Sex Workers in Malaysia, the People Who are Our Neighbours

sex workers Malaysia

Image courtesy of bungasirait

by Shaun Phuah

 

From the thirtieth floor of a condominium in Pudu, my friend asks, “do you see that building over there?”

“You mean the IKEA?” I ask.

“No, that one,” she points at a tall beige building with a black middle in the distance. “It’s a brothel,” she says.

I take my time and look at the building. From here, I can see its weathered paint, the green plants that climb off its balconies and onto its sides, the many air-con units that stick out along with an assortment of clothes hanging from windows that bring a flash of colour to the building’s front, hung out to dry in the afternoon heat. It looks like any other large KL building. I can’t help but think about how many other nondescript buildings across Malaysia provide similar services.

Malaysia is a constant mix of people, languages, and culture; a melting pot formed in large part due to the Strait of Malacca, a major port and passage of trade in the past and in our current day, considered one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Through this, illicit activity and goods move back and forth between Malaysia’s borders to the countries that surround it. These illegal entities encompass things as wide ranging as drugs, to refugees, to people who have been trafficked.

Malaysia as a whole is well known for being a country that “makes no distinction between refugees and undocumented migrants.” This means on a systemic level, refugees who are already in situations in their home countries where they have found it necessary to escape are marked as groups of people who can be exploited and trafficked by organized crime. Under such organized crime which utilizes this lack of policy that surrounds refugees, it becomes nearly impossible to see the violence that happens to these legally vulnerable people until it is already too late; as the discovery of the 28 human trafficking camps and the mass graves holding 106 human bodies in Wang Kelian shows. As a further consequence of the complete lack of policy surrounding refugees coming into Malaysia, police officers themselves, with the authority they possess, freely engage with and profit off of the exploitation of migrants seeking refuge that enter Malaysia.

Aside from refugees, migrants entering Malaysia willingly also face an unprecedented degree of exploitation as the Malaysian government fails to systemically form basic rights for migrants, allowing criminal groups to take advantage of this lack of systematization.

All this culminates in a country where sex work is a massive industry that is ultimately ignored in part because of the social stigma and laws that surround it. This industry could only exist however, as a result of demand. People—both foreign and local are still engaging with sex workers despite its taboo status. The fact that sex work remains illegal has not curbed its existence in the slightest; it has instead allowed this lucrative industry to be co-opted by bad actors and instead of the police stopping sex work from happening—because of its illegal nature—corrupt police use this lack of accountability to profit from and further exacerbate the issues surrounding human and sex trafficking. Even with a complete crack down on sex work by increasing police effort and giving harsher punishments to those interacting with sex work, the industry itself will remain. There is simply too much money to be made and too much demand.

 

A few years ago late at night, I was standing by a quiet roadside in KL, in front of a Chinese temple still under renovation. I was out smoking shisha with a friend and we were headed back to his car to get back home. The street was covered in the dim orange light of a few street lamps and I saw a woman standing by the roadside.

She was a pretty woman with long black hair and she wore a short dress that showed her thighs. She turned around, looked at me and waved.

“A prostitute,” my friend laughed, as we got in his car and he started the engine. I could still see the woman standing on this empty road until we turned the corner.

I still think about this woman. About where she must be right now.

Knowing that sex workers face a higher degree of violence as a direct result of the work they do and how they are perceived by society, a grim image is painted of the great adversities the average sex worker in Malaysia must face.

It is easy to look at the statistics and the data surrounding sex work and to dissassociate these facts from the actual people who under varying circumstances have ended up in this line of work.

But here was the actual person, who I recognized then, standing tall on this dark roadside by herself, had a level of courage that I could not imagine. This was someone who like anyone else woke up in the morning, ordered food from shops similar to those I visit, who probably had people they cared deeply about, who ended up a sex worker for many different possible reasons and none of them out of convenience.

 

On an initial level, is the simple fact that what is truly being trafficked is labour. Women who are trafficked are not always trafficked entirely for the purposes of sex trafficking, but instead are trafficked to Malaysia “for forced labour as domestic workers”. Sex trafficking is simply a large branch of the giant and lucrative tree that is forced labour. The only solutions are legitimizing migrants and refugees on a systemic level within Malaysia; a tricky and complicated solution that our government is reluctant to act on as voiced by Malaysia’s deputy home minister, Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar as he says, “If we allow these people to start working, everybody will start coming here.

