Servants without Masters

Friday, November 20th, 2015

Singapore’s government has an extensive guest-worker system — which creates some dynamics Harold Lee found jarring:

There, in the flesh, was a middle-aged Filipino woman who was just there to attend to my needs, as a guest of the family. I was expected to ask her to wash my clothes, for example, and prepare whatever I wanted for breakfast. And for all my admiration of the political needle-threading of Singaporean immigration policy, this situation completely freaked me out. It made me intensely uncomfortable to have someone hanging around just to attend to my needs, and tell them to do menial chores for me.

And yet, when I thought about it, I realized that I had no problem with janitors or baristas doing dirty work for me. My emotional reaction was not really about being an American with sturdy frontier values of self-sufficiency. I was perfectly happy to farm out menial work — as long as it was done by a faceless worker in a uniform, rather than a single person I was expected to have a relationship with. This incongruence was one of the major lessons I took from my trip to Singapore. Even after I returned to the Land of the Free, I kept being struck by the ease with which I blithely accepted the service of servants as long as they were framed as business transactions with dehumanized service workers.

And I noticed that the same blind spot applied in the other direction, in people’s attitudes towards submission towards superiors. The very word “submissiveness” tends to raise people’s hackles in our culture, but in fact we are happy to accept it — if and only if it’s submission to a faceless institution, rather than to someone’s personal authority. In an old-school apprenticeship, the master essentially runs your life for seven years and can bring you back if you run away, possibly with a flogging for good measure. This seems incredibly coercive today, and is probably one of the reasons apprenticeship and other forms of demanding mentorship are in short supply. But at the same time, it’s considered completely unremarkable for someone to go into nondischargeable debt to go to grad school and work hard to satisfy every whim of their professors. For a more barbed example, it’s considered entirely unremarkable for a woman to be submissive to her boss, but sounds terribly suspect to expect her to be equivalently submissive to her husband.


It’s a sort of inverse Confucianism — a system where authority can only be exercised by people who deliberately do not engage in one-on-one superior-inferior relationships.

This reminds me, oddly enough, of George Fitzhugh‘s very Southern view of slavery as the best form of socialism.


  1. Ross says:

    When was the last time I ‘made’ a barista or janitor faceless, or ‘dehumanized’ them (whatever that means, precisely)?

    Oh, that’s right: never.

    Anyone who does anything for me…whether I am paying them directly and per transaction or whether they are paid weekly and by an intermediate organization, I greet and thank. This “faceless and dehumanizing” dribble smacks of bourgeois egalitarian virtue signaling.

    The author gets it more right in talking about relationship, but misses the true differentiator of the Singaporean case, which is a direct, one-to-one relationship ( which really disrupts the egalitarian signaling) as opposed to someone who works for many others, as well.

    It would be interesting to examine how this reaction differs depending on the type and skill-level of the work being done (e.g. Emptying my home trashbins and folding my laundry versus tutoring my children in classical languages)

  2. Thales says:

    Does Harold Lee employ no one? Has he never served in uniform? Has he no children?

    If the ability to function in a hierarchy, at an inter-personal level, with respect and dignity is such a rare talent these days, then we have truly lost something valuable.

  3. Michael van der Riet says:

    It has always been a distinguishing trait of the upper class that they know how to treat servants.

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