Kak Noor and the life of Indonesian workers in IIUM

By Mahadhir Monihuldin

I had an Indonesian maid once, back when I was a young, unknowing little child. Her name? Well, funny thing about that is, I honestly can’t recall any other name other than the one that I used to always call her by, most particularly, whenever I needed help with something that I without a doubt could have done by myself.

Kak Noor, boleh tolong angkat ni kejap!” “Kak Noor, nak makan la!” “Kak Noor, nak tidur ni. Tolong bawak bantal!” Kak Noor. Kak Noor. Kak Noor. Oh, what a spoiled child I was to you, Kak Noor.

You see, my maid, Kak Noor, she was quite a resilient human being. Together with my parents, she helped raise me up, took care of me, taught me all things, all while being in an unfamiliar country without the support of anyone she knew. I distinctively remember an unyielding quality of her that was truly influential to the young boy that I was.

There’s no way that I can ever forget everything that she had done for me. But, at the same time, something I will also never forget, was the utter hardships she had to go through because of me. Hardships that pain me to look back on.

I wasn’t an easy kid to look after growing up. I was, pretty bad. Bad enough to make myself sigh with disappointment whenever I look back on all the things that I did, especially to dearest Kak Noor. How I wish I could take them all back.

But while I was achingly pondering on this excruciating segment of my life, a thought came to my head: Are there people currently going through struggles similar to that of my maid? Do they too understand the agony she had to go through? I was compelled to look around our IIUM campus for the answer, and what I saw before me were Indonesian workers after Indonesian workers each with an unseen story of their own.

With the help of my friend Fatih, an Indonesian student himself, I sought to uncover the lives of these workers in our university, and it’s within my hope that, just maybe, I could also gain a better understanding of Kak Noor in the process.

Priyanti

Meet Priyanti, or better known among her friends as Yanti. Originally an Indonesian citizen who has now lived in our country for as long as two decades, Yanti, together with her mother and four siblings, migrated to Malaysia at the age of 10. Yanti’s father sadly passed away too early in life. It was a tragic loss. At that point onwards, it was up to Yanti and her mother to carry the heavy load. Thus, the decision was made to move over to our country, in search of better things in life. Yanti’s family, frailed and needful, had nothing promised for them. They knew they were entering an uncharted territory, and all they could do was pray that it’ll all go well. It was later when Yanti’s mother suggested that she worked in a university somewhere in Gombak. That university? The International Islamic University of Malaysia. So now, here she is.

Partina

And then, we have Partina. Partina had once worked in a land far and away from ours, all the way north in the country of China. Yes, Partina has been around. But while her path did end up leading her over here, in all honesty, Partina wasn’t interested in coming to this country at all. Her eyes were set on the hustling and bustling city-state of Singapore, the place where she truly wanted to live in. It’s also a place she felt to be bursting with opportunities, opportunities for her to provide for her family, particularly, her young and budding children. However, as fate would have it, border control in Singapore was too difficult to overcome, leaving Partina’s plans crumbling into pieces. Partina takes it all in her stride and spends her remaining years working tirelessly in our university.

Suseanti

Finally, there is Suseanti. About Suseanti? Well, it’s quite heartbreaking really. She is the kind of worker who grinds and toils all day long to the capacity of her body without a whiff of complaint. But, when you see her working along one of our hallways somewhere, sweat dripping across her forehead, you can’t help but ask yourself, what treachery has made it so that this woman has to continue working on, because Suseanti, she’s hitting 70 very soon, and she has already toiled far enough in this life!

Through these three individuals, these three characters, we shall observe the issues Indonesian workers face in our university as well as beyond.

Detachment from the new society they enter, and the old society they leave behind

“When I first came in to Malaysia, I knew basically nothing at all. Even the language, words like periuk, kuali, halia, all that, I had no idea what they mean.” This was what Yanti felt when her 10 year old self first moved over with her mother and siblings. It took her quite a while to fully adapt to the unknown world around her. And sad to say, that at times, trying to make way for the new leaves us no choice but to let go of the old. “I haven’t been back to Indonesia for 15 years now,” Yanti said. Indonesia, the country she was born in, is now but a distant memory to her.

Immigration problems

Aside from feeling alienated by the people around her, when 10 year old Yanti first arrived into Malaysia, as if she wasn’t tested enough, Yanti was given another incredible challenge that she had to overcome. It is no secret that immigration policies are important for a nation, but one has to admit that it can be burdensome for anyone traversing into foreign land. And sometimes, things can go far worse than we might expect, especially for migrant workers like Yanti who entered with almost little to nothing in their possession. “The most trying time for me was when I first got into Malaysia, when our application forms for citizenship were still in the works. I remember being chased around by very scary immigration officers, having our house broken into, our things raided left and right in the middle of the night. It was such a bitter moment in my life.”

