Malaysia

Because this is home — Malaysian at home

May 30, 2011

MAY 30 — As a fresh graduate from a local university two years ago, I could have taken the easiest route and become an “instant expat” in a First World country. Singapore was just a Causeway away, after all, and the Malaysians who migrated there, my many relatives included, often came back with wonderful stories of success and the wealth that came with it.

It is a land of opportunity, they say, and if you want your talents appreciated (and be really rich), come here!

So I decided I would give it a shot, applying for a few jobs in Singapore before finally being called up for my first interview. And what I encountered shocked me. The interviewers were rude and chauvinistic, chiding me for my lack of Mandarin skills and openly dismissing my qualifications. The last straw for me came when I filled in my salary expectations.

“S$2,000?” I enquired as my pen hovered above the form, ready to put in the numbers. I figured if a Singaporean engineering graduate was paid S$2,400 to S$2,800, two thousand was a fair deal for a Malaysian graduate because of our unfortunately lower standard of education.

 “Er… that’s a bit too much,” came the reply.

“S$1,800 then?” I asked again.

“Still too much…”

I finally scribbled S$1,600 as she nodded in agreement. And that was how much I was worth in a city where rental prices for a room often hit the S$600 mark.

It was at that moment that I realised how little respect some segments of Singaporean society really have for us. We are no longer seen as “talents” the way some people are so keen to put it, but merely as cheap labour. I was just another face among the huge pool of Malaysians, Chinese nationals, Indians and other foreign nationals vying for yet another underpaying job in the island republic.

Needless to say, it was my last ever interview in Singapore because I decided I would not be applying for any more jobs there. In the months after that, I landed a job in Kuala Lumpur with a foreign multinational that paid me what I was worth and offered me opportunities for overseas work and travel.

Indeed, I am actually writing this from my office here in a European country where I am on a short assignment, and while I can honestly say that I am enjoying my time here, I also have to say that the difference in standards is not too big compared to Malaysia.

Like how I was at the immigration office here this morning to sort out some visa issues, and the service was as slow if not slower than Malaysia.

Do not get me wrong. While matching this “standard” is not exactly something to be proud of — we should always benchmark ourselves to the best after all — this incident reminded me of what a friend said a few years back. He had just returned from his studies in Australia then, and over a glass of teh tarik, he told me how the grass is not really greener on the other side, despite what a lot of people may say.

My reply? I will decide when I see it for myself. But now that I have, part of me is not actually disappointed that he is right.

It is also during these travels that I realise how mistaken my worldview was. Having been told for years how as a member of the minority in Malaysia you must move abroad to gain respect, I was pleasantly surprised to realise that the place and people who afford me the most respect is back home in Malaysia.

I mean, do some Malaysians really know what it is like to have racial slurs openly thrown at you on an Italian street? To have bad service at a restaurant just because you look different? Or to be questioned and your items searched by rude immigration officers at some European airports just because you look oriental (and hence profiled and targeted) while every white person breezes through?

Sure, we may have our minority-hating Perkasa and Ibrahim Ali hogging the headlines nowadays, but do they really reflect things on the ground? Do we experience such open and extreme racial profiling, stereotype and disrespect simply because of how we look? Really, do we hate each other that much?

The answer is no, because no matter how hard these people with vested interests try to inflame and divide us among racial and religious lines, at the end of the day I still end up buying my morning nasi lemak from the friendly neighbourhood makcik and have a cup of teh tarik at a nearby shop with my Indian macha.

Because we, on our most basic level, have learnt to respect and interact with each other in spite of the years of racial poisoning by some of our politicians. And it is our collective duty to ensure that we continue looking past our differences and ignore the voices of unreason that are trying to break us up.

I wish I can say for sure right now that I have made the right choice to stay, but I guess with all the things that are happening in Malaysia, only time can tell. In the meantime, I can only do my duty as a citizen and be constructive about the issues of this country, perhaps by volunteering with NGOs, political parties and making my opinions heard.

* We asked readers to tell us in their own words why they stayed in Malaysia... instead of migrating. This is one of the stories.