Foreign Domestic Workers and the Politics of English in Singapore
Rani Rubdy and Anitha Devi Pillai
While Singapore’s transformation into a world class “global city” is primarily ascribed to the pre-eminence accorded to English in this island state as linguistic, economic and symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1991), its economic success rests as much on its reliance on cheap immigrant labor, making it one of the largest destination countries for foreign domestic workers (FDWs) in Southeast Asia. However, the FDWs’ diverse linguacultural backgrounds and limited English language skills create tremendous challenges for them in living and working in Singapore’s urban, ‘English-dominant’ landscape. Drawing on interview responses and utilizing a narrative inquiry approach, this article examines the everyday lingua-cultural struggles of a group of fifteen FDWs from five Asian countries in communicating with their employers and other Singaporeans, with a specific focus on their coping strategies in navigating and negotiating their identities and subject-positions in overcoming them. Our analysis reveals how while the centrality of English in Singapore presents a major source of discrimination within the power dynamics of transnational employment through multiple levels of domination and control, verbal abuse, and symbolic violence, the FDWs also exhibit strong aspirations, propelled by personal goals, to better their futures by overcoming such mechanisms of oppression that impact their marginalized status.
Keywords: foreign migrant workers, discrimination, stereotyping, agency, narrative inquiry