Stories of sacrifice and survival
By Annabelle Lee, Nicole Thum and Keshia Mahmood
Kuala Lumpur has always been a city of migrants.
The racial composition of Kuala Lumpur today has its roots in the mid-19th century when traders from all over South East Asia migrated to this land of opportunity. Many eventually made it their home.
Just like our forefathers, migrants today travel to the capital of Malaysia seeking greener pastures. Many from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Indonesia come to eke a better life often not for themselves, but for their families back home.
Everyday, migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur face discrimination and police harassment on top of being overworked and underpaid.
Yet life in this faraway city is a small price to pay in order to “cari makan” (make ends meet), as four migrant workers tell us.
Mohammad Monir Hussein left Bangladesh in 2007 to work in Kuala Lumpur. He now works as a stall operator at Restoran Halim along Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. An open air corrugated iron structure built out of a Tenaga Nasional substation, the establishment is more a mamak (an Indian Muslim eatery) than a restaurant.
Smiling and chatty, in fluent Bahasa Malaysia he recommends “Zeera Pani”, a peppery cumin flavoured drink popular in Bangladesh.
Monir works seven days a week but barely protests because like 300,000 other Bangladeshi workers in Malaysia, he earns more here than he ever could back home. Although tiring, life is good here he says.
Of the RM1500 he makes every month, Monir sends home RM1300. He tells us he has little need for money because his employer provides lodgings and food.
The remaining money is spent on purchasing phone credit to phone his wife back home and his 4-month-old daughter Mayabee, whom he has yet to meet. He only ever gets to see them through the phone screen but working abroad allows him to provide Mayabee better education and opportunities.
Right across the road from Monir is Lai Foong Restaurant, an iconic Kuala Lumpur establishment dating back to 1953. Zaw Htay Win has been a tea man here for the past 11 years.
He arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Yangon, Myanmar as a 17- year-old and has since mastered English, Bahasa Malaysia and Cantonese from his interactions with customers. He has even grown to love Hong Kong kung fu films and watches them once every two weeks when he has a day off. Wearing his navy snapback with the peak facing backwards, Zaw nods and smiles even when admitting he has no friends in this city.
As a child Zaw wanted to be an engineer but decided instead to leave Myanmar to look for work after his mother died. He wants to continue working in Kuala Lumpur because “whatever opportunities I didn’t get I want for my children,” he says.
Just a few steps away from the clock tower in Old Market Square is a dimly-lit hostel. This is home to Jit Bahadur Rai.
Jit is one of the 700,000 Nepali migrant workers in Malaysia, the highest number in the world (as reported by The Edge). Everyday he walks to his job as a security guard at Gedung Aneka Kamdar, a textile emporium about 1.7 kilometres from his hostel.
Like Monir, 38-year-old Jit works 7 days a week.
He does little else in between his 11-hour shifts except come home to “Security Hostel and Canteen”. The ornate colonial exterior of the hostel belies the living conditions inside. The small living space is subdivided into eight windowless rooms. Each room is furnished simply and shared among four people. The residents, all Nepalese security guards, share a communal bathroom, laundry area and have their meals at the canteen downstairs on the first floor.
Sumaiyah binti Abdul Samad came to Kuala Lumpur as a 16-year-old from Jawa Timur, Indonesia to work as a waitress at Restoran Tajudin Nasi Beriani. She stayed on for 32 years, almost two thirds of her life.
Her big expressive eyes light up when she talks about how she met her husband in Malaysia and how their 26-year-old son is doing well for himself here.
Most of her siblings and their families have also moved to Malaysia and made it their home. Sumaiyah can now afford to travel around her adopted country but still returns to her village in Indonesia for occasions like Hari Raya and weddings, sometimes up to three times a year.
She is used to life here in the city, she says. 32 years on, Sumaiyah now considers herself “kurang lebih” (more or less) Malaysian.
Monir, Zaw, Jit and Sumaiyah all left their homelands in search of a better life. To many migrant workers Kuala Lumpur is a temporary solution that demands its sacrifices.
To some like Sumaiyah, it has become home.
This article was produced at the Urban Regeneration Programme for Journalists workshop organised by ThinkCity from 13-15 January 2017.