There are no simple answers to the massive issues that surround human trafficking. However, the decision to simply ignore the issue and especially ignore it through wholesale criminalization of a wide ranging group of people only serves to empower criminal organizations and complicit government officials to profit off of and manipulate the system itself. To criminalize something does not magically allow the problem to disappear—it instead becomes deeply embedded within the system of our society as checks and balances disappear and accountability for the officials that abuse this system dissipates entirely. To create a system which legitimizes migrants and refugees is also to tackle the tools human traffickers and corrupt officials use at its very root; it also begins to tackle the very cause of sex trafficking itself.

 

It is a simple fact that sex work already exists and is here to stay in Malaysia, as stated earlier, it is too lucrative and there is an endless demand. Much like with the issues of human trafficking, to simply ignore the issue entirely through criminalization is to allow sex work as a whole to enter the invisible space of the underground where it becomes hard to track and hard to see; where it ends up entirely within the jurisdiction of law enforcement allowing for law enforcement to have no oversight which allows them to take advantage of and profit from the illegal industries they were tasked with preventing in the first place.

Research shows us that one powerful solution to sex trafficking is the legalization of sex work itself. This allows for sex work to be systemitized, so that checks and balances can be afforded to the industry as a whole, where not only law enforcement is involved, but an environment where social workers and other government agencies have the ability to further check up on and make sure that the sex work that is happening is within a consistently ethical context. The legalization of sex work would also decrease the amount of social stigma sex workers face and as a result, it would also reduce the violence that comes with that stigma. When proper regulation is implemented within the space of a wholly criminal industry, criminal organizations have less opportunities to exploit the people within the industry itself.

The concept of sex work in itself is a controversial one within the context of Malaysian society, in large part because of religion. However, we do not ban either alcohol or pork and we accept that different rules apply depending on the religion a person is born into and form laws accordingly; this does not mean that these industries and products are banned and made illegal by our government.

Ultimately, people are being abused and their labour is being exploited in large part because of laws that meekly criminalize groups of people and sex work itself. These are people we see on a day to day basis going out into the city, going to our local grocery stores, who pass us on the street, who take the same public transportation as us. They are still part of a wider community of Malaysia even if legally they are not recognized as such. To make life better for them is also to foster a more transparent and compassionate society that recognizes our own individual agency and the beautifully complicated personhood that exists in every person we pass on the street or eat beside in the food court or mamak.

Why Malaysia Needs Mat Kilau: Collective Trauma and Racism in Malaysia

mat kilau

by Dorothy Cheng

Just a few weeks after its premiere, the 1915 hit film The Birth of a Nation was banned in multiple states across the United States. Throngs of people rioted outside cinemas that screened the film. Public figures made fiery statements decrying its message. The film became a political tool that is still deeply relevant to this day.

So what was all the fuss about?

The turn of the century had come and gone, but the United States was only 50 years freshly removed from the Civil War and at the apex of Jim Crow. The film was about the Southern spirit, with the Ku Klux Klan acting as the protagonist, fighting against authoritarian abolitionists and insidious freed slaves. It was a powder keg of racial tension.

Malaysia almost had our own Birth of a Nation moment. The 2022 film Mat Kilau has been making waves for its purported racial insensitivity. It has been accused of being racist, fascist and historically inaccurate. But there is much more to this conversation. We need to talk about collective trauma, colonial conceptions of race and art as a tool to heal from trauma. We need to talk about Mat Kilau.

The Role of Art in Shaping Society

It is a testament to the influence and artistic merit of Mat Kilau that important conversations are being derived from it. But Mat Kilau is not unique in this sense; art and films have always played central roles as propaganda tools in wider social conditioning projects. At the very least, they are mirrors of the opinions, cultures and conversations that shape a nation or people, especially if the film deals with a historical or political subject.

In 1915, 50 years after the Civil War, the United States was still a divided country (and still is to this day). There was a division between former Union and former secessionist states, between African Americans and whites, between anti- and pro-Jim Crow corners and of course, between those who liked The Birth of a Nation and those who thought it was “the most reprehensibly racist film in Hollywood history”.

A film like The Birth of a Nation is a product of its time. It is a film about Southern white pride and identity in an age that was moving away from the agrarian past and embracing new, progressive values. It is a film about Southern white heroism and victimhood in an age when African Americans were beginning to be recognized as free citizens. It is a film that panders to white superiority and insecurity in a time of change, arresting its audience in a freeze-frame of an escapist narrative so they can relive “better” times.

Films do not only show us what is unsaid in society. It also reinforces ideas and can go on to inspire change. In the wake of the film’s premiere, lynchings of African Americans throughout the country spiked and the Ku Klux Klan’s membership boomed.

