21 December 2012

Ballarat Wildlife Park

I have lived in Melbourne for 30 years and have never heard of the Ballarat Wildlife Park which is a mere 90 minutes away.  A dear friend introduced us to the Park on a recent trip and the journey was well worth the effort.

Kangaroos are a dime a dozen in this country.  You hear about them, you see them on TV, they're Qantas Airlines' iconic emblem, you visit them in the zoo, yet nothing prepared me for the up close and personal experience we were about to have.

The Ballarat Wildlife Park is essentially home to several troops of free ranging kangaroos, along with wombats, reptiles (they're not free ranging, just in case you were wondering), koalas, emus, flightless birds and other smaller animals.

The moment we entered the park we were greeted by a couple of smaller kangaroos, who were keenly searching for the food I held in my hand.  Trini wasn't sure whether she should be excited that she was hand feeding kangas or totally freak out.  Most of the day she remained in this limbo state until the much larger kangaroos (standing at 6 feet tall) was too much to bear and found herself climbing up my friend until he placed her on his shoulders (good strong shoulders there Peter).  Admittedly even I got nervous with the bigger ones and quite happily gained distance from them.

Trini comfortable feeding this little one.
The kangas are quite accustomed to people and being hand fed is as much a pass time for them as it is for the visitor.  Whilst still wild to some degree, treating them with respect means that they are unlikely to behave unexpectedly and visitors have the opportunity to share a rare experience.  I thoroughly enjoyed patting them and being amongst them.  Their fur was wonderfully soft, not quite what I expected.  They don't flinch nor take off if you approach them.  This pic of my friend's son is testimony to it.

Cuddles all round like old friends.
The rest of the highlights at the Park are the shows of 15-20 minutes each where the keepers introduced the koala, boa constrictor, wombat and alligators.  The chance to get close to the first three allows the visitor to pat and interact with both the keeper and the animal.  The alligator show was great from the other side of the glass.

Boa Constrictor

I was convinced Trini would be petrified of going anywhere near the boa constrictor.  Well look at her.  She couldn't handle the big kangas but thought the Boa was beautiful with nice smooth skin.

One of the largest snakes in the world, the Boa is not venomous but just as dangerous.  It will wait silently and patiently for its prey and then coil itself around it squeezing each time the prey takes a breath until it takes no more breaths.


This adorable looking animal is often referred to as a Koala Bear but it's actually not a bear.  Apparently its closest relative is the wombat, not that I can see any resemblance.

With its thick, plush, wooly fur the koala would be totally huggable if it weren't for its sharp claws used for climbing trees.  They also tend to smell like cough drops because eucalyptus leaves are their only source of diet.

Much as the koala is native to Australia, it can only be found in the forests on the eastern side of the country.


This heavyweight nocturnal animal that can weigh as much as 40kg is the size of a pea weighing 1 gram when it's born.  They spend two-thirds of their lives underground often renovating old burrows that may have been dug centuries ago.

The female wombat is usually larger than the male, usually grumpier especially if she has a baby and will usually try to hog the food too.

Funnily enough when wombats fight one another, they usually try to bite each other on the bum.

Ready to scamper off and explore but the keeper had alternate plans.
Maybe another day.

Alligator Feeding

Now anyone brave enough to enter an alligator pit to feed, to play, to tease, is either crazy or dedicated.  The boys in this pit were switched on (in case the alligator had other plans for them), quick on their feet and always ready to jump clear.

The simplest way to differentiate a crocodile from an alligator is by their snout.  The croc's is long and narrow, whilst the alligator is wide and a little shorter.  Also the croc's 4th tooth on the lower jaw sticks out when the snout is closed, unlike the alligator's.  Not that I would consider getting that close to find out.

Trini was absolutely thrilled with the feeding session and the frenzy the keepers were creating for entertainment.  There was no way on earth I could pull her away from the show until it was completely finished and the alligators returned to their usual position of just laying still, looking boring.

Come just a little closer my friend. 
You look juicier than the mice you are feeding me.

My friends joke about my girl's fear of anything that moves and it's true.  She sees a cat or dog and she freaks out.  I had no idea how she would handle this wildlife park which was full of "anything that moves". 

However, with a little encouragement to be more like her latest favorite Princess Merida from the movie Brave, she summoned all her courage and did exceptionally well.  What I didn't anticipate was her fascination with a huge snake and scaly reptiles.

In the end the experience was tremendous.  The wildlife parks throughout the world generally attempt to bring awareness to the plight of animals who are hunted, become homeless due to deforestation and many are on the brink of extinction.  This park's objective is no different and whilst it is not as big as other zoos, it is different in that people can interact with the kangaroos at close range.

Thanks for visiting.  Ya'll come back again soon.

