Malaysian households. But others are remembered long after the children have grown up – both for their labour and for their love.

Hana and her family helper Ning Wati

“My family and I know EVERYTHING about her and her family, and vice-versa. EVERYTHING.”

Hana grew up in a wealthy household, being the grandchild of a mogul who was then one of the richest men in Malaysia. There were always at least half a dozen people in the house, from extended blood relatives, to adopted children, to the driver, “house boy” and maids. After her family moved out of her grandparents’ house when she was eight, they went through several of their own live-in maids before Ning Wati came.

“My mother was desperate for help because she was constantly busy,” says Hana, who goes on to describe her mother’s activities in NGOs, politics and charity work. “She’s also admitted that she was made to do a lot of chores as a child and she was completely done with that now that she could afford hired help.”

“Finally, we got a live-in maid who was from Sumatera. She did not know how to cook or clean. She was also a good deal older than she had claimed to be (most of our helpers had been in their early twenties). My parents were upset but they decided to keep her for a week so as not to embarrass her by sending her back immediately. Before we realised it, she stayed with us for just over 15 years.”

Hana describes having a live-in maid as like having an extra parent around. “I realize there were a lot of things that I took for granted. She was a very good person, even if she drove me up the bend a lot. After all, she was another parent in the house.”

Ning Wati was also very open about her family back in Sumatera with Hana’s family. “She discusses most of her family goings-on with us. We liaise often with her cousin and son when she plans on sending or receiving anything from home, or if she decides to go back for a holiday. She’s illiterate so we also help deliver photographs of her grandson or any other messages that her son sends us if his calls don’t make it through.”

Recently, Ning Wati was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though Hana’s family did everything that they could, it was medically too late, and they helped to send Ning Wati back to Sumatera to be with her family. Hana says that Ning Wati is doing well for now, and has held her grandson for the first time.

Zaza and her family helper Samiah

“‘Bibik’, we call her, is a part of our family.”

“My family if I can sum up in one word, it would ‘huge’,” says Zaza. “Though the nucleus of the family consists of five people – mum, dad, elder brother, younger sister and I, we pretty much have always had other cousins staying with us.”

When Zaza’s mother was a teenager, Samiah came to Malaysia to help take care of Zaza’s (now late) grandmother. “Soon after my grandmother passed away, Bibik stayed on at my grandparents’ house which my mum was living in too. So it was only natural that she stayed on with my mum. Then my mum tied the knot, got my brother and so on.”

Zaza’s father sadly passed away after she left primary school, so it was no small blessing that Samiah was around to help. “As a child, I grew up with my dad’s firmness in education and values regime, yet he’s so cool on the idea of exploring life. My mum on the other hand, would be the one who’d always comfort us, the one who nurtures us to become the person we are today.”

Samiah spent over 30 years in Malaysia with Zaza’s family. “She is as good as my very own grandmother; I am even closer to her than my actual grandmothers. She was my rock, my confidante, my best friend as she’s the first to know everything; she was also my biggest critic. It was through her too that I was able to converse in Indonesian language.”

After growing up for 25 years with Samiah around, Zaza’s Bibik went back home to Indonesia to retire.

Zaza is now married with her own children, and still talks with Samiah at least once a month. Her first child’s first time on a plane was to fly to Surabaya so they could visit Samiah’s hometown of Ponorogo. While she doesn’t currently employ a helper for her own family, she doesn’t rule it out, especially when her family eventually expands.

“That would certainly be a difficult task as Bibik is my benchmark! I wonder who can be like her.”

Liyana and Azza, and their family helper Fatimah

“I knew she was technically ‘paid’ to take care of us… but she could have left at any time, and she didn’t.”

“My life growing up was not really like most kids. My parents were going through a divorce, but the parents of three of my closest friends then were going through the same thing, so I figured parents splitting up was normal,” Azza laughs.

Her sister, Liyana, explains how their parents were career driven, developing careers in finance and oil and gas. “My sister and I barely played with other children, but I think we preferred it that way!” says Azza. “My parents loved my sister and me a lot, and I’m thankful that they allowed us to be kids.”

It was obvious to both Liyana and Azza why their family had helpers. “It was important for my parents that their children had every opportunity they could afford,” Liyana says of her parents’ jobs. “We grew up with a single mum, and I knew she needed a second pair of eyes around to look after us,” Azza adds. The first two helpers their family had did not stay for long. Then one day, their mother brought Fatimah home and she stayed for almost 20 years.

“She first earned my respect when she marched towards me to pluck me off the house gate that I was climbing with every intention to leave,” Liyana recalls candidly. “My kakak could cook things she would never eat herself. My parents would sometimes find our relationship a mystery, but my relationship with them was never a mystery to my kakak.”

Azza adds that Fatimah always got weekends off, and “when my mum got home early on weeknights she’d go out to hang with her friends. She got a month off every year to visit her family, had a phone, and kept close contact with her relatives in Klang. I thought this much freedom was normal with help, but as I grew older I knew this was not the case with every other maid out there.”

Liyana and Azza never called Fatimah anything other than ‘Kakak’. “It was first a title, some basic label, but from kindergarten to college it really became a self-fulfilling prophecy or something,” says Liyana.

“Home life was pretty volatile, and growing up my kakak was the only constant thing in my life,” says Azza. “She was always asking about our friends, about school.” Even though Kakak no longer lives with their family, she lives nearby and they still keep in constant contact.

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