Penangites’ ultimate korban

Photograph: Daniel Lee

Sacrificed on the altar of development were migrants at their work-site – and Nature itself, writes Mary Chin.

Every day is festive in this charming island.

Traditions and superstitions colour the hills, waters, valleys and plains. Hungry ghosts are fed in the open to this day. Against that backdrop of burning joss sticks and rising incense, there is no short of graphic korban spectacles – from Thaipusam to Aidiladha and Nine Emperor Gods.

The ultimate korban (sacrifice) took place on the morning of 21 October 2017, consecrating Lengkok Lembah Permai of Tanjung Bungah as the ultimate altar. No goats, cows or camels this round – but men, 11 of them.  None of them had the faintest clue of their fate that morning when they reported for work.

Sacrificed on the altar – most of them far from home, from their family, dependents and loved ones. Their closest and only company was perhaps Mother Nature – their fellow korban.

Photograph: Daniel Lee

It is by no coincidence that Pope Francis reserves a special place for migrants and Mother Nature on his ‘altar’ – an altar how many share? These twin concerns have been a resounding priority on the pope’s agenda – an agenda how many bother about?

Now that Penang’s poetry of hills and waters, valleys and plains is utterly shattered, it is time to wake up, pick up the pieces and be objective about what surrounds us and what is happening.

What are the common traits between the ill-fated duo: Mother Nature and the migrants? They are the natural and human resources endowed upon us, serving us. Neither has a voice. Neither casts a ballot (therefore politicans believe there is no need to please them). Both are becoming more and more vulnerable. Defended by few, neither offers electoral rewards (this might not last forever though).

Folks, here is where your voice is desperately needed, because migrants and Nature have no voice here. The government needs electoral incentives before lifting a finger. Hold back the carrots in your hands; demand that migrants and Nature be cared for. Release your carrots only after seeing your demand delivered, not before.

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Natural resources

Korban has much to do with price and ransom. Many Penangites appear to accept over-development as a necessary evil – something acceptable in exchange for maximum prosperity. That is what the majority and the Penang ‘mainstream’, people, leaders included, settle for. The god of wealth must be allowed to roar free and unrestrained – he is not a horse, so we don’t use reins, you know.

It is easier to discipline ourselves when we are on strict dietary regimes, even as a lifelong vow. It is harder to discipline ourselves to recognise the optimal and stop hoarding as much as we can.

Putting self above the environment is characteristic of the middle-class syndrome. Walking, climbing the stairs and taking public transport are often seen as signs of social inferiority. Lifts are often over-used. Vacuum cleaners are sometimes set to auto-run at home, only to see the occupants heading for the gym. We invest in lifestyle, convenience and preferences at the heavy expense of natural resources.

Not knowing other ways of measuring value, most of us unfortunately price things only by the dollar or ringgit. On one occasion, I was surprised by someone’s PBA (Perbadanan Bekalan Air) bill: why should a house without a family consume that amount of water? Could we check whether there was leak somewhere? Finally, she said she believes we all ought to pay more for water usage – and she feels so green and claims to be heeding Laudato Si (Latin for Care for our Common Home, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment). Well, is it about paying more (and using more) or using less (regardless of the cost)?

Similar korban can also be seen in our cooking habits eg boiling eggs without the lid on. If we can’t sort out our daily habits, big talk about conservation and sustainability will remain superficial, and the korban will continue.

To what extent do we need air-conditioning? Given good architecture, air-conditioning is in many situations completely optional. Many wear sweaters in air-conditioned spaces anyway. Air-conditioning, however, suggests comfort and success – something many wouldn’t like to part identity with. But the temperature in Malaysia isn’t like Riyadh’s, and the middle class don’t live under metal roofs. [Anyone needs a taste of metal roofs? Go spend five minutes in the shops leading to the ferries at Pengkalan Weld. There, of course, one would long for air-conditioning. (By the way, what is that roof doing there still?)]

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Water heaters used to be optional too. Cold baths, however, seem to bring back such frightful, haunting memories of poverty that it is no longer optional. Naturally, entering the bath from an air-conditioned room makes us appreciate a hot bath. Exiting a hot bath, we would appreciate air-conditioning. At what expense though? Putting ourselves above our resources is an integral part of the middle-class syndrome, commitment and trap.