01 December 2012

Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary

With the Melbourne Zoo off our list, Trini and I were ready to visit the second wildlife reserve in Healesville.  Opened in 1934, Healesville Sanctuary is set amongst 70+ acres of natural bushland and it's an hour's drive from Melbourne.

Home to Australia's unique wildlife, here you will find the cuddly koala bear, the hopping kangaroo, the wobbly wombat and the duck-billed platypus. 

The sanctuary welcomes the visitor with a sculpture of a wedge-tailed eagle at 3m high and with a wingspan of 7m, named Bunjil. He is known as the protector of the land, symbolising the strength and beauty of the natural world.

Trini and Bunjil getting acquianted.

Throughout the sanctuary you will encounter several bronze sculptures of animals which have been commissioned for the blind and visually impaired.  Through touch they can get an understanding of what the animals might be like in shape and size.

With prolific deforestation all over the world the Sanctuary also brings the visitor's attention to the marvellous trees that have survived the human logging and have had the opportunity to continue growing and aging.  Some trees here are 150 years old.

With a state-of-the-art hospital on the grounds, the animals and birds are in good hands.  Let me introduce you to some of Australia's iconic animals.

Koala - Sleeping 19 hours a day so as to conserve the energy needed to digest its food, this marsupial lives exclusively on eucalyptus leaves.  Spending its life in the trees it only ever descends to the ground when moving from one tree to another.  Babies are carried in the mother's pouch for 6 months and then on the mother's back for another 6 months.  Thereafter, koalas become a solitary animal.

Wombat -  A burrowing marsupial, it weighs in at about 40kg. It's the closest relative to a koala as they both have a strong build, broad paws and strong claws.  Generally solitary except during mating, young ones follow their mother for about a year.  Naturally long-lived they can thrive for up to 20 years.  Whilst not endangered, their roving habits means that they often become victims to road accidents.

Platypus - This unique duck-billed animal is quite unusual in that whilst it is a mammal feeding its young on milk and having fur, it lays soft-shelled eggs like a reptile.  Apparently the only other animal to have the same traits is the Echidna.  This nocturnal animal spends the day curled up in waterside burrows and emerges at dusk to hunt aquatic insects and yabbies.

Image: http://www.amamoorlodge.com.au/platypus-wildlife-spotting

Kangaroo - Australia's icon, this animal is part of the macropod family meaning 'big feet'.  They come in several sizes with the biggest weighing up to 85kg, whilst the smallest can weigh as little as 1kg.  The long tail aids the kangaroo to balance when stationary or when travelling at high speeds.  The baby kangaroo, known as a 'joey', is usually carried for 6-9 months in a pouch.  Kangaroos can leap 9m in one bound and travel up to 48kmh. 

Tasmanian Devil - Any Looney Tunes fan may know of the Tasmanian Devil 'Taz' who goes about spinning, grunting and eating everything in sight.  Well that's not quite the real Tassie Devil who is the size of a small dog.  Driven out of mainland Australia by the Dingo, it is now found only in the wild of Tasmania (an island State).  A scavenger, the Tassie Devil will eat anything dead regardless of how old the carcass is and will usually finish off every part of the dead animal including the bones and skull.  It is currently under threat of extinction as a mysterious cancer is decimating its population.

Dingo - Thought to have descended from wild Asian dogs, the dingo is the only native Australian dog.  It is found in many parts of Australia, except for Tasmania.  Dingoes never bark; they howl for long distance communications to attract pack members and repel rivals.  Females breed only once a year, with pups born within 9 weeks of conception.  Litters of 4-6 pups are produced.  Whilst predominantly a carnivore hunting animals such as kangaroos, the dingo will also eat plants and insects.  Interestingly, dingoes can be kept as pets in several states of Australia.  Not sure I'd want a wild dog in my backyard with my kid.

Healesville Sanctuary is a terrific place for international visitors who want to be exposed to Australian wildlife or for local visitors who are interested in animals that live in their "backyard".

With Trini living most of her young life in Singapore, I wanted her to get a feel for animals that she is unlikely to encounter anywhere else in the world or in any other zoos for that matter.

27 November 2012

Melbourne Zoo

Melbourne Zoo is one of three wildlife reserves managed by Zoo Victoria.  Only 4km from the city centre, the zoo opened in 1862 making it the oldest zoo in Australia.  Initially established to acclimatise domestic animals imported from abroad, eight years later it was refashioned into a wildlife reserve by introducing exotic animals for public display.  Today, it houses 320 animal species.

