Saturday, January 24, 2004



Indonesians often lament the fact that their country has now become an exporter of cheap labour to neighbouring countries like Malaysia. Once upon a time--during those halcyon years after Merdeka--Indonesian teachers were much sought after in Malaysia and Malaysian students used to study in their universities.

Now all they read about are the brutality of the Malaysian police against their TKI (pronounced, "tay-kah-ee", short for "Tenaga Kerja Indonesia"--Indonesian manpower or labour). Because life is hard for a lot of people in Indonesia, there's a general tolerance and sympathy for people who are just trying to earn a living, even if sometimes their means of livelihood--though not against the law--are a public nuisance. Pengamens, beggars, asongans and jokis come to mind. But some, like the ojek payung--people, often kids, who offer umbrellas whenever it rains--do offer a much appreciated service to the public.

Blue-collar workers, who do have a steady job, often have some means of earning side income too. The satpam (security guard) at the museum or some tourist spot, would offer to act as your guide, for a tip. The clerk at the National Library will ask if you would prefer "cheaper" photocopy services from him. One does not blame them for their "entrepreneurship" for these people work for a pittance. While we the educated middleclass, with our huge disposable income, would limit our number of children to two, these labouring massess--ask any one of them--they will tell you that they have a wife and four kids at home to support.

In Malaysia, the middleclass often blame Indonesian workers for crime in their neighbourhood. I have also heard a lot of horror stories about problems with Indonesian maids from my friends. To many Malaysians, Indonesian workers have become a "necessary evil". It is a pity that we often forget that for many of us, our forefathers who came to Malaysia were also cheap migrant labourers eager to eke out a living in a promised land rich with tin and rubber.

When our PM visited Jakarta recently, there were protests by certain groups against our brutality and inhumanity against Indonesian workers. They claimed that Malaysia owes their success to the sweat and tears of Indonesian workers. There would not have been the Petronas Twin Towers or the Sepang Formula One Circuit without TKI.

Malaysians often despise Singaporeans for behaving like a rich kid in a poor neighbourhood. If we do not address the poor PR that's filtering to the Indonesian media, then it is only a matter of time before we too are being perceived as the arrogant rich.

Migrant workers are an inevitability in any developed country today. Many of these migrants will eventually settle down here and become an integral part of our society. We Malaysians, have to learn to deal with Indonesian workers fairly and firmly. The reality is, we need them as much as they need us.

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