Boy

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World Bank Photo Collection: A construction site in Kuala Lumpur

I’ve only just realised the significance of my encounter last week with Rashed, the owner of Loveon Cafe and Deli in Adelaide. It was not the Bangla breakfast – poached eggs with lentil soup, not the iced coffee, nor the hand-made clay earrings from Bangladesh; it was the first time I have had a conversation with a Bangladeshi.

This is surprising because I return to Malaysia every year, temporary home to tens of thousands of Bangladeshis; they are everywhere but everywhere unseen. They might lay bricks in construction sites, make beds in hotel rooms, fill up cars at petrol stations but I’ve never had a conversation with any of them.

‘Full tank,’ is probably the most I have ever said. Aside from the obvious language barrier, there is something else that prevents me from asking even a simple, ‘How was your day?’ – the knowledge that that in all likelihood he hasn’t seen his family for months, is sending almost all of his pay home, and his employer-provided accommodation is not exactly the Hilton. This knowledge makes me feel that the question would be insensitive at best, patronising at worst.

Our forefathers used to be barred from the Selangor Club, where colonialist played tennis and drank at the bar, native workers bringing them them clean towels and drinks. It still irks me when I read of someone calling for ‘boy’ in period novels – a native servant could be fifty years old, but to his employers, he would still be ‘boy’.

We who have known how humiliating it was to be regarded as inferior, what it was to be regarded as less intellectual, less capable, less civilised, do we treat Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Burmese, as a lesser class of people?

There is something fundamentally wrong in a world where some people have to leave their homes, to work in another country for years, in order to provide food for their families, or money for their children’s schooling.

My paternal grandmother left her family in Menglembu, Perak, to work as a maid in Penang up north. She only returned during Chinese festivals a few times a year and as a result my father never really had a close relationship with her, but at least she was still in Malaya.

In two generations we have moved from a society of servants to a society with servants.  May we remember where we came from and treat our foreign workers as we would have liked our grandmothers and grandfathers to have been treated.

 

 

 

 

Graves at sea, graves on land

Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper
Parameswaran Cartoon from a Thai newspaper

Today, May the 29th, officials from 17 countries are attending a “Special Meeting on Irregular Migration in the Indian Ocean.” Myanmar had threatened to boycott the meeting if the term ‘Rohingya’ was used in the official title.

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that there are 2,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya still stranded at sea. The Australian Prime Minister has flatly ruled out resettling any of them.

A few days ago, a cartoon published in a Thai newspaper, The Nation, depicted horrified Malaysians uncovering a mass grave – a reference to a grisly discovery in the northern Malaysian state of Perlis – with a twist on Malaysia’s tourism slogan: ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ to ‘Malaysia Truly Embarrassed’. One Facebook comment was, “Yes, well, who is doing the smuggling? And would The Nation dare print anything like this about the situation in Thailand?”

I feel a deep and abiding sadness within me and recall the Malay proverb, “Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati ditengah-tengah“, which translates: As the elephants fight, the mouse deer dies in the middle.

It so happens today that a few hundred Rohingya are stuck on a boat out at sea, a handful of officials are meeting in Thailand and I am blogging at my writing desk. If we were born at a different time or in a different place, all of us could easily have traded places.