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Surely the Indonesian Press is Doing Its Job? Julai 11, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. NoorEvery time I find myself in Indonesia, I am asked the same question by my Indonesian friends and students: Why are Indonesian workers in Malaysia treated so badly there?

It is well known by now that the treatment of foreign workers, both legal and illegal, in Malaysia by Malaysians falls short of many standards deemed acceptable in any other developed country. Time and again we are treated to lurid accounts of violence, intimidation, corruption and downright abuse meted upon foreign workers by the members of the host community. It has become sadly commonplace to hear about foreign workers having their passports taken away from them until they have fulfilled their contract; foreign maids being locked up at home and not allowed holidays; racial abuse in the streets, and sexual abuse in the homes where the workers earn their wages.

Not surprisingly if and when such news is made public, it receives the attention that is its due in the Malaysian press – which is not exactly the freest press in Southeast Asia at the moment. Even less surprisingly when such news gets back to the home country of the workers themselves, it is often pounced upon for reasons of a common national solidarity among co-nationals. This is not new nor unique to Indonesia: The South Asian press is full of accounts of Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan workers being abused in the Arab countries, Europe and North America. That is, after all, what the press is there for: to highlight news that is seen as relevant and of interest to the readers and viewers.

It therefore comes as a surprise (well, not really) that Malaysia’s Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin recently lamented what he regarded as the negative role played by the Indonesian media in raising the issue of workers’ abuse in neighbouring Malaysia. Minister Zainuddin was at Indonesia’s Padjajaran University speaking at a conference commemorating fifty years of Malaysian-Indonesian relations, which has taken a downward turn over the past few months thanks to the issue of mistreatment of Indonesian workers.

While the Minister may have a point when noting that the Malaysian government has provided schools and education for the children of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, he seems to have lost the point about press freedom and the responsibility of the media. To suggest, as some Malaysian leaders have done, that the Indonesian press has deliberately stoked the flames of public outrage and anger by highlighting the instances of workers’ abuse in Malaysia is pointing the finger of accusation at the wrong party. If Malaysia, or any other country for that matter, does not want to be seen and found guilty of mistreating its foreign workers, then the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the Malaysian government to see to it that such abuses do not happen; and when they do, should be reported and taken action against. Surely in cases like these the real culprits are the Malaysian employers – be they companies or families – who have abused their employees in the first place?

In a classic case of shooting the messenger for delivering the message, the Malaysian government’s admonition of the Indonesian media serves no purpose apart from shifting the blame of responsibility from the guilty to the bystander. While emotions can and do run high when such reports make it into the public domain, it would be nonsensical to expect the Indonesian media to keep silent while cases of abuse in Malaysia continue to rise, inundating the Malaysian courts with more and more unresolved cases. Furthermore, would the Malaysian media not be doing the same if it were Malaysian workers who were being cheated, abused, sexually assaulted, denied their papers and exploited at will elsewhere in the world? And wouldn’t Malaysians have every right to feel angry if their co-nationals were being mistreated abroad too?

The perennial edict ‘treat others as you would like them to treat you’ comes to mind here. After fifty years of Malaysian-Indonesian relations, surely we should have moved from a politics of difference to the point of a politics of recognition: One that sees the Other not as a foreigner – alien and incomprehensible – but rather a reflection of ourselves, with the same needs, wants and aspirations, and the desire to be treated with dignity and respect.

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