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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Get Rid of the 3-D Jobs

Malaysiakini.com (May 4, 2005)

Get Rid of the 3-D Jobs

The government’s rationale for the massive influx of foreign workers is that Malaysians shun those “dirty, dangerous and demeaning” jobs. A smarter, and in the long run cheaper, solution would be to make those jobs less dirty, less dangerous, and less demeaning. Better yet, get rid of them.

If Malaysia were to admit foreigners, I would prefer that they be the highly skilled, educated and talented. They would then add to the quality of our human capital and economy. Those illiterate maids and unskilled laborers do nothing more than to make Malaysians feel superior. Having Indonesian maids is a way for non-Malays in particular to vicariously compensate for their perceived inferior treatment from the Malay officialdom.

These low-skill foreigners do not enhance our talent capital; they also do not improve the gene pool when they marry locals.

Cheap labor never confers meaningful or long term competitive advantage. Labor is only a small portion of the total cost of any enterprise. Even in a labor intensive industry like healthcare where labor cost is significant, only a very small fraction of that is for low skill jobs, the rest are for highly paid technologists, nurses and physicians. Besides, there will always be someone somewhere who can offer his or her services cheaper. China is using prison labor for free; try competing against that!

Malaysia has to climb up the value chain in labor, that is, make its workers more skillful and productive in order to deserve premium pay. Failure to do that would destine the nation to a permanent third rate status economically.

The ready pool of cheap foreign labor provides little incentive for Malaysian companies to innovate and be more productive. Rubber is tapped and palm nuts harvested in exactly the same labor-intensive way as it was a hundred years ago.

Barisan Government Behaving like the Colonialists

Early in the last century the British colonialists too brought in massive numbers of illiterate immigrants from China and India to man the imperial tin mines and rubber estates. The excuse then was that the natives did not want those jobs, or were just too lazy.

The consequence of that short term economic expedience was to burden the country with an intractable and dangerous race problem. It took over a century and many bloody skirmishes before Malaysians came to terms with the reality of today’s plurality. Some have yet to accept it.

It was the Malays, not surprisingly, who vehemently opposed the earlier British move. Ironically today an essentially Malay government is aggressively bringing in more foreign workers. In this regard the UMNO ministers are no different from those colonial secretaries! Economic imperatives have a way of making people think and behave in the same way regardless of culture and race.

Still the same question remains: What future burden will this new wave of foreigners impose on the nation?

Eliminating the 3-Ds Jobs

Eliminating those “3-Ds” jobs is not impossible. A generation ago the most degrading job was disposing “night soil.” It was a familiar sight then to see those coolies with pails hanging from a pole strung across their shoulders going from house to house emptying the latrines. It was dirty and dangerous work; they were exposed to many lethal diseases. Today those jobs have long disappeared, thanks to indoor plumbing, septic tank, and central sewage plant.

We still have sanitary engineers; they are highly trained and their salaries are anything but demeaning. They are responsible for the efficient running of sewer treatment plants, the hallmark of any modern city. Urban centers in the Third World are public health death traps precisely because they lack such essential facilities. Kota Baru for example, is plagued with endemic outbreaks of typhoid and hepatitis.

Then there are the maids, or “servants” to Malaysians. The Australians and Americans have considerably much higher income, yet they feel no compulsion to have maids. The reason is obvious. Their homes are well equipped with the necessary labor-saving appliances.

As for cooking, I can whip up a mean curry chicken to rival what my mother used to cook in a fraction of the time because all the ingredients are ready made. I do not have to slaughter and clean the bird, nor do I have to pound the curry and chili. Having a maid would simply erode my precious privacy.

In America when our children were young and with both my wife and I working, we too had a housekeeper. But we paid her well, including contributing to the equivalent of her Employees Provident Fund. More significantly, her son entered the same university as our daughter’s. How many Malaysian maids would aspire to have their children go to college?

Many of the American nannies are certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and well-baby care. In short, there is nothing demeaning to being a maid in America.

Many of the dangerous jobs in construction can be made less dangerous by enforcing existing safety rules. Visit any construction site in Malaysia and we see workers without safety helmets, goggles or harnesses. With the use of conveyor belts, lifters and earth moving equipment many of these jobs could be made redundant. Mechanization of tin mining eliminated the need for thousands of coolies; likewise in agriculture. Today one American farmer feeds a hundred people compared to only a few a century ago.

I see no need to have immigrants man petrol service stations. In America the petrol stations are automated, and you pay with credit cards as you would at an ATM machine. It is not beneath even the owners of a Rolls Royce to pump their own gas.

Yes, there are many jobs in the service sector like the hospitality industry that cannot be mechanized. The solution there would be to increase the wages to make them attractive to locals. I do not mind paying more for my teh tarik and have it not served by a sweaty Bangladeshi attired in a ragged T-shirt.

High Employment Tax for Low-Skill Foreigners

To discourage the import of low-skill workers, I would impose a heavy surtax to the tune of a few hundred ringgit per month per worker. This would cover the cost of the workers’ healthcare and other related future social expenses.

There is at present a hidden cost to importing these workers in the form of permits. These are restricted in numbers and doled out only to political cronies, providing yet another avenue for corruption. The system encourages the import of workers.

These low-skill workers add only minimally to the economy, yet they impose a substantial burden and in unknown ways on our social system. Whether they are fellow Muslim Indonesians or non-Muslim Vietnamese, there are substantial problems in integrating them. The dislocations are expressed in such indices as increased crime rates. We ignore such early subtle signals at our own peril.

Malaysia must impose stricter rules on employing foreigners, especially those with low skills. Before American companies can legally employ a foreign worker, they must prove that they have been unsuccessful in getting local residents to take the job despite a substantially higher pay.

It is insane for Malaysia to bring in foreigners when there are literally thousands of our youths who are unemployed. Putting a hefty price tag to importing workers would make Malaysian companies invest in the training local youths to be future workers. This would benefit the citizens, the companies, and ultimately, the nation.


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