News/Malaysia: Servant beatings, rapes provoke soul-searching among Malaysians

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Subject: News/Malaysia: Servant beatings, rapes provoke soul-searching among Malaysians
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Mon Mar 06 2000 - 11:31:38 EST


Servant beatings, rapes provoke soul-searching among Malaysians
Beth Duff-Brown
February 29, 2000

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Her boss would jam a stick up her gums, beat
her with a rattan cane, and bloody and blacken her eyes so badly they would
swell shut. Then she would sneer at her, calling her a ``hantu,'' the Malay
word for ghost.

But Nurjanah Matyak's heart didn't break until her 6-year-old charge began
smacking her too, following his mother's example and demanding that his
Indonesian nanny follow him with a pan for his ``wee-wee'' so that he
didn't have to use the restroom.

``When his mother would beat me, at first he would take my hand and try to
get me away from her,'' said Nurjanah, 40, who is staying in a woman's
shelter until her case goes to trial in April. ``I loved him because my own
children are so far away. He was like a son to me. But after he saw his
mother hitting me, he felt that he could do it too.''

Since Nurjanah's battered face appeared on the front pages of Malaysian
dailies earlier this month, after she was rescued by a neighbor who heard
her screams and called the police, dozens of maids have fled their
employers' homes. Newspapers report each day on maids who say they were
beaten, raped or caged by their employers.

The reports have provoked shame and soul-searching by Malaysians who wonder
what has led them to such violence against people from neighboring countries.

``What sort of monster cages their domestics and denies them even the right
to go to the toilet?'' Marina Mahathir, the daughter of the country's prime
minister, asked in her newspaper column. ``I shudder to think what this
actually says about our society.''

As people in this Southeast Asian nation rapidly grow more affluent, they
have turned to their poorer neighbors to take on tasks that they no longer
feel obligated to perform. This nation of 22 million people employs nearly
2 million foreign workers, mostly from Indonesia, Bangladesh and the
Philippines.

Many middle-class families now have servants. Taxi drivers and executives
alike can't seem to do without ``amahs.''

``We need to remember that it was the presence of these outsiders who
helped to build the Malaysian `economic miracle' in the first place,'' said
Farish A. Noor, secretary general of the local human rights group
International Movement for a Just World. ``It was thanks to the scores of
Filipina and Indonesian maids and domestic helpers that thousands of
professional Malaysian women were allowed to work, shop, travel and enjoy a
life of ease and independence.''

Nurjanah's employers, a well-to-do ethnic Chinese couple, hired her to look
after their only son -- to sleep in his room and bathe, dress and feed him.

Yap Saw Li, the 50-year-old executive arrested for beating Nurjanah, now
faces up to seven years in jail. She has pleaded innocent and has declined
comment.

Yap paid an agency a $1,050 fee and then paid Nurjanah $97 a month.
Nurjanah says she never received a salary during her second year, worked
seven days a week and was never given a vacation in the two years that she
worked for the family.

``I felt like a slave,'' said Nurjanah, a widow and mother of three who
came to Malaysia hoping to earn enough to send money back to her village in
Indonesia. ``I begged her to just send me back to the agency.''

The government has responded with proposed legislation to protect foreign
domestic workers, including a bill that would require employers to provide
personal accident insurance. The immigration department also has begun
making random checks on homes that employ foreign domestics.

Ivy Josiah, executive secretary of the Women's Aid Organization, which runs
the battered women's shelter where Nurjanah is staying, said she is
heartened the government is taking action. But until Malaysians reflect
upon the humanity that is being buried beneath the country's growing wealth
and power, she doesn't hold out hope that the abuse will end.

Melanie Orhant <<morhant@igc.org>>
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