Night had fallen. Alone, the sound of gravel under my feet is my companion. The open-air parking lot is almost empty. I glance around furtively and I see a group of men ahead. They are talking. But I can’t understand. I clutch my pepper spray hard and speed up my pace. I avoid all eye contact and hurry by. There, I’m fine. I breathe a sigh of relief.
There was a bad smell in the air. It smelt like death. Like the worst fish you’d ever smell. There were puddles of dark water around. I noticed a throng of men around a makeshift shop. They seemed to be busy purchasing things. I realised it was a grocery shop.
It wasn’t anything like a Tesco. Some things on the shelf, you’d never see usually. The fish were in a dirty rectangular basket on the wet ground. You’d never see these kind of fish in any supermarket. But, the men were clamouring for them.
These are your foreign workers – the unseen, the faceless, the condemned, the exploited.
I won’t go into the statistics of the foreign worker presence in Malaysia. Neither will I write of the government’s project to legalise the illegals. I won’t analyse this issue with scientific accuracy or provide formulas either.
I never really agree with opening the floodgates for foreigners to work in Malaysia. As you can see, it leads to a variety of problems. But it’s too late, and whether I agree or not, the damage is done.
The general perception of Malaysians towards foreign workers are that they are unskilled (very commonly, yes), uncouth, and inherently criminal. So we look at them collectively – as a source of labour with a tendency to become unruly. I will not deny that they do add to the criminal occurences in the country, but it would be unfair to attribute the spike in the crime rate to them.
That day in the parking lot, I began to see foreign workers through a humanistic lens. That fear of them still lingers, but that prejudice has somewhat lessened. Looking at them individually, not collectively brings several questions to mind.
What circumstances brought you here? Do you miss home? Do you have children? How big is your family? Are you the only bread-winner? Are your wages enough to support yourself and your family? How are you coping here?
When I think of the plausible answers, it gives them faces, individual identities. It stirs up this inexplicable compassion for them. Whenever I see makeshift beds of plywood boards in a construction site, my mind screams, “In your pursuit for profit, have you lost your sense of humanity?”
That night, seeing them eating cheap sub-par food, that just divided my “collective mentality”. Yes, sure, you’ll say “Well, they’ve got food. It’s better than the people starving in Africa.”
I don’t have a good retort for that. But aren’t we creating a “caste” system that we, Malaysians, claim to shun? It’s simply saying, “They are of Foreign Worker caste, they can eat sub-par food. We are of Nationals caste, we eat the good stuff.”
I can’t bear the exploitation either. “Uncle Lim’s Char Kuey Teow” is fried by no other than a foreign worker. She probably earns pittance.
We perceived that they are inefficient and can’t communicate well. I’ve met so many capable foreign workers. Some even surpass our locals. There was a waiter in the Ipoh Johnny’s who had the most cheerful disposition ever that he’d do dances as he worked. Another works in a food court preparing fried chicken rice. He was a perfectionist and a multi-tasker. There was a salesgirl who spoke better Mandarin than I and she’s not Chinese. A bunch of them in a hardware store could recommend tools and are so trusted by the shop-owner that he authorised them to give discounts.
I can only say that they have been misunderstood. I will not deny the negative implications of them being in our country. But in every lot of people, there are some bad nuts.
The next time you’re rude to a foreign worker, think of your home; they probably built it. When you look upon them with scorn, think of that bowl of noodles you had; they probably spent a day washing the bowls. When you applaud Malaysia’s development, think about how the buildings were constructed; they toiled and probably lived on-site.
This was a difficult piece to draw, not in terms of energy and time. As dramatic as it sounds, it was emotional. They were my priority in this piece. Their unclothed bodies depict every fibre of strength and their sweat in their daily toil. Those above are us. Looking dapper in suits, we avert our eyes from them.
We pride ourselves in being humanists. We criticise the government for the deportation of Hamza Kashgari, donate monthly to World Vision, visit homes of the infirm, promote civil rights; yes, noble causes; but we treat foreign workers as lesser mortals. Doesn’t that make us hypocrites?