Storied town ‘under attack’

No locals here: Bangladeshis crowding The Summit at the main bus terminal in Bukit Mertajam, Penang. — ZHAFARAN NASIB/CHAN BOON KAI/The Star

BUKIT MERTAJAM: Things have been evolving fast in this iconic township. And Bukit Mertajam is facing a challenge to retain its identity.

Starting out as a traditional farming settlement in the early days inhabited mainly by the Chinese of Teochew and Hakka descent, the latest demographics have drastically changed.

A huge share of the economic activity is now being controlled by foreigners.

From just a handful of sundry shops catering to Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Pakistanis, Indonesians and Myanmar workers, over 100 such shops have sprouted with products and services targeted at them.“The locals are being out-muscled along the town’s main streets, ” said an elderly Bukit Mertajam resident.

Foreigners who took up manual jobs here are exploiting legal loopholes to become entrepreneurs.

The town is flooded with up to 20,000 foreigners, especially during weekends and public holidays.

In March, the Penang Public Accounts Committee (PAC) launched an inquiry on the issue of foreigners operating businesses in the state, with Bukit Mertajam identified as a hotspot.

An 88-page report it produced in May was tabled before the State Legislative Assembly.

The report stated that the modus operandi of foreign workers was to marry a Malaysian woman and later register a legitimate business under her name.

To protect the interest of the women, the committee recommended that the state only issue business licences to such companies if the shareholding was fully held by Malaysians.

That aside, the influx of the foreigners has led to a series of health and social issues. Even brothels have opened to cater to the male workers.

Foreigners shopping at a supermart manned by fellow foreigners  in a shop in George Town. Foreigners shopping at a supermart manned by fellow foreigners in a shop in George Town.

Carpet trader Suriakant B. Patel, who was born and bred here, asked: “They are supposed to be in Malaysia to become workers. Why then are they allowed to do business?”He is the second generation owner of his carpet shop in Jalan Datuk Ooh Chooi Cheng located at the end of four roads which is a focal point of the “foreigner-only” businesses.

Suriakant said foreigners have been taking over shoplots here since a decade ago.

“You see the red splotches by the roadside? That’s what they spit out after chewing betel nut leaves, ” he said in frustration as he took a team from the Star Media Group on a walkabout at the town centre.

Suriakant said Bukit Mertajam’s township was shaping into a place “not meant for Malaysians”.

He said about eight years ago, he tried to sell goods popular among the foreigners “but not one of them came in”.

“They would only buy from their own group, ” he said.

Suriakant revealed that Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Pakistanis, Indians and even some Myanmar nationals were “united” by speaking Hindi.

“I have observed Bangladeshis, Nepalese, Pakistanis, the Rohingya and some Myanmars conducting deals in Urdu.

“In some countries, the dialect is called Urdu. But it is basically the same, ” he said.

Suriakant pointed to a Nepalese drying white radish strips on a large piece of asbestos sheet along the Mertajam Art Walk. The white radish strips were meant for pickling.

“Asbestos cannot be used like this. If people ingest or inhale its fibres, they can get seriously ill, ’’ he said.

Another Bukit Mertajam resident, who wanted to be known as Goh, believes that the huge number of foreign men led to the sprouting of brothels.

“I am in the renovation business and work with many foreigners, and they confessed this to me.

“The prostitutes charge between RM30 and RM50 for their service. The foreigners told me the women are older locals, ’’ he said.

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