Thursday, 9 February 2012

Malaysia paved with gold?

Malaysia is not paved with gold


Many Cambodians, who work two jobs in their homeland to make ends meet, see Malaysia as a country where life is good and where one can earn a lot of money.

MY guide Sey, an affable but quiet Cambodian man, asked how old I was. I had spent the whole day scrambling about the famed temples surrounding Angkor Wat. I was elated but bushed.

A temple guidebook in one hand and a bottle of mineral in the other, I grinned and asked him to guess.

Working for a living: Nepalase workers laying grass in the field. Many migrant workers choose to come to Malaysia in hope of a better future.
“Wrong!” I squealed at each attempt. After a few guesses, I showed him my passport.

He stared at me, and was silent. After a few seconds, he spat out: “Life in your country must be good. I am younger than you, and I look 20 years older.”

Sey is a graduate in hospitality and communications. He is 30 and cares for two families. He is in Siem Reap in the morning to guide tourists, and in the evenings and weekends is back at home, about two hours away, where he toils on a small patch of vegetables and does odd jobs.

His story is not unusual. Many young Cambodians work two jobs.

In the beginning, it was good. He found a job at a hotel, and worked his way up to the front desk. One day, he found his position had been filled by the child of someone important. “In Cambodia, to get jobs, you must know people. But I always ask why? Why? I am educated. I speak English. Is it like that in your country?”

He looked at me and asked, “Can you find me a job in your country?”

I stared at him.

“I hear in Malaysia you can become rich. Many Cambodians have gone there and earned a lot of money.”

I croaked: “Sey, if you come to my country as you are, you will be dooming yourself to a life of slavery. If you are not a high ranking government official or professional, or have business interests, you will end up as a waiter in some low-end restaurant or as a labourer in a construction site; and you may never see your money because some agents are cheats.

“Even worse, you might have to sell your body to unscrupulous men and women.”

He gawped at me. I had to be the worst ambassador Malaysia ever produced.

But no way could I promise heaven to a young man whose future may be doomed further. Perhaps I have too many activist friends. I have seen too many secretly taped videos of migrant men, women and children being abused. I love my country, but I am not blind to its dark side.

I looked at Sey. He looked so heartbroken I wanted to kick myself. I have never believed in destroying anyone’s dreams, but if this young man – whose intention was to just earn some money to help his families – comes here and ends up abused, I would not be able to live with myself.

It’s a lucrative job, hiring migrant labour, and my father, who had seen the ugly side of the building of our country, told me if I got myself involved in a maid or labour agency, I would be condoning human slavery.

My father does not tell me much, but from the few things he has hinted at, I know that only a person whose God is greed and power can stomach this.

One time, I had to pass Mont Kiara, and there were a couple of men comforting a worker whose head was bleeding profusely. The mandor was shouting at them to get back to work.

I sat in my car, transfixed by the sight. I told my friends what I saw, and one sniffed at me: “Your sentiments are idealistic. This country would not be built if not for these workers.”

And there was that other time when I went to a supermarket and the man who helped me with my groceries spoke to me in perfect English. He was a Bangladeshi and an engineering graduate and had come here to earn money. I couldn’t believe my ears. An engineer was pushing my trolley?

And there was also Rosa, the cleaner I befriended when I was a student pursuing my Masters in the UK. She cleaned up the rooms and houses in the area. She was from South America. She and her husband were graduates, too.

Before I left for Malaysia, she had written her favourite poet’s works on a sheet of paper. Alas, I lost that piece of paper over the years.

I was at the Bayon temple the next day but instead of pretending to be an archaeologist, I sat at one of the corners of the temple and thought of Sey. The grass is always greener on the other side, yes?

Sey and I communicate once in a while via e-mail. I told him that on my next visit I would want to see temples that tourists had not mauled yet. I can’t stand tourists, they should be shot.

“But you are a tourist, too. Hahaha!” he replied. By the way, he wrote in his e-mail, his patch was flowering and they were able to sell some of the vegetables he had grown. It’s still a hard life, farming.

Malaysia – so many Dick Whittingtons (a character in an English tale who went to London to seek his fortune) looking for that road paved with gold.

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