In a seminal study of urban societies in the Middle East, Asef Bayat  highlights the importance of co-existence and mutuality in the lives of the urban poor. In contrast to other urban studies scholars such as Mike Davis, Bayat suggests that it is not fatalism, chaos and a politics of inferno that characterizes the subaltern poor living in informal settlements and slums, but a different type of politics – an everyday cosmopolitanism that represents living with differences and finding ways to co-exist. At the heart of his analysis of informal life in cities such as Cairo and Tehran is the notion of dignity – peoples’ compulsion and need to always find ways to live their lives and build towards betterment regardless of the limitations on resources and formal avenues that they might have.
In Life as Politics, Bayat characterizes everyday cosmopolitanism as necessary for the practice of living with ‘agonistic others’ – in the case of Cairo, for example, Muslims and Coptic Christians finding ways to live as neighbors. In a similar vein, urban Malaysia is a home to groups and communities split along too many religious and ethnic lines to account for, to the point that being antagonistic to others becomes merely acts to political power – which unfortunately becomes mobilized through nationalistic and populist agendas. At the everyday level, the subaltern poor of Malaysia, many of who come from displaced communities, do no have the luxury nor the privilege to be ideological or outright political. For the scores of temporary labor migrants, refugees, undocumented and stateless populations, sharing resources and networks among each other becomes a means of both survival and stability, albeit often in an informal sense.
The migrant or ‘PATI’ (Pendatang tanpa izin – undocumented/illegal immigrant) is often seen as a threat to the public order, particularly when groups become associated with crime, violence and poverty. In Malaysia, different migrant groups – the Indonesians, Bengali, Burmese, Nepali, and others – are often seen to be at odds with one another, competing, sometimes violently, to establish their presence and dominance, particularly in the low-skill sectors and manual labor. However, what is misunderstood in this context (and many others) is the reality that most migrant communities are largely peaceful and accommodating of one another, despite the perceived differences. It is possible to see this cosmopolitanism when one pays attention to the myriad ways in which different migrants interact and engage with each other for mutually beneficial reasons, such as cooking and sharing meals, helping set up homes, finding work, and even starting relationships and families.
A key transformative aspect of these unseen forms of cosmopolitanism among subaltern migrants is their capacity to find ways to ‘play’ and have fun. Particularly among the younger migrants, finding ways to have fun, especially when they have been subject to institutional restrictions on their rights and freedoms, becomes a way to passively resist their oppressive conditions without overt resistance. For migrants like Faizul, Adam and Siti, learning to have fun during their everyday routines offers them ways to disrupt the mundanity of work by engaging in playful activities and hobbies. Young men moonlighting as bartenders in Penang, for example, also use their ‘downtime’ to hang out with one another, flirt and spend time with local women, and go for walks at the beachfront.
As temporary and undocumented people, migrants are deemed undeserving of ‘fun’ by the state – through it’s immigration regimes and enforcement agents. There is a fundamentally disruptive character to migrants who can engage in activities and relationships that bring them joy and pleasure. As foreigners and aliens, their role is primarily to work and nothing else. They are not politically active in a traditional sense. However, the critical significance of subaltern laughter should not be underestimated or overlooked. Sometimes, it is in these spaces of joy and fun that we might find the biggest secret of migrant life in the city – that people, even the poor and marginalized, are able to find ways to be happy despite their precarious conditions and despite the state’s best efforts to keep them down.
 Bayat, Life as Politics.
With the ongoing politicization of migrant labor in the country, I have been noticing the re-emergence of some deeply problematic rhetoric and beliefs about foreign labor in the country, including that of migrants being a burden on the host society. For example, the false understanding of remittances and the ‘outflow’ of money emerges when we are only able to look at migration and labor through the very narrow lens of the ‘host’ country, in this case Malaysia. There are illuminating studies done by scholars such as Faranak Miraftab (Global Heartland) and David Bacon (Illegal People), as well as those closer to home (Born out of Place by Nicole Constable and Servants of Globalization by Rhacel Parrenas), where they seek to show how a wider transnational understanding of migration actually disrupts and challenges some very wrong beliefs and assumptions. One particularly important one is the belief about remittances and the burden of ‘subsidizing’ foreign workers, which many Malaysian leaders are quick to target and is a popular go-to accusation in public discourse.
Take, for example, the oft-heard comment that “foreign workers are a problem because they are making money in Malaysia and then remitting a lot of it to their home countries”. This is seen as a ‘problem’ mainly because of the perception that remittances represent a loss to Malaysia (or any host country) from an economic standpoint. But what if, as Faranak Miraftab suggests, we look at what remittances actually serve to achieve, not just from the narrow view of financial outflows and inflows but from the perspective of labor and social reproduction? To put it in simple terms, what are remittances actually used for? Research and studies in the last decade have shown clearly how much remittances and the general transnational fragmentation of labor and social reproduction serves to enable and help facilitate the rapid development and growth of ‘host’ societies like Malaysia. Why and how does this work?
Migrants remit money not just so their families can ‘profit’ from the wealth of their hosting countries. Majority of remittances serve a very different purposes – they are used to supplement or, in many cases, cover for the fact that sending communities often lack sufficient public resources and capacities for critical needs such as healthcare, education and housing. Remittances to poorer regions in Philippines, India, Indonesia, Myanmar and Bangladesh, just to name a few, are not some big new ‘savings’ account that suddenly gives people a huge economic boost. Instead they are, by necessity, needed for very basic things that are no longer being provided by public institutions. How does this change the picture for Malaysia and Malaysians? For one thing, remittances are taken directly from the monetary income that foreign workers earn. Remittances are used for the same purposes that local Malaysians depend on their employee benefits, government subsidies (housing) and EPF (pension funds) to help subsidize. As local citizens we generally do not expect to pay for healthcare completely out-of-pocket, or full price for our first homes, and we expect our employers to contribute to our retirement funds. These are essential and very basic items that make our jobs affordable for us. These are things that help give added value to our work. Now imagine if we earned about the same or less than what we do financially at our jobs and yet had none of those other benefits?
Not only would we not want to stay at those jobs, but the jobs themselves would quickly be devalued and become perceived as close to worthless. As Malaysians, we often forget that we not only rely on our monetary income, but these intangible benefits and subsidies that help us, and our families, live comfortable and meaningful lives. Good working conditions, that come with strong benefits and protections such as reasonable working hours, maternity leave, promotions, and opportunities for advancement, help us derive meaning from our work, in addition to being productive citizens, and allow future generations to thrive by having something to aspire to. After all, how many of us who are older become so happy to be able to use our retirement funds to help send our children to college, and buy new homes? These intangible benefits and subsidies are essential to the reproduction of new generations of citizen workers.
Migrant remittances should be seen as being the portion of their income which is meant to cover ALL of those ‘intangibles and subsidies’ that local citizens take for granted and expect from our employers and public institutions. What this means is that rather than providing these additional benefits, protections and subsidies to the workers, we are expecting them to cover the entire cost – of educating their children, caring for their families day-to-day and unexpected needs, planning for their future – purely out of their modest paychecks. What this means is that remittances are not a loss for countries like Malaysia, but instead are what is saving us a lot of money and resources that we would otherwise have to provide. This, to put it differently, is how foreign labor subsidizes our own economic growth and success. The amount of money ‘lost’ to remittances pales by far in comparison to how much we save by not having to invest in the long-term benefits and protections of workers in predominantly working class sectors. This is the most important reason why we constantly turn to cheap, flexible and disposable migrant labor. Miraftab’s and Bacon’s work make for essential reading to better understand this system.
For our interests, the next question should be about what happened to these occupations, jobs and sectors that have rendered them so disposable and almost worthless beyond the output or service itself. Why, for example, are food service work treated and viewed so poorly, to the point that only precarious and desperate migrant workers would be willing to perform them? Why are jobs in construction categorized as ‘3-D’ (Dirty, Dangerous, and Demeaning) in Malaysia, whereas similar jobs in countries like US, Japan and Korea are far more valued and seen as respectable? The rather shallow and quick reason often given is that it is because these jobs are performed by foreigners – that the ‘dirty’ or ‘cheap’ dimensions somehow manifest from ‘who’ happens to be performing the work. While this may be an exaggeration, it is not too far from the very real logics of racism that inform both policy and public opinion on the matter.
A different, more historically grounded, perspective looks at how capitalism and globalization has come to devalue certain forms of work (and workers) while over-valuing others; we call them ‘low skill’ or unskilled, and reduce certain forms of work into close to worthless and disposable status. Throughout the 80s and 90s, between different national ‘Plans’ and initiatives for economic development, Malaysia inadvertently fragmented and degraded the quality and value of certain sectors of the economy – manufacturing and agriculture at first, then construction and more recently services. Initially, these were sectors granted special ‘protected’ status, which is to mean they were meant to be developed quickly and efficiently, which translated into favoring rapid capital accumulation at the cost of working conditions (no unions, minimal protections, and lack of representation):
- Lack of basic necessities and protections means that locals can’t really afford to take up these jobs
- Lack of collective bargaining means no voice for workers; compared to a lot of other sectors in working class where there are unions
- Cultural and social devaluation of the jobs themselves as a result of all these trends.
