By Eddie Choo
This evening I had quite a conversation with an elderly day nurse. She's from China and she was asking me for directions. I don't know her name, never asked for it, for convenience lets just call her Xiaomin.
I first noticed her at the bus stop just outside a posh condo near the Singapore River. She seemed a little bit anxious, fidgety, looking at the bus number.
The bus I was waiting for had just left, so I knew it was going to be a long wait for the next one (IRIS said 17 minutes). She approached me, and in her heavily accented English, asked me whether the bus stopped at any MRT stations. I said yes, pointed to the bus guide and showed her Aljunied station. She then sat down, still anxious.
I told her that I could speak Chinese which seemed to put her at ease somewhat. She told me that she is working as a day nurse for an elderly Singaporean. She's been here for 2 years, and she didn't really have to keep extending her social visit pass herself because the hospital she was attached to was doing all these for her.
Back in China she was a fully qualified staff nurse, and having to come here meant a demotion, job wise. But the money was good. Here she could earn $1k per month, a sizeable income compared to what she was earning back in China. Her lodging was a condominium in Ang Mo Kio. She told me that she didn't have to pay rent but did not elaborate.
She shares it with 3 others - 2 from Myanmar and the third also from China. The work was all they did and they mostly stayed at home, hardly went out. The family that she was working for had told her that most families wouldn't be able to afford such a condo. And Xiaomin herself knew that only rich families could afford to hire nurses like her.
She was aware that people in her profession were in high demand here in Singapore - she had read the papers about Singapore's ageing population and had understood the opportunities. Chinese nationals like her in particular were especially liked – since most of the employer families were Chinese themselves.
She spoke of her training which she received from nursing institutes in China. She is also officially registered with a Singapore hospital as well. In other words, she was a professional nurse.
She compared herself with other nurses who came from other countries and commented that most of them were really poor and weren't properly trained - they don't have the education and the training which she did. And she knew demand for nurses like her would surely rise.
She is married and has a seven year old son, who is back home in Xian. She treasures hope of being able to bring her boy to Singapore with her one day, and is aware of the challenges her son will face in adapting to Singapore's education system. Her son is learning English back home, she tells me and yes, it was hard, since there are hardly any English speakers back in Xian.
I enquired about her husband. She merely smiled. I had hit upon a sensitive question, so I didn't probe further. She wanted to give her boy a chance in life. Xian was too inland, too backward, too few opportunities. She offered that she would gladly give up her Chinese citizenship if she could.
I asked her about the family she was working for. The place where she is working belongs to the youngest of three sisters. She didn’t say much more. Perhaps she wanted to protect her employer’s privacy. She did say however that her employer was married, but they had no kids.
“It must be stressful,” she said, “to own such a luxurious house, having to fork out so much every month for the mortgage. Must be the reason why they don't have kids. Such a home costs at least a million, right? Well in China, if you had that kind of money, you'll be set for retirement. Lower costs, yet still the same quality of life. The countrysides would be perfect for retirement.”
I replied that my parents sometimes thought of retiring in some countryside in China. Yes, that would make sense too, she agreed. And then she said she would go back to China one day, even if only to retire.
In her way, she's living the Singapore dream, and pursuing her happiness. Singapore has welcomed her with open arms.
Despite Singapore’s progress, one truth remains the same: Singapore is still dependent on immigrant/foreign labor. And with one of the fastest ageing population in the world, people like Xiaomin will continue to be in demand here.