This is Trini's second trip to Melbourne Zoo.  Her first one was two and half years ago when she was barely 18 months old.  Her love of animals has not waned and with us living in Singapore now in the last two years she has been to the Singapore Zoo at least 12 times.  A return trip to Melbourne Zoo was to be expected during our current visit to Australia and well worth it.  Trini had the opportunity to see the gorillas on this occasion (during her last visit she fell asleep and missed the chance), wild dogs, a sleeping brown bear and the adorable wombats who were also snoozing.  None of these animals are at the Singapore Zoo so they were a welcome addition to Trini's mental collage of animals.

The animals are organised in bioclimatic zones such as the gorilla in the African rainforest, the Sumatran tiger in the Asian rainforest and the koala and kangaroo in the Australian bush.  Other exhibits feature the Butterfly house, an aviary, reptile house, small cats, sea life and tree-top monkeys.

Several conservation campaigns are underway to help fight against extinction.  Many of these wonderful animals are endangered species and the Melbourne Zoo just like the Singapore Zoo are proactive in getting the word out, seeking support from corporates and the public, conservation work locally and internationally and ongoing research programs.

Since many of the well-known animals were briefly described in my Singapore Zoo blog, in this one I will concentrate on a different collection of animals.

Gorilla - Known as the silverback, the troop is usually led by a single, dominant male.  They usually live in troops of up to 20 gorillas.  Females don't associate much with each other as they usually vie for the attention of the silverback.  When the silverback wants to be heard he "stands on his hind legs and throws leaves and twigs into the air. He then beats his chest with his hands and runs back and forth tearing up the vegetation. He ends the display by beating the ground with the palms of his hands. [Zoo Victoria]"

Sumatran Tiger - Proficient swimmers, they can cross rivers that are 7-8 km wide.  Smallest of all tigers it is believed that they were isolated to Sumatra Island, Indonesia when the sea levels rose, thereby cutting them off from other land masses. They are one of nine subspecies of tiger (of which three species are already extinct).

Snow Leopard - Living high in the Asian mountains, the snow leopard is a solitary hunter.  As it inhabits cold and snowy environments, the snow leopard has developed big and furry feet that function similar to four snowshoes. Its tail is longer than other similar species as it is used to cover the nose and mouth if temperature drops too low and the tail also helps with balancing when traversing steep and sometimes icy, mountainous slopes.

Image courtesy of Monash University website

Lemurs - Endemic to Madagascar and fondly remembered as the kooky self-proclaimed "king" in Disney's flick Madagascar, the lemur is a social animal who lives in groups of up to fifteen.  To solidify relationships and ease tensions, lemurs groom socially.

Black-Capped Capuchin - Are intelligent monkeys residing in the Amazon jungle.  They are experts at leaping, climbing and swinging, are social animals and live in large groups.

Reptiles - Are neither birds nor mammals.  They are cold-blooded and in order to maintain their body temperature they need an external source, ie the sun (hence why so many of them are found lazing in the sun).  There are 8,000+ species of reptiles in the world and can be found on every continent except Antarctica.  Below is a collection found at the zoo's reptile house.

Green Iguana of Central America and the Caribbean

Fijian Crested Iguana

Philippines Crocodile, the world's rarest croc (less than 200 left)

Double-Crested Basilisk of Latin America.
Runs on water for several meters before sinking and swimming.
Frilled Lizard native to Australia
Zoo #1 of 3 complete.  Trini is looking forward to Healesville Sanctuary (aka Zoo #2 as dictated by Trini) which is home to Australian wildlife.

Illustrating a brown bear (who was sleeping
and unavailable for us at the time of our visit).

26 November 2012

Fibreglass Elephants Celebrating Melbourne Zoo's 150th Anniversary

During this afternoon's visit to the Melbourne Zoo, Trini and I encountered a collection of life-size fibreglass elephants each with their own uniquely painted design.  Further research brought our attention to Melbourne Zoo's 150th birthday.

The Zoo's website best explains how they celebrated this momentous occasion:
Mali in the City was the flagship event of Melbourne Zoo's 150th anniversary celebrations. During this one-of-a-kind public art event, a herd of 50 artist-designed Malis were exhibited on the city's streets and later back at Melbourne Zoo.
On October 25 the entire herd went under the hammer at Auction with all monies raised from the sale of the Malis going to our zoos conservation work. The Malis have already started to leave Melbourne Zoo, on route to their new homes.
In January 2010, the "first elephant calf ever to be born at the zoo" was welcomed with much anticipation and fanfare.  Following a naming contest and 34,000 votes the baby elephant was named Mali.  The fibreglass elephant design is based on Mali.

Trini and I had the pleasure of meeting Mali in March 2010 and we are happy to report that she has grown quite a bit and is apparently due to become a big sister in November 2013.

Mali - 2 months old (March 2010)
Of the 50 artist-designed elephants only 11 remained at the zoo awaiting shipment.  A kaleidoscope of colour and design, each elephant introduced an artist and his/her vision for the elephant.