The growth of those sectors helped promote the hyper-development that Malaysia has witnessed, especially in the urban areas. However, along with the rapid development and increase in wealth, we also witnessed an alarming growth in inequality – which often is hidden or disguised by the statistic promoted by the government and local research institutes that Malaysian’s are among the ‘least unequal societies’ in Asia, if not the world. This statistic works purely because we’ve decided to remove entire sections of our workforce and society from the calculation. The metric and measure is very different when accounting for everyone who works and lives in our country. It makes no sense to only include Malaysians in a calculation of inequality because this leaves out not just large numbers of workers, but almost entire sectors of our economy that are vital to our growth – construction, agriculture, domestic work, just to name a few.
The current policy perspectives and public discourse in Malaysia, under the new government, is beginning to lean too much into the realm of populist and xenophobic reasoning that is far detached from a real grounded historical understanding of the development of Malaysian capitalism and economic globalization. As it stands, we’re too drawn in by the rhetoric of foreignness and ‘authenticity’, and the narrow view of migrants as burdens on our society, to really be able to make sound decisions and judgments. Yes, there needs to be change in various working-class sectors, but that change should not be informed by racialized logics of ‘who’ is appropriate to work as our cooks or cleaners, or whatever. Any policy aimed at employment and labor should be free of xenophobic agendas, and should primarily be focused on assessing the reasons for devaluation and degradation of working conditions, that made those jobs non-viable for most people in the first place.
We need to stop obsessing about the ‘appropriateness’ of who is working at these jobs, taking pot-shots at foreign workers who are actually subsidizing our own comfortable lifestyles, and attacking those who employ foreign workers. Instead we need to focus on addressing the value of these jobs in the first place, not just from economic standpoint, but in socio-cultural ones. How can we return to making service-work in food industry, construction, etc., be respectable again and valued again? The only way is by promoting better working conditions and giving workers a chance to represent themselves. Doing so would gradually lead make these jobs more appealing, actually affordable and sustainable for workers. This would help address the issue of trafficking and labor exploitation that characterizes labor migration, on one hand, and also promote greater local participation in these sectors on the other. In essence, it is about removing the incentives to force vulnerable people into exploited labor, by getting rid of what makes those form of work exploitable in the first place. The government, private sector and civil society need to engage with this effort to re-empower labor and workers in these devalued sectors, foreign or otherwise. Simply cutting out foreign workers will not produce the outcomes that people claim – It is more likely to just lead to a further race to the bottom and even more desperate conditions for workers themselves (just look at what has been happening in the Eurozone, for example, where the rising tide of xenophobic populism and shrinking economic productivity has put so many countries on the brink of crisis or worse).
I have been feeling relatively reassured that the government has decided to tone down its questionable attempt to go after the employment of foreign workers in our food sector – shifting away from what was presented seemingly as a ‘requirement’ to merely a ‘proposal’ (funny how politics can be so fickle). But hey, this is new Malaysia after all – the rakyat reacted to a ‘proposed’ policy and those newly in power at least seemed responsive, which is a whole of a lot better than the ‘do-as-we-damned-well-please’ approach of before. One can argue that for such a half-baked and blatantly ill-advised ‘proposal’, it was always going to end up this way, but still, you never know.
I’m also heartened by the swift and strongly worded response by Chef Wan, who probably has more authority than the rest of us to speak about the culture and history of Malaysian food, along with the labor that goes into it. The framing of the policy as outright racist is absolutely spot on, and his description of food as a labor of love further highlights the bigotry and hate latent in these half-baked attempts to redefine who and what counts as ‘authentic’. Chef Wan is absolutely right, our food and cuisines are products of love, practice and learning – NOT products of our skin color or our racial characteristics.
I would also add that our food is a crucial component of our histories. Food here defies categorization and classification – there’s really no legitimate way for anyone or group to lay claim over our food as their own, as authentically ‘this’ or ‘that’. The only defining trait of our food and cuisines is that of hybridity, and for all you racist bigots out there – bastardization. What makes food here so wonderfully distinct and brilliant is the fact that most, if not all, are products of cultures, tastes and practices coming into contact. They are mutants and freaks in the best ways possible – how else could something as freakishly delightful as assam laksa even come to be? It’s a mish-mash of things that should not even make sense going together, but it does! Similarly, mee goreng? Indian fried noodles? It’s a delicious travesty.
Our foods carry our real histories, and those histories are about forbidden, blasphemous, often ‘dirty’ intermingling, contact and contamination.
How else do we find ourselves blessed with such a diverse, rich and mind-bogglingly wide mix of flavors and tastes that is comparable if not better than anywhere else in the world? It is because, as Chef Wan highlighted, of love. It is because people from different cultures and backgrounds and communities decided they wanted to do something taboo and be with one another, live together, procreate and make new things. Our food is undeniable proof that ‘dirty, inferior Indians’ did indeed fall in love with the Malays, the ‘money-minded and insular’ Chinese did indeed decide it was worth having cute, ‘mixed-raced’ children with the other races, and the supposedly pure Bumiputera did indeed feel that Thais and Indonesians were good to have families with. Like it or not, that is the truth of our food – people from different, seemingly incompatible, backgrounds falling in love and sharing their own foods to produce something magnificently new.
This idea that there is such a thing as ‘our’ food that can and should only be prepared by ‘our’ people is pure racist and xenophobic nonsense. It doesn’t help that this is being informed in part by the narratives of the ‘dirty’ foreigners, and discourses of ‘contamination’ that are not questionable at best. These narratives are not rooted in anything more than the observations of wannabe ‘armchair sociologists’ who use nothing more than things they happen to hear or see on occasion when they are outside.
Compounding this is a deeply problematic and flawed attempt of ‘scientific’ research conducted on the ‘hygiene status of foreign food handlers’ that somehow acts as an objective analysis of public health concerns. This research, recently publicized by The Star, claims that the majority of ‘foreign’ food handlers have unhygienic practices that create high probabilities for transmitting diseases to, I’m assuming, the ‘locals’.
Let’s set aside for a moment that no respectable scientific study deserving of actual credibility would EVER use ‘foreign’ as a category or unit of scientific analysis (it’s a socio-political category, not a biological one!). The study conducted by a group of researchers decided that it should limit its sample size purely to ‘migrant food handlers’ – which should immediately raise alarm bells about credibility, at the very least. The criteria for determining the unit of analysis and the sample pool is based on political categories (citizenship and foreigners) – what this study is actually doing is reinforcing a political distinction by giving it pseudo-biological legitimacy. Why just migrants? What happens when the study is not restricted to just ‘foreign food handlers’? Are we so certain that the health and hygiene risks are not more widely spread and not just something carried by ‘foreigners’? Using foreign vs local as a basis for public health research has to be up there with some of the most ill-advised and potentially harmful ways of doing research. Studies like this create the potential for very harmful social outcomes – using biology as a means to justify social and political exclusion and persecution. This is what happened during the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in the United States, and the hygiene-based persecution of poor Indians in Calcutta by the British, and, perhaps the worst example, the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.
The study’s findings shouldn’t be entirely discredited – the problem is methodological (and the politics informing it), rather than the findings. If it is indeed true that food handlers are at higher risk of pathogens and contaminants, then this is a serious public health concern that needs to be addressed holistically – by making sure everyone is safe and not at risk at their workplaces, regardless of whether they are foreign, local, green or violet. This is the very definition of public health. Pathogens and contaminants don’t exactly check passports and visas before deciding who they want to infect, do they? We should also be careful about the ways in which ‘racial predispositions’ to certain pathogens and microbes are being represented. Most research – including the Malaysian one, to be fair – is careful to indicate ‘country of origins’ or home environments rather than making the terrible mistake of linking race to biology. However, without careful reflection and a deeper understanding of these factors, it is incredibly easy for studies like this to be twisted by public rhetoric and discourse to justify the racial inferiority, or even ‘threat’, of different communities on the basis of their socio-political identities. Already, we can find examples of how this study is being used to further justify getting rid of some imagined monolithic group of ‘foreign workers’ from Malaysian food stalls.
The study, in spite of the questionable methodological decisions, does emphasize and recommend the need to “improve personal hygiene and sanitation standards by the relevant health authorities among migrant food handlers“, which I completely agree with as the right approach. If hygiene in the food service industry is indeed a major problem, then we need a much broader study for the sector as a whole to see what is really going on, not by bizarrely using political categories as a criteria for selection. As a researcher of migrant labor and displaced communities, my immediate impulse is that this should be used as a reason for further investigation and research into the health risks and concerns of poor migrant populations in Malaysia, particularly among the most vulnerable communities, such as the Rohingya – who are very much part of our wonderfully freakish food scene. In my own work with different communities, I am privileged enough to see much of the forms of mutations and mixing of cuisines emerging – through the most unexpected of encounters and romances between people who we view as nothing more than ‘dirty foreigners’.
