Everyone under the same roof


Residents and representatives from local non-governmental agencies protesting against the newly built foreign workers’ dorms in Batu Maung, Penang. — filepic

XENOPHOBIA can makes us think irrationally, even illogically.

When we are revolted by the way of life, habits or behaviour of people from other countries, we can react impulsively without thinking of the issue from other perspectives.

It happens more in Penang; the state with the highest population density in the country.

Many of us over here find ourselves to be neighbours of foreign workers, even in comfy gated communities and pleasant apartments in established suburbs.

When 30 people live in a house, the porch will have at least 60 pairs of slippers, sandals and shoes.

Don’t expect everyone there to have pristine feet so if this house is next to yours, expect a sour, sweaty aroma to waft over from next door.

When more than 10 security guards and cleaners share the apartment directly below you, their balcony will be almost perpetually lined with clothing.

Don’t expect all those men from poor countries to use pricey antibacterial detergents, or to even wash regularly, nor even have the time to wash regularly, since they tend to work 12-hour shifts to make as much overtime as possible.

Their man-smell will waft out and up from their balcony and assault your olfactory senses directly.

I can describe it because it happened to me.

When I finally could not stand their pungent body odour pervading my home, I went downstairs with a 5L bottle of Clorox.

They did not initially want to open the door. I kept knocking and telling them I live upstairs till they responded.I taught them how to dilute the Clorox to disinfect their bedsheets, pillowcases and clothing, and to mop their floor with.

When they realised that their upstairs neighbour was so repulsed by how they smelled till I gave them lavender-scented Clorox, their shame was almost tattooed on their faces. I felt bad but had to find a way to end the stink.

So when the state government approved plans for foreign workers residential complexes, I was relieved.

More than being capable of housing thousands of foreign workers, these are self-sufficient communities with amenities tailored to them.

There will be sundry shops selling the strange spices and ingredients they like. Barber shops, self-service laundry shops, sports and recreation facilities are included.

There will be 24-hour security, CCTV monitoring, fire safety features and more.

Multinational corporations that hire bus loads of workers are under global ethical practices that, among others, require them to provide comfortable housing. They must comply or face industry sanctions.

These foreign workers residential complexes are built by companies that know their requirements.

When it comes to Penang island, land scarcity raises a problem.

Such worker hostels cannot be tucked far from local communities because there is no space to do that.

One contractor many years ago, came up with an idea to house its own workers on purpose-built barges anchored in sheltered bays around the island.

The plan was that every morning, buses would wait by the sea while boats ferried the workers to shore. After work, the workers would then be ferried back out to the barges, which will have everything they needed.

But the Marine Department would not have any of it since no one can guarantee that a natural disaster at sea will not rip the barges asunder and drown all the workers in their slumber.

So the state had to re-draw worker hostel guidelines, taking into account how little space the island has, to allow for such residences to be built.

The communities where such hostels are or will be built are rebelling, even accusing the state government of being ‘developer-friendly’.

Meanwhile, foreign workers – the backbone of our labour force –live as neighbours of Penangites all over the place.

But communities nervous about having worker hostels holding thousands of them within their neighbourhood will not hear any of it.

They fear the foreigners would spill out into their streets, get drunk and have fist fights, commit rape and murder.

I read about how it is done in Singapore. When the workers have exclusive residential complexes with everything they need within their grounds, it turns out that any problem that may arise are easier to solve.

Yes. According to strict rules, such hostels need to be on industrial or commercial land and cannot be built in or near residential areas.

How is that going to be done here on Penang island?

I have smelly foreigners downstairs because my apartment block is just 500m from Gurney Plaza and Gurney Paragon Mall.

I wish they did not live downstairs but what to do? This island is so packed.

I struggle with xenophobia whenever I bump into them in the lift, so I can understand when communities write scathing letters to editors or hold press conferences and berate the state government over foreign worker hostels.

But I ask that people think about how necessary foreign workers are and see that such hostels, even if they are near us, are still better than having foreign workers living with us.

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