Thursday, December 11, 2014

Malaysia’s New Migrants

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Shyam is a skinny 32-year-old who
 looks barely out of his teens, the father of a young boy whom he has
 not seen for nearly two years. I first met him four years ago when he
 was working as a porter for a trekking company in the hills of
 western Nepal, close to where he was born and grew up.

Back then, his work involved hauling 60-pound baskets of provisions
 — half his own body weight, we calculated — up and down the steep
 slopes of the tourist trails for 10 hours a day, all for a daily wage of $7. Employment was seasonal, dangerous and scarce.
Now, he works as a full-time security guard at a car showroom on 
the island of Penang, in Malaysia. He earns $430 a month, over
 four times the average wage in Nepal. In purely economic terms,
 things seem to be looking up for him. But like millions of other
 foreign workers in Malaysia, he has no paid holidays and lives 
under the constant threat of violence and deportation.
Chatting occasionally to Shyam in a pidgin version of Bahasa 
Malaysia (or standard Malaysian), I see clearly the parallels 

between his aspirations and those of my ancestors, who made
 similarly perilous journeys from southern China to Malaysia 
nearly a century ago: the desperation in fleeing extreme poverty
 to make a living in a country about which they knew virtually 
nothing; the harsh working conditions in their adopted country,
 bordering on indentured labor (and, in some cases, actual
 indenture); and always, the sense of a cultural and emotional
 disconnect from their new surroundings while maintaining a
 deep nostalgia for their homelands.
But I’m struck, most of all, by one key difference between the
 migrants of then and now, which highlights how patterns of 
migration within Asia have changed over the last 100 years. 
Whereas almost all the Chinese and Indian immigrants to 
Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries settled in
 their adopted country, eventually establishing large
 communities that still thrive today, not one of the 16 Nepali
 workers who share Shyam’s cramped dormitory intends to
 put down roots in Malaysia, or even return to the country 
for another three-year contract once their present one runs out.
The reduction of the migrant experience to pure economics
 over the last two decades has irrevocably changed the nature
 of human movement in Asia. It also highlights the growing
 gulf in wealth between middle-class countries such as 
Malaysia and Singapore on one hand, and Nepal, Bangladesh, 
Myanmar and Cambodia on the other.
Moving across borders is no longer an act of hope, but one
 solely of necessity. Money has turned migration into
 something ephemeral, a passage to be endured rather 
than the permanently transformative experience it once was.
Shyam’s dilemma is common to most migrant workers I’ve
 spoken to in Malaysia: They are paid just enough for them
 to want to remain employed, but are trapped in an endless

 cycle of 12-hour shifts that makes it impossible for them to
 interact in any meaningful way with local life. They have no 
chance, or incentive, to become an integrated part of
 Malaysian society. Malaysia has been a rich melting
 pot since the 1500s, because of its favorable location
 on trading routes between India and China, as well as its
 colonial history of successive occupation by the Portuguese,
 the Dutch and the British. But its new migrants are treated 
merely as a resource, rather than as potential citizens who
 could contribute to and enrich Malaysian culture.
Malaysia’s impressive economic growth over the last 
25 years — at an average annual rate of about 6 percent —
 has been sustained by a constant influx of workers from 
poorer neighboring countries. Recent estimates suggest 
that there are now about 2.5 million foreign workers, a 
vast majority of whom are in low-skilled or unskilled jobs.
This poses a problem to the way a rapidly modernizing and
 increasingly wealthy country like Malaysia thinks about 
itself. In just one generation, it has gone from being a
 country that supplies cheap migrant labor to others, to 
one that receives it.
This swift transition has caused a kind of collective confusion
 about the country’s status. It is as if Malaysia has still not 
absorbed the fact that it is now officially an
 “upper middle income” country, according to the
 World Bank. (And it is poised, 
according to a recent Forbes report, to graduate
 soon to “high income” status.)
The protection of foreign workers and their gradual 
absorption into society — a hallmark of most 
developed countries — may well materialize 
as Malaysia becomes accustomed to its
 middle-class status. But for the moment, 
the gap between economic and social
 advancements remains considerable.
Shyam and his friends discuss how they will use
 their meager savings when they return to Nepal.
 The latest dream is to move down from the hills
 and start a pig farm in Pokhara, the country’s
 second-largest city. This promise of a better
 life — in the very land they wanted to leave in
 the first place — is what keeps them cheerful 
amid the depressing statistics around them.

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