Large food courts are really popular hangout and leisure spaces in Malaysia. These are usually filled with local fares and cuisines, mostly Chinese but often also with a mix of Indian, Malay, Indonesian and other hybrid fairs. Hawkers stalls would line the edges, with the center court filled with tables and chairs, with a large screen television or projector in the center. Football (soccer) season is a boon to these vendors at the food court- customers would throng to watch live matches late in the evening and into the early hours of the morning, snacking on food, drinking and enjoying the games with family and friends. For the workers at the stalls, this usually meant a lot of additional hard work, staying well past midnight to prepare, serve and clean.
I met the young couple of migrant workers at the food court in Cheras almost by accident, after spending an evening watching a live televised World Cup game with some friends. One thing that had been pointed out by one of my friends was the ubiquity of migrants who worked at the food court – traditionally a space that is supposed to be very ‘Malaysian’, with local Malaysian vendors, usually Chinese, Malay or Indian. My friend asked me to pay attention to the workers who were preparing food and taking orders at the various food and drink stands – especially those that were for specifically Chinese or Malay cuisines. It took me a while to notice but many of the ‘traditional Chinese Malay’ food – Char Kuey Teow, Claypot Rice, satay Kajang, otak-otak, prawn mee, and many others – were being prepared by workers from Myanmar (mostly Rohingya) and Indonesia. There were even a small number of Pakistani men working to take orders from tables and serving drinks. My friend, who was a local Malaysian of Chinese descent, commented that the food court had been losing its clientele due to the increased presence of foreigners working there, with some who would say that the food was no longer being cooked by the ‘right hands’ (a common Chinese expression).
Indonesian migrant workers at these types of open-air food courts were not a new phenomenon – in fact, as far as I could recall we’ve always had a large number of men and women from our southern neighbor who would work as staff and servers at the kiosks and stalls, even when I was very young and frequented the food courts with family and friends. Seeing so many Myanmarese, and especially Rohingya, migrants in this space did catch me by surprise, as I had presumed they would not be many of them working at a food-court that was predominantly catering to a Chinese and Indian non-halal clientele. I presumed wrong, clearly. Among these workers, a young Rohingya man, who was sharply dressed and well-spoken (Malay), worked alone at a sotong kangkung stall, preparing and serving a popular local Malay cuttlefish and Chinese watercress dish. Having spent more than three hours, and three orders of cuttlefish later, I introduced myself to him, and he very happily introduced himself as Md. Adam.
Md. Adam and his young partner, Siti, both worked at the food court, at separate stalls. While Adam worked alone at the sotong kangkung stall, Siti and another Indonesian woman operated a satay Kajang stall. Md. Adam had very enthusiastically agreed to meet with me the next afternoon for a conversation with the both of them, after I had mentioned to him the book I was working on and my work with the Rohingya and other migrant groups in Malaysia. Adam had volunteered himself and Siti for the interview – without actually asking her first, which was both a bit discomforting but also clearly something he did not see as problematic. Thankfully, when I met Siti the next day, she was just as cheerful and excited about the interview, and as way of introduction actually showed me a newspaper clipping with a picture of herself and other Indonesian women protesting domestic worker abuse in front of the Indonesian consulate in KL. She had the clipping but did not indicate the newspaper itself, which was a pity. It was a wonderful moment, as it immediately became clear that the two of them were an incredibly energetic and positive couple and were more than happy to share their stories.
Which is a wonder considering how hectic and busy their daily routines were working at the food court. Both Adam and Siti were there each day from 11 am till 4 or 5 am in the morning. Their workdays start with arriving in the late morning to prepare the stalls for the day. This involves being there before their employers – the couple who owned the stalls – arrived with fresh supplies in the mornings, usually from the market. They would bring fresh uncooked satay meat, cuttlefish, and sayur (vegetables), among other things. Siti and Adam, along with another Indonesian worker who helped Siti with the satay stall, would help prepare the stalls for the lunch period and then the longer, busier evenings.
Being World Cup season, the work hours were particularly long for the both of them, and the other people who worked at the food court. Because of the live televised games on the big screen and multiple smaller tv screens around the food court, the food court receives a regular stream of customers most of the time between 7pm and 4 am, due to the quirks of the time zone difference (Russia and Malaysia) as well as the ways in which the live matches are scheduled – three games each day with almost back-to-back live broadcasts). For the workers like Adam and Siti, this means being ready to take orders, prepare dishes, serve and clean for more than 8 or nine hours straight. The crowds usually start streaming in after 7pm, and depending on the popularity of teams that were playing, the late night/early morning matches can often draw really large crowds.
“Every time England, Germany or Brazil play, that’s the busiest. When England had their first game (on Monday at 2am) the whole food court was packed and noisy. But we had already been ready for it! We knew there was the England game, so most of us working here had planned to open the stalls a bit later than usual, and made sure we all rested a bit more in the afternoon (after the lunch period which was usually not very busy). Oh, when England plays this whole place goes crazy. Malaysian’s really love that country, but they also love Brazil and Germany. But, luckily so far those are earlier games so by 2 am things become less crowded. It’s when these teams play the late slot (2 am) that we have to be ready to work really hard for longer. Sometimes groups will come to watch 2 games in a row, and they would be ordering food and drinks continuously – especially younger people like students from college. They can eat and eat and eat.” Adam laughs as he describes, “sometimes I have to tutup kedai (close shop) early because the sotong (cuttlefish) runs out.”
Siti pouts playfully when Adam says this. “It’s okay for you, abang (term of endearment for husband), we usually have big supply for the satay, so never runs out. So we have to work until everyone leaves.”
Satay Kajang is a variant of the incredibly popular and famous dish of slices of meat grilled and served on a stick, with peanut sauce as dipping. Kajang refers to a town about an hour outside of KL, famous for being the ‘home’ of satay, as well as a major supplier of the specifically prepared satay meat to vendors all over the West Coast and beyond. It’ s one of the most ordered and sought-after dishes in places such as the local food-courts, and one of a handful of food items that are halal even in Chinese-centric restaurants and food courts such as this one. It’s ‘bad business’ for satay vendors to not always maintain a strong supply of satay. I could understand Siti’s argument. Sotong kangkung, while also quite popular, is far more of an acquired taste even among Malaysians, and more expensive due to the seafood involved.
“Well, don’t say that, sayang… abang always comes to help you every time I close the stall, don’t I?” Adam replies, smiling at her.
For the sake of professionalism and academic respectability, I refrain from giving them a tight hug and telling them how awesomely adorable they were as a couple. I restrained myself to just offering to treat them for lunch, which Adam took as a signal that I should absolutely have a dish of fried chilli kerang (cockels), and proceeded to order a large dish of it.
Adam is not new to Malaysia, that much became clear very early on. He spoke Malay fluently, and with an accent that was markedly urban Malaysian. He had been in Malaysia for over eight years, having moved her for work and family reasons (his sister’s family were living in Cheras since the late 1990s). Adam had always been working for the same employer, initially as a helper at the stall while his bapak (‘father’ – but in this case used to refer to a boss) handled the food and orders at the same food court. Two years ago, Adam’s employer decided to open a new stall at another food court not too far away, and had asked Adam to be in charge of this one, having grown to trust the young man ‘sebagai anak sendiri’ (as his own son), according to Adam.
“I feel very loyal to them (the older couple who employed both Adam and Siti). They’ve been very good to both of us, even though we’re both foreigners. I’ve always made sure to be honest and loyal to them, because it’s that trust that is important, yes? Otherwise, there’s of course no reason for a local family to trust a foreigner. This is something we understand… it’s not easy to trust I foreigners, especially since we always hear of stories about foreigners who steal, bring drugs into the country, commit crimes… so, of course locals get angry and scared of us foreigners. To me, the trust is very important, so it’s why we have to always do things right to our employers. Then, good things will happen, definitely.”
Siti listens to Adam, thoughtfully, then adds,
“I agree with abang, but I also need to say that it has to be timbal balik (reciprocal). Our employer now is very good to us, but sometimes there are also very bad employers who do very bad things to their foreign workers. I experienced this myself when I first came to Malaysia, just 16. I was working as pembantu rumah (maid) in KL for a Chinese family. The ma’am was memang jahat (truly evil), she would scold me, insult me and hit me very often. Calling me all types of bad names, and spread lies saying I was jalang (loose) and have many boyfriends. The truth was I could never leave the house and rarely saw anyone outside except for the other maids who worked next door. So I decided to run away after a year because I couldn’t take it anymore. I did the smart thing and went straight to Indonesian consulate, where they took my report in case the family tried to send a police complaint or report to immigration about me.”
“Did anything happen after that?”
“No, thankfully, I never heard from that family ever. By the time, I met abang while looking for work (around the food court), and we started dating after that.”
Adam offers, “when I first met Siti, it was like a Bollywood movie,” he laughs loudly, as his wife slaps him playfully on his elbow. “I even sang a romantic Malay song to her, while making sotong for her.”
“abang, don’t buat cerita (don’t make up stories)” she scolds him.
“Oh it’s okay, we’ve having our story written, it should be romantic, no? jangan marahlah, sayang (don’t be mad)”
“why, isn’t our story already romantic?”
“I think you’re story is very romantic!” I interjected. They both laughed.
