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Building "Nostalgia" Communities

South Asian Migrant Workers in Malaysia

Anindita Dasgupta (Anindita.Dasgupta@taylors.edu.my) teaches at the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Taylor's University, Malaysia. Neeta S Singh (neeta@sunway.edu.my) teaches at Sunway University, Malaysia.

The South Asian migrant workers in Malaysia are not completely rootless individuals set adrift in an alien environment. They have created their own little exclusive comfort zones and tried to find a sense of belonging in a new socio-cultural milieu.

All photographs are credited to Anindita Dasgupta and Neeta Singh. 

Migrants in Malaysia

“I am just waiting to go back,” said the young Bangladeshi waiter, Jibon, quietly serving Malaysia’s favourite breakfast, nasi lemak, at a posh restaurant in a mall in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, “I feel lonely most of the time. I will find some sort of work in my country when I go back.” His employment agent in Bangladesh had promised him a managerial position at a restaurant in Malaysia, but upon arrival, he was assigned to a waiter’s job instead.  Jibon’s main concern is to save enough money to repay the loan his family had taken to send him to Malaysia, and he hopes to go back as soon as his contract ends.

Workers at a Light Rail Transport (LRT) construction site.

Robson from Sri Lanka, on the other hand, believes that Malaysia is a country that is “safe” and where “people enjoy a lot of freedom.” He feels “lucky” to be in Malaysia, and is happy to stay here for “many more years.” Jibon's and Robson’s views seem to illustrate an important consideration of a migrant’s feelings about his place in the host country. Their attitude may be shaped by lack of job opportunities, besides political, social and economic factors, in their country of origin. Robson’s sentiments may have been shaped by the years of political upheavals in Sri Lanka, so it is not surprising that he feels “safe” in Malaysia.

Equally significant in shaping the migrant’s attitude towards the new environment is the financial commitment and emotional investment that the migrant’s family back home has put into the venture, making it imperative for him to succeed at any cost. This would be a strong motivation for him to try to adapt and adjust, if not to completely assimilate in the unfamiliar and new culture of the host country.

Metamorphosing Landscapes in Malaysia

The enormous growth in the migration of foreign workers is visible in the rapidly changing physical and cultural spaces of the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur. Jibon and Robson are not alone in their pursuance of the Malaysian dream. Almost every week, hundreds of young people from different parts of South and Southeast Asia continue to arrive in Malaysian cities, towns and even rural areas in search of a better life. Most of them are employed in the construction, plantation, manufacturing, agricultural and domestic sectors as well as in security firms.

Banks advertising remittance services in Bengali.

In the past decade alone, its bustling cityscape has seen the proliferation of Nepali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants and grocery shops, and it is not unusual to hear strains of Nepali or Bengali music blaring from the numerous little stores along the crowded streets of the city centre.

Popular Malaysian banks are beginning to advertise their remittance packages in Bengali, Bahasa Indonesia, Tagalog and Nepali, and much of the haggling in the city's popular Chinatown area is carried out by Bangladeshi salesmen. Ironically, even local shoppers are sometimes accosted by foreign salesmen to purchase metallic models of the iconic Malaysian Twin Towers to "take back home" with them, resulting in responses ranging from amusement to outright consternation.

Out on Kuala Lampur streets on their day off. 

Driving through the commercial centre of the city, especially on a weekend, one is overwhelmed by the presence of large numbers of foreign workers on the streets. These are the popular “hangouts” where they congregate every weekend to socialise with others from their own countries. On other days of the week, it is these foreigners who serve the Malaysian public, quietly and unobtrusively, from the busy gas stations, crowded restaurants and, construction sites. They work as security guards, house maids to office cleaners in this rapidly globalising Southeast Asian country, presenting itself to the world as “Truly Asia”. How this intriguing peninsula became a melting pot of cultures that is Malaysia warrants a peek into history.

Magnet for Migration: A Peek into history

Historically, Malaysia’s socio-economic growth has been largely dependent on migrant labour and enterprise. In fact, Malaysia’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and multi-religious population is the product of economic migration from different parts of Asia from earliest times. The Malay Peninsula, with its bustling little ports along the coastline, had historically attracted lucrative trade from Arabia, India and China, earning it the name, “The Golden Chersonese.” This thriving mercantile trade was the magnet that brought people of different ethnic origins and religious faiths to the Malay Archipelago in increasingly large numbers in the precolonial era. In this period, many migrants from India, China and parts of the Arab world stayed back permanently in the Malay Peninsula and established lifestyles, ideologies, and social activities which were similar to their countries of origin.

At the same time, they also adopted many of the local customs, ideologies and cultural practices. Consequently, this period saw the emergence of uniquely hybrid communities known as the “Straits-born” or Peranakan (local born) such as the Indian Chittys, the Chinese Baba-Nyonya and the Indian Muslims who reflect a unique mixture of the local Malay culture with the original Indian or Chinese. In a world that was primarily maritime, and ruled by local princes or Sultans, such communities became intrinsic parts of the evolving Malayan social fabric.

Arriving in Malaya at the beginning of the industrial era in Europe, British economic interests became inextricably linked to the search for natural resources to feed the growing industrial machinery back in England. The dictates of British economic policy led to them importing more labour from China for the tin mines and from India for the rubber plantations. There was a resultant mix of indigenous Malays, Indians, Arabs and Chinese arrivals who together created a heterogeneous society of diverse ethnicities and cultures, which in 1957 evolved into an independent nation. This period was crucial in establishing the current demographic structure of peninsular Malaya, wherein the three major races are still defined according to population ratios are the Malays, Chinese, and Indians. Thus, ethnic, cultural and religious affiliations were fundamental in defining these three distinct identities which exist till today.

