Lee Kok Hoong wonders about the challenges of foreign migrant workers in Malaysia.

“Why do the two men hold hands?” my young niece once asked me.

“Bangladeshis are generally Muslims. For a Muslim man to hold hands with a female in public is improper, and that would be frowned upon,” I tried explaining it to her.

“But why do the men even have to hold hands? Will they stumble and fall if they don’t?” She frowned.

“I don’t know. Go ask your mother,” I told her.

Yes, it is not the norm in Malaysia for two men to hold hands in public. But normlessness is a common phenomenon among many foreign migrant workers. So is powerlessness. And social alienation.

The recent riots by foreign workers in Little India, Singapore certainly kept awake many local residents living in the vicinity as they looked out of their windows into the streets below. They watched the riots in real time. The storm may be over, but now is time that we constantly stay awake and keep vigil.

As is normal in Malaysia, it always takes an incident to make our government sit up. It therefore comes as no surprise to read news reports that our police and Immigration Department are suddenly on alert at the foreign worker enclaves throughout our country. And you wonder, isn’t it their duty and responsibility to be constantly on their toes as far as public safety is concerned? After all, the influx of foreign workers into Malaysia isn’t something that happened only recently. In fact, for many years now, we have been living dangerously. Unconsciously so.

In Singapore today, there is approximately 1.3 million foreign workers doing low-paid jobs. This figure constitutes about 20% of its population. (The breakdown figures are transparently published on Singapore’s MOM website.) Like it or not, at a ratio of 5:1 of local residents to foreign workers, this composition does pose a risk to its national security.

In Malaysia, we currently have 2.1 million foreign workers with valid work permits. That is, according to Deputy Home Minister Datuk Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar. As a percentage of our population, this may not seem as alarmingly a figure compared to our neighbour. However, we have to contend with an unknown number of illegal foreign workers. With differing estimates by different parties about such illegals, it is everyone’s guess as to how many there are in our midst, really. But none of the estimates are modest by any measure, except those suggested by the authorities out to pacify us that the problem is but a small one.

Twenty years ago, our foreign workers were in the form of domestic servants or the odd Indonesian among many other local labourers, and the ratios did not alarm us. However, it is a totally different scenario today. Walk into any restaurant, and we are more likely to be confronted by foreign waiters and waitresses, including their captains sometimes. What we do not see is the other ratio of local and foreign helpers in the kitchen. Honestly, it is quite easy for any disgruntled and wayward foreign worker to spike our food with rate poison. And if all the foreign workers in that restaurant should decide to gang up, it serves as no challenge to them at all to create a “mutiny”.

In early June 2011, a near riot happened in Nilai, involving foreign workers of a particular factory there. A male Bangladeshi worker had made a pass at a female Vietnamese worker, inviting a backlash from her fellow countrymen who beat him up. The following day, around 1,400 Bangladeshi workers at the factory retaliated against the 1,740 Vietnamese. The factory was temporarily closed in an effort to quell the tension. I happened to be back in town, and was shocked to see hordes of Vietnamese workers flooding a coffee shop at noon that day. Never mind that I was deprived of my lunch; an early sell-out for the stall I patronised regularly brought a temporary windfall for the stallkeeper. The stallkeeper was more scared than happy. One can feel the tense feelings of the local helpers in the coffee shop; they were speaking sparingly and in a much lower tone compared to the groups of foreigners speaking dramatically in a language that few locals understand.

At the time, the particular company was reported in the press as having 3,700 employees, of which 47% were Vietnamese and 38% Bangladeshis. (I imagine the remaining 15% to comprise of local office staff or those holding managerial positions, and some expatriates.) The irony is that the company is foreign-owned, it provides more job opportunities to foreigners than locals, yet it is operating in Malaysia! If a riot should materialise, I wonder if there is an easier way out for the owners to washing clean their hands.

Somehow, I was reminded of the numerous factories in mainland China owned and operated by foreign companies, and the social problems that come with that, because of cultural differences between management and the workers. Many of these migrant workers come from faraway villages or counties, usually in a different province. Ask these migrant workers in Guangzhou if they speak the local Cantonese dialect; few do despite being there for years, simply because they mingle mainly with only those from their own province after work.

Put that in our local context, and we see a similar pattern. There are stark cultural differences between us and them — the foreign workers. Very few foreign workers really integrate with the local community. Instead, they usually live in their own “colonies” or enclaves, sometimes established by their employers. There will be nearby shops or stores catering to their daily needs in terms of food, weeklies bringing news from home, pirated DVDs of movies from their country of origin, SIM cards with instructions in their native language, etc. Our foreign workers are worse off than those Chinese migrant workers; few have sufficient knowledge of our main languages (of Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin) to understand our local news or what is going on locally. So, what we clearly see is their “interpersonal estrangement” of the local community.

It does not help that our Human Resources Minister, Datuk Richard Riot Jaem believes that foreign workers in our country are a happy lot and that Malaysia is “heaven on earth” for them. Before the riots in Little India, Singapore probably subscribed to that same belief — and with the stronger currency, theirs was probably a higher heaven than ours. The Minister is in denial that one key reason some of them come more readily into Malaysia is because of our lax immigration practices compared to our neighbour. It is over-simplification for any government to assume that as long as their economic well-being is taken care of, and they have funds to remit home to their families, all is well.

I stand corrected, but I am really doubtful at how well-versed our government is with the sociology of foreign migrant workers, or if the government has any contingency plans at all to deal with all possible eventualities. Also, I often wonder how much orientation is provided to foreign workers on “life in Malaysia” before they are issued work permits to work here? The onus is on our government to provide a meaningful orientation, instead of expecting the governments of Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc to do so for their citizens. Given the ease at which illegal workers walk through our immigration checkpoints, or the ease at which illegals become legalised, any orientation after the issuance of work permits serves little purpose.

And who should be responsible for managing the social and psychological problems of these workers? If our schools have specific school counselors to deal with problematic students, do the respective consular offices in Malaysia provide regular counselling for their citizens? Or are there any counselling hotlines by volunteers for these foreign migrant workers?

I fail to understand the intention of a local news report quoting foreign workers as saying that “Malaysians have nothing to fear from them”, adding that any violence or trouble within their communities would not spill over to affect the local population.  One wonders if that news report is sufficient to allay our fears. The reality is, when riots happen, mob behaviour takes over rational thinking, and people run amok without rhyme or reason, locals and foreigners included. So why wouldn’t rioting by foreign workers affect the local population? Why did the rioters in Little India overturn police vehicles when it was a bus that actually killed a foreign worker?

I really have no personal grudge against foreign workers. They are here to make an honest living, much like the years I served abroad. But given their huge numbers in recent years and what little understanding I have of the dangers of prolonged social alienation, I cannot help but be on the alert whenever I am in their presence. The situation will only worsen as our over-dependence on foreign labour increases.

If our government blindly believes that Malaysia is “heaven on earth” to the foreign worker, we cannot expect our government to do much to ensure our personal safety. To be safe, I would assume that I am in a foreign land in my own country whenever I am surrounded by a large number of foreign workers. We have been living dangerously for many years. Dangerous because we took their presence for granted for too long, and it took the Little India incident to make us sit up and think.

We simply cannot afford to be careless or negligent of our surroundings.

We simply cannot afford to continue living dangerously. I would rather the foreign workers hold each other’s hands than to clench their fists.

Featured image from The Star

Unemployed by choice, Lee Kok Hoong spends his time watching the world go by, and entertaining himself with the antics of politicians and governmental officials. He occasionally tweets under @omgmalaysia

One reply on “Years of Dangerous Living”

Comments are closed.