The seven elephants below were my favorites amongst the eleven still on display.

Steve Monk - Elvis as an elephant - it seems even elephants can impersonate the King.

Kevin Presley
Russ Brebner - Created from recycled and reclaimed metals.

Rusty Mali
Sally Heinrich - The sculpture is a result of a community-led project to capture the many faces of Victoria.  The Herald Sun newspaper invited its young readers to submit self-portraits, which were interpreted by the artist and then transferred onto the elephant.

Deborah Halpern - Mali, the paradoxical little elephant was born in captivity to represent the endangered creatures on our planet.  Mali shines light on the plight of the planet and our part in the health and well being of the animals, plants, air and water.

Mali, Protector of all Animals
Pat Minahan - The 'magic' of Melbourne is translated to Mali using a snowflake design, reflecting the imaginative world of children in a winter wonderland.

Mali's Melbourne Winter Wonderland
Vanessa Bong - Knowing that the orange-bellied parrot was one of our rarest and most endangered species, I was inspired to create a flying flock to create a pattern of overwhelming colour and brightness.

A Pattern of Orange-Bellied Parrots
Elise Martinson - Animals have been a powerful source of inspiration and symbolism for people since the cave men began making marks on stone.  Even the modern day fantasy worlds in popular culture have been heavily influenced by what occurs in nature. 

So congratulations Melbourne Zoo.  We wish you all the success for the next 150 years.  You certainly provide much excitement and delight to my little girl and we look forward to many more return visits.

Trini and her little friend.

24 October 2012

Singapore Flyer: A Giant Observation Wheel

The Singapore Flyer is an amazing feat of technology made of 1800 tonnes of steel. Standing at 165m tall and 20m taller than the London Eye, the observation wheel opened to the public in April 2008 and within three months it had sold 1 million tickets.

It is currently the biggest observation wheel in the world with tremendous views of Singapore’s major landmarks such as Marina Bay Sands, recently opened Gardens by the Bay, the Esplanade Theatres, magnificent Fullerton Hotel, across the Strait of Singapore with views of Bintan and Batam Islands, Indonesia and on a clear day neighbouring Malaysia.

View of Marina Bay with CBD in the background and
Marina Bay Sands towering to the left.

The striking Millenia Tower with the brightly lit pyramidal roof.

The Flyer’s design was inspired by the London Eye and Eiffel Tower, consisting of 28 fully air-conditioned and UV protected capsules. At maximum capacity the Flyer can carry 784 passengers. Clever boarding design means the Flyer never stops rotating. With a “step on platform” on either side of the capsule, as the Flyer rotates new visitors enter on one side, whilst those on-board exit on the opposite end.

Whilst each rotation takes half an hour, the ride is smooth regardless of wind conditions or altitude height. It doesn’t feel like it’s moving and at certain vantage points it doesn’t even look as if it’s moving. The smooth ride is largely due to the fixed capsules on the single A-frame as opposed to the traditionally open-air ferris wheels which are supported by two towers on either side of the axles.

Ticketing options abound, ranging from the basic ticket which includes one half hour rotation with the general public, to cocktail flights (mocktails for kids) including half hour rotation, souvenir glass per guest and express check-in to themed capsules. For that really special occasion the visitor may consider either a High Tea half hour flight or go all the way with a full butler service, 4 courses dining on a one hour rotation. If that is still not enough there is always the private capsule option.

Souvenir glasses from our Cocktail Flight.

The Singapore Flyer is certainly an experience to be had. Along with another couple and our 4 year sold daughter we enjoyed a Cocktail Flight in the evening. Not fond of heights I was game to give this a go. My desire to view the city from the top was greater than my issues with heights. Any discomfort I would usually encounter was alleviated due to the Flyer’s smooth rotation and large capsule (4m x 7m). The bench in the centre of the capsule gave us a resting place and it could perhaps aid those with fears of heights. The brilliantly designed glass encased capsule provided my daughter with the same viewing opportunities as the adults and saved her daddy’s arms from having to lift her to our eye level in order to see.

A fun experience, which should be done at least once, the Flyer is highly recommended. We’ll return for sure perhaps during the day or on another themed flight.

Having experienced the Marina Bay Observation Deck on the 56th floor, 1Altitute Gallery & Bar on the 64th floor and now the Singapore Flyer, I have feasted on Singapore’s skyline from three very different angles, each one magnificent in their own way.

23 October 2012

Rights of a Foreign Domestic Worker - Part 3 of 3

This is the third and final installment regarding Foreign Domestic Worker (FDW).  The online orientation program highlights the rights of a foreign domestic worker and issues that may arise between a helper and the employer.

This is by no means a complete or detailed list but it gives the reader an idea at least:

1. Be paid their salary on time each month.  A leeway of 7 days delay is legally provided by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM).  My husband gets paid the day before our helper is paid so it's easy to remember to pay her on time.

2. Minimum one day off a month, although MOM is looking at changing that to every week.  Many helpers don't have the luxury of time off at all, so making it a legal requirements sure provides them with much needed rest, time to socialise with their friends and an opportunity to leave the house and get some mental space.

3. Have minimum 8 hours of rest per day. Helpers typically are on call or working 14 hours a day with short breaks in between.  Many are up well before 6.00pm to care for infants, clean and prepare breakfast before they start the school run and the rest of the day's chores.

4. One return trip to her country of origin bi-annually paid for by the employer. If FDW chooses not to go than the cost of the ticket is paid as cash to the FDW.  For most employers that's less than SGD$500 given that most FDWs are from nearby countries.

5. Be provided three nutritional meals per day. You’d be surprised how many are forced to survive on rice alone as their daily intake.  Not much thought goes into understanding that a healthy and nutritiously fed helper, maintains her immunity and is unlikely to pass on any viruses to the child they are usually in charge of.

6. Tolerance as helper adjusts in new environment and be treated with respect. It is not uncommon for less experienced or timid helpers to be mistreated.  Communication can also be a problem if the FDW is not fluent in the language commonly spoken in the home.

7. Do work for employer's household only and care for employer's children only. Often helpers are made to clean the house of other family members who are not the employer. Their contract is limited to the employer’s home address only. They are not even allowed to work for the employer's business as that is construed as a separate job.

8. Six-monthly GP visits are compulsory and payable by the employer.  Since the employer is responsible for all medical costs including an accidental pregnancy, the bi-yearly GP visits gives the employer the opportunity to repatriate the FDW should she end up pregnant. 

9. Employer to provide basic toiletries such as shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush and a fan.  It is a small price to pay for the service that they provide.

10. An area with privacy to sleep in. Many abodes come with a helper’s room. They are very small (ours is 1.9m x 1.3m) that can barely take a mattress and a couple of drawers. However, you’d be surprised how many helpers don’t have access to privacy and often find themselves sleeping on a mattress on the floor in the lounge room, hallway or often in the baby’s room. We were fortunate enough to find a single bed that fit in the room along with 4 drawers making our helper quite comfortable and with her own privacy.

11. Anything else beyond this can be agreed upon between the two parties.

My final piece of advice is treat your helper as you would like to be treated yourself. Get to know her, her thinking, her values, what she cares about as it will give insight into the kind of character that she is and it may provide you with clues when things may go astray.  It also indicates how she will care for your child when you are not at home.

Be gracious and tolerant with mistakes since we are not perfect humans. Show kindness and patience as she is learning something for the first time. Remember that a happy helper will do so much more for you than an unhappy one. Lead by example and behave professionally rather than emotionally. Your helper is an employee with rights, feelings, wants and needs as well.

Finally, you helper needs to understand and be clear that what happens in the home stays in the home (except for abuse or illegal activities, they are intolerable and should be reported). Agreements between the parties on working hours, time off, salary and such are private. These situations are not open for discussion amongst other helpers. The helper needs to understand that gossip travels and eventually gets back to the employer. The consequences are likely to be unpleasant as trust is broken and the contract may not be up for renewal.

17 October 2012

Hiring a Foreign Domestic Worker - Part 2 of 3

As a follow on to my Foreign Domestic Work (FDW) blog, below is an account of the process we went through to engage our helper. So for the curious or interested, read on.
  1. Several recommendations have been made on our condo's Facebook group.  We chose an agency that was appreciated for its quick and pleasant service.  We liked the detailed resumes available on their website from where we could make our initial selections.  Ideally you enquire about their services, fees payable, policies such as placement fee refunds, helper replacement if the one hired doesn't work out, renewal of contract assistance.

  2. Select preferred candidates and make arrangements with agency for interview date and times. Aim for a day where all candidates are available and you have a couple of hours to go through the interviewing process and the paperwork preparation.  Prepare a broad set of questions you want to ask.

  3. Agency placement fee is payable on the day. Prices will vary between agencies but be prepared for around SGD$500-$600.

  4. The agency will take you through several forms that need to be completed and lodged with the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The agency will complete these forms and lodge them for you but you want to be aware of what that is since you will be signing on the dotted line.  The agency should also offer to renew contracts between you and helper as the work permit is for two years.

  5. Medical and personal injury insurance for the helper is compulsory. Around SGD$250-350 for the duration of the contract (2 years).
  6. A flat rate of SGD$265 is payable monthly to MOM as levy.  The payments are setup as automatic deductions from your nominated bank account.