Malaysia in 2022 is not comparable to America in 1915. But there are similar conditions at play here and to say that Mat Kilau is just a film with no bearing on reality is to not do its narrative effectiveness justice. Stories have power. It is why Mat Kilau was made in the first place, so Malays could look to it as a monument to their history and culture. Stories are especially important for post-colonial societies. Much of the project of nation-building comes down to the ability to form a cohesive identity and to take from a shared history. Without stories, there are no identities.

Mat Kilau as a Post-Colonial Nation-Building Story

We are as far removed now from British colonialism in Malaya as America was from the Civil War at the time of The Birth of a Nation’s premiere. Malaysian Independence was only achieved 65 years ago. There are people alive today who remember the British and their rule over this land, just as in 1915 in America when Civil War veterans and former slaves were still alive. The wounds of colonialism are fresher than we think. We needed a story to serve as a balm.

Throughout Mat Kilau, numerous characters reference the British perception of Malays as a race bogged down by infighting, apathy and a general inability to self-govern and prosper. This is not fictional as there is a wealth of evidence of British attitudes towards Malays, and of course, firsthand testimony from many who lived through British rule.

In his paper “The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology“, Charles Hirschman points out that the British treatment of Malays came down to one overarching theme: paternalism. Paternalism, in a colonial context, is the idea that a more superior force must rule over an inferior group due to that group’s inherent lack of capability. Hirschman identifies British stereotypes of Malays as lacking intellectual capabilities and being lazy, in particular.

The British naturalist A. R. Wallace said, ” In intellect the Malay is but mediocre. He is deficient in the energy requisite for the acquisition of knowledge, and seems incapable of following out any but the simplest combinations of ideas.” This is a man who went on to make significant contributions to evolutionary science, so we must not underestimate how deeply-rooted and pervasive racism can be in our canon of knowledge, and how these stereotypes can continue to affect people today.

Of course, there is a much simpler explanation for these supposed attitudes of the Malays that the British conveniently missed. In his book The Myth of the Lazy Native, Syed Hussein Alatas points out that many Malays stood to gain nothing by working for the British, considering it was their land that was being exploited and their profits that were being funnelled overseas. But this stereotype was continually pushed and set the tone for the British subjugation of the Malays. The erasure of Malay accomplishments and emasculation of Malay prowess, combined with the material reality of colonial rule, suppressed Malay cultural pride and economic emancipation.

We do not tend to think of colonialism as a traumatic event the way we rightly think war is. But the truth is that colonial trauma is real, and it is intergenerational. The myth of inferiority and feelings of helplessness and subjugation can be passed down from generation to generation.

That is why stories like Mat Kilau resonate so much. Malaysia does not have a large library of historical cinema dealing with post-colonial themes. China has Ip Man. India has Gandhi. Why shouldn’t Malaysia also have stories that undo the erasure of Malay accomplishments and correct the myths about the Malay race and culture? Without stories to uplift a nation, dominant narratives will take center-fold. Malaysians must replace outsider narratives with our own.

But did Mat Kilau achieve this?

Mat Kilau as a Continuation of Colonial Racial Narratives

One of the key things the movie forgets is that this colonial trauma is shared. The idea of inferiority, medicated by the unyielding force of colonial paternalism, is one that plagued all communities in Malaysia today. The great civilizations of China and India were brought to their knees before Western powers. That trauma followed Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaya. Then, as colonial subjects in Malaya, the Chinese and Indians also became victim to stereotyping and racism as part of the British “divide and conquer” strategy, but also in the service of the wider Western curiosity surrounding scientific racism.

With its caricatures of Chinese merchants and Sikh soldiers, Mat Kilau adopts the very race rhetoric that the British used in Malaya but conveniently excludes Malays from it. Therefore, instead of presenting a Malaysian post-colonial narrative, it simply repurposes the colonial racial narrative for its own use.

Frank Swettenham wrote of the Chinese: “It is almost hopeless to expect to make friends with a Chinaman. And it is, for the Government Officer, an object that is not very desirable to obtain. The Chinese, at least that class of them met with in Malaya, do not understand being treated as equals.” According to Hirschman, he and other British contemporaries primarily defined the Chinese as having no morals above greed, and as such, developed resentment and distrust of them.

At once contemptuous of Indians but reliant on them for the massive amounts of labour required for their absurdly international conquests, the British invented a convenient stereotype for specific Indian communities, including the Sikhs: the concept of a “Martial Race.” According to the historian Jeffrey Greenhunt, “The Martial Race theory had an elegant symmetry. Indians who were intelligent and educated were defined as cowards, while those defined as brave were uneducated and backward.” The wider aim of this British narrative within India was to divide different Indian communities by pitting “loyal” ones against ones that were “disloyal” and that had rebelled and mutinied against the British.

