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The Crossway Commuters

We walk past the housekeepers in Cinnamon College every day, but do we really know the stories they hold? USPaperboxes is a GUI aiming to do just that.

Story by Michelle Wang

Lynn and Tana, two housekeepers working at Cinnamon College, describe what life is like crossing the causeway every day from Malaysia to Singapore

From the far end of the corridor, one could already sense a palpable air of excitement emanating from Theme Room 2. On 28 March, USPaperboxes conducted their biannual fiesta of sorts where participating housekeepers and students gathered for a meal of pizza and beehoon.

Amidst this afternoon respite where one could momentarily escape from the humdrum of daily life, I chatted with two lovely housekeepers for Cinnamon College, Lynn and Tana, who kindly agreed to share with the USP community about their daily lives.

(left to right) Tana, Rozaidi and Lynn pictured at the biannual USPaperboxes gathering

Like most of the housekeepers working in UTown, the two live in Pasir Gudang, a sleepy town located in the outskirts of Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Upon discovering that they live out of town, my curiosity about their daily schedule was piqued and I asked them what time they started their working day.

“2am,” Lynn quipped as a matter-of-fact.

Owing to our language barrier, I rephrased and repeated my question, “Sorry, I mean what time do you leave your house? Not what time you go to sleep.”

The mother-of-four chuckled and repeated, “2am! I go to sleep at 11pm or 12am and wake up at 2am to (go to) work.”

Two in the morning! Her sprightly demeanour belied the fatigue of a person who sleeps only three hours a day. I subconsciously look at Tana, as though seeking a semblance of affirmation that the sleep deprivation Lynn experiences is considered uncommon among the Malaysian housekeepers. She greeted with a nonchalant reply: “Same here, we all leave around that time.”

A typical day for Lynn starts at 1.30am. After washing up, she leaves her house at 2am and shares an Uber with other housekeepers to Woodlands Checkpoint where they reach at 3.30am assuming traffic conditions are ideal.

“Usually, there are (traffic) jams from Monday to Friday; weekends are not so bad,” said Lynn. “Depending on the jam, we (could) reach Woodlands at 4am, 5am, or even 6am.”

Regardless of whether her commute lasts for an hour or four, she has to report to Cinnamon College at 7.30am where a full day of housekeeping commences. At 4pm, unless she is scheduled for overtime, her work finally ends and she once again makes her way to the causeway.

And yet, her day is far from over as she is only one of the many crossing the border back to Malaysia during the evening rush hour. She usually only reaches home after 10.30pm.Encumbered by a full day of work and commuting, she sleeps within the next two hours before waking up once again at 1.30am.

The cycle repeats itself until an elusive break occurs. Tana revealed:“Every month we only have two days off, (on) a Saturday or a Sunday. Our boss chooses.”

Despite the gruelling commute and the arduous work, the housekeepers’ note that the job is a privilege that they are more than happy to put up with. Tana explained that wages for blue-collared workers in Malaysia continue to be anaemic and jobs that pay comparably well are hard to come by.

She added: “Especially with the exchange rate, salaries are very low compared to Singapore.”

In search of a better life, Lynn and Tana continue to embody sheer tenacity every day by braving the ever-present traffic jams on top of an exhausting job. I asked them if this is the path they want to walk down in the long haul, as surely, their rigorous schedules will take, or have taken a toll on their wellbeing and health, both physical and mental. Yet, the two ladies come to an unequivocal consensus that working in Singapore for the long term is in the books, as long as their work permits allow them to.

Before ending our conversation, Tana recounted a past experience of having to work elsewhere in UTown for a day: “After my shift ended, I begged my boss to let me work in Cinnamon forever.”

Why Cinnamon College in particular, of all the housekeeping jobs in Singapore and UTown?

Tana said: “The students elsewhere are too busy (to talk to me),”

She added. “I’m happy that I can talk to a lot of students in Cinnamon. If I have problems, people will come up to say hi and make me feel better!”

Lynn also shared the same sentiment: “In the other colleges, the students do their own things and don’t say ‘hi’, but students here always talk to us and sometimes even give us breakfast.”

Her eyes brimmed with conviction and she exclaimed. “Cinnamon is the best!”

If pecuniary concerns are the bloodlines of our housekeepers’ hard work in Cinnamon College, USP students are the soul that keeps them going. By engaging in conversations with our housekeepers, or by simply exchanging pleasantries, we engender a sense of belonging for the very people who quietly maintain a safe and clean living environment for us.

As members of the USP community, we have a shared responsibility in understanding that our community is not one solely comprised of students, but an ecosystem that flourishes on the work of our students, teaching and administrative staff, and housekeepers alike. Take some time to get to know the housekeepers on your floor, and you will be amazed by the stories they have to share and the listening ears they so readily lend.

For starters, Lynn loves to sing Malay songs on Smule, a mobile application that simulates a karaoke system and spends most of her free time Skyping her children in Malacca. Tana, who herself is a proud mother-of-two, has a predilection for Tamil movies, particularly in the romantic genre, though her face will turn a shade of beetroot red if you enquire more about them.

Aside from having conversations with our housekeepers, you can help them out by dropping an email to the Office of Housing Services (OHS) at ohsbox35@nus.edu.sg to commend her/his service to the community. Every month, a Housekeeper of the Month is selected across all residential colleges and NUS facilities to acknowledge her/his hard work.

USPaperboxes is a ground-up initiative with the purpose of forging friendships with our housekeepers and sharing food with them. Pioneered by our seniors a few years back, both graduated and graduating, the reinvigorated version of USPaperboxes is back once more in USP. If you wish to participate in USPaperboxes, you can contact Le Yi at 9152 1891.

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