Migrant workers villages? Heaven forbid; let them be among us

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

There is no place for systematic segregation in this era for any civilised society, asserts Mary Chin.

Penang is building dorms for migrant workers. Sickbays, canteens, shops, ATMs and recreation areas on site shall keep them in (the dorms) and keep them out (of our space, shops, clinics).

The dorms are to remove the workers from our residential areas and apartment blocks, where they are currently unwanted neighbours.

That they drink, fight and carry disease is no excuse for removing them. We drink, fight
and fall sick too. Why can’t they? The equation is simple: either integrate them into our local community or do not bring them in.

Given standard hygiene and immune system, we are all equally susceptible to infection. Bacteria and virus know not who is migrant and who is not.

A justified concern would be that persons arriving from certain communities might be of elevated risk. That would be for our immigration deparment to require examination or quarantine of any travellers from listed countries – regardless of occupation and citizenship – expats and Malaysians returning from holidays included. Some countries do have such a system in place. Self-contained workers’ dorms would only quarantine the wrong targets.

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The key here is to ensure healthy living conditions. Multi-storey purpose-built dorms would be an overkill – a costly solution to a very simple problem. All we need is to enforce a cap on the number of people housed per square foot and the number of people sharing a bathroom, requiring the facilities to meet a given standard. The workers may then live among us. Discipline the employers; do not punish the employees.

Centralised dorms necessarily entail transportation over a longer distance. Even now, without centralised dorms, we witness how groups of workers are transported behind open, uncovered lorries – sandwiched, either roasted by the sun or drenched in the rain. Is that sight the sort of education we want our children to absorb as hospitality?

Outside paid hours, workers should be free to go wherever they like. Biometric-tagging to restrict and monitor their movement is completely unacceptable. Penangites should reject this at all costs. Such an idea dishonours ourselves first, before it gets to dishonour its prey.

We have a Chinese expression ‘zhuzai’. Our ancestors’ descended as migrant workers to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines [Documentary and book, ‘South of the Ocean’ (2013)]. Meals were served from a common pool of food. Crowds were made to scramble for food direct from the pool – without plates or cutlery – like animals. That’s the origin of the expression zhuzai.

Workers were also housed (confined), transported, contracted and traded like animals. Many did not survive the rough seas. Among those who did, many died of infectious disease.

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America had their ‘basement people’ where a selected group of people working on the 13th floor of the hospital were allowed to use only canteens and washrooms down in the basement. It took many painful years of painful efforts by many generations of martyrs to put an end to that. Today, even bystanders (who were not among the people selected for exclusion) choke as they recount that struggle for justice. The scar runs deep.

The last thing we want is to re-enact that systematic segregation in 21st-century Penang. Thank goodness, we inherited no such system. So the last thing we want is to create and introduce that out of nothing – in which case the present generation will have to bear full responsibility, whether by action or inaction.

Systematic segregation is quite different from personal prejudice. Most of us have at least an odd prejudice or two against individuals of certain traits. We can’t help it – we acknowledge the personal struggle; we don’t glorify it.

Systematic segregation is an entirely different matter. We cannot endorse, promote and glorify that collectively by targeting a people, systematically making them and their future generations shrink into themselves.

Today, the ill-treatment of our (migrant) ancestors and the ‘basement people’ is history. There is no place for systematic segregation in this era for any civilised society – certainly not in Penang, where never-ending fireworks crack the brightest skies of the peninsula.

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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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