Shyam is a skinny 32-year-old who looks barely out of his teens, the father of a young boy whom he has not seen for nearly two years. I first met him four years ago when he was working as a porter for a trekking company in the hills of western Nepal, close to where he was born and grew up.
Back then, his work involved hauling 60-pound baskets of provisions — half his own body weight, we calculated — up and down the steep slopes of the tourist trails for 10 hours a day, all for a daily wage of $7. Employment was seasonal, dangerous and scarce.
Now, he works as a full-time security guard at a car showroom on the island of Penang, in Malaysia. He earns $430 a month, over four times the average wage in Nepal. In purely economic terms, things seem to be looking up for him. But like millions of other foreign workers in Malaysia, he has no paid holidays and lives under the constant threat of violence and deportation.
Chatting occasionally to Shyam in a pidgin version of Bahasa Malaysia (or standard Malaysian), I see clearly the parallels between his aspirations and those of my ancestors, who made similarly perilous journeys from southern China to Malaysia nearly a century ago: the desperation in fleeing extreme poverty to make a living in a country about which they knew virtually nothing; the harsh working conditions in their adopted country, bordering on indentured labor (and, in some cases, actual indenture); and always, the sense of a cultural and emotional disconnect from their new surroundings while maintaining a deep nostalgia for their homelands.
But I’m struck, most of all, by one key difference between the migrants of then and now, which highlights how patterns of migration within Asia have changed over the last 100 years. Whereas almost all the Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaysia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries settled in their adopted country, eventually establishing large communities that still thrive today, not one of the 16 Nepali workers who share Shyam’s cramped dormitory intends to put down roots in Malaysia, or even return to the country for another three-year contract once their present one runs out.
The reduction of the migrant experience to pure economics over the last two decades has irrevocably changed the nature of human movement in Asia. It also highlights the growing gulf in wealth between middle-class countries such as Malaysia and Singapore on one hand, and Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia on the other.
Moving across borders is no longer an act of hope, but one solely of necessity. Money has turned migration into something ephemeral, a passage to be endured rather than the permanently transformative experience it once was.
Shyam’s dilemma is common to most migrant workers I’ve spoken to in Malaysia: They are paid just enough for them to want to remain employed, but are trapped in an endless cycle of 12-hour shifts that makes it impossible for them to interact in any meaningful way with local life. They have no chance, or incentive, to become an integrated part of Malaysian society. Malaysia has been a rich melting pot since the 1500s, because of its favorable location on trading routes between India and China, as well as its colonial history of successive occupation by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. But its new migrants are treated merely as a resource, rather than as potential citizens who could contribute to and enrich Malaysian culture.
Malaysia’s impressive economic growth over the last 25 years — at an average annual rate of about 6 percent — has been sustained by a constant influx of workers from poorer neighboring countries. Recent estimates suggest that there are now about 2.5 million foreign workers, a vast majority of whom are in low-skilled or unskilled jobs.
This poses a problem to the way a rapidly modernizing and increasingly wealthy country like Malaysia thinks about itself. In just one generation, it has gone from being a country that supplies cheap migrant labor to others, to one that receives it.
This swift transition has caused a kind of collective confusion about the country’s status. It is as if Malaysia has still not absorbed the fact that it is now officially an “upper middle income” country, according to the World Bank. (And it is poised, according to a recent Forbes report, to graduate soon to “high income” status.)
The protection of foreign workers and their gradual absorption into society — a hallmark of most developed countries — may well materialize as Malaysia becomes accustomed to its middle-class status. But for the moment, the gap between economic and social advancements remains considerable.
Shyam and his friends discuss how they will use their meager savings when they return to Nepal. The latest dream is to move down from the hills and start a pig farm in Pokhara, the country’s second-largest city. This promise of a better life — in the very land they wanted to leave in the first place — is what keeps them cheerful amid the depressing statistics around them.
In the first four months of this year, 83 Nepali workers died in Malaysia from various causes, a rate of one a day, including a significant number of suicides. A recent study of the Malaysian electronics industry by the labor research organization Verité found that nearly a third of those surveyed — in a work force that includes about 200,000 foreign employees — had suffered conditions of forced labor. Most of them work in factories that produce components for many of the most recognizable brands on the international market (though Verité declined to specify which in its report, preferring to avoid a “name and shame” strategy).
Shyam and his friends had to surrender their passports to their agent; they work seven days and six nights a week with no paid days off. Yet they are the lucky ones, considering themselves fortunate to be able to pay off their employment agent’s fee of four times their monthly wage.
If they survive the next year, they will have a future. But that future will be back home, right where they started.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire.