Myanmar woman’s suicide attempt leaves Singapore family with impossible debt

Photos posted by Goh Meng Huang show his mother, at left, and their domestic helper May Thu in hospital, at right. Photos: Goh Meng Huang / Courtesy
Photos posted by Goh Meng Huang show his mother, at left, and their domestic helper May Thu in hospital, at right. Photos: Goh Meng Huang / Courtesy

May Thu never told her family she was suffering. Sure, she spoke of leaving her job in Singapore, but didn’t blame the family whose house she kept clean. After the pandemic shut down travel, those who knew May Thu said she became distressed and didn’t understand why she couldn’t return home to Nga Pu Taw township in the Irrawaddy delta.

She would cry when the closure of Changi Airport was extended.

Earlier this month she complained she was in pain, so the family she worked for said they gave her time off to rest at a dorm operated by her employment agency. It was there on Aug. 16 that she leaped from the fourth floor. She survived, but her spine was crushed. 

Neither her family, her employers or the police are entirely sure why. Her sister, May Cho, told Coconuts they spoke infrequently because May Thu did not have her own phone, which may have contributed to her loneliness.

“We usually talk on the phone two times every month,” she said Friday. “We are now waiting for her to come home and will treat her the best way we can.”

As May Thu recovers from her attempted suicide, the Singaporean family who employed her is saddled with impossible debt to pay. National University of Singapore student Goh Meng Huang says his parents are hawkers who sell tofu dishes. His brother works in an office.

“We do not have the ability to pay for this bill,” Goh said in an online appeal of the SG$80,000-and-growing hospital bill. 

Nonetheless, he told Coconuts yesterday, the family would keep the 26-year-old woman in hospital and do what it took for her to mend. Donors have committed SG$22,412 to their crowdfunding campaign.

He described the heartwrenching call during which they asked May Thu’s family to approve risky spinal surgery doctors said she needed. 

“The mother was so heartbroken and cried until she couldn’t speak, so the sister gave the ‘yes’ to the spine surgery, and we went on with it,” he told Coconuts.

Since then, his mother has been visiting May Thu at the hospital almost daily. As of Wednesday, he said she could speak again and was out of critical condition. 

It’s become normal over the past few decades for people to leave Myanmar and work abroad for higher income. In 2015, Myanmar responded to persistent episodes of abuse and mistreatment by ordering a halt to all such domestic work abroad, especially to Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia. It lifted the ban in late 2019. Despite the ban, an estimated 50,000 Myanmar women went to Singapore to work as maids.

May Thu had worked for the Gohs in Singapore since December 2017. Although her contract ended at the end of 2019, the family extended her contract as she was hard-working. May Thu had been due to return home for an annual leave of three months from May to July.

“We approached her agent at Hyperlink Services Pte Ltd multiple times since early May 2020 to speak with her, in which he counseled her that it was not within our control and hoped that she could remain patient until the airport was opened,” Goh wrote in his post. 

May Thu was placed behind hundreds of others on an embassy waiting list for a repatriation flight. She’s now No. 275 on that list, which means she could possibly fly home late September. But the embassy says she cannot fly until the hospital releases her clear to fly.

“She can’t go out of the hospital and need[s] to continue treatment,” said a Myanmar embassy rep who would only identify herself as Ling. “We need to check her condition and make sure she is well and can walk around.”

In the meantime, Goh said the agency which employed May Thu and the dormitory where she was injured has denied any financial responsibility as it was not an accident. 

Jesmond Bay, one of Hyperlink’s owners, told Coconuts via phone today that the agency had assisted in any way it could, even though he said “there was no contract between us anymore.”

According to Bay, the agency had helped Goh’s family translate May Thu’s conversations and initiated contacts with the Myanmar embassy to secure a relief flight but did not receive a response until Goh took over.

Bay also agreed to house May Thu at the dorm for a week even though he was not obliged to do so since the helper was contracted by the employer, he said. But May Thu had insisted on staying at his lodging, so he acceded.

Another domestic helper from Myanmar was staying in the dorm as well, and Bay thought she could keep May Thu company while she rested and recovered from her injury. The other helper was also waiting for a flight home but was no longer contracted with her employer. Two other workers staying at the dormitory were from Indonesia and the Philippines respectively.

Bay said that the other helpers had described May Thu as a very “quiet” person who kept “pushing everyone away.” For someone who had lived in Singapore for nearly three years, May Thu could not speak English well, he added. 

“When we hit the 6th day in our lodging, my staff talked to her again, say: ‘Is your leg OK already? If your leg not OK you just let me know. I will talk to your employer that we can extend your stay.’ But [she] never say anything,” Bay said. 

On the day May Thu was supposed to return to the Gohs, her leg seemed to have recovered. So it “surprised” Bay to learn she had jumped out of the window. 

Bay said that May Thu had used the scissors and a kitchen knife in a bid to stab herself was stopped by other dorm residents. One of the helpers was injured in the process. That’s when May Thu jumped. 

“This thing has traumatized my whole lodging,” Bay said. According to him, the police have closed their investigation. They had not responded to inquiries as of publication time.

With regards to the hefty medical bill, Bay said that it wasn’t the agency’s responsibility.

Additional reporting and writing Nurul Azliah

Read more Coconuts Yangon stories here

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