Migrant workers and us: Both a little scared

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Artist's impression of a proposed workers village in Bukit Minyak - Graphic: Westlite

There’s nothing to be scared of, says Mary Chin. Let us take this chance to train and build our confidence as a nation.

In Rio de Janeiro I asked a concierge to mark out on my map the poorest favela.

Everywhere was very poor, he said.

How could I get to one, I asked.

No, not possible, the prospect was too dangerous, he replied.

“Surely there must be a way of getting there,” I said. “What if I hire a cab for an hour to take me round?”

“No driver would take you,” he said.

Well, I made it there. It was in fact a safe place to visit, even travelling solo. Stay on the local bus – you will be fine. Jump off the bus – you will be lost because every path branches out to countless paths in every direction. That’s about it; nobody will touch you. It is as simple as that. So what was the concierge talking about?

In Vancouver, friends warned me not to go to downtown Eastside. But I have been there more times than all of them put together. That’s the place to discover ‘dead men walking’. Dead men and women, disfigured and lifeless. I don’t know; maybe even Mother Teresa had not witnessed such a scene.

I have been at the hottest and the coldest spots, unaccompanied. I went on site to be a reporter to myself whenever there was an incident. I spent weekends and off days walking around the neighbourhood, street by street — frequent enough that anything that could happen would have happened. Nothing did.

Back in Penang, friends warned me to be careful when using Rapid Penang, because buses are full of foreigners – of the kind who are neither tourists nor expats.

Here am I, on the bus, wondering what is wrong with me. Do I look so wicked? Why then is everyone so cautious with me, keeping away from me. I am surrounded by people trying to keep out of trouble, shrinking into themselves. Should I be cautious with them or they be cautious with me?

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“Just a little change; small to say the least; both a little scared…”

Too many of the finest voices have been singing that for us. The song reverberates.

We have a Chinese expression, “Man scares man, scared to death.” In this context only, ghosts are scary; men can never be scary. Given that each mistook the other as a ghost, we see how foolish and catastrophic empty fears can be.

In all these scenarios, we come to a stage where we’ve just got to be objective – about which fear is real and which isn’t.

An objective assessment is (over)due. Malaysians seem to find migrant workers such a threat that the latter have to be confined in a separate area, that their movement requires biometric monitoring.

We are talking about migrant workers here — men and women who have no criminal, psychiatric or leprosy records.

Are our police struggling with kongsi gelap (secret societies or gangsterism) among migrant workers? If this is not a serious issue, then present-day migrant workers are doing far better than their predecessors in Malaysian history.

Are we worried about used needles littering our neighbourhood? Or just the sheer presence of the migrants? Many Malaysians don’t even know what needles I’m talking about. Used? Used for what? Well, I mean this. Anyway, there is clearly no needle issues here.

Is the crime rate due to migrant workers anywhere near the crime rate due to locals? With or without statistical data, it only takes a moment of honesty to say, “No, it is not.

No excuse for exclusion

Without putting the issue in geographical and historical contexts, we would head for a cul-de-sac. So, let us put things in context.

The first step is to acknowledge that this is not an issue faced by Malaysians alone. Migration has been taking place throughout history, here and elsewhere, everywhere. Many nations are and continue to be formed and shaped this way.

Even today, for developed nations, employment concerns are real and trying. Locals should not be deprived and jobs offered to migrants instead.

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There is therefore an optimal balance while keeping migration, social and cultural integration healthy. Malaysians can fine-tune, soul-search, debate and fight over the optimal number of migrant workers — but can we do that without pushing people to self-contained villages?

Whether 10,000 or 10m migrant workers, systematic segregation is fundamentally wrong. Even if we offer them palaces to live in, systematic segregation is unforgiveable.

Let us not taint our history. There is no excuse for exclusion.

If self-contained workers villages are so good, single Singaporeans working far from home would elect to live in workers villages in Singapore. Likewise, single Malaysians working away from home would elect to live in workers villages in Malaysia. That is obviously not the case. Those villages are not built for their benefit, but for ours (to exclude them).

The worry that they might marry, gain citizenship and vote is a different issue altogether. This seems to be a Malaysian concern and is atypical.

Elsewhere, people worry about unemployment; no one would bother about people’s marriages. Recognising this Malaysian feature, we still cannot keep people apart in self-contained villages just because we feel anxious over people’s marriages.

Our common migration heritage

Are migrant workers so strange that we feel a little scared? There are really more similarities than some of us choose to recognise. We are so far yet so near.

My grandparents were migrants who came not as retirees or investors, but as workers who worked tough and lived rough. This heritage would resonate with some readers. The migrant identity continues to be passed on to younger generations. Malaysian families boast of emigrating children and relatives living good lives abroad.

Yet, when it comes to immigrating workers, we want the sweat and the blood but not the person.

I myself am a migrant worker — by superlative counts compared to our ancestors. I worked in Wales, England, Switzerland, France and Canada. I held the official status of a Swedish government servant and later, an international civil servant.

I have only ever taken RM200 out of the country in my pocket on my first journey out – no funds transfer out whatsoever. I remitted home a third of my scholarship stipend; I was just a student then. My scholarships had no ringgit origin. One was by the Association of Commonwealth Universities; the other was by Cancer Research Wales.

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Are outgoing remittances by migrant workers such a haemorrhage leaving Malaysians feeling so anaemic and short-changed? Let us not forget the symmetry. Consider remittance from Malaysians working in Singapore alone; there is no need to look too far.

Some of our hospitals would not be able to sustain themselves without foreign patients. Marketing teams and specialist doctors enter their countries to lobby for patients – sometimes risking arrest. Yet, when it comes to these highly sought-after clients’ countrymen and women who are working here, we want to push them into self-contained workers villages.

Malaysian tourists seek hospitality in neighbouring countries — whose citizens working in our own country are given the sort of treatment at the opposite end of the spectrum. Even as we claim to contribute to their tourism industry, the disparity is not justified. Most tourists tour as an expression of wealth, not solidarity.

Why the fear?

So what is setting migrant workers apart from us? Both a little scared – but how real is the fear?

If so many of us have been migrants too, why should we find the migrant workers among us so scary?

If we welcome healthcare tourists, why do we find their fellow countrymen too dangerous to be among us?

If we demand tip-top treatment when we visit their home countries, why not be a little more accommodating to their citizens working in our homeland?

If we can go on mission trips to countries around the region to serve their poor, why don’t we start with their kinsmen and women who have travelled from afar to reach our shores?

Let us align ourselves and be a little more coherent. There’s nothing to be scared of. Let us take this chance to train and build our confidence as a nation.

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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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