Mat Kilau’s narrative recognizes the incorrectness of the British stereotype against Malays while entirely leaning into similar stereotypes the British made about the Chinese and Sikhs. The Chinese character Goh Hui is a greedy, scheming and slimy character who doesn’t do anything if it does not benefit him personally, and the Sikh soldiers are violent, cruel and wholly obedient to their British masters.

Worse still, these racial tensions between the Malays and the non-Malays culminate in violence against Goh Hui and numerous Sikh soldiers, but not a single drop of British blood was spilled. Are the Chinese and Sikh characters merely obstacles in the Malay fight for justice? Are they simply a box to be checked before Mat Kilau and gang can defeat the final boss in the inevitable sequel? Are the British simply long-forgotten as a historical relic and therefore, not even worthy of an end, while the Chinese and Indians are the real threats that exist today? The symbolic violence of killing the only Chinese character with dialogue and of scene after scene of corpses dressed as Sikhs surely is not something a Malaysian Chinese or Sikh person can sit through without feeling like there is a message being directed at them.

Mat Kilau has its Chinese and Sikh characters spout mantras about British superiority, professing their undying loyalty to the very people who crippled their motherlands. This choice to erase Chinese and Indian colonial trauma is an interesting one. Was it an indictment of Chinese and Indian loyalty to Malaysia? Was it a moral message about uniting as a nation of Malaysians, regardless of race?

As a Malaysian Chinese person, I came out of my viewing of Mat Kilau reflecting on whether or not non-Malays are truly uninterested in the larger project of helping Malaysia prosper, or whether continued racial tensions, coupled with the inherited racial stereotypes from the British, have created a collective memory among some Malays that non-Malays are not to be trusted.

That begs the question: do the narratives of race in Mat Kilau simply reflect a reality of how non-Malays are perceived in this country?

Beyond Mat Kilau: Future Malaysian Post-Colonial Narratives

Collective trauma and collective memory go hand in hand: the Malay experience of British colonialism was of having their lands taken from them, their ambitions quelled, their kings weakened and their society and ways of living fundamentally changing. Their collective memory was of the arrival of foreigners in a time of change and how these foreigners all behaved in certain ways that largely coincided with the disenfranchisement of the Malays.

Like The Birth of A Nation, Mat Kilau is about addressing the anxieties of a particular race, arresting a moment in history for them to place themselves in so they can relive a better time.

Art heals trauma. The first step is to talk about it. It is crucial to note that Mat Kilau is only one retelling of the Malay experience, which is not universal. Whether we agree with this manifestation of collective memory about non-Malays is irrelevant, because we cannot begin to address that if we do not first understand it.

I only hope that Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians will have the same opportunities to convey what our trauma looks like.  When that time comes, will Malaysians still say “It’s just a movie, don’t be so sensitive?”

Ultimately, the goal should be to get to a place where we can tell stories that reflect the true diversity of a Malaysian narrative. Until then, siloed messaging is a baby step that young, post-colonial countries live with until we feel like we’ve aired out all our trauma – Malays have always made movies for Malays, Chinese for Chinese and Indians for Indians. Of course, there are exceptions, and I would never propose foregoing the telling of individual communities’ stories in favour of some contrived muhibbah narrative.

The Birth of a Nation was banned. I don’t think Mat Kilau should be. As a movie, it is a watershed moment for Malaysian cinema and its technical capabilities. It is also an important piece of a larger conversation we need to be having in our society. What can we all do to forge our own narratives? What would a film about the Malaysian anti-colonial struggle across cultures, religions and races look like? What would a Malaysian film that touches on racial tensions look like if it were created with the input of all the affected races? I do not want to tell people to forcibly change their collective memory, nor do I think it is possible in a short amount of time. But I do think we need to keep telling our stories to each other. Tell me your memories and I’ll tell you mine, and somewhere along the way, we can heal.

Kayangan B40 and Class Consciousness

by Yvonne Tan

It’s safe to say that words initially created by the Najib administration to identify who would be eligible for aid regardless of social class (like “B40”, “PPR”, “T20”) have officially become part of our everyday lingo, sparking many viral debates about class. In our past blog posts such as The Revolution is Viral and Antara dua Darjat (MCO 3.0 version), we have covered how netizens would call out particular individuals for their tone-deafness, especially during the pandemic. The latest of such individuals included the UiTM lecturer who berated a student for not having a laptop through the immortalized saying “Aku tak boleh duduk orang dengan B40”.

