Sunday, December 20, 2009

Adults do get bullied. It’s called politics!

Bullies are mean.

Bullies think they have the natural right to make others feel bad about themselves.

Bullies are cowards.

Yes, so we’ve heard.

As a child, I don’t remember being bullied much. Perhaps it was because I was bigger than most other children but mostly, I think it was because I never allow myself to be bullied.

When I was six, I got into a bloody fight with a boy who teased me in kindergarten. He ended up having a black eye while I lost my front tooth. This explains why I grew up with a set of crooked teeth.

I don’t remember crying. Instead, I spent my teenage years begging my parents to let me wear braces.

When I was thirteen, one of our teachers tried to humiliate us by defacing our faces with a piece of white chalk whenever we made a mistake in class. I would sit at the back of the class, fuming and just when I managed to sum up enough courage, I stood up and blurted out, “You shouldn’t be doing this. What you’re doing is wrong!”

“Oooohhh, you think you’re so smart? Step out now!” The teacher yelled at me and threatened me with his long metal ruler from the table.

Oblivious to the threat, I walked right to the front of the class and extended my hand voluntarily. Smack! I received a hard blow to my outstretched palm.

I don’t remember crying but the teacher probably did after he was fired from the school once a report was lodged by my friend’s parents. According to my friend, her Mom said that she didn’t spend all those money on teenage-acne-skin treatment cream just for the teacher to draw on with a dirty chalk.

So now you think that being an adult, I probably don’t get bullied around. Bullying only happens when you’re a child. Adults are too dignified to subscribe to such method of intimidation and abuse.

On the contrary, I get bullied more as an adult than when I was a child.

As a child, we often get bullied by other children or adults because we’re either smaller in size, weaker in strength, ugly, fat, effeminate, eccentric or if we possess any other undesirable human traits.

As an adult, I’ve learned that societies are taught to believe that one’s worth is measured by gender, age, social status and income. If you don’t measure up, you’re more likely to be subjected to bullying by those who think that they are above everyone.

At the age of 25, I left Malaysia to serve as the youngest female UN volunteer in Timor Leste. I was young, idealistic and needless to say proud.

Working together with a mixture of people from various countries and diverse culture really opened up my eyes to the universality of human behavior. I left feeling proud but this was soon replaced by insecurity. Being the lowest paid UN staff, it was easy for others to make me feel small and insignificant.

Soon enough though, my job taught me to understand the importance and significance of my role in the greater scheme of things.

There was one particular senior staff who tried to make me feel that being a woman, young and a volunteer, I was not worthy of his respect. Being in charge of administrative, procurement and logistics coordination, he felt that he had great power and influence over anyone. Simply put, any staff who needed something as trivial as a chair, had to seek his authorisation.

Upon realising such power, many staff tried to gain his favour by giving him favours. He, of course, thrived on all the special treatment.

Being young and naïve, I did not quite understand the need for anyone to kowtow to him. I thought that it was simply his job to attend to the administrative and logistic needs of his fellow colleagues. Hence, I never bothered paying him more attention than needed and maintained our relationship strictly professional. I could not bear to be in his company since I questioned his intention and integrity.

Needless to say, my indifference towards his power and position eventually hurt his ego. I began to notice that it took me more effort than anyone else to request anything from him. He would snub me in public and found ways to make my work difficult.

The extent of his dislike for me reached a climax when he denied me access to a driver, truck, chairs, equipment and additional staff I needed in order to organise an important event.

His excuse was, I did not provide him with sufficient notice and it was a weekend where the word “work” meant nothing to him. It was of course an excuse used to make sure that I would be held responsible for a failed event since the word “weekend” did not exist in such a humanitarian work context.

I was given an ultimatum, to submit to defeat or to rise up to the occasion.

I chose the latter.

Instead of breaking down and pleading to him, I gathered all the strength and courage I had to put together all the resources I needed on my own.

That weekend, I spoke with some locals who agreed to lend me all the furniture and equipment I needed from the local community hall, drove my own assigned vehicle to painstakingly transport all the materials and hired additional workers from my own pocket. It was a lot of hard work. I could have made my own life easier but I chose not to compromise my dignity and pride.

The event was a huge success and the biggest battle won, was one of personal triumph. The senior staff soon learned that I would not be broken down and what I lacked in age and position, I made up in strength and determination.

There are many forms of bullying and for adults, they are politics in disguise. They may not always appear in the form of someone who is bigger, prettier or simply mightier, but often in the form of a senior person in a position of power. We are taught or made to feel that we are not good enough due to the fact that we are younger, uneducated, poor or simply being a woman.

However, if we learn to have respect and belief in ourselves, nobody can take that away from us no matter how hard they try. Bullies may break our physical being but hopefully they will never break our spirit. We can either submit to their prejudices or we can always prove them wrong.

Perhaps what we should think about is why there will be some people who love to put us down? I personally think that it is often the only way they know how to deal with their own insecurities.

The good thing is, there will always be a few people who will recognise and acknowledge our hard work and potential and those are the people who really matter.

My experience as a UN volunteer has taught me that every person, no matter how low they are in the scale of things, they each have an important role to play and they should never let other people try to convince them otherwise.

