Amah Activism: Domestic Servants and Decolonization in 1960s Malaysia and Singapore

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Abstract

The privatized nature of employment as a domestic servant is often inimical to collective action. Yet in the early 1960s there was significant trade union interest in the working conditions of female domestic servants in Singapore and Malaya. Studies of female domestic service in Malaya (later Malaysia) and Singapore are dominated by work focusing on Chinese-born servants before the Second World War, and migrant maids associated with economic transformation from the late 1970s. If scholarship on pre-war domestic servants leans toward an emphasis on agency, then studies of maids from the 1980s tend toward experiences of abjection. What of the intervening period, during the Cold War, when rapid decolonization introduced new factors into the demography, structure, and regulation of domestic service in Malaysia and Singapore? Did this provide opportunity for greater autonomy, mimic older colonial relationships, or herald new protections for domestic servants in the modern postcolonial state? The considerable historical literature devoted to the relationship between imperial power, colonialism, and domestic service rarely extends to the persistence and dynamics of domestic service in the era of decolonization between the 1950s and the 1970s, although it does explore the increasing feminization of the occupation. This article explores a confluence of factors—the politics of anticolonialism, economic dependence, and apprehension about the privacy of the home—that cohered in a controversy in the 1960s known as the “amah strike,” when female domestic servants in Singapore and Malaya threatened to walk off the job over a proposed change to their employment conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)312-327
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Labor and Working-Class History
Volume103
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jul 2023

Keywords

  • domestic labour
  • decolonisation
  • Singapore
  • Malaysia
  • activism
  • Military

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