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Malaysia and her Empathy Deficit Disorder

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Recent negative sentiments expressed after the Cameron Highlands tragedy reflect the widespread convenient demonisation of migrant workers, writes Sheila Santharamohana.


The queue snaked around the corner, reflected in the pristine marble coolness of KLIA, past the gleaming duty-free stores and appeared incongruently still amidst the purposeful hustle of Malaysians returning home.

Not allowed the privilege of using the trolleys, these arrivals shouldered their meagre luggage patiently, as weariness, confusion, fear and hope wrought shadows across their weather-beaten faces.

It struck me then – the only thing missing in this scene were the manacles on their legs. Where were they going? What were the fates of these young men, fathers, sons and brothers? Will the hardships we pile on them turn them into hardened men? Undoubtedly.

They were a new batch of migrant workers, destined to toil in oil palm plantations, construction, site, electronics manufacturers and a myriad of other sectors that Malaysians refuse to work in. Literally the backbone of our agricultural economy, the 6.7 million migrant workers, both documented and undocumented, build our homes and highways, plant, harvest, make and serve us our food, look after our young, repair our cars, clean our homes and provide cheap service in almost every industry imagineable. Yet, they remain invisible to us: living – barely, labouring and, more tragically, dying anonymously in our construction sites.

Recent negative sentiments expressed by Malaysians and certain top leaders after the Cameron Highlands tragedy provide yet more examples of our convenient demonisation of this community. By apportioning blame and starting a shameful witch hunt of migrant labourers, these powers have conveniently skirted the issue of who is actually accountable. The long-standing scandals of deforestation and land clearing in this region clearly suggest that influential forces wielding tremendous say over enforcement and the law are at work.

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As Malaysia is shamefully downgraded into Tier 3 in the Trafficking of Persons report, the Malaysian authorities are perceived to be incapable of tackling alleged gross corruption and inefficiency. This close-one-eye policy has allowed agencies and businesses to profit from the misery of migrant workers.

While certain groups make money, the pro-Umno news agencies continue their xenophobic spin to deflect attention and cloud our judgment, to make bogeymen of these Pati (the acronym for “Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin”): that they will take over our jobs, rob us of our money and women, infect us with diseases, control the economy and displace us.

These mouthpieces, however, fail to report the shocking conditions in detention centres, the ill-treatment suffered at the hands of employers and the authorities, and the lack of legal recourse while encouraging the ongoing criminalisation of migrants. Recently the arrest of a Nepali woman for terminating her pregnancy made headlines as it is the first such case in Malaysia. In the 90,000 abortions last year in Malaysia, why her?

Female migrant workers suffer untold hardships coming here, and they stand to lose their jobs if they conceive. Surely, it must be against human rights when an employer can dictate whether a woman in their employ should be allowed to bear children. Or do we now add a clause of celibacy as a prerequisite to working in Malaysia or another demanding the compulsory use of contraception?

How did we become so stunted in our ability to empathise and evaluate? Dr La Bier, a psychologist, calls this the Empathy Deficit Disorder, a modern day psychological disorder causing individuals to lose the ability to look outside themselves and their own needs to appreciate the experiences, thoughts, beliefs and ideas of another. Many Malaysians must be afflicted with this condition; how else do we explain our indifference to the plight of the labourer class?

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This detachment is manifested in so many cases of abuse of migrant workers and, of course, the escalating racism and polarisation in Malaysia. But then that is another story.

The government wants to charge these workers exorbitant rates in hospitals, further compromising their right to affordable health care. With the new rates, more sick workers are going to stay home or continue working despite their ailments, and more employers will wait till their workers are gravely ill before seeking treatment. Consider the cramped living quarters of these workers, and we can foretell a disaster in the making.

Already, we have a history of ignoring safety standards at worksites by circumventing legal loopholes and engaging outsourcing agencies. According to Charles Santiago, the MP for Klang, Malaysia has to abide by five out of the eight ratified core ILO conventions. But what is even more interesting is looking at the list of conventions Malaysia has not ratified or has denounced, including the convention on migrant workers and the abolition of forced labour.

A recent case underscoring our flagrant disregard for basic human rights is that of Lokesh Sapaliga, who managed to escape deplorable work and living conditions back to the safety of Mumbai. Lokesh went on to expose the unconscionably cruel treatment of migrant labourers in a fibre-processing plant in Sibu, Sarawak and recounted how he barely escaped unscathed.

Presently, the Malaysian media is spinning its nightmare portrayal of migrant workers as infighting murderers, human butchers and gang members. Regardless of these isolated cases, we still need to keep in mind the real issues: if we paid good wages, offered fair employment contracts and ensured equal and just treatment, few people, whether Malaysian or otherwise, would resort to crime.

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Malaysians need to remember that foreign labourers are not here to sponge off of us. That is one sterling job our government is well-versed in. We cannot begrudge the money they send back home as it is money earned by dint of hard work – which is more than can be said for corrupt politicians or civil servants.

Like all maligned migrant communities, these labourers thrive because they are toughened by their hard life eking out a living. Undeniably, they will grow in strength – that is inevitable – but should we blame them for the weakness in our government policies, bleak economy, corrupt ministries, poor law enforcement and our own lack of resilience?

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of some of our own migrant roots and how far we have come.

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