Foreign workers in Malaysia

For the next half-decade at least, Malaysia will mourn the various tactics used by Barisan Nasional to skew election results their way. One such ploy – the use of foreign nationals to swarm ballot boxes with pro-BN crosses – represents an insidiously creative means of manipulating the already marginalised of a nation.

French philosopher Jacques Rancière talked about the ‘part of no part’ in any society. This refers to groups which are excluded in order that social order can sustain itself. There is a political price some segments of the country must pay so everyone else can go about their ordinary lives. In Malaysia, as in many other developing countries, these would include the poor, the indigenous peoples (or orang asli), and the foreign nationals.

It is a tragic but necessary reminder to all Malaysians that as things stand, people like the ‘Bangla’ man who vacuums our cars, the South Indian who sweeps our GSC cinema floors, the Nepalese who guards our nurseries and the Indons’ who lay the bricks which add up to our cloud-scrapers – all of these people were already ‘ghosts’ BEFORE the terms ‘phantom voter’ or ‘hantu’ (Malay for ‘ghost’) became hot and angry terms in late April and early May.

We see them but choose not to. We walk past them but might as well be walking ‘through’ them. We need them to do those tasks we’d rather not, but beyond that their existence means less to us than what’s for lunch. We know little – and care less – about their families, their cultures, their struggles, and their pain.

By their stripes, we are kept healthy.

These people are largely invisible, kept out of sight, refused a social presence yet critical for the running of our nation. Malaysia needs them but excludes them – this is precisely the definition of the ‘part of no part’. The excrement that we dispose of quietly and in private is the very same substance that nurtures our national body.

In other words, these folks are already being treated like sh*t, not least within a capitalist framework which values profit above equality (or anything else, in fact).

On May 5th, things got from dirty to outright smutty. Because a week earlier, Barisan Nasional, with aid from their ‘friends’ (the kind no ordinary Malaysian has), committed an election offense by charting planes to fly these foreign nationals to select destinations to vote in BN’s favour. And if they can’t get to the appointed place at the given time, police-escorted buses were available.

Cash for a national IC and a tick in the right box. That’s the Barisan deal for these people.

Not better welfare. Not a meaningful role in the development of the nation. Not a gradual induction into what it means to become a Malaysian. But money so a corrupted regime can stay corrupted via the innovative manipulation of an already compromised electoral process. Thus, from the ‘part of no part’, these folks have become the ‘part of a corrupted part’.

But things got worse, because many Malaysians now see them as the secondary cause of Pakatan Rakyat failing to gain more ground in GE13. There were many unfortunate cases of such folks – or folks which look like them (or don’t like ‘Malaysian’ enough!) – forced to sing the national anthem to ‘prove’ their Malaysian-ness (which is weird because I’ve seen enough Super Bowl openings to be able to stumble through the Star-Spangled Banner, but if I’m American then Bush is Thai).

A few compassionate folks on Facebook proposed taking the foreign nationals out for coffee as a kind means of preventing them from voting. What if, everyday, a thousand Malaysians sat down with a thousand ‘Banglas‘, talked to them, learnt from them, taught them, made friends with them? Does the thought that these good people could, one day, move our nation towards justice really sound too far-fetched?

Regardless, for that to happen, Malaysians need to stop looking at our foreign friends like ghosts. We must, as a nation, stop treating them like something we can’t wait to flush away. Nobody should be a ‘part of no part’. Because justice-loving Malaysians and migrant workers in Malaysia have a common bond, a ‘one language’: We all share in the universality of struggle, of personal/national trauma. Hopefully this transnational vulnerability can also affirm our neighbourliness, the willingness to help another nation-in-migration ‘fit in’ better to ours.

Hopefully, it can affirm our commitment to the country – both today and another fateful day four years from now.

Alwyn Lau is a PhD (Arts) candidate at Monash, Sunway (Malaysia)