Difficulties in supporting their family and themselves

Having missed the chance to work in Singapore, Partina on the other hand tries her best to make a living in Malaysia. She receives RM800 a month from her work as IIUM’s cleaner, the average rate most cleaners would receive, yet an amount that’s RM200 lower than Peninsular’s mininum wage of RM1000. The money she gets she uses to support herself, but more importantly, to support her family back in Indonesia. She takes pride in being able to pay for her children’s education. Education is the key to a bright future after all. Although, Partina herself had to confess, that the bright future she wants her children to have is exceptionally difficult for her to sustain. Partina barely gets enough a month to pay for everything. She often has to sacrifice her own expenditure for the well being of her children. “Things can get hard sometimes, you know, but all I can do is just push on,” she said. And push on Partina will do.

Age factor

As for Suseanti, the 70-year old woman who remains vigilant in IIUM’s workforce, she also faces a similar problem like Partina. Her family too is troubled financially. However, while Partina is trying her very best to provide for her family, Suseanti is trying her very best to avoid being a burden for hers. Because you see, age has a way of making one reliant onto people who were once reliant upon you. But for Suseanti, she doesn’t want this to happen to her, despite the fact that jobs like hers, jobs classified under the 3Ds–dangerous, dirty, and difficult–relies heavily upon youth. “As long as I’m able to work, I’ll work. I wouldn’t need to bother my family that way. So, may God continues giving me the strength to carry on for as long as I can,” Suseanti said.

I know it must be tough to hear about all these stories presented before you. You put yourself into their shoes, and you immediately envision the struggles that you’d perhaps feel yourself. All of the pain. All the sufferings. Yet, don’t be dismayed. If you could just walk with me a little more, just a little further, you’d see that in truth, there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel. Because for these three Indonesian workers, despite having gone through so much in their lives, when all is said and done, they still remain content through it all.

Light at the end of the tunnel

For Yanti, after the hardships she had to endure when she first set foot in Malaysia, she was finally able to find resolution in her life. She stumbled upon a wonderful Sabahan man, fell in love, got married, and now they have two children under their roof. And as far as immigration issues go, well guess what? Yanti has successfully gained full citizenship in our country. Indeed, she is now officially a Malaysian citizen. “Life has its ups and downs, but Alhamdulillah, overall, I’m very happy.”

Partina on the other hand? She’s living in a very family-oriented environment right now. It’s a trend for Indonesian workers to rent out apartment rooms or houses together, so that they can share the weight of the cost. But aside from that, Indonesian workers also do this for the purpose of creating affinity with one another, to make sure that everyone has each other’s backs whenever the going gets tough. Thankfully, this is exactly what Partina has in her life, friends whom she can fully rely on. She shares: “My hope is that I’ll be able to return to my home as soon as I can, to see my kids, my family. That would mean the world to me.”

And as for the indestructible woman that is Suseanti, while old age might have made her job tougher, age also comes with its own beauty, the beauty in making one feel at peace with one’s circumstances, and at peace Suseanti feels being in our country. She thinks that the relative stability we have over here makes living life a little less strenuous. But most of all, the feeling of being totally independent and self-sufficient, not needing to trouble her family members back in Indonesia, now that puts a very big smile on her face. “I have been struggling all my life, ever since I was young. It would be too long for me to share all of my struggles with you, but Insya Allah, being here, there hasn’t been many.”

We’ve finally gone through all these incredible stories given to us. But at last, I think back at the Indonesian maid who once took care of me a long time ago – dearest Kak Noor.

There’s no doubt in my mind that she must have gone through a lot while she was here. Things didn’t come easy for her, and I was partly to blame for that. Nothing can be done to change all of that. But, like the three unwavering Indonesians that I was able to speak to -Yanti, Partina, Susesanti – I truly hope wherever she is out there right now, wherever she might be in the world, that all in all, she’s doing well in life. I hope she’s content with everything she has going on, regardless of the past. That’s what I hope for her.

And I know, the hardships that I have caused will never be erased from my mind. They will stay with me for the rest of my life. But, maybe, this is what growing up is all about. Maybe, growing up requires one to dig down to all the mistakes one has done, embrace them all in their entirety, grasp them with the palm of your hands, and then use them to become a better person. Maybe, that’s how it ought to be. And if it is, then maybe, I’m starting to grow up already.***

Mahadhir bin Monihuldin

A conflicted writer

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