It would be nice to finally write an article on Cham migration to Malaysia one day… I thought… There is of course the ancestral ‘’Malay world’’ connection that has been buzzing around Malayan universities over the recent years. There are those statistics, showing for years an increasing number of youths leaving for better jobs, better lives, better hopes… There is this overwhelming reality from the tea-time visits, a.k.a fieldwork: ‘’Your daughter is not here today?’’ ‘’Oh no, she just left for Malaysia’’. There is indeed a nice little article to be written… Until somehow out of the blue your best friend joins the batch, and writing becomes… personal.
I have known R. for over 13 years. He is one of the first friends I made when I arrived in Cambodia. R. is one of the numerous Cham who made my research life completely personal and my personal life so ‘’researchal’’. Beside friendship R. and I shared a life pattern: we were both attached to his homeland / my fieldwork-land in Kompong Chhnang province, while we were also both in a constant and complete Phnom-Penh-state-of-mind. When ‘’au bled’’, we would be neighbors as R’s family and my family – the one that would become so, over the years and life-stories – were not only closely located, but also closely related. In our city-lives there was the chicken soup in the sickness, the cakes on the birthdays, the Halal weddings, the not-so-Halal weddings, the farewells, the reunions… All together there is one thing that always struck me: the clever-resourceful-joyful-reliable-witty-R I know could have been golden if only one little sparkle would have touched him. Instead he became yet another case of youth waste that often in Cambodia puts your most positive views down to the floor. There was no real answer to ‘’what went wrong’’: lack of formal education, lack of network, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead there was this recurrent question: ‘’Do you think things can go right, or at least get better at some point’’? As many other young Cambodians – and Chams in particular – R. went off today to Malaysia to find the answer.
And he is not the first… Just last week-end a possession ceremony aimed to restore balance in the confused mind and body of a young man before he would return to his Kuala Lumpur labor. Years ago the kingships sheets I started to draft showed that in almost every household of the village at least one member had left at some point to work in Malaysia. In my family of six adult children (five daughters and one son), three of the daughters are currently living in Terengganu and Kelantan. And there are good reasons for the others to actually ‘’still’’ be here in Cambodia: Karim is following a growing trend today in the country, applying to Korea’s migration process. Karima is just too young (14). But in a year or two she may look old enough to pretend 18, get a passport and leave just as her elder sisters did. As for Farida, her husband and their two toddlers, there was just an end to the Malaysian dream: they did taste it for years, but in the end the crackdowns were too frequent, too violent to swallow. During the last arrest Farida spent weeks in the forest, hiding with the baby and other migrants, while she was without any news of her husband, in jail.
Bad accounts back from Malaysia do reach Cambodian news and villages. But they don’t really discourage the drainage. Because it is an actual drainage. Before R. broke the news of his departure last December, I was myself traveling to Chumnik, one of the biggest Cham villages in Kompong Cham province. It had been a while since I last came, and while nothing had changed in the absolute, something was off… It was a weird feeling, something I couldn’t really explain or articulate. The river was still there – the dust also – the burning sun, the magnificent – yet dying – 1914’ mosque… A group of young, well turned-out woman went by sharing laughs… Another group was testing make up on a house porch… Still, something in the air felt intimately off key. And suddenly I did the math: if there were a lot of women, it was just simply because there were no men. Or almost none. I met with the occasional under-age boys and ‘’way over-age’’ old men. But in between, the husbands, the brothers were gone. Some houses were closed as the whole family moved out. ‘’They are all in Malaysia’’ I was told. ‘’They went to get some cash’’, just as if they turned the corner to the next ATM, to come back minutes later… Again this was nothing new, but the extent of it, and the sole emptiness it filled the village with were disturbingly new.
Statistics on the number of Cham migrants to Malaysia are obviously a mirage… Official sources from KL were counting 10.000 recorded Chams living in the country just a couple of years ago. Zakaryya Adam, a Cham member of the Cambodian Parliament and representative of the community, believes the figure could be multiplied by ten, and should at least be in the average 70.000. And given the Chumnik experience – along with other localities – I would give them quite some credit. The thing is, that about half – and even probably more – of migration to Malaysia goes under the radar. Factory workers are hired with a ‘’full package’’ and stay for at least 3 years. But the others go there as cheap manpower, to serve in agriculture, rubber plantations, as maids… They leave on a tourist visa, follow the advices of a ‘’Wind Master’’ (= a smuggler) and hope for the best.
That’s all there is to it. That’s all there was to R. For years he was a bodyguard for ‘’Excellencies’’ in the city. When that came to an end, he tried corporate driver. When that came to an end he tried going back to being a blacksmith, as his father and his father’s father before him. And family life. R. tried that too. But that also came to an end. So R. went off to KL, trying his former Malay boss. ‘’I don’t know what I will do but I know he is ok, I worked for him when he was in Cambodia… That’s more than what most people know when they arrive’’. R. tried some lives, they just didn’t work out so well… So he’ll try another one. ‘’I just want to try. I have to try. This life. This money. There is just nothing else left’’. R. may work legally or not. He may work as a driver, as a bodyguard, as a worker, as a maid, or not. He may be saving enough money to send back home to his baby boy as planned, or not. He may be able to send news, or not. He may come back soon… or not. R. doesn’t know. R. is just another Cham trying out Malaysia.
Phnom Penh, March 4th, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.