In such a melting pot of cultures, it was inevitable that issues of belonging and identity would surface. This motivated the political leaders of the three races to create their respective race-based political parties. Consequently, the Malays formed the United Malays National Organisation, the Chinese founded the Malayan Chinese Association and the Indians founded Malayan Indian Congress to look after the interests of their own communities. Though these three race-based parties united under one Alliance Party in 1955 to gain independence from the British, the parties are divided along racial lines till today. The issue of identity was therefore a product of modern and colonial politics and practices in the peninsula.

In the postcolonial era, the focus of Malaya’s economic development gradually shifted from commercial agriculture to industrialisation. The rapid growth of the industrial sector in the newly constituted Federation of Malaysia (1963) initially attracted a large labour force from neighbouring Indonesia not only due to its geographic proximity but also because of shared ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious commonalities.

Over the next three decades, large numbers of workers from Bangladesh and Philippines also came to Malaysia in search of job opportunities. Thus the Malay Peninsula once again became a magnet for migrants who filled the gap not only in the labour intensive manufacturing and construction sectors but also as domestic help in households, as local women were increasingly entering the workforce in significant numbers. Gradually, the economic space for migrant labour also opened up in the two east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo.

The next major phase of economic migration began in the late 1990s and is still continuing. This phase heralded the arrival of a new generation of labour force this time overwhelmingly from South Asia. The phenomenal growth of the service industry, tourism, security services etc, created a demand for manpower which was readily fuelled by migrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. The influx of a growing foreign workforce added new challenges to what was already a complex multicultural society grappling with its own issues of belonging and integration in what was a considerably young nation.

About Belonging, or Not

In a society where even before independence its multi-ethnic population had struggled to establish a national identity, current migration trends add further complexities and reopen the discourse on belonging. In contrast to the pre-colonial and colonial era migrants who became intrinsic parts of Malayan society and nationality by birth or naturalisation, today’s migrants cannot become citizens easily. Paradoxically though, they have become a “silent” and “shadowy” part of the Malaysian environment, who are “seen” and yet “unseen” but tacitly accepted as an essential part of the labour force.

In such a scenario, the migrants may not aspire to belong but merely seek to “adapt” to the new work environment in order to achieve their purpose and return home. This willingness to adapt to the new country is apparent almost in all areas of the Malaysian public space. The petrol pump attendant from Bangladesh, for example, may have arrived merely three months ago but is able to communicate in fairly intelligible Bahasa Malaysia. In restaurants too, one is regularly served by foreign workers from Nepal, and it is not uncommon to have one's office cleaned by a Bangladeshi or Indian who speaks broken English or Bahasa. They are also the mainstay of the security industry, as the mushrooming gated communities, condominiums and malls are guarded by security guards from Nepal, India, and Pakistan.

Certain South Asian vegetables and fish which were difficult to find in Malaysia even a decade ago are now almost regularly spotted in its numerous pasar malams (night markets) or the traditional wet-markets. It is also not unusual to drive into the neighbourhood petrol station and have one’s car vacuumed and washed by young men from the Punjab or some other part of South Asia. Social and meaningful interactions take place among them in the remittances sections in banks, visa sections at immigration offices, as well as the newly established restaurants serving affordable South Asian food.

Migrant workers relaxing on their day off at a popular hangout.

Nostalgia is translated into the existence of these “hangouts”, restaurants and grocery shops where the migrants create their own little exclusive comfort zones which are typically “theirs”. These spaces are especially important in providing solace to workers who may have been the victims of exploitation and abuse from their employers. So the community does not only preserve nostalgia but also serves as a “refuge” for them in times of distress.

These communities have also successfully adapted to their physical or spatial environment in familiar places such as places of worship. For instance, workers from Punjab often gather on Sundays in the local gurdwara, which has become a common meeting place not only to satisfy their spiritual needs but also as a space for social interaction and sense of community. They reciprocate the hospitality of the local community by helping in the communal kitchen in the gurdwara where the langar is prepared for the congregation. Thus, the religious space serves a very important function, of providing for spiritual needs, social interaction with one’s own kind or a feeling of kinship and the opportunity to contribute by working or doing sewa (service) in the temple kitchen.

Sikh worker at the gurdwara. 

The same could be said about the Nepali migrants who often visit the local Hindu temples even though much of the temple architecture, practices and prayers are distinctively South Indian. Similarly, Christian migrants pray at neighbourhood churches. Punjabi migrant workers from India also seem to adapt quite comfortably to working with and living among Pakistanis due to cultural and linguistic similarities. Such commonalities seem to underpin the discarding of political hostilities and serve to establish some kind of kinship and solidarity when they are thrown together in an alien environment.

Arguably, such examples provide evidence of the premise that though the migrant workers may not aspire to belong permanently in Malaysia, they are not completely rootless individuals set adrift in an alien environment either. In fact they find their own space and sense of belonging both within the migrant community as well as in the largely Malaysian socio-religious milieu. A small percentage of migrant workers admitted that they were open to the idea of marrying local women and settling down in Malaysia. However, their first preference was to marry sub-continental Malaysian women as they are socially and culturally similar.

Thus the current trends in transnational economic migration do not necessarily create completely rootless communities in Malaysia. It is, in fact, similar to pre-colonial times when traders came from different parts of Asia mainly as transients who returned home once they had achieved their purpose. There were also those who stayed back, married local women and put down permanent roots in Malaya. In the same way, migrants who come to Malaysia now are economic migrants who, except for a small minority, do not aspire to set down permanent roots. The foreign workers in Malaysia, in their own innovative ways despite limited opportunities, build “nostalgia” communities tied together in the hope that one day they will return home to their loved ones.

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