SINGAPORE - In simpler times, one of the most common greetings you would hear in Singapore was: "Have you eaten?" "Jiak pah buay?" "Dah makan?"
In whatever language, it expressed care and concern for the most basic needs of friends and strangers.
But times have changed. In an age of plenty, the question seems redundant. Whether we count consumption by calories, cholesterol or carbon footprint, less is more.
Yet, there is at least one group of people in First World Singapore for whom the old Third World question may still apply.
In a recent case of abuse, a maid lost 20kg in six months. In desperation, she jumped out of her employer's third-storey flat and injured herself during the fall.
She had eaten beehoon made for her but, five hours later, became hungry again and asked for more food. She was told there was nothing more for her. She then ate four slices of bread, and offered to pay for it. Her female employer's response was to punch her in the eye, slap her several times and kick her in the stomach.
This is of course an extreme, unrepresentative case. But apparently, I learnt from this episode, we cannot take for granted that foreign maids are being adequately fed.
It is even enough of a concern to merit a section in the official handbook for foreign domestic workers (FDWs). As obvious as it may sound, the handbook says that the employer must provide the maid with "enough food", which includes three meals a day.
The FDWs are also advised that if they are hungry after being given food, they are to "tell (their) employer nicely" that they'd like more to eat. The recommended phrasing: "Ma'am, I am still feeling hungry. Please give me more food so that I will have energy to do my work. Thank you."
It is rather sad that, to persuade "ma'am" to sympathise with her hungry maid, food has to be translated as "energy to do my work" rather than a basic human right.
Of course, there are many employers who treat their maids like part of the family. You sometimes see them at restaurants, sitting together and sharing all the dishes.
There are others who find this awkward, and have the maid eat separately. Such arrangements will differ from household to household but, at a minimum, the helper needs to be treated with dignity and given nutritious food.