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Let me sing you a song from my homeland
Published:  Jul 23, 2016 11:03 AM
Updated: Mar 16, 2021 8:38 AM

Bikek (not his real name) is 19 years old and works at a fast food restaurant in the Kota Raya area. He wears earrings, has a big tattoo of a rose on his arm, and is dating a Filipino girl he met through text messaging.

But Bikek's girlfriend, a domestic worker, can only take a day off once a month and each outing lasts just four to five hours at a time.

When asked what they normally do on their dates, a smile spreads across Bikek's face.

“We will find a hotel near Kota Raya and rent a room for three to four hours, and do bad things," said the Nepali teenager with a glint in his eyes.

But Bikek shook his head when asked about his future plans, and whether he will go back to Nepal or to the Philippines with his girlfriend.

“We don’t know what we are going to do in the future, we don’t dare to think about it," he said.

It is difficult for migrant workers to have a stable relationship, let alone a future to look forward to.

Filipino hairdresser Jemmy is the only member of her extended family who isn't married, nor does she have a family of her own to take care of.

For her, the best choice was to go overseas in search of greener pastures.

Jemmy's family relies on her to earn money in Malaysia and send it back to them; only then will her nephews and nieces have a chance to study.

Left with no choice but to leave her hometown, she broke up with her lover of many years.

As we spoke, Jemmy would often ask, half-jokingly: “Can you introduce me to a nice guy?”

“You haven’t met one after so long in Malaysia?” I asked.

Jemmy sighed. “People here are different from Filipinos, it is so hard to find a local who can understand us."

Comfort from songs of praise

Filipinos who gather around Kota Raya are mainly female, and most will participate in church activities, trying to find peace through their faith. Lussie (not her real name) is one of them.

Lussie, 35, has two children back home in the Philippines and currently works as a domestic worker for a local family.

On Sundays, Lussie goes to St John’s Cathedral to pray. After service ends, she attends classes organised by the church, which include yoga, guitar lessons, nursing and modern dance lessons. Gifted with a voice, Lussie decided to join the choir.

Once lessons are over, she helps massage her friends; many female Filipino workers do housework from morning to night, leaving their bodies and muscles aching, said Lussie.

Lussie said she learned basic massaging skills from a class at the church, so her friends often come to her with their aches and pain.

On the day I spoke to her, Lussie stayed back in the classroom. Once everyone had left, she picked up a guitar and began to sing a lovely Filipino song.

“What is this song about?” I asked.

Putting the guitar down, she told me in her soft, gentle voice: “This song is called 'Napakasakit Kuya Eddie' (Eddie my friend, my heart is painfully hurt). It tells the story of a Filipino who works hard in a foreign country, while always missing his hometown.

“But when he finally returned home, he found that his two sons had become drug addicts, while his wife met a new guy, and even bore a child with her new lover.

"Looking at the broken family, he asked his friend Eddie: ‘Bro, what should I do?’”

As Lussie resumed her singing, her sadness was apparent, even though I did not understand the words.

A sermon in Tamil

Religious buildings such as the historical Masjid Jamek, Masjid India, and St John's Cathedral, can all be found in Kota Raya. Many migrant workers gather there during holidays or religious festivals.

On Hari Raya, Indian national Shuleh (not his real name) travelled from Banting to Kuala Lumpur, where he works in a mamak restaurant.

Normally, he wakes up early in the morning to prepare food for the restaurant's patrons.

But on Hari Raya, he dressed up in his new clothes, donned a new songkok and slippers, and left for Masjid India at around 8am with his friends.

There are few vehicles and pedestrians on the road during Raya. As Shuleh walked to Masjid India, Muslims from all over Kuala Lumpur had already flooded the street in front of the mosque, waiting for Raya prayers.

Most Muslim Indian and Pakistani workers flock there to pray because the mosque delivers its sermon in the Tamil language, according to Shuleh.

After prayers, they linger on the street, hugging, chit-chatting, and taking selfies with family and friends whom they haven't met in a long time.

On that special day, they do not mind the hours it takes to commute to pray in Masjid India, said Shuleh.

Besides, they get the rare chance to go shopping in Bangla Market, or visit tourist spots like KLCC or Batu Caves, he added.

Bangladeshi worker Ibrahim (not his real name) had asked for leave in order to travel from Terengganu, where he works, to his friend's house in Bangla Market, Kuala Lumpur.

He feels at home when he is at Bangla Market, as he can finally eat Bangladeshi food, see familiar faces and hear familiar words.

Most importantly, he does not feel excluded.

The Selangor Mansion

After prayers, I followed the crowd to the Selangor Mansion. An old building, the Selangor Mansion's first floor houses an Indian mamak restaurant and several stalls selling an assortment of items, from Indian magazines to fruits.

This place also has the best roti canai in town, or so I heard.

Following the crowd into the building, I was met with a pungent, spicy smell, mixed with a slightly uncomfortable stink.

The peculiar smell led me to a staircase to the second floor. It became stronger as I found myself in a nine-floor apartment complex, its upper floors crammed with people.