The cockels arrived, a whole large dish of it that looked more like it was meant to serve six people rather than three. Adam urged me to try it – I did like cockles cooked in chillies. It was another one of those things that evoked a strangely specific memory for me, of my childhood in the northern state of Perak, in a small former mining town called Taiping. I used to live with an uncle and aunt, him a retired prison warden who was famous for being an executioner at the old Pudu National Prison in KL. My uncle used to love kerang (cockels) and would buy them in large quantities, to be shared with the family (but mostly for himself). The smell of fried cockles reminded me of late afternoons in that old house in Taiping. The cockles were deliciously hot and flavorful. Adam and Siti are as well – it was clearly a meal they both loved. We also drank from three (very) large glasses of fresh watermelon juice, which, typical of Malaysian tastes, was mixed with a hearty and generous helping of cane sugar.
Siti was two years younger than Adam, at 22. She left Jakarta when she was 16, and after leaving her first employer having been a domestic helper, she eventually began working for Adam’s employers, after he had introduced her to them. Initially, they had asked Siti to work as a helper at home, but upon discovering that Siti was an impressive cook and knew how to season and grill satay to perfection, decided to start another stall in the food court selling satay, and hired another Indonesian migrant workers to assist her. Business took off really well, according to Siti, which meant she was always very busy and running around a lot more than Adam.
“Both me and (my co-workers) have to run around taking the satay to tables almost non-stop. Abang mostly gets to stand and wait because he gets fewer orders, most of the time he is looking at all the sexy Chinese girls who come here, wearing really tight shorts and mini-skirts.” Siti complains, to a look of disbelief from her husband. “Oh, I can see you all the time, abang,” Siti laughs at his discomfort. “tengok-tengok saja, asal jangan cuba apa-apa, ya?” she instruct him. “you can look, as long as you don’t try anything.”
“I have you, sayang, why would I try anything else?” Adam replies.
Md. Adam and Siti, despite their relatively young age, strike me as possessing a sense of perspective and wisdom of a much older couple. This fits, I suppose, with the experiences that they’ve both been through, separately and together. In spite of troubled histories and experiences in the past, they both carry themselves with such lightness and evident affection for one another. A playfulness that was impossible to feel drawn into, and a love for life (and food, in Adam’s case) that was hard not to be enamored with. The rare moments when Adam’s mood darkens included the part of his story when life in Burma came up. There was sadness and more than a little sense of bitterness in his tone and voice.
He told me his own story, growing up in a small town in Arakan (Rakhine), to a relatively comfortable family.
“My family wasn’t rich or anything. No one over there is rich, but we were doing decently well, and had a good home. We occasionally received some money from my sister, who moved to KL a long time ago and has been working here with her family. This was before things got really bad there. I already left before things became really terrible. My sister had suggested that I come to KL, since there would be better chance for me to find work here, make money, and help take care of family. There was always news of (tensions between) the soldiers (military junta) and some of the villages, but it never came to where we were. I know it happens, though, but I didn’t think it would become like this.”
“We sometimes see all the photos and videos of the people who have to leave and they go to Bangladesh. Some of them walking across the land, falling on the side, covered in mud, children and old people. Every time I see it… of course sakit hati (heart hurts). I may not know them but they are my people also. Rohingya. Everyone now calls us refugee… pelarian. I think I’m lucky, my family is safe, but I also have friends and relatives who I don’t know much about, even if they are okay and safe. My parents are in Bangladesh now, they had enough money to go to the city, and not stay in the camps. Insya Allah, I can call them and talk to them at any time. But it’s very hard for me to think about all the unfortunate ones. I don’t understand how, why, they are so cruel, even to children. This is the other reason our bapak and ibu here (in reference to employers) are so good, they are always keeping us informed of the news, they’re always telling us how cruel the Myanmar government is being to the Muslims there, and assuring us that we always have a home here as long as we need.”
Siti, who had been silent the whole time the conversation turned to the Rohingya, decided to change the topic of the conversation, perhaps unhappy at her husband’s discomfort.
“This is another reason why we need to think of the future, right, abang? Actually, we’ve both been talking about how we want to plan for next few years, so we can start our own family. The truth is we’re not officially married yet, because we can’t be married in Malaysia, since I ran away from my employer and abang only has a (UNHCR) card. But we want to find a way to go back to Indonesia, where we can get married and abang can come legally as my husband. This is not easy, and it will take us a few years to save up enough money to do that.”
“How long do you think it will take before you can travel to Indonesia?” I ask.
“I hope, less than four years, we should have enough. Because it’s not just the flight ticket. We need to have enough money to go back and survive for at least a few months, in case we don’t have an income. I also have family back home that I try to help (financially) so that’s another reason we have to wait. Once we are ready to go back, I am hoping we’re able to buy our own house, and have enough money to start our own business, maybe selling satay and sotong. To buy a house there, we need to save at least RM 20,000, which is slow but possible. I want us to have small house, but with at least three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room, so we can have family visit. If we can’t start our own business, then we can use some of our savings to survive while we look for work there. Otherwise, I might have to come back to Malaysia and work as a maid again, to send money back. Abang can take care of the home and children, feed them sotong all the time.”
I followed Murthi and Rama as they led the way through the alleyways along Jalan Peel and Cochrane, to the kongsi settlement they called home, conveniently hidden away behind the massive new shopping mall built recently in the area. The kongsi where they lived, along with countless other migrants from all over, was much larger and more expansive than I had imagined. It was so well concealed from the view of the highways and main traffic routes that it would be almost impossible to notice unless you accidentally happened to stumble upon it while aimlessly wandering the area. I remember this area vaguely from a long-ago period of my life. It was close to where my primary school, S.R.K Jalan Peel (Peel Road) used to be, a small but busy little public school that no longer existed. Where my old school used to be now stood another gigantic Tesco supermarket and parking block.
As I followed the two young South Indian men towards the migrant settlement they now use as their temporary homes, I felt a strangely discombobulated being in this area after more than two decades – it used to be a largely Malay kampung area, with small, rural-like attap houses lining the rows of unpaved roads and small food stalls lining the streets as on walks past. I remember the very spot – a bus stop – where I used to stand as an eight year old waiting for my father to pick me up from school each day. This is a very different place now. The kampung is all but gone to be replaced by the migrant kongsi, the ramshackle slum-like assemblage of tents, camps, containers, abandoned vehicles, and all manner of other impermanent spaces that poor, largely undocumented migrants call ‘home’. Or at least, a temporary place to sleep and rest at night.
I was glad to be wearing shoes this evening – the paths were rough and unpaved, with muddy potholes everywhere. The kongsi was quite crowded, and lively even at 2 am on a Friday. The men far outnumbered the women, at least those who were out and about, standing and engaged in conversation or crouching down and sharing supper with one another. The only women who were up at that time were the Indonesian and Rohingya migrants who were entertaining the men and providing sex services. The women generally don’t live in the kongsi, but in the brothels and rented flats located close-by along Jalan Cochrane. It was late, but this tends to be the best time for the women to be out providing their services around here, as the police would largely be done with their random raids and the migrant men would likely be up and about anyway.
Muthi and Ram had just returned from the area nearby, called Jalan Rantai, that was famous for being one of the major hotspots for cheap sex-services provided by largely Vietnamese and Chinese women. The two men were not there seeking companionship or sex – they had actually been working, moonlighting as a lookouts and security bodyguards for some of the pimps who ran many of those brothels. I met Murthi in 2013, when he had been working at a convenience store nearby. He still works at the convenience store, but as he know needs to find a way to return to India after his permit expired, finding other sources of income had become essential for him. Murthi is 38 now, and significantly thinner and less healthy than I remembered him. He seemed to have aged much more than the four years that had passed from our last meeting. Another from Tamil Nadu, Murthi and I used to have conversations about family, food and relationships during that earlier period, often while he was off work and enjoying his late evening meal at a mamak stall, which I would always buy him in exchange for the conversations.
Murthi is very different from then. He was still relatively pleasant in demeanor, especially towards me, still using the affectionate term thambi (little brother) when speaking with me. But his old sense of humor and wit was no longer as prominent. He spoke less, and was more abrupt and curt with his responses – not to me necessarily. The change was alarming. When I had reconnected with him yesterday, at the convenience store, he had been happy to see me but was angry about something which he did not mention. He asked about the research, and if I had been able to make something good out of it. He then had suggested that we meet later in the evening in order to ‘show me something I’d never imagine’. We didn’t speak much that time, but he had quickly mentioned that he had started moonlighting in different places and had moved to stay in a kongsi rather than a shared flat which he could no longer afford. It was nothing he could control, he had said.
I was surprised that Murthi was now working as a guard and lookout at Jalan Rantai. The place was a den of sexual slavery and forced prostitution. Murthi said that his friend Ram, another Indian migrant, had relied upon some of their local Indian connections to find this opportunities, which didn’t pay much, but was certainly better than nothing. It was close enough to where they lived that a walking commute in the later evenings were not bad, perhaps even pleasant. Murthi asked that I meet him at 2 a.m., close to when his shift would be done and he would be going back to his living quarters in the kongsi. When I arrived at Jalan Rantai, the place was awash with pedestrian and vehicular traffic – it looked more like rush hour at 8pm rather than two in the morning. Cars were backed up waiting to find available spots to park. Men, young and old, of all ethnicities and races, ‘cruised’ by on foot, motorcycles or cars, while many sat at the numerous open food courts, being entertained by the young women from Vietnam, China and Philippines. The area was even busier and hectic than when I visited years ago.
