Singapore and Malaya

The Amah's Strike

Before I begin, I reckon that some of you will not know what an Amah is, and so a quick definition is called for

In many areas in the East Indies [the Far East] local women were employed to assist "missy" or "missie" {the name given to a European lady employing the Amah - "master" was given to the husband} around the house, but more particularly with the children. Originally, back in the 19th century up to the mid 1930's, one of the requirement of an Amah was that she had to be married and had recently given birth to her own child. I could have simply mentioned the baby, but in the culture of these women and the time frame just mentioned, morals dictated that the only way a child could be born was through marriage, or sadly, through rape, but that would bring such a profound shame on the hapless women that she would have been ostracised and therefore unemployable. The reason for this requirement was that she would have milk in her breasts and was therefore able to breast-feed the children of the Europeans: there were of course European women who fed their own child so it wasn't necessarily a prerequisite to being employed. The connotation of the word Amah is "wet-nurse", wet of course meaning liquid and in this case human milk. The actual word AMAH is recognised throughout this vast area of diverse cultures and nationalities, to mean "mother". It follows that apart from her early duties of acting as a wet-nurse, she also cleaned the house, looked after the children from wakening to bed time, shopped and often cooked, liaised with local tradesmen and baby-sat when requested.

In the SNB [Singapore Naval Base] there was a building set aside for advising newly arrived families on how to cope with a new life living in the tropics, and this advised on local ID Card, owning and driving cars {licences and tests} and hiring staff. I was always amazed that the wives of servicemen and of British dockyard employees used the full facilities of the building, whereas, the men folk seemed to pick and choose what they thought they would need to survive. I have to mention here that in my case, we sailed our submarine from Devonport to Singapore, and once safely arrived and settled in, our wives flew out to join us. During that period, we men had found somewhere to live and most had engaged what we thought would be a suitable Amah. Those destined to serve ashore on the Island travelled with their wives from UK. In both cases, choice of house and Amah, were often changed by a less than pleased or more discerning wife.

On my visit to the building for newly arrived families [accompanied by a pal, the submarine's stoker petty officer] we sought advice and listen well to what was being said about engaging local women as Amah's.  We also took that advice, and for just over 19 months, we each had the same Amah without a moment of trouble. We were told that the very best of Amah's were young Chinese women, married with children and a husband, living nearby to the rented property, willing to look after missy, master and two young children, one of three months and one of three years. We were advised that we might be lucky employing a Malaya or an Indian women, but of the three, loyalty, trust, availability, reliability and industry were almost guaranteed with a Chinese woman. All those good-character assets were played out in full throughout the whole of those 19 months, which were doubly important to us given that we were away at sea a great deal during that period. Our Amah was called Choo, had two little children and lived across the road in a campong [Malaya word for village/hamlet] but essentially a clearing in the jungle in a Hut on stilts, with her husband and widowed grandmother, whose feet had been bound in Chinese tradition but were now unbound leaving her lame. My wife Beryl got on extremely well with her once the ice had been broken, and on two occasions responding to Choo's invite, visited the campong where she also dined. Choo's parents and brother also lived close by, and if I remember correctly, when Choo was working at our house and her husband at his rugs and carpet shop in Chompang [a village surrounding one of the main gates [Canberra Gate] leading into the Naval Base - the other gates were called Rotherham and Sembawang - grandma looked after her children, so everything was convenient for all concerned.

Now, on Singapore at least, the employment of Amah's was done solely on trust, where the British authorities EXPECTED that their service personnel would treat the locals well, pay them a voluntary wage [there was a guideline set as an example]and effectively to look after their welfare all the time they were in one's house or on one's property. Virtually all Amah's started on the recommended wage and most were soon rewarded with a pay rise. In league with other accompanied submariners [S/M Auriga], most paid generously at the first uplift, leaving two options. One was to increase their wages after one year, giving treats in the meantime, and two, was to pay a gratuity into a fund for them on departing, designed as a reward for their wonderful service and an income were they to find it difficult to find a new family. As far as I can recall, the accompanied members of the Chief's and PO's Mess each gave their Amah's personally [not given for their fund controlled by others] a generous cash gift on saying goodbye in floods of tears. Additionally, we got Choo a new job almost straight away, as well as giving my tall sweet jar over half full of mixed silver coinage {half dollars = 3/6d, quarter dollars = 1/9d and 10 cent pieces = approx 8.5d} which I had tossed in there at the end of each day spent at home in harbour for well over a year. It was very heavy, as you can imagine, and dear little Choo, just 5 foot tall, waddled home with enough money to buy the kids nutty for a couple of years!

The story I am about to reveal is self evident.  In its way, it made history [it was certainly never repeated] and we navy men blamed the soldiers, airmen and skimmers [surface fleet sailors] who lived a few miles north of us on the Malaysian mainland at Johore Baru for their meanness in looking after their Amah's. In any event, I'll wager that most of these Amah's were either Malaya or Indians.

 15.9.1963 AMAHS STRIKE.pdf

Whilst I am at it, for those of you who were lucky enough to be stationed on Singapore, but especially for those who took their families, a little quizz.

Mystery Scene.pdf

Answer further down the page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answer: Singapore causeway linking Woodlands [Rotherham Gate Singapore Naval Base]to Johore Baru Malaysia before WW2. The huge armada of small boats were known as "Boat Quay" and were Indian Shop Houses. Singapore to your right.