Always serve with pride and dignity because that’s the best weapon you can ever use to throw bullies off balance.

Bullies have no respect for themselves.

This article was first published on The Malaysian Insider on 18 December 2009 under the same title.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

International Migrants Day - Migrants in Malaysia

Someone once told me, “The world is filled with assholes. Well, at least ninety percent of it.”

It’s a strong statement, but believe it or not I think it’s close to the truth. Boy, what a scary thought it is.

It’s International Migrants Day today. Personally, I don’t know what that means except that the many Indonesian migrant workers I met yesterday do not know or even care that a day has been dedicated to them. There is no reason for any celebration whatsoever.

What do you think are the odds of a migrant domestic worker being employed by an asshole?


This is the story of Megawati, a 22 year old Indonesian girl who came to Malaysia with hundreds of thousands of others in search of a better life.

How long have you worked here?” I asked her.

Four months,” she replied shyly.

So, is it a bad majikan [employer] or agent which caused you to end up here?”

I was curious what brought her to the shelter at the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. More than 100 Indonesian women and children are being sheltered at the embassy while waiting to be deported home due to the absence of work permit. In fact, they wouldn’t have overstayed in Malaysia if they had their passports.

The many women I talked to share the same stories. They are there because their employers or agents had held them and their passports hostage after their contracts expire. They are there because they managed to escape. Many of them have friends or know someone still being detained illegally by their employers or agents.

These are not just the horror stories.

Megawati continued to tell me that her employer is a bachelor who hired two maids. She was one of them. God only knows why a bachelor needed two domestic workers.

After only working for 3 days, her employer started to abuse her.

How did he abuse you?” I asked her solemnly.

He kicked me in the stomach,” she said reluctantly in the beginning. “Sometimes, he hit me on the head with a vase. He also splashed me with boiling water.”

I gritted my teeth as I listened to her. She must have told this story a million times because she said it with such an even tone. For those who are not there to see the scars on her arms, would have thought she had rehearsed her story just to gain sympathy.

I held her right arm and inspected the clean but unnatural discoloration. “This looks old,” I said.

But when she arrived [here], it was filled with pus,” a woman sitting beside her intervened immediately. She must have thought I didn’t believe Megawati.

Show her. Show her.” The woman encouraged Megawati.

Megawati’s hands went up to the top buttons of her vermillion red shirt with batik printed collar. As she was unbuttoning her top, she told me that she has burn marks all over her chest.

It’s OK. I believe you,” I said while I held her hands to stop her from having to undress in front of me just to prove the abuse she had suffered.

Why do you think your employer did this to you?” I asked.

Because I made mistakes. Whenever I made a mistake, he would get angry.”

Did he sexually abuse you?” I had to ask.

No,” Megawati answered. I was not convinced.

A few seconds later, Megawati told me that her employer made the other maid cut herself up with a knife.

It seems that once the agent found out the unmentionable acts committed by the employer, she was immediately sent to the shelter. The police was notified and her case is still under investigation.

When I asked Megawati whether her parents know what has happened to her here, she told me no. When I asked her whether she would ever tell them, that was when tears started to well up in her eyes.

In a croaky voice, she said, “I would never tell them. They’re old. I don’t want them to suffer.”


Not everyone has a good agent like Megawati. Often than not, they are probably one of the worst perpetrators when it comes to migrant rights.

Dayanti told me that her passport is being detained by her agent. On top of that, she has given RM1,200 to the agent in return for the promise of going home safely at the end of her contract. Until today, she’s still stuck in Malaysia. She has not received her salary for five months and mean time, her agent has also borrowed RM1,760 from her. In total, she has paid a huge price for working in Malaysia for 2 years.

Before arriving at the shelter, Dayanti was detained by the agent with 3 other Indonesian women. They were forced to work at the agent’s house without being paid. In legal terms, this is considered as forced slavery. Like some of the tough ones, she escaped and ended up at the shelter. The other two are too afraid to escape and are still being held hostage until today.

What does the embassy do?

According to Dayanti, the embassy is trying to work things out with the agent. When I asked the Labour Attache what does working out with the agent entail? He said they try to solve the problem diplomatically. If the agent doesn’t cooperate, they will issue a single passage pass to the women so that they can return home.

What about cases of abuse?

The Labour Attache said that they will report this to the police. Many cases are being solved through mediation. This means, if the employers cooperate and agree to offer compensation (usually two months pay), they won’t press any criminal charges. It seems that most cases are being solved this way.

One woman wept as soon as she talked about her 4-year old daughter in East Java, whom she hasn’t seen for a long time. “I want to go home because I miss my daughter so much,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks.

Others told of the stories of being fed a meagre meal a day and some, were raped.

Not all stories were sad. Dayanti, for instance, laughed as she told me how she tricked her agent into believing her when she said she was going to feed the cat, when in effect, was a decoy for her great escape. Perhaps her agent’s ironic ability to love an animal has helped save her life. Perhaps, that’s why she laughed.

International Migrants Day will mean something when these assholes are being brought to justice. After all, they’re a waste of space in this world.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of the women

This article was first posted on Loyar Burok on 18 December 2009 under the title Migrants in Malaysia.