Now it is time to explore the other side of the coin. Recently, the Facebook group B40 Buat Perangai Apa Harini has gained momentum and wide appeal. At the time of writing, the group has amassed more than 27.4k members; it was temporarily paused for 7 days from 26 May to 3 June 2022 with the reasoning from the admin “Group terlalu panas. Bagi sejuk kejap”. The reasoning is most likely due to some of the posts being featured on tabloid outlets, particularly the renovation of a flat to look like a terrace house. The house was described as “Ini B40 kayangan tuan2..pemikiran luar kotak..” 

Other posts in the group are not so forgiving, typically featuring a wide range of “things working class people do” that netizens tend to mock or ridicule. From questioning if B40 people truly are suffering and poor – with reference to evidence of fancy, modified Lamborghinis parked at PPR flats – to asserting that B40’s financial troubles stem from having a particular way of thinking that is not smart. Nevertheless, several netizens on the page who are from the B40 group are also self-aware and find what those of the same class group do distasteful. 

The phenomenon is too accurately described by the film Parasite (2019) that has helped us articulate class divides during the Central Malaysia floods. Despite being in  similar positions, the Kims – an art therapist, chauffeur, and housekeeper of the Park family – recoiled in disgust at Moon-gwang – the previous housekeeper – and refused her plea to help her husband, Geun-sae,  remain in hiding in the bunker of the Parks’ house from loan sharks. Having a shared class background and common plight did not mean that they would empathize and share solidarity with one another; rather, the Kims and the couple cling to the possible opportunity for upward mobility with the Parks, which is believed to be reserved to only one family.

Twitter posts complaining about B40 working habits such as slacking off and foot-dragging have gone viral. In the posts,  the attitudes of B40 workers are described to be at odds with those of their M40 manager and T20 boss who are responsible for supervising them. Rationalisations that B40 deserve to be  where they are are plentiful, which are typically summed up as “poor people mentality”. This idea that there is a very real possibility of being able to transcend one’s class through simply hard work and switching off “class mentality” is still salient here. In fact, it is at times the defining justification for why some people are in the B40 class. Maybe it’s our own weird version of the American dream, where  the poor deserve to be poor,  even with the understanding that it is not possible for everyone to achieve wealth due to scarcity of opportunities.

One could argue that working class subcultures like Rempit and Ah Beng have been subsumed under the larger umbrella of expressions used to mock the B40 group. Things like modified cars are immediately labelled as an indicator of someone from B40, which comes as no surprise as their group description explains that it was initially created to “memasyhurkan golongan motor ekzos bising sebagai “B40”. Tapi dikembangkan untuk merangkumi segala aspek perangai B40.” Asset ownership, such as spacious housing or luxury cars, are lifestyle indicators that are key in cementing and signalling middle-class status. [1] Thus, when the B40 group attempts to achieve the same “look” in a much more low-cost manner such as creating a bungalow out of two flats or modifying cars with loud exhausts, instead of “working hard” to accumulate money and transcend one’s class, those attempts are subjected to ridicule.

Audi Ali in his article Why Is It Difficult to Organise Around Class in Malaysia speaks on our recent status consciousness, which one would think would go hand in hand with class solidarity. He argues that, through the New Economic policies, rapid modernisation had moved the middle class from working in agriculture to working in the service sector. This blurred class relations and obfuscated workers’ disenfranchisement. As terms like B40, M40, and T20 contributed to making  class more visible, the fact is that this visibility is still based on income. As Ali argues, the visibility should instead be about “the causal chain between poverty and capitalist exploitation [which] is rarely made explicit in these analyses. Perhaps this failure to reveal how labour is exploited by both the state’s bureaucratic elites and capital has created apathy—if not antagonism—among the middle classes towards the poor.”

In our post-Covid world where class antagonisms have become part of our vocabulary that does not replace, but rather complements our racial stereotyping, where has all the solidarity gone? During Covid, there was a clear disparity between the upper and lower classes with regards to selective prosecutions, but the criticism was not necessarily directed at the systemic failure of our government to ensure that there were no double standards and abuse of power when it came to criminal law. Class stereotypes are forming in the same way we approach race, writing off certain groups on the basis of specific behaviours that are predicated on the principle that these behaviours would be different if these groups had a “better” mindset. The day we realise classifications divide us and lead us into scapegoating one another, is the day we recognise the institutional mechanisms in place that continue to keep those in power. 

References 

[1] Embong, A., 2002. State-led modernization and the new middle class in Malaysia. Springer, p. 100.