Is it not simple enough to forget that foreign workers are also human beings? Too many times we write or speak of them as if they were merely a number, a commodity. Or, a “smelly” beast. Not quite unlike how the Chinese were treated when they arrived in America to work on the railroads that spanned the continent and powered the economy.
Mark Twain wrote of that dismal period: “I have seen a Chinaman abused and maltreated in all the mean, cowardly ways possible to the invention of a degraded nature…”
Today, foreign workers are better protected. Or, perhaps they are.
Today, on a windy evening in Jenaris, as the sky grows a golden yellow, and the birds grow restless for a perch, and the hills and its denizens fall under the spell of slumber, he is walking, slowly but steadily, one hand keeping in balance a bag of rice on a shoulder, and the other hand tightly gripping a plastic bag laden with things.
I have seen him move this way before, pass the great stormwater pond of Jenaris, where milky storks come to rest and foreign workers to fish. But always, he was with others. I would smile at them. They would say, “Hello”.
Today, he is alone. I lift my hand and smile as he comes within a step or two. He smiles back. Curiosity tickles me, and I suddenly ask him, “Boleh cakap sekejap?” (Can we talk for a while?)
He stops and looks quizzically at this sweat-covered man in shorts. I rise from the guardrail and offer my hand. He stands unmoving. It takes a while of patient persuasion before Hasan relents. He puts the bags on the pavement.
I invite him to sit next to me, but he merely nods.
Hasan is tall, thin and dark. I had earlier on observed that unlike his companions, he kept his hair neatly combed.
His face is square and skin smooth, and his eyes wear a brightness that my own weary ones cannot compare with. His nose and mouth are small, and there is a gentleness about him that puts one at ease.
He knows a little more of Bahasa Malaysia than he does English. We share a few words on this, a few words on that. That is how our conversation goes, like an infant stream struggling to make its way through hills and valleys in search of a greater expanse.
This 24-year-old has been in the country for seven months. He had never stepped out of his village, near Dhaka, before that. He did not want to go, but his brothers told him to “cari duit” (earn money).
He says his father died in an accident years ago, and that is now up to his brothers and him to care for their mother and two sisters.
Hasan and his friends are building blocks of high-rises that offer splendid views of the reshaped Jenaris on one side, and the restful reserves of Hulu Langat, on the other. Each apartment costs up to half a million ringgit. In Malaysia, he lives in a cabin with many others; in Bangladesh, in “a very small house with everyone in the family”.
It is very hard work and he wishes he can do something else. But “what else can I do? I am not highly educated”.
Does he have a girlfriend back home? Doesn’t he intend to settle down?
He laughs. Then, he leans on the guardrail. Does he now perceive me as a friend?
Hasan says he longs to have a family of his own, and that he misses his mother and sisters very much.
But hardship and sacrifice are spoken in the same language everywhere. His thoughts and longings also live in the words of Tommy, an Indonesian I first met at a goreng pisang stall, and who I now count as a friend. The Javanese is toiling away in Malaysia, so that his wife and two sons can “have a better life than me”.
While Hasan is handsome, Tommy is coarsened, doubtless by years of unkind labour. He has just finished repairing a clogged “busuk” (smelly) sewage pipe, one of the “dirty, difficult and dangerous” jobs politicians say we refuse to do. “Terdesak, kita buat saja” (Desperate, so we just do it).
“I hope my sons will not do what I am doing,” he says.
Thus, a father, a human being, dreams.
David Christy has been with NST for 20 years, and possesses a keen interest in history