Friends or Servants? Domestic service, femininity and decolonisation in overseas military communities, 1950s-1980s.
Between the mid-1950s and the late 1980s, about 60,000 Australians lived in Malaysia as a consequence of Australia’s overseas military commitments. Defence force personnel and their families were sent to Malaysia on postings of between two and three years’ duration, and enjoyed a way of life that replicated many features of the earlier, British colonial period. One facet of this lifestyle was the common practice of employing domestic servants, people drawn from the local population who cooked, cleaned, washed, minded children and gardened. Australians who, at home, often lived in ‘married quarters’ housing (at public housing standards) in regional towns at army barracks and Air Force bases found themselves addressed as “Mam” and “Master”. Almost every Australian family resident in Malaysia would not have previously employed domestic servants, and would have no expectation of doing so after they returned to Australia. As guests in an independent nation, Australians in Malaysia did not exercise the imperial power of a coloniser and Malaysians were not colonised people. That said, there were racial dimensions to the experience: the Australian expatriate community were of predominantly Anglo-Australian background, they were wealthy in comparison to most of the local population and the Air Force and Army had expectations about behaviour that embodied a raft of assumptions about race.
This paper asks: how do we understand the relationships that formed between expatriate Australians and their Malaysian domestic servants, particularly the group who cooked, cleaned and minded children, and known as ‘amahs’? How did Australian women, whose primary role in garrison community was as mothers and homemakers, respond to amahs within their domestic space: did they feel supported, displaced or challenged? What did it mean for people from a settler society such as Australia to interact with ethnic Chinese and Indian citizens of an independent Asian nation within the intimate space of the home? Is there a difference between how Australians narrated those relationships during their residence in Malaysia, in their memory of that time, and in the way former domestic servants now speak of them?
Christina Twomey is Professor of History at Monash University. Her research focuses on the social and cultural history of war, with a particular interest in imprisonment and internment, Australia-Asia relations, Cold War military garrisons in Asia, humanitarian and aid programmes, and visual cultures of atrocity.
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