In front of me was a platform teaming with garbage. Men, half-dressed, sometimes walked through the apartment's corridors to throw rubbish onto the platform; others spat from the upper floors.

The Selangor Mansion's first and second floors house grocery shops, barber shops, offices and mamak restaurants - all of life's necessities packed in the two levels.

I asked some Bangladeshis lounging in the corridor how much their rental cost. Their answer took me aback. The small, substandard rooms can cost up to RM500 per month, which they share with three to four roommates per unit.

Makeshift stalls on the streets

Malaysians complain about the falling ringgit and soaring living costs, yet migrants who send money to their hometowns are hit just as hard.

Many have taken on part-time jobs to earn more money. Some of them unfurl big, red cloths on the streets, opening makeshift stalls that sell snacks, fruits, medicines or second-hand clothes.

Outside the Kota Raya shopping complex, Malay women could be seen holding bags containing medicine; Filipino women passing by them would pause to buy their wares.

“Many Filipinos females perform housework every day, in the end they lose their appetite, so they buy appetite-enhancing drugs from us," the sellers said.

Sometimes, an elderly Muslim man with a white beard, dressed in a white rob, could be seen sitting on the streets, waiting for customers.

Those who approached him were told to squat before him. Once they obliged, he smeared some medicated oil on his hands and rubbed their faces vigorously.

His movements drew the attention of passers-by; many migrant workers gathered around him in a circle, as if watching a street performance.

One migrant worker explained to me that the man was helping them get rid of the acne on their faces.

Meanwhile, Bangla Market has many stalls selling betel nuts; sellers will paint some white lime on top of the leaves, roll them up and fill them with spices.

However, they often run into trouble with municipal enforcement officers. Forced into a corner, they usually hand over some cash in the hopes that the officers will leave quietly.

Threats and violence

But for undocumented migrant workers, it doesn't matter whether they are involved in illegal businesses or not - they constantly worry about being harassed by enforcement officers.

Burmese Nadhin came to Malaysia to escape the fighting in Myanmar, but she didn’t manage to get a refugee card, never mind a valid working permit.

She joins one of the most vulnerable groups in the migrant community: the undocumented immigrants.

Each time her employers exploit her or officers harass her, Nadhin can only swallow the bitter experience.

“When we walk on the street, officers will stop us, they request us to hand over our money. If not, they will search our handbags until they get enough money.

“If they meet male workers, they will search their bodies, sometimes they will ask those guys to take off their pants, to make sure that they didn’t hide money inside their underwear. If the officers can’t get enough money from them, their handphone will be taken away.”

Nadhin said migrant workers are not only targeted by enforcement officers; they often face harassment from local taxi drivers and gangsters.

“When we take the taxi, some drivers will ask us to hand over our money and handphones, or they will lock the doors and not allow us to get off.

“When we walk on the street we get caught, when we take taxi we will face robber-like drivers, where then can we go?”

Kota Raya may be like home for them, but they still face threats and harassment each day.

The staff at the barber shop, Lily and Merry (not their real names) said: “This place (Kota Raya) is no different from other places; maybe the safest place for us is Myanmar.”

Ah Hao (not his real name) works in Klang but comes to Kota Raya during the holidays.

He said many Burmese working in foreign countries were delighted by the regime change in Myanmar, and hoped it meant they could return home sooner.

“We all look forward to the government led by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, we will observe for a few more years, if the situation in Myanmar becomes better, we will go back.”

Nepalese Bikek hopes to leave Malaysia for richer countries, such as Japan or South Korea, where he believes he will receive better pay, allowing him to return home earlier.

The falling ringgit, the worsening public security, and fears for their safety make Malaysia an undesirable place, he said.

Shuleh said many of his friends had gone to work in countries that were more friendly to migrant workers, such as Saudi Arabia.

The Malaysian government prohibits migrant workers from bringing their family members along, and employers don’t encourage them to visit their home country, he said.

Robots deviod of feelings and desire

PSM deputy secretary-general Choo Choon Kai said problematic policies on migrant workers left them with their hands tied.

Although Malaysia's laws allow migrant workers to file legal claims for compensation, those who are sacked immediately become undocumented workers.

This requires them to apply for a “special pass” from the Immigration Department, in order to stay in Malaysia and continue their suit.

But that pass prohibits undocumented workers from finding another employer, robbing them of the chance to earn a livelihood.

This is why migrant workers would rather face exploitation from employers than take action against them, he said.

Choo said locals often viewed migrant workers as robots - tools devoid of desires and feelings, made to be easily exploited.

“Malaysia's labour laws should be covering all workers, but migrant workers who signed contracts with their agents are gradually restricted from exercising their rights.

"These contracts don’t allow migrant workers to join unions or get married, literally treating them as robots.

“Our migrant worker policy is just like how the British colonial government governed the Chinese, Malay and Indian workers during the colonial period, treating them as disposable tools that will be thrown away when they are all used up.”

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