Murthi and Ram’s work involved standing and patrolling the open air parking spaces along the street where lines of young women stood waiting for customers to greet them. The two men were part of a much larger group of informally employed protection, meant to provide assistance to any of the girls if they were to be visibly harassed or mistreated by visitors – which happens regularly. They were also there to make sure that the girls are paid and do not try to make underhanded deals with clients that might involve taking revenue away from their pimps and hens. In this regard, Murthi and Ram were visibly uncomfortable each time they approached a girl that had just finished with a client to make sure she had gotten the correct payments and was not holding back any extra side income.
“See, brother, this girls are also being smart, which I understand. If they can make a bit extra money, and charge a little bit more than the rate set by the pimp, why wouldn’t they? You see how pretty some of them are, men will definitely pay. My job is to stop that from happening, and make sure the girls don’t tell higher prices to the customer. Otherwise, if they are caught doing that, then the girl can get into serious trouble, with the pimp. But, when you think about it, their lives are already so difficult and sad, why wouldn’t they try anyway?”
Ram, Murthi’s friend, is slightly younger but has been working as a lookout for a bit longer. He is also from South India, and was originally working as a restaurant worker before ill-fortune befell him and he had to seek different alternative sources of living. Ram can’t return to India, just like Murthi, until he is able to secure sources of funding and repay the huge debts that he was saddled with. Together, the two men lived and worked side-by-side, though there seemed, from an outsider’s view at least, very little warmth between them. They rarely spoke to one another and often ignored the other’s presence, but Murthi tells me that Ram was like a brother to him, a comrade, and he is mightily loyal.
“We’ve suffered together, this past few years, and whenever we needed help, the only person we turn to was one another. That’s a special bond, Tamil-born. We both had to leave our homes to come here, and then after working here we also couldn’t afford to pay the rents, so we decided to find a new place to stay, and new opportunities to work together. If we don’t protect each other’s backs we’ll drown. That’s for sure.”
We walk together towards one of the makeshift shacks which were barely more than pieces of large plywood arranged together along with half-cement, half-concrete blocks and covered with corrugated metal that was Murthi’s living quarters. It was small, just enough for him to have a tiny stove, a sink and tap connected to an exposed pipe leading behind the construction (and presumably to a water main), a stack of boxes and a reed mat on which he slept. Murthi kept a small fan next to his bed. The mosquitoes were awful and unbearable, it was a small wonder how anyone could get any rest or sleep in such an exposed space. I was still struggling to process how dramatically Murthi’s life had changed , and for the worse. Murthi’s living quarters was hardly that. It was small, cramped, and offered little protection from the mosquitoes, heat and dust from outside.
There was a smell of wet cement and mud that permeated the area, along with smells of food being cooked on parafin stoves. And cigarette smoke. It wasn’t hard to breathe, but certainly took a bit of adjusting to. I had to resist the urge to constantly rub my eyes due the irritation. Murthi invited me to sit with him in his little room. There were no chairs, so we sat cross-legged on the floor. He took out his phone, checked for messages and put it next to his sleeping mat.
“Have you had dinner, brother?” I asked, worried that I was impinging upon his time. He shook his head.
“We already had our meals before going to work, little brother. Otherwise we won’t be able to stand around working on an empty stomach. It’s mostly easy work, but sometimes it can be quite hard to stay awake and pay attention.”
“Have you ever had to deal with anything serious or bad at that job?”
He thinks for a while. “A few times… there’s always some over-eager or nasty idiot who tries to pull girls into cars or refuse to pay and bully the girls, and then we have to step in. At least three times, we had to stop a guy and take him to side streets and whack him up a bit because of what he was doing. Usually too drunk to care, but this is the nature of the area we work in. A couple of times, there was a police raid, and we had to quickly rush to get the girls all back inside and in their rooms. That was the scariest moment, when the cops are trying to find the girls and catch anyone who might still be engaging. Sometimes, we have to grab and push out the guys who are with the girls at the time, and that can be difficult and embarrassing.”
“How’d you end up with this job, brother?”
“Don’t ask… I’ve had really bad luck, but some of it was my own fault. Two years back, without telling me, my mother had gone to the same agent that had borrowed money for me to come here in order to ask for more money to help build a new house for my younger brother and his wife. They didn’t tell me they did this, and then when I found out through the agent, they had already taken and used a big chunk of money telling him that I will be able to pay it off because I am working in Malaysia. But you know how hard it is for me to try and pay the original loan off anyway? Now on top of that they borrowed a lot more money and the agent is charging even more interest on it. And they had taken it using my name, brother! But the problem is that it was also my fault because I had been lying to my family, by telling them everything was okay and I was making good money here to help them. They must have thought it was no problem for me if they took an even bigger loan. By the time I found out, the agent told me that I would have to pay more than twice what I was paying each month in order to meet the minimum for the loan. I was desperate, little brother, so I had to stop paying the rent for place I used to be staying, and had to pick up new jobs just to be able to make the monthly payments.”
“How many jobs are you working?”
“Four currently. In the daytime I still work at the convenience store, but after that in the evenings I do different jobs, including this late night shift (in the red light district). I’m also working on and off as a stall vendor in the evenings for a pasar malam (night market) nearby, that’s only two times a week.”
“Is it enough to be able to make the payments?”
“Not really, but I made an agreement with the agent to extend the time on the loan so I can take longer to pay it off… from 5 to 10 years.”
“I’m sorry, brother… did you ever speak with your family about this?”
“How can I? You know well, you’re also an Indian man – we can’t tell our parents and our younger siblings that we’re struggling and that we can’t afford to take care of them. If I tell my mother what the truth is about my situation, she would be badly heartbroken and might commit suicide. I can’t let that happen to her. She thinks I’m doing well, and she’s very proud that both her sons are okay. If I told her the truth, then it would crush her. I can’t tell anyone else either. It’s shameful, little brother. What can I tell them? That I work as a bouncer for khozhi (slur for sex-workers)? What will they think?”
“How’d you find out about this job?”
“You know there are always those young Indian boys who like to spend time around this area and near where I work… these boys from the gangs mostly, coming from the slums. I knew one or two of them and their families, because they would come to the restaurants and the shop sometimes, and found out through them that there was this type of work. Mostly it was very young boys who did it – they would ride motorcycles so they could go after anyone who tries to cheat or bully the girls. But the pimps also wanted more steady protection and these boys were too unreliable. They would spend more time smoking and chit-chatting then actually working, so they started hiring us to the job. The pay is not bad, which is why I decided to take it.”
“And how did you find this place to stay?”
“This? Ram brought me here. He has been living here a bit longer than I have, so he knows what it was like for those of us who have no choice. He told me that there were places like this all over the city, especially close to construction sites, where a lot of workers stay. He suggested that I should come to this one because it was emptier and had basic things like water. It’s terrible, you can tell. I would much rather be back in my rented room, which wasn’t that much better, but that’s not really possible anymore.”
Encik Fairuz, one of the community elders of the Kampung Rohingya, in KL, is a kindly, diminutive man, in his sixties. He speaks fluent Malay, and the occasional word in English. He enjoys smoking and chewing on betel, a habit that’s common among many Rohingya, but often seen as repulsive among local Malaysians. The smell of betel can be strong and hard to ignore. It turns one’s tongue and mouth orange, and its common to see people spitting the leaves out in public. Encik Fairuz is aware of the stigma attached to the practice – he only chews betel when he is at home or among friends, never in public. He makes sure to be respectable in public, which he deems to be important for his community and reputation.
Encik Fairuz’s wife, Puan Jati, is an excellent cook. She has been learning how to prepare local kuih-muih (pastries and snacks) that she then sells to local restaurants and stalls. Her karipap daging (beef curry puffs) are a particular favorite of her husbands, as he recommends that I try one. We were sitting outside the pasar, at a food court nearby where Puan Jati works as a chef. He tells me they are both grandparents now, since their daughter recently had a son with her husband, another migrant from Bangladesh. A good man, Encik Fairuz tells me, willing and responsible, who works very hard.
Encik Fairuz had wanted to meet me since the evening that I went to the surau to observe the tutoring session. He wanted to find out more about the book that I was writing, and my interests in the Rohingya. He tells me that few people took any real interest in the community, though they sometimes would get social workers and NGO folk come visit once in a while.
“We get these agents who come by sometimes, wanting to see if anyone is newly arrived and in need of documents and refugee IDs… usually from UNHCR. We don’t get a lot of professors coming here to visit us. I don’t think anyone has written books about us (Rohingya). Why would anyone write books about us?” he laughs. “We’re just poor people, not famous, with a hard life… why would anyone want to read about us?”
