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STUMBLING BLOCK: The issue of Indonesian labour has affected cordial ties again
WHENEVER I see images of crowds attacking the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta, I find myself overwhelmed by a profound sense of sadness.
It is not merely the sight of violent mobs that troubles me, but as an academic who lectures and researches across Southeast Asia, I consider myself a native of this region and I lament the fact that our identities are still configured according to a narrow logic that was imposed on Southeast Asia by the colonial powers during the colonial era. It underscores the fact that many Southeast Asians do not see themselves as people of the Asean region and will allow their behaviour to be swayed by nationalist agendas instead.
It was thus disturbing to learn that yet again the Malaysian embassy was the scene of another demonstration this week, and that once again the issue of Indonesian workers in Malaysia has become the stumbling block to good bilateral relations between the two countries. Complicating matters is the allegation that Malaysians have been telling Indonesians to stop sending workers to Malaysia, which gives grist to the mill of hyper-nationalistic Indonesian groups with axes to grind.
The matter is admittedly both complicated and sensitive, and we need to approach this with some degree of nuance.
For a start, it is undeniable that all countries need to be mindful of the rights of workers, be they local workers or foreign ones. The universal nature of this demand is such that it should not be used as a bargaining chip to score points. Of course, Indonesians have the right to be mindful of the rights of Indonesians who work abroad, and it is the responsibility of the Indonesian state to safeguard the rights of their citizens who work overseas. However, on that note, it should be added that governments are also responsible for the rights of workers at home, and this begs the obvious question: if the working conditions of local workers at home are so good, then why do these workers leave in the first place?
Secondly, we need to be cognisant of the fact that in present-day Indonesia, there exists a plethora of new political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations that are contesting the country's political landscape. Some of these new parties and NGOs, unfortunately, represent the more radical right-wing fringes of Indonesian politics and seem comfortable articulating an increasingly nationalist and exclusive discourse that constantly frames other neighbouring countries in a bad light.
And while Malaysians are correct to be concerned about the state of foreign workers in Malaysia, we need to remember that there are many groups in Indonesia that are waiting to chance upon every bad report, every bit of bad news, to rally their supporters in yet another anti-Malaysian campaign there.
Malaysia has become a convenient punching bag for some ambitious Indonesian politicians who want to ride on the high horse of nationalism, so should we be providing them with even more ammunition for their right-wing campaigns?
I am not advocating sweeping dirt under the carpet, and for Malaysia's own sake, we need to keep our house in order and to prosecute those responsible for the abuse of workers' rights. But I am wary of becoming an accomplice to right-wing nationalist demagogues who seek external enemies to unite their own followers.
I am also disappointed that some of these Indonesian groups that claim to defend the rights of Indonesian workers abroad have not been as vocal as they should when it comes to defending the rights of Indonesian workers at home. And, if not, why is this the case?
In the end, however, adopting a broader human security approach has to be one of the ways that Malaysia can deal with the problems affecting our workforce in the country. As I have written several times before, the time will come when Malaysia must realise that its dependency on cheap foreign labour will be detrimental to its own interests.
For a start, there remains the need to address the needs of Malaysian workers first, and to ensure that the Malaysian labour force is not compelled to compete with cheaper foreign labour, despite what their employers may wish. The recent introduction of minimum wage is at least a step in the right direction.
Malaysians must also learn to value honest hard work for what it is: as valued and worthy labour that builds the nation. For too long, we have been charmed by the discourse of rapid development and we have perhaps undervalued the work of Malaysian labourers -- who are the bedrock of our economy and upon whose labour this economy is based on.
Safeguarding the rights of all workers will, in the long run, have other positive effects as far as nation-building and social cohesion are concerned, which is why I remain committed to it. What I am not prepared to do, however, is allow the issue of workers rights in Malaysia to be taken up by anti-Malaysian right-wing groups elsewhere. That would be a moral miscalculation of my part, akin to trying to do good in one instance, while serving the ends of mischief elsewhere by feeding the anti-Malaysian hate-machine by accident.