  7. Select preferred candidate and go through the contractual negotiations. Other than salary, which is usually indicated on the resume, there are several considerations to be agreed upon between the two parties.

    a.   The average salary is SGD$500 per month which is largely dependent on skills and experience. FDW salaries are not regulated, they are left to be dictated by market forces.  Any salary increases are left to the discretion of the employer.

    b.   It is not unusual for helpers to only have one day off per month.  As of 1 January 2013, all new permits will entitle the helper to one day off per week.  Some helpers request to have public holidays off which is at the discretion of the employer.  In this situation, for instance, if the candidate is Christian you may choose to only provide Christian public holidays such as Easter and Christmas or you may choose to provide all public holidays off or you may choose none. Be mindful though that this is a negotiation to provide you with a candidate that is more suited to you and your family and so give and take will go a long way.

    c.   You may be requested to establish curfew time that may be included in the contract.  Typically 10pm is the acceptable norm providing minimal disruption to the family and it ensures the helper has returned home to have sufficient rest time before the next working day.  If the employer retires for the evening earlier then it may be more suitable to bring the curfew forwards to a more suitable time.

  8. An online orientation program must be completed two days before a work permit for a helper can be lodged with the MOM Online orientation certification.  The course explains the do’s and don’ts of being an employer, responsibilities of the employer and employee during the contract, the rights of the employee, relationship development between employer and helper as it will be different than an office environment given the proximity of both parties in the home, understanding cultural differences, expecting miscommunication and how to manage that, how to deal with problems or even potentially illegal activities by the FDW that may come to the employer’s attention, ie stealing from employer, working for someone else on their day off (FDW’s are not allowed to work for anyone else once they are tied to an employer). The course takes about an hour to complete with a basic test at the end. Once completed an electronic certificate will be produced which needs to be printed and provided to the employment agency. The MOM will note completion of course electronically and in a couple of days provide approval to the agency to proceed with the application.
  9. The agency will contact you as soon as all forms are in order and make a time for you to collect the FDW from their offices. Copies of paperwork you should be taking with you are:

    a. Employment contract between you and helper.
    b. Standard Service Agreement between you and employment agency.
    c. Domestic Maid Insurance Policy.
    d. In-Principal Approval letter from MOM.
    e. Services & Fees Schedule for FDW indicating payments made, such as, agency fee and insurance premium.
    f. Salary payment schedule indicating salary to be paid monthly, date of payment, loan repayments (see below).  This needs to be signed by helper each time she's paid.  It protects both parties to the contract should any disputes arise in the future.

  10. Helper's are responsible to pay the balance of the agency's fees which are substantially higher (as much as SGD$2200) than the fees paid by the employer.  If a FDW doesn't have the required amount then it is progressively deducted from her salary until paid off.  Our helper paid it upfront so we are not clear as to whether the employer has to pay it upfront on behalf of the helper and then deduct from salary or if it's a bank loan to the helper and gets deducted then.  From what I glean on the internet there are some unscrupulous agency activities in relation to this placement fee so be cognizant of the transaction you are entering into.  If you feel you may have been ripped off take it up with the MOM.
  11. The final step takes place about a week later as the new work permit is issued to the FDW by MOM. This work permit ties the FDW to the new employer for the duration of the contract. The FDWs passport is returned at the same time which may be held by the employer for safekeeping. The work permit must be held by the FDW at all times. Our helper chose for us to look after her passport which we keep together with our own passports. If at any point your helper is travelling abroad with you ensure that all visa requirements for your helper are in order as they may differ for her country to yours, ie until recently Myanmar nationals had to apply for visa into Indonesia prior to departure as opposed to paying the visa fee on arrival like many Western countries do. Also ensure the FDWs passport is valid for time of travel well in advance. This pro-activity will alleviate any potential travelling issues.
All the best to any future FDW employer.  With preparation and knowledge, the experience should be smooth and swift and a positive one.

Foreign Domestic Worker - Part 1 of 3

It’s been a long time coming but nearly two years since moving to Singapore we finally came to the conclusion that we wanted a full-time housekeeper/casual nanny. Without family support to help out occasionally we found ourselves permanently child bound. There are no date-nights, no theatre, no late night adult birthday celebrations. Whilst that is not an issue at the core, as parents there are times we need space to mentally and emotionally regroup and to sometimes engage in activities related to our own age rather than our daughter’s age.

It is cultural in Singapore to engage housekeepers, usually from Indonesia, Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, India and Sri Lankan. Engaging foreign domestic workers (FDW, also referred to as "helper") who usually come from poorer countries, provide middle class hard working families to hire someone who can help with domestic chores and child caring.

This cultural habit is adopted by many expats who no longer have their family support nearby, often don’t have a car (an expensive exercise in Singapore) and generally have very young children. In this instance a helper can do the shopping without carting children around or take-on babysitting responsibilities to free the parents when needed.