By chance, I happened to be carrying along my E-reader in the bag, and I was able to show the two major recent books on the Rohingya that were published – Francis Wade’s Myanmar Enemy Within and Azeem Ibrahim’s The Rohingyas. Encik Fairuz’s eyes lit up in surprise, as he tried to read the words on the reader, struggling and shaking his head due to difficulties reading in English. He shyly admits he didn’t understand what was written, and asked me what they were about. I explained that the books were about the struggles of the Rohingya in Burma, and the violence and expulsion that these communities had been experiencing over the years. Encik Fairuz looked solemn, thoughtful. He kept scrolling and touching the reader – almost desperate to be able to read what was written.
“Do you think there’s a Malay or Ruingga version of these books?”
I replied that I didn’t know for sure, but I would be happy to check and find out, and if I can find copies, I’d be happy to give them to him. Encik Fairuz was particularly drawn to the cover of Wade’s book, which featured a male figure in Muslim attire with his face covered. “What does this word mean?” he asked, indicating “genocide” on Ibrahim’s book. It took me a hard few moments to compose myself to try and explain the word, suddenly overcome with uncertainty. I tried. Encik Fairuz listened quietly.
“They are trying to kill all of us?” he asked, finally.
I hesitated and backtracked, trying to rephrase and be more precise. I suggested that it was not necessarily about killing everyone, but about making the Rohingya identity non-existent, by making it seem that there were no such people, only Bengali illegal immigrants. Encik Fairuz frowned, confusion clear on his face. I felt terrible, immediately realizing how badly I was fucking up the conversation.
“We’re just people too… if you tell us, we should be Burmese and not Rohingya, then that’s okay. We will do that. There’s no need to kill us…. We’re not illegal immigrants in Burma. We’re all born there, grew up there. But we’re hated. They call us animals, and say that we are a danger to them… These books, do they tell the truth? Are they trying to show what is really happening?”
“It’s really difficult to say… but these authors are well respected, and they worked on the ground, trying to write about what they see and observe as actually happening. They are also historians, and they try to look back to see the history of the Rohingya community, to show that the Burmese government, the junta, the Buddhist fundamentalists… that they are wrong in what they do.” I tried.
“Good. That’s good. So maybe these books can help show the truth. Good. Are you also writing about this?” I shook my head, and explained that my own work is about the Rohingya, and other migrants, who come to Malaysia in search of sanctuary and a new life. I had yet to go to Rakhine, but have some awareness of what was happening there.
“So your book is about the migrants who are in Malaysia? Good… there’s so many people here. Much better, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s much better to come to Malaysia, if you’re Rohingya. Here, people don’t mind who you are, as long as you’re peaceful and work hard. Here, they leave you alone most of the time, as long as you have the proper documents. Here, you can make money well, and live in better houses, and your children can be happy. This is a good country, much better than Burma. I’m sad to say that, about my own country, but it’s true. Here, they respect you if you’re a Muslim. It’s much better to try and be like the Melayu, they are peaceful, and they are strong as a rakyat (community). They want good things for the country, just like the elections shows. Also, they really care about the suffering of Muslims in other places.”
Steering the conversation to his own life and family, I came to learn that Encik Fairuz and Puan Jati had been living in Malaysia for over a decade, since 2007. They had initially left Burma to go to Patani in Thailand, where they had relatives, but then came to realize that it was very difficult to find work and were left destitute after having to pay for their transportation. They had been travelling by bus and train, because flights were too expensive. Life in their old village had already become difficult – there were constant threats of violence and they would frequently get warnings about the military moving in, until eventually most people decided it would be better to try and leave. They were already aware of stories about villages being burned down or people being attacked and shot. Encik Fairuz was more fortunate than most – he had relatives and friends who lived in Thailand and Malaysia, who were strongly advising that they find their way to those countries rather than stay or go to Bangladesh. They had been the ones telling him that Malaysia had better opportunities, and that he would be able to work and have a home fairly quickly.
Getting to Malaysia was very expensive, but they were able to find their way, and were allowed to stay once they had successfully applied for refugee cards from the UNHCR in KL. Encik Fairuz was an experienced hand at cleaning and preparing seafood, and was quickly able to find work at the pasar, working for a local Malay seafood business owner who was looking for staff to work the tables at the fresh market.
“The work was actually easier and so much better than what I was used to. Not as long hours – just 9-10 hours per day, and then I would have a lot of time to go home, to go to prayers, be with family. Puan Jati and our daughter were also able to find work here, so we became quite comfortable financially, and could rent a small but very nice home nearby (in the kampung). We’ve been living here since then, and I’ve also been seeing how many new people are coming from Burma. The younger families and people, they are always looking for work and place to stay, and I try to help them find work at the pasar. But these days it’s been getting a bit unpleasant as well. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s some tension between the gangs that are here. A lot of fight between young guys, over whose territory and who gets to collect protection money. Indian boys, but not like you, educated, smart. They are thugs, who ride around on motorbikes, carrying sticks and spend their time standing around, smoking and not doing anything productive…”
“Do they ever threaten you?”
“No, they don’t disturb us… mostly it’s between them and the Burma boys. But sometimes, I do worry about safety, for my daughter especially. She is still young, and you know how boys are. Sometimes they get rough and can’t be controlled, and I always tell my daughter to make sure she avoids them. There are a lot of stories about these Indian boys kidnapping young girls from here, or taking them as girlfriends and wives. I personally don’t know any of this happening, but it’s not uncommon to hear. And, I know, it’s definitely not all Indians. I actually know a lot of good Indian people who come to the market to buy groceries, and they are very friendly and peaceful. It’s just these boys…”
“Have you ever experienced or seen trouble with Immigration or the police in this area?”
“No, me? Never… I always just show my card when Immigration conducts raids. They leave you alone when you’re a verified refugee. But I have seen them chase and round up those without documents. Sometimes, when there’s a raid at the pasar, people would hear about it. Then, all of a sudden, you’ll see half the place become empty very quickly, because all the ones without legal documents will escape! And it would be right before the Immigration and police arrive to check for PATI (illegal immigrants).”
Later in the evening, on a Tuesday, when the fasting for the day had ended and people were returning to their homes after sharing a meal organized at a hall outside the madrasah, a group of children stood together outside one of the smaller rooms, waiting for their turn to go in. They were getting ready to attend their evening Malay and Arabic learning session, thought by a couple of local school teachers who did extra tutoring at night in the community. The children, mostly boys and girls aged between 6-11, wore the customary Muslim attire – boys in baju melayu, and the girls in full hijab. Most of the children were coming from the Rohingya community in the nearby area, but they introduced themselves with distinctly local Malay names – “Achip”, “Mat”,”Sharom”, “Siti”, etc. My presence there was a little discomforting – the surau (madrasah) was almost exclusively Malay and Rohingya, and there were no other person of Indian ethnicity there, though the people were welcoming and largely untroubled by my being there. I had been invited by one of the local chiefs anyway, who introduced me as a the ‘profesor’ who writes books.
I had expressed my interest in the Rohingya children who were learning Malay and Arabic at the learning center set up by the surau, and if it would be possible to observe, in return to making a charitable donation to the community. One of the teachers had asked if I might even be able to talk to the children to tell them about studying hard and the benefits of pursuing a good education, stating that the children, who were mostly from very poor families, really needed motivation and examples. One of the teachers, an elderly Malay man who taught at a nearby local primary school, repeatedly explained that the children were very bright and enthusiastic, but needed ‘bantuan’ (assistance, mentorship, guidance). They needed books and reading material, and most of all they needed to make more time for learning – a problem since many of them would also be helping their families at work.
The classroom was large – there were at least 30 children in the front of the hall, sitting close to one another, many sharing the same books that were kept at the surau. The Arabic lessons were first, followed by the Malay, which were more conversational and oriented towards helping the children learn phrases, responses and commonly used words. The teachers were firm, strict, and commanded the children’s attention fully – it reminded me a lot of my own time as a student at a public Malay-medium primary school, where classrooms could be intimidating and highly regimented spaces. The students were obedient, responsive to the teacher’s commands and instruction. They would repeat words and phrases when asked to, in unison and almost choir-like. They were being taught phrases and words in Malay for neighbors and friends – salutations, greetings, and inquiring about daily well-being. It was clear that most of the children were intimidated enough by the teacher to not be talking or not paying attention – the teacher kept a thin wooden ruler in his right hand, a reminder of swift punishment for indiscipline.
Towards the end of the session, the teacher called upon two of the older students, who stood and walked to the front of the class and recited lines in Arabic. They then collectively thanked the teacher and dispersed. The teacher, ‘Cikgu’ (Teacher) Ramli, invited me for a cup of teh nearby, and asked me for my thoughts about the class. I thanked him profusely for allowing me to visit, for which he seemed abashed, and politely said that he was humbled that I would think about visiting the classroom. Cikgu Ramli is amiable, and enjoys joking about most things, though he does get animated when talking about the issues facing Muslims in different parts of the world – he asks me if I’d done work on Palestinians, in addition to the Rohingya, and expresses his anger that the Malaysian state isn’t doing enough to help fellow Muslims who are suffering in other parts of the world. Like many others, he is cautiously optimistic about the new government, having felt that the previous political parties cared very little about the rakyat (people) and only about expanding their wealth.
