Penangites’ ultimate korban

[Aliran published an edited version]

Every day is festive in this charming island. Traditions and superstitions colour the hills, waters, valleys and plains. Hungry ghosts are fed in the open, without hiding, till this day. Against that backdrop of burning joss sticks and rising incense, there is no short of graphic korban spectacles — from Thaipusam to Aidiladha and Nine Emperor Gods.

The ultimate korban (sacrifice) took place in the morning of 21st October 2017, consecrating Lengkok Lembah Permai of Tanjung Bungah as the ultimate altar. No goats, cows or camels this round – but men. Eleven of them – none had the faintest clue a meek lamb led to slaughter would have.

Sacrificed on the altar, most of them far from home, family, dependents and loved ones. Their closest and only company was perhaps mother nature – their fellow korban.

It is by no coincidence that Pope Francis reserves a special place for migrants and mother nature on his altar – an altar how many share? The duo have been the resounding priority in the pope’s agenda – an agenda how many bother?

Now that Penang’s poetry of hills and waters, valleys and plains is properly shattered, it’s really time to wake up, pick up the pieces and be objective about what is surrounding and what is happening.

What are the common traits between the ill-fated duo: mother nature and migrants? They are the natural and human resources endowed upon us and serving us. Neither has a voice. Neither casts a ballot (therefore no need to please). Both are becoming more and more vulnerable. Defended by few, neither offers electoral rewards (this might not last forever though).

Folks, here is where your voice is desperately needed, because migrants and nature have no voice. The government needs electoral incentives before lifting a finger. Hold back the carrots in your hands, demand for migrants and nature to be cared for. Release your carrots only after seeing your demand delivered, not before.

Natural resource

Korban has much to do with price and ransom. Many Penangites appear to accept over-development as necessary evil – something acceptable in exchange for max prosperity. That’s what the majority and the Penang ‘mainstream’, people and leaders included, settle for. The god of wealth must be allowed to roar free unrestrained – he is not a horse, so we don’t use reins, you know.

It is easier to discipline oneself on strict dietary regimes, even as a lifelong vow. It is harder to discipline oneself to recognise the optimal and stop hoarding towards the max.

Putting self above environment is characteristic of the middle class syndrome. Walking, climbing stairs and taking public transport are often seen as signs of social inferiority. Lifts are often over-used. Vacuum cleaners are sometimes set to autorun at home, only to see the occupants heading for the gym. We invest in lifestyle, convenience and preferences at the heavy expense of natural resources.

Not knowing other units of pricing, it is unfortunate that most price things only by the dollar or ringgit. In one occasion I was surprised by someone’s PBA (Perbadanan Bekalan Air) bill: why should a house without a family consume that amount of water, can we check whether there’s a leak somewhere? She concluded saying she believes we all ought to pay more for water usage – and she feels so green and claims to be heeding Laodato Si. Well, is it about paying more (and using more) or using less (regardless of the cost)?

Similar korban can also be seen in cooking habits e.g. boiling eggs without the lid. If we can’t sort out our daily habits, big talks about conservation and sustainability will remain superficial and the korban will continue.

How far do we need air-conditioning? Given good architecture, air-conditioning is in many situations completely optional. Many wear sweaters in air-conditioned space anyway. Air-conditioning suggests, however, comfort and success many wouldn’t like to part identity with. After all, Malaysian temperature isn’t like Riyadh’s, and the middle class isn’t under metal roofs. Anyone needs a taste of metal roofs? Go spend 5 minutes along the shops leading to the ferry at Pengkalan Weld. There, of course, one would long for air-conditioning. (By the way, what is that roof doing there still?)

Water heaters used to be optional too. Cold baths, however, seems to bring back such frightful, haunting memories of poverty that it is no longer optional. Naturally, entering the bath from an air-conditioned room, one would appreciate a hot bath. Exiting a hot bath, one would appreciate air-conditioning. At what expense though? Putting oneself above resources is an integral part of the middle-class syndrome, commitment and trap.

Human resource

Malaysia and some other countries notorious for ill-treating migrant workers are singling out particular nations to be the carers and builders of the world. Being the carers and builders of the world is a great honour and privilege by its own right. This is sadly overwhelmed by the fact that the two skills somehow missed gentrification.

Civilisation creates for us doctors from sinsehs and celebrity chefs from hawkers. Material science and ester chemistry could have gentrified construction and housekeeping too – unfortunately that didn’t happen. Even less fortunately, opportunists are on out to capitalise on the missing gentrification – and to exploit carers and builders to the max.

There’s nothing particularly lowly about caring and building. Quite the opposite, in fact. Just that the two roles missed gentrification.

What honour and privilege as the builders and carers of the world if they aren’t even allowed to feel proud of their chef-d’oeuvre? They are denied ownership of their success. A team raising a bungalow or a high-rise from ground zero is quite a feat. Were it you or me, reporters would come with a microphone to interview us how we feel having completed such a grand project. That joy of successful completion even school students readily resonate with each time they complete a performance following months of practice. Migrant workers are denied of that celebration of fulfilled labour.

As a researcher I have my fruits of labour too. I call that closest to my heart my baby. I gave talks about my work at conferences across different continents. Even chemists came up to me to say they didn’t understand radiation physics but they could see the immense excitement and joy in my work. So why must builders exit construction sites so quietly upon completing a project, with no bits of success attributed to them?

That’s how they come and go, leaving no trace except sweat and blood. They are not supposed to look into anyone’s eyes, which would instantly be interpreted as criminal mischief. Not that anyone would look into their eyes either.

On the issue of migrant workers’ villages, we’ve got leaders making public statements about underwear. What for? Is it for syok or to shock? We find people protesting and authorities going ahead for the wrong reason. There shouldn’t be such self-containing villages anywhere at all – which does not seem to be an issue for those protesting. They are just protesting against having such villages in their neighbourhood – go build elsewhere, as faraway from my place as possible.


Some might find Aliran reacting too noisily to the Tanjung Bungah landslide tragedy, stepping up the dose, publishing statements in close succession one after another. Are these voice or noise, objective or biased? The question hangs on the maturity of the Malaysian news consumer.

The grave point here is that local authorities were closed to dialogue despite the NGOs’ earnest, fact-based plea (now turned evidence-based). The NGOs were able to foresee; they tried to prevent. They are still trying to prevent. They are not cashing in on the tragedy for any ulterior motive.

All I’m saying is that state government and people should learn that there is such a thing as dialogue. I am not suggesting to boot them out. There is zero partisan intent here. Supporters and government must disentangle themselves from that vicious, consensual cycle exploiting migrants and nature – which is very convenient, and very wrong.

Apart from the few who dare, there is an unmistakeable, deliberate silence among our avid campaigners. This time, 11 people killed, yet we hear not a single word, not a single post from those self-proclaimed warriors of justice and integrity who tirelessly slammed the authorities on every human-rights issue. Where are they? No sign of life. Dead silence.

If the concern is about:

  • peer pressure (my social network would look at me one kind);
  • loyalty (I mustn’t say anything different from the party I support);
  • devotion and piety (CM can never be wrong, Karpal’s family is deity);
  • continuity and security (if I make a stand, are we going to lose all we’ve been benefiting from),

we are back to square one.

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