I resisted having someone living permanently in my house, wondering if the helper can be trusted with my belongings, trusted with my child and just overall uncertainty of the unknown. I spent a lot of time listening to my neighbours who have helpers (good and bad experiences) and I continued resisting. However, with each passing month as I adapted to my new life my resolve crumbling and I started yearning for someone who could take over the domestic chores so I could spend the kind of time with my daughter that I wanted to.

My girl is currently home-schooled. We spend a lot of time with arts & crafts, swimming, playground, scooting, rollerblading, reading, museum exhibitions, art classes and whatever else comes our way. We spend a lot of time abroad and receive many visitors from abroad. Hubby is often left to fend for himself and manage the household whilst I am away with Trini.

I concluded that a helper whilst a luxury, in many ways is becoming a necessity. Whilst I am abroad, she can manage the home and feed my hubby. If I have visitors, I can focus on being a guide and hostess knowing that my helper will manage the domestic chores. If I need some time off for my writing, my helper can take Trini to the playground or swimming pool downstairs. If I want to paint half a day with Trini, since we derive a lot of pleasure out of this joint activity, I don’t need to worry about meal preparation and can just enjoy my time with Trini. Finally, if there is an adult activity such as, birthday celebration, theatre or other, I can rely on my helper to step up and care for my daughter.

With all the positive attributes of having a helper, I concluded that a loss of privacy is a small price to pay. My husband was extremely relieved in the end promptly telling me that he’s been waiting for months for me to come to the same decision.

The process of hiring a helper was quite easy. Through recommendations we chose an employee agency specialising in FDWs. Through their website we reviewed the helpers available considering their skills, background, religious inclination, family commitments and selected about four to interview. Following an email to the agency requesting to interview the helpers we organised a time and date. We prepared a set of questions pertinent to our needs and wants which we could use to measure who was most suitable for us.

On the day of the interview we spent some time completing paperwork, reviewed resumes for newly available employees and then conducted our interviews.

Our selection was based on several things, such as:

Age – not too young that she doesn’t have experience with children or managing a household but not too mature that she could no longer connect with our child due to generational gap.

Religion – we are agnostic but respect other’s religious inclinations. We were, however, more suited towards Christians since we understood it as Westerners, as opposed to Muslim who have different ways of observing their religion and could cause unintended misunderstandings.

Length of time – with each previous employer and years of experience as a helper. We were looking for someone experienced who could easily adapt in a new environment.

Initiative – a self-starter who knew her job and just got on with it without us needing to discuss schedules, task completions, meal preparations. Not keen on micro-managing, a person with initiative and drive was ideal.

Genuine interest in children – whilst we are our daughter's primary carers, on the odd occasion we would look toward our helper to babysit. It was important to have someone who liked and had worked with children before and had a calm and respectful demeanor towards our child.

Language skills
– speak, read and write in English was highly essential. We cook several recipes from books hence the reading requirement; speaking very good English was pertinent to our communication and writing was useful for texting messages when needed and writing shopping lists.

Of the several resumes we reviewed, we interviewed four candidates. We had an interesting range of highly experienced and well-spoken to experienced but lacking in language skills. We deduced fairly quickly that the limited language skills would create frustration and communication issues and the highly experienced person who has managed others before may not find our limited needs challenging enough. We were left two experienced candidates. One was introverted and quiet, whilst the other showed spunk, initiative and pro-activity. Either candidates would have been fine, however, we were concerned that the quiet one would just accept anything that was being requested even if it was not the most efficient or ideal way of doing it.

We opted for the pro-active and forward thinking candidate and so far she has lived up to our expectations. She has introduced us to delightful new dishes, she questions and suggests, she goes about her chores quietly and efficiently, she gives us privacy and basically works out her own schedule. We have never eaten so well or been so organised.

Our daughter, a shy child around strangers and not one to trust easily, is slowly warming up to the helper. They’ve made pancakes together and have small conversations. We are happy with their slowly flourishing relationship.

Making pancakes together.
In summary, so far it has been a great experience. For now, we’ll just see how we go. We hope she is happy in our environment, we hope the good things she is delivering so far will continue and we hope that our daughter will enjoy spending time with her when we are not around. Only time will tell, it is early days.

This link will take you to the process of hiring a helper: Hiring a Foreign Domestic Worker.

14 October 2012

Pumpkin & Potato Soup

Wanting to use whatever I had on hand, I trolled the internet for a pumpkin & potato soup and came across this little beauty. Fun to make and full of deep flavour, this recipe makes a big pot that'll serve up to 8 people.

Pumpkin & Potato Soup

0.5 pumpkin, deseeded, peeled and chopped
6 potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic, crushed
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1.2L reserved water


Boil the pumpkin, carrot and potato in a saucepan till they're mostly cooked. Reserve 1.2L of the water when the vegies are being strained.