Our conversation was not the most focused, but it was pleasant and insightful regardless. Cikgu Ramli had a very strong interest in what was happening to Muslims around the world – he asks if there was a large community in New York, and wanted to know if the US was really as bad to Muslims as it is shown on the news, and if the hatred that Trump has shown is reflective of the actual people there. We talk about communities and activism for a while, and the conversation then turns, almost inevitably, to Mohamad Salah. The Egyptian soccer star who we both agree has been doing more for uniting people around the world, and positing one of the most positive images of a Muslim around. He says he uses Mo Salah as a frequent example and role model in his classes, particularly with young impressionable children, because he knows how easily some of the more vulnerable youth become attracted by the lures of violent fundamentalism and criminality.
“Mo is great… children and older people love him. He is about peace and generosity, and bringing people together (muhibah). And he’s someone who works hard to become a respected athlete. What better example could we have wanted for a good Muslim? On top of that, he is a good husband and father. And bola (soccer) is popular among the young, many of these boys, even the Rohingnya kids, enjoy watching and playing soccer, and they all know his name. They all have someone they can look up to and follow – they don’t need to see the TV and the only images of Muslims they see are terrorists or ISIS or Taliban… They can see Mo.”
Cikgu Ramli is single, unusual for a man of his age. He said that as a teacher, he always found meaning in teaching young children, and as the youngest in his family, there was no pressure on him to marry and have children as he had plenty of nephews and nieces, and grand-nephews and grand-nieces. He devotes his time to the school and the additional tutoring he does in the evenings, and being able to help the Rohingya community is something he regards as ‘tanggungjawab bersama ummah’ (shared responsibility of the ummah). I suggest to him that it is a shared responsibility for everyone as well, to which he smiles warmly, and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“There are so many of them here now… so many children and elderly as well. All coming here without homes and places to go to. So many come here split from their families. It’s so easy for the rest of us to forget and pretend they cannot be helped, but as a Muslim, that’s a fundamental betrayal (“khianat“). It doesn’t matter where they come from, or what their nationality is. They are our fellow Muslims. So much of the world hates Muslims, so if Muslims hate fellow Muslims and turn a blind eye to suffering, then we might as well stop calling ourselves Muslims. It shouldn’t matter if they are Rohingya or Palestinian… suffering is suffering and there’s no excuse for neglecting one or the other.”
“I had an old friend, from back in 1996 or 1997, who was Rohingya, and used to live in Cheras when I taught at a school there. He was a security guard at the school, and we would always talk in the mornings, when I would bring him teh bungkus (tea in a plastic bag), and I still remember him telling me stories of his children back home, how he wanted them to do well in school and become successful. When I see many of the Rohingya children today, who come to class, I always think of his stories of his children. That’s part of the problem with a lot of our people (Malaysians), we think of the Rohingya as if they are outcasts, unwanted burdens. We don’t see them as people, with hopes and dreams, with little children. It’s different when you actually know them and their families, then it’s not that easy to disregard or ignore them. That’s why most of the Malay communities, the ones who live with or close to the Rohingya, are much more aware and understanding, at least those who were taught how to be good Muslims. Everyone else mostly don’t want anything to do with them. They are seen as jahil (stupid, ignorant) or sisa (waste).”
We talk about the children and the evening classes he teaches. Cikgu Ramli says that he has been tutoring Malay to the children for almost 8 years, though he had never had the large numbers that he did until more recently since 2015, when the community grew larger almost overnight. He had been caught by surprise by the number of new families that asked to have their children attend the Malay classes, in the hopes that they would be able to better assimilate into the local community. The parents and families would reach out to elders, indicating they had young children who needed schooling but lacked basic language skills. For most of the refugees, getting into public schools were near impossible, so they had to rely heavily upon private lessons and tutoring, such as the ones organized near the surau.
“The good thing is that this is an older Malay community, where a lot of the families are now well-to-do and contribute a lot to the surau. So there’s resources for providing for the poorer community. It is good that we can do this without asking for payment or anything from the poor, which is how it should be anyway.”
“The children are good, they are very obedient, and they show a lot of love for learning. They are rarely kurang ajar (rude) or lazy… sometimes, they get discouraged or they feel like they are struggling, but if you are clear with them, and repeat things, they will learn well. I teach Malay, Chinese, Indian children all the time, and with these Rohingya children, I don’t think they are in any way worse or less capable. They can be just as pandai (bright). The only thing separating them, is they are nasib kurang baik (less fortunate) to be born in that country.” It was then I realized that Cikgu Ramli never uses the word Burmese or Myanmarese, and rarely refers to the country by name.
Murthi’s ‘fixer’ is a young Indian man, named Siva, who had been working for organized crime gangs and local businesses. Siva, as far as he was able to tell, was born in Malaysia, and grew up here. He had never known any other place aside from KL, having been left as an orphan from a very young age.
“Annae (Big brother), you want to write about my story… it’s very sogam (sorrowful). I hear you always write about these other (migrants), why not about your Tamil brothers? We’re also migrants, too, no? I can tell you my story… my takkapan (father), I never knew… probably some drunk, wife beater who fucked my mother and left the next day. My mother was a whore, that much I remember. She dropped out babies as often as she took a shit, with all the men she was with. I stayed with her for a few years, me and all my siblings. I don’t even remember how many anymore. And we had no money, whenever we went to ask her for help, she would tell us to go away, or tell my sisters to go sell their bodies for money. Whenever we needed money because someone was sick and needed medicine, two of my sisters would have to whore themselves out just to make a bit of money. They were maybe 15, 16… We used to stay behind, in the slums in Kepong, when I could remember, but never in one place. There, I still remember, every evening she would bring all these men back to the flat, even with all of us children in the house, she would still do it inside the room. They would use her like a toilet. Eventually, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left with one of my annae, and we decided to join a gang, which was letting us work and make money selling protection. That was, amybe, 7 years ago. I was 13, or 14… I don’t remember. Brother, I actually don’t know when I was born. No birth certificate. Ammakari (mother) probably gave birth to me in a toilet…”
Siva’s not the first young Malaysian-born Indian boy I knew who was in the type of situation he finds himself in. This is a story that I come across often enough for it to strike home in a very personal way. The only difference between Siva and me is one of fortune and relative privilege – of being descended from grandparents who had slightly more presence and status as indentured laborers from South India. I’m the lucky one – my grandparents had not died from working the plantations, leaving behind orphaned children to fend for themselves. Siva is from the countless young people who have become the generation of tragic orphans that Belle writes about – effectively several generations of stateless South Indians born and living in Malaysia with little representation and recognition. Only the kind hand of fate and fortune prevented me and members of my family from sharing the same life as those like Siva. The term ‘big brother’ was more than just a simple way to refer to each other, it often felt like a plea for help and guidance, laced with bitterness and perhaps even slight contempt at the fellow Indian, whom despite his success, doesn’t seem to be much helpful to his fellow Tamilians. I could understand that.
“Thambi (little brother), have you been working with the gang since then?”
“No, annae. I am in the gang, but I work other things too… not all is crime or bad. I also try to do clean work whenever it’s possible, like I would help work for the local temples, they would sometimes give us money for buying supplies and carrying things, so I try to do that. It’s also good work, maybe it will balance the bad work I have to do. I have some of my young siblings who are staying at an ashram (orphanage) now, since they can’t stay with that whore anymore. They are better, they are safe and get a lot of things they need. And I like to go visit them, bring them gifts, food… that sort of thing.”
“The work I do for the gang is out of necessity, brother. I don’t have a choice… you won’t really understand, you obviously come from a nice family, you have education and a nice job. But you know why I didn’t have a choice, besides not having a good family? We don’t have birth certificates, so we cannot get I.C.s (National citizenship cards), so how am I supposed to find proper work? The only people willing to hire is the gang, and they pay decent money to help us get by, so of course we join… Brother, you believe this, don’t you? If we all had the kind of chance and opportunity you had, then none of us would be doing this karmum (nonsense)?”
“Of course, brother… I know. I wouldn’t be here talking to you if I didn’t believe that…”
“When people look at us boys doing this work, when they see my sisters whoring out, they think we’re all good-for-nothing. They look and spit at us. They don’t think or treat us like people. What can we do? I’m telling you, if we could, don’t you think we’d want to go to school too, or study well and become professionals? Like you? But what’s the point? They won’t even let us go to school… at least my younger siblings are getting some schooling at the orphanage. Maybe they will be luckier than me…”
I stood with Siva under a tree in the corner of a parking area while we conversed. He was leaning forward on his motorbike – a kapchai (scooter) immensely popular in Southeast Asia, with a cigarette in his hand. Siva had long, wavy hair, combed back, and a gold stud in his right ear. He was at work, technically, looking after the parking zone for the men who were visiting the district in search of sex. Along the same street, other young Indian boys like Siva were also present, likely doing the same job.
“We’re all being paid by the Chinaman, there… he’s the khozhi thalai (head pimp). Our gang does the protection around this area, and he pays us to run his business. We get discounts with the girls, too, not that we can afford to have a lot. These girls are expensive, even though they are all filthy Vietnam and Myanmar whores. Trust me, brother, they look very nice on the outside, with their dress and make-up, but they’re all completely dirty, especially down there (gestures between his legs). If you try with them, guarantee you’ll get itchy for months in your balls. Just ask Rao over there… dey, kamnati (yells at his colleague standing across the street from us), how are your balls doing? Still itchy from fucking that Vietnam lady?” Siva laughs loudly, as Rao gestures an obscenity back at him.”
