Hooked On Cheap Labour

By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

I have never been so amused by the antics of our politicians whose indecisions and flip-flopping policies have left many Malaysians in the lurch. Admittedly, February was one roller coaster month for the rakyat who, after having enjoyed a brief but subdued Chinese New Year and Chap Goh Meh that followed, were unnecessarily distracted by fears of a possible invasion of the human kind. No, not the armed type like the ragtag army of the Sultanate of Sulu, but beaming and overjoyed Bangladeshis whose dream of making it good in their supposedly “Land of Milk and Honey”, Malaysia.

Their joy is being accentuated by a recently-inked agreement between the two Muslim nations to recruit 1.5 million of their kind to work in a selected number of sectors which ordinary Malaysians shun. These so-called dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs or 3D, for short, are not appealing enough to the locals. Thus the necessity to bring in foreign workers and Bangladesh, being a major source of labour, is the obvious choice.

The use of foreign labour is nothing new. When tin was extensively mined in pre-independent Malaya, Chinese, mainly from Southern China, were brought in to work in the mines. And when rubber was introduced as a cash crop, Indians were brought in to work on the plantations dotting the countryside. This was the scenario in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. Rubber soon gave way to oil palm and Indonesians became the preferred choice. A brief stint by Bangladeshis in the oil palm plantations of Sarawak and Sabah failed and the plan was aborted in the late 1990s.

This need for readily-available manpower was instilled in the business community who made a fortune extracting tin from the soil and rubber and oil palm from the jungles. This insatiable thirst for cheap labour has not diminished much and the latest ballyhoo about 1.5 million Bangladeshis for the agriculture, manufacturing, building, service, hospitality and security sectors stems from this desire by industrial players – big tycoons and corporations whose livelihood depends on human labour not machines like in the West. Mechanisation, they argued, is expensive, as acquiring capital equipment requires investments and huge financial outlays, which they could ill afford.

Political leaders, not wanting to offend these big-time players, accede to their demands for workers from across the seas. They have conveniently overlooked the almost 500,000 illegals who are in the country, courtesy of a porous border, and the 400,000-odd local graduates who are jobless.

The woes faced by Malaysians are endless. Foremost, we have a bunch of clueless politicians who make decisions on the run and an equally inept civil service that sucks up to these overbearing leaders whose shelf-life has long expired.

In a recent survey only 36 per cent of learned Malaysians trust government-link news media. The majority prefer to get their daily intake of news, both good and bad, from social media. The proliferation of social media, via the Internet, is indicative of a population that distrusts mainstream news media and considers anything that comes from the government as propaganda aimed at confusing the rakyat. The brainwashing, most claim, is similar to what was practised in then East Germany and now North Korea, long regarded as the Hermit Kingdom. The need to keep their citizens muzzled, ill-informed and subdued is paramount.

What is most confusing, however, is policy statements made regarding rehiring and new levy on foreign workers. But when opposition to the planned recruitment of 1.5 million Bangladeshis got out of hand, the matters were conveniently shelved. Is the deferment permanent or put on hold? Malaysians are not a forgetful lot although politicians think so. A contentious issue will not dissipate like water on sand. It will remain to haunt those responsible.

The issue has its humorous side too. Some have suggested that we source politicians from Bangladesh to replace the current lineup. “They’re cheaper, intelligent but obedient. And above all, they can converse in English,” said one commentator. I cannot agree more.

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