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Are Malays really lazy?

Rice farmers at work - Photograph: salafiyunpad.wordpress.com

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This age-old colonial idea has to be critically analysed and confronted lest we keep on perpetuating the myth, writes Azmil Tayeb.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad recently stirred up another controversy by trotting out the tired old trope of “the lazy Malaysians” (read: Malays) who are indolent and solely dependent on government handouts such as BR1M.

The prime minister added, “We bring in foreign workers to do the jobs Malaysians do not want to do” (The Malaysian Insight, 25 November 2018).

There are two issues in Mahathir’s statement that can be dissected and challenged: why the perception of “lazy Malays’ still persists and why the foreign workers are doing the jobs that Malaysians are supposed to be doing.

In his seminal book The Myth of the Lazy Native, published in 1977, Syed Hussein Alatas persuasively argued that the notion of “lazy natives” traces its origin to the colonial ideology that combines the belief in racial superiority of the white people and the predatory nature of the colonial capitalistic economy.

From the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s up to the outbreak of World War Two, European colonies such as British Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies (pre-independence Indonesia) served mainly as producers of raw materials and cash crops destined for the metropoles in Europe. The colonies existed for the sole purpose of resource exploitation to enrich the European capitalist class.

Many natives saw the exploitative nature of the colonial economy and refused to be part of it. For their refusal to be exploited by the colonial economy, the natives were branded by the colonial administration as lazy, primitive, and lethargic.

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Painting an image of the natives in such unflattering colours also augmented the idea that the white people were more economically developed and prosperous because they were industrious, forward-thinking and rational, the exact opposite traits of the natives. As such, white people deserved to be at the top of the strict colonial social hierarchy, followed by mixed blood, foreign Asians, and finally the natives at the bottom rung.

Myth lives on

It was a myth that was repeated countless times by colonial administrators, scholars, travellers, and journalists to the point it morphed into an incontrovertible truth.

Unfortunately, the myth did not die when the colonies became independent. In the prescient words of Syed Hussein Alatas, in the post-independence era “the image of the indolent, dull, backward and treacherous native has changed into that of a dependent native requiring assistance to climb the ladder of progress.”

It is precisely the image of the Malays that Mahathir portrayed in his 1970 book The Malay Dilemma and which he has continued to propagate until the present.

During the colonial period, the natives’ refusal to participate in the exploitative economy resulted in a labour shortage, which in turn required the import of cheap workers from India and China to toil in the rubber plantations and tin mines, respectively.

Minimum wage vs living wage

Fast forward to present day Malaysia and similar economic dynamics are still at play. Instead of India and China, Malaysia now imports migrant workers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal to do the exploitative jobs that Malaysians refuse to do – or are too lazy to do, per the good doctor.

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Let the facts speak for themselves. The current minimum wage in Malaysia is RM1,100, which came into effect on 1 January this year, RM400 less than the amount demanded by Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and various civil society groups.

But the minimum wage does not equate to a living wage. The International Labour Organization (ILO) refers to living wage as “not just to the existence of a minimum level of remuneration, but also to a minimum acceptable standard of living”. In other words, earning a minimum wage might not guarantee a person the basic necessities of a decent life such as housing, education and food, among others.

In a damning 2018 report published by Bank Negara Malaysia, the provisional living wages for Malaysian working and living in Kuala Lumpur range from RM2,700 for single adults to RM4,500 for couples without a child to RM6,500 for couples with two children.

Indeed, a yawning chasm exists between what a person earns working a minimum wage job and what a person actually needs to earn to lead a dignified life in the city.

No wonder many Malaysian choose to opt out of the exploitative economy that heavily favours the profit-making interests of the employers, not the rights of the workers.

Exploiting migrant workers

So migrant workers are brought in to do the dangerous and underpaid menial jobs that many Malaysians refuse to do. The desperate conditions that force the migrant workers to work in Malaysia make them vulnerable to abuse by predation by employers and government officials.

This does not include the staggering number of deaths and severe workplace injuries, pitifully compensated if at all.

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According to a report by Amnesty International, 386 Nepalese workers died in 2016 while working in Malaysia (Free Malaysia Today, 21 January 2017). That amounts to more than one death per day!

The Indonesian government also proclaims that 32 migrant workers from the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur alone had died in Malaysia in the first five months of 2018 (Jakarta Post, 3 August 2018).

No Malaysians in their right mind would be willing to put themselves at serious risk for a mere pittance.

The age-old idea that the natives are lazy therefore has to be critically analysed and confronted lest we keep on perpetuating the myth founded and espoused by the colonisers.

‘Laziness’ needs to be seen not as a product of a defective cultural trait and an unenlightened mind but in the context of neoliberal economic policies that sacrifice workers at the altar of profit-making and negatively tar those who refuse to be exploited.

An excerpt from Syed Hussein Alatas’ book still rings true today: “There is a pressing need to correct the colonial image of the Malays for this image still exerts a strong influence amongst an influential section of non-Malays, and it has also influenced a section of the Malay intelligentsia. The persistence of this image will impair the effort towards national integration.”

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