Human resources

Malaysia and some other countries notorious for their poor treatment of migrant workers are singling out particular nations to be the carers and builders of the world. Being the carers and builders of the world is a great honour and a privilege in its own right. But this honour is sadly overwhelmed by the fact that the two skills have somehow missed gentrification.

Civilisation creates for us doctors from sinsehs and celebrity chefs from hawkers. Material science and ester chemistry could have gentrified construction and housekeeping too; unfortunately that didn’t happen. Even less fortunately, opportunists are out to capitalise on those who have the missed out on gentrification – and to exploit carers and builders to the max.

There’s nothing particularly lowly about caring and building. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just that the two roles missed gentrification.

But what honour and privilege do the builders and carers of the world have if they aren’t even allowed to feel proud of their chef-d’oeuvre? They are denied ownership of their success. It is quite a feat for a team to build a bungalow or a high-rise from ground zero. It we were the ones accomplishing this feat, reporters would come with a microphone to interview us on how we feel about having completed such a grand project. That joy of successful completion – even school students readily resonate with it each time they complete a performance following months of practice. Migrant workers, however, are denied that celebration of fulfilled labour.

As a researcher, I have the fruit of my labour too. I call that closest to my heart “my baby”. I gave talks about my work at conferences across different continents. Even chemists came up to me to say they didn’t understand radiation physics but they could see the immense excitement and joy in my work.

So why must builders exit construction sites so quietly upon completing a project, with no bits of success attributed to them? That is how they come and go, leaving no trace except sweat and blood. They are not supposed to look into anyone’s eyes, which might instantly be interpreted as criminal mischief. Not that many of us would look into their eyes anyway.

READ MORE:  Tanjung Bungah landslide: Penang government, council must explain why DoE objection ignored

As for the proposed migrant workers’ villages, we’ve got leaders making public statements about underwear. What for? Is it for syiok or to shock? We find people protesting, and the authorities going ahead for the wrong reason.

Artist’s impression of a proposed workers village in Bukit Minyak – Graphic: Westlite

There shouldn’t be such self-contained villages anywhere at all – but this does not seem to be an issue for those protesting against such villages: they are just protesting against having such villages in their neighbourhood – go build elsewhere, as far away from my place as possible.

Listen and discern

Some might find Aliran loud on the Tanjung Bungah landslide tragedy, stepping up the dose, publishing statements in close succession, one after another. Are these voices or noises objective or biased? The question hangs on the maturity of the Malaysian news consumer.

The grave point here is that local authorities did not listen enough to the NGOs’ earnest, fact-based plea (now turned evidence-based). People were able to foresee; they tried to prevent. They are still trying to prevent. They are not cashing in on the tragedy for political motive.

All I’m saying is that the state government and its supporters should have been discerning and listened more – and not played with fire. I am not suggesting we should boot them out (or otherwise). There is zero partisan intent here. The government and its supporters must disentangle themselves from that vicious, consensual cycle of exploiting migrants and Nature – which is very convenient – and very wrong.

Apart from the few who dare, there is an unmistakeable, deliberate silence among our avid campaigners. This time, 11 people were killed; yet we hear not a single word, not a single post from some of the usual self-proclaimed warriors of justice and integrity who tirelessly slammed the authorities on every human rights issue. Where are they? No sign of life. Dead silence.

If the concern is about:

  • peer pressure (my social network would look at me ‘one kind’);
  • loyalty (I mustn’t say anything different from the party I support);
  • devotion and piety (CM can never be wrong, Karpal’s family is beyond reproach);
  • continuity and security (if I make a stand, are we going to lose all we’ve been benefiting from?);

then we are back to square one.

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Mary Chin
Dr Mary PW Chin, an Aliran member, is currently an independent scientist in Penang, having previously served in the UK and at CERN, a leading centre for scientific research. A medical, radiation and computational research physicist by profession, she spent her free time combing the poorest area of Canada street by street - a supposedly dangerous neighbourhood.

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