Fry the onion and garlic in a large and deep frying pan until browned. Add the pumpkin, carrot and potato and fry until browned.

Insert sufficient stock powder to taste in the reserved water and then tip the contents of the frying pan into the liquid stock.

Bring to boil and simmer for 10 minutes or till vegies are fully cooked.

Blend and serve with a dollop of yoghurt and cracked pepper.

10 October 2012

An International Wedding

Four days ago we had the honour and privilege of attending our friends' wedding on Bintan Island, Indonesia.  Lindsay and Marc are South African born New-Zealanders residing in Singapore.  Their major challenge was orchestrating an international wedding with guests from Singapore, Europe, NZ, Australia and South Africa.

Finding a central location for the travellers cum guests placed Indonesia somewhere smack in the middle.  With 27 provinces within Indonesia, Bintan Island was a logical choice for many reasons.  Guests arriving in Singapore a few days prior to the wedding minimised accommodation costs by staying with the couple.  The Singaporean expats had a short ferry ride across the Strait of Singapore reducing travel time and potential difficulty in taking time off work on working days (most of us ferried across on Friday).  The location is stunning with lengthy sandy beaches, swimmable seas, numerous dining options and several activities available from karaoke, nightclubbing, golfing to kids club and even archery.

My guess though is that a beach desired wedding made the island a perfect place to create that beachy atmosphere.  Many a discussion ensued prior to the wedding between the girls as to what was deemed appropriate as a beach wedding apparel and the bride was sure drilled plenty on her hen's night.  Short dress or long dress, how formal vs beach casual, bathers on or off, heels or not.  Needless to say all guests looked fabulously beachy along with the wedding party who had a dash of formality.  The apparel all round was perfect and looked very comfortable.  The groom's party wore a casual white shirt with black board-like shorts.  All the boys looked right at home with their gear.  The bridesmaids each wore their own choice of dress, whilst the bride looked delightful in a Diane Von Furstenberg inspired short wrap dress in a champagne colour and bare feet.

The boys.

The bride's subtle and natural make-up was beautifully executed by a guest, whilst the beachy flowy long hair had a portion braided and captured at the rear by another guest.  The photographer was a Singaporean import and we look forward to his collection of snaps.

My daughter's highlight of the weekend on Bintan was the wedding and her very honoured role as a flower girl, alongside another little girl.  A gorgeous combination of pink tops and champagne coloured skirts completed the picture.  The couple are dearly adored by both little girls and in some ways adopted as surrogate aunt and uncle given that all our extended families are somewhere abroad from Singapore.

The flower girls.
Whilst the legal marital binding was completed in Singapore the wedding ceremony on Bintan was conducted by a close family friend.  Appearing on her father's arm, Lindsay was a gorgeous vision of youth and happiness with a beaming Marc looking on.  The wedding ceremony was a recital of beautiful words by the wedding party and wonderful promises from the bride and groom.

The beaming father and daughter.
Exchanging vows.
Sealing it with a kiss.

With an earlier downpour and an ongoing threat of further rain the preferred beach wedding was relocated to the beach facing villa complete with its own pool.  The reception tables were moved indoors and reset whilst the buffet tables were lined around the covered verandah's balcony.  The wedding cake was a surprise gift which according to one of the guests required some serious aesthetic salvaging, turning it from a birthday-looking cake to an actual wedding cake.  The artiste in charge of salvaging did an amazing job of it and whilst the cake was supposed to be white instead of cream, in the end it was a great colour as it matched the bride's dress (by the next day there wasn't a morsel left of this cake, it was so good).

Beautiful Zuzana putting the finishing touches on the cake.

A third of the expansive buffet on the verandah.

The gorgeously set reception room in the villa.

The buffet dinner was spectacular with a wide range of dishes and enough food to feed an army, which covered many of us the next day for lunch.  My favorite was the BBQ prawns.  Following speeches by parents, siblings and friends, my 4 years old daughter did her own mini-speech with a little help from mum thanking the couple for inviting her to be a flower girl on their special day; everyone for coming to this wonderful occasion; and reminding them of the fun times she has with them in the condo pool.  I was a very proud mama hearing her voice carry across the room filled with confidence.

Trini making her speech.

From here it was party time.  Starting off with a yummy wedding cake, followed by the bridal "waltz" which was an awesome up-beat Ceroc routine, onto dancing, the limbo and swimming.

Cake cutting.
Ceroc-ing away.
Our forever adventurous girl.
An enormous amount of photos were taken to capture this memorable occasion.  We alone had 800 photos to choose from which my husband did a terrific job of culling down to about 100.

We wish the couple a wonderful journey through their married life and we thank them from the bottom of our hearts for making us a part of this celebration.