Malaysia, Maids and the Lash

By Luke Hunt, The Diplomat

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak hasn’t put a political foot wrong since speculation began an election could be called for as soon as November or early in the New Year. First, he announced an inquiry into electoral reforms, then repealed laws curtailing civil liberties and delivered an election friendly budget.

But Najib pulled off a real coup last week, winning an agreement from Jakarta that will allow Indonesian maids to return to work in Malaysia. That decision will prove popular, particularly among the middle class Muslim women of Peninsula Malaysia who say they are suffering from a lack of domestic help after Indonesia banned its women from working there because of appalling treatment meted out by many employers.

Critics argue that domestic helpers, who don’t enjoy a minimum wage or a day off a week, are little more than modern day slaves for the self-indulged. Such concerns, along with further reports of abuse, resulted in Cambodia compounding Malaysia’s problems and banning its women from working there, too.

Kuala Lumpur says it needs 300,000 maids to meet demand. There is currently a 100,000 shortfall and a growing waiting list of irritable and wealthy women who are demanding extra help in the home and who blame the government for export bans on maids.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Najib, although his bureaucrats, along with their peers in Singapore, would have paid close attention to a court decision in Hong Kong where domestic helpers have traditionally enjoyed far better work conditions.

Hong Kong’s High Court found in favour of a Filipino maid who has lived in Hong Kong since 1986 and challenged laws that specifically exclude maids – normally Filipino or Indonesian – from standard rules that allow all other working foreigners to settle as permanent residents in the territory after seven years of uninterrupted residency.

Malaysia and Singapore, whose courts were also born out of British traditions and might be tempted to follow legal precedents, would hardly have been impressed. But for Najib, such issues are unlikely to have an impact before he stakes his political future on an early poll.

What will matter will be the West Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Both states have welcomed the repeal of the Internal Securities Act – which allowed for unlimited detention without trial – and laws blamed for curtailing press freedom, along with increased budget spending and more maids.  

However, both states are traditionally a combination of Christians, a very moderate form Islam and Buddhism. Mixed marriages were common, apostasy was accommodated, and forced conversions an anathema before the 1970s.

In these states, most resent the enormous encroachment made by militant Islam since then. Sharia Courts, like headscarves and head to toe hijabs, were also unknown before Sabah and Sarawak joined the Malaysian Federation as equal one-third partners with West Malaysia in 1963. This point will figure prominently in the next election.

Of importance is George Kabayan, a 37-year-old native who converted to Isalm becoming Kamaruddin Abdullah. He has just become the first Sabahan to be whipped under Sharia law, receiving five lashes of the cane and a year’s prison sentence for having an affair with an Indonesian woman, Suryati binti Sumarto.

The pair had lived together for some time, had two children, didn’t have the correct paperwork and the religious authorities only acted after neighbours complained to the Sabah Religious Affairs Department.

The story was widely ignored by Malaysia’s mainstream press.

Najib has gone a long way in winning over Malaysia’s moderates, which will stand him in good stead at the next poll. But that could be undone if his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has ruled since independence, fails to deal with the festering religious issues of East Malaysia.