“Where else do you work, brother?”
“Here and there. I sometimes go help a cousin of mine who works in Kepong for one of the big gangs there — a lot more money. I’ve been thinking of joining them but they do a lot more dangerous work. They work in that Selayang area, where there a lot of these Myanmar gangs who are really scary. There was once me and a few other boys went to Selayang to just for fun, to look for pussy, cos there’s a lot there. But when we got there, and tried to have some of the Burma girls, suddenly these guys started coming with parangs (machetes)… and we got really frightened and started running away on our bikes. We’re used to being the ones doing the scaring, but those Myanmar fellows, they are truly intimidating, brother. They don’t care about what happens, if you mess with them or their people, they will chop you up. My cousin has told me stories about how they like to cut off your kunji (slur for penis) if you try to fuck one of their girls. He has friends who got caught like this…Not sure if I want to be working in an area like that…at least here, the worst I have to worry about is police raid or some asshole trying to mess with the girls a bit too much.”
“Brother, if I’m honest, I don’t want to be doing all this work forever. It’s the only way I can make money, buy food, and help my siblings. What I really want to do is start my own business, maybe scrap metal, bottle recycling… then I can change into a clean line of work, maybe buy a house… of course, I also want to marry a nice girl, have children. Don’t know if that will ever happen.”
Most of what used to be the old Indian and Malay kampung and slums around the area known as Kampung Pandan have gone, disappeared. Removed and demolished by the real estate property developers keen on kick-starting their massive new condominium and high-rise apartment projects. Some of these massive new constructions have already been completed or near-completion. Tall, imposing, and almost overwhelming tower blocks that absolutely dominate the immediate skyline, blocking out the views of the mountain ranges in the distance and even closer landmarks that dot the KL skyline such as the KL Tower and the Twin Towers. These tower blocks were built on the ruins of slums that used to be the homes of hundreds of very poor, working class Indian and Malay families, many of whom relied upon and worked in the informal sectors that used to drive local small businesses and economies, from crafts and food to scrap metal and recycling. I grew up around these parts, my family home located right next to one of the major slums, where I would often bike and walk around with friends, playing soccer or other games that kids used to play around here.
Not all of the slums have been eradicated or demolished, those that remain were too far away from the construction sites that they were left to be. Except no one who used to live there remained. These ghost slums now host a different population of precarious denizens – migrants. Workers – men, mostly – who were the primary labor force fueling the rapid construction and development of these new hyper-buildings mushrooming all over KL. The slums that used to be called Kampung Melayu and Kampung India, now bear a different name – that of the kongsi. These are little different from labor camps for the migrant workforce – pockmark reminders of the (in)human cost of hyper-modernization and ‘growth’ in Malaysia. Blink, or look away, and you’ll never be able to find these ghost camps again, so well are they hidden and pushed away into the margins of the city, conveniently situated out of view by sheet metal barriers and fences that block out construction zones and neighboring buildings.
When I try and recall memories of the slums of Kampung India, back from when I was a child, I remember a cacophonous, chaotic and lively community of people who spent most of their time outdoors, either working, socializing or playing. Perhaps, in my childish immaturity, I remember people who were happy and smiling for the most part, or gossiping animatedly with their neighbors, talking about politics and sports and food. I remember a liveliness to the community, in spite of the clearly impoverished conditions people lived in. For a long time, this was a community that was left alone in the margins of KL’s urban core, irrelevant to policy-makers and city planners due to their abject peripherality and the greater emphasis to developing new suburbs away from the center of the city itself. That all changed in the space of only half a decade, when a return to the urban center precipitated efforts to revitalize and modernize the heart of KL, thus heralding the mass eradication and removal of older slums and village communities to be replaced by constructions that were more becoming of a global city such as Kuala Lumpur. Similar projects took root in areas such as Pantai Dalam (now called Bangsar South), Cheras, and Puchong.
The life that used to characterize the slums no longer exist, but the old beat-up dirt paths and the occasional shack, hut or Hindu shrine serve as haunting reminders of what, and who, used to be here. This was one of the communities that became home for the ‘tragic orphans’ Belle (2014) talks about – the marginalized, disenfranchised descendants of indentured laborers and slaves left behind and forgotten by history. It does feel like this ruins itself are a fittingly tragic marker of the ghosts of our colonial past that we are still trying desperately to shake off. But the past has a way of returning in ways that are least expected, and in this case, through a renewal of the colonial tragedy of indenture and bondage through the pseudo-modern projects of globalization and modernization. Here, in the ruins of the slums past, reside the groups of ghost people tasked with building our city.
Mohamad Rashyed, or Syed, as he introduced himself, offered to have some teh tarik with me on evening, at a small street-side food stall just outside the kongsi where he lived with his fellow construction workers. Syed was in his thirties, lean, wiry and deceptively strong, like many of his colleagues. They have to be, considering the nature of their work which involves spending hours each day under the hot sun performing heavy construction work. Syed spoke English a bit better than most of his compatriots – I had met him while walking through the kongsi earlier in the day, and attempting to speak with people before he had eventually overheard and come over to introduce himself.
Syed’s story is one that I hear echoed repeatedly among so many Bengali, Nepali and Indian migrants to Malaysia. He had come here having borrowed a lot of money from an agent who had promised that he would be able to find well-paying work and opportunities in Malaysia, only to discover upon arrival that he had been involuntarily recruited to become a construction worker under the employ of a sub-contracting agency in KL. Syed, like those he works with, had his passport and documents withheld, and was prohibited from leaving the premises of the site or the kongsi. He was also subject to strict curfews, though recently, he tells me that many of these restrictions have been ‘loosened’ thanks to the recent elections and the new government coming into power in Malaysia, which has left a lot of local firms and employers cautious about their labor practices.
“Last time (before the elections), you can never come outside of the site during work hours. They would have the whole zone closed off, and locked, except for when the lorries and tractors need to come through. We would be expected to keep working, have our meals together at the site, where they have a small kitchen and food tent, and then continue working. Even after work, we were supposed to go back to the kongsi and not be outside. That’s changed, since the elections. We have a bit more freedom to move around, after work hours. We don’t have the thugs that guard the kongsi anymore, but the supervisor still holds all our documents so we can’t really afford to disobey them, if they tell us to remain inside.”
From where we were seated I could see one of the shared living spaces inside the labor camp, where a few workers were sitting on the ground or on cement blocks watching a small tv, which apparently one of them had scavenged from a scrap dealer recently. Most of the place looked like it had been scavenged from bits and pieces of what used to be the homes of families – pillows and old mattresses, torn sheets, plastic tables, broken shelves and other furniture, lamps, buckets, old radios and generators, even utensils and dishes. It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic setting – a Mad Max meets Slumdog Millionaire aesthetic. At a stretch, this reminded me of many of the descriptions of urban chaos and deprivation that Mike Davis described in Planet of Slums, and one can easily fall into that line of thinking just by looking at the space of the kongsi.
Returning to Syed, who does not speak much but provided fairly succinct answers when he did, I tried to see if he would be able to provide some insight into daily life in the kongsi.
“How much time per day do you think you spend in the kongsi, as opposed to at the construction site?”
“We all work at least 12 hours each day at the site, from 6 am to 6 pm. It is normally 7 am to 7 pm, but the scheduled was moved to accommodate fasting month. Since we have start fasting normally around 5.40 am, we would be awake and head to work at 6, then we can come back in time to break our fast, usually around 7.15 in the evening.” Syed, like most Bengali migrants, is Muslim.
“Do you break your fast with together?”
“Yes, of course… we can hear the prayer call because there is a nearby mosque, so we are usually ready by that time, and prepared the food, so we gather and break our fast together. It’s a good time of day, for me, and for the others too. We get to observe our faith without interruption, so for that we’re thankful.”
“If it’s not too wrong, may I ask how you manage the long work hours while fasting? In the heat, without any water?”
Syed smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “That’s what it is, sir… what else can we do? Sometimes we have to manage by drinking because it’s too intolerable. Some of us try to handle it, but not all of us can. We’ve also been warned by the management that we should be careful to avoid exhaustion and dehydration during fasting month, but their work is still the same. If you’re smart, you need to know when to take a break and slow down, so you don’t strain yourself too much. My work involves carrying and lifting things, usually cement pails, bricks, and so on, so it’s very draining work. I get thirsty all the time, sometimes I have to drink my own sweat.”
“Has anyone been hurt or suffered from heat stroke?”
“We’re always having one or two of the workers who would collapse or faint during the day, and we would have to carry them to the shade and leave the to recover. That’s when the supervisor comes and scolds us for not drinking or taking water in while we’re working. He’s Chinese, he doesn’t care about our fasting, and told us a few times that if we’re smart we’d be more concerned about our health than our faith. But after a few more workers kept fainting, they are a bit better to us, especially because they are afraid of something bad happening or someone complaining outside.”