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Sunday, January 31, 2021

The karma of Covid-19 and politics

 


Karma has been accelerated for Covid-19, meaning that when we do bad things to others, they boomerang back onto us faster than usual. Or, as the good book says, “God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

Malaysians have often been merrily ignoring this cosmic rule because the reaping of the bitter harvest was delayed, usually until the afterlife. But Covid-19 has given karma a booster dose to kick us up the backside.

When greedy employers squeezed the last drop of profit out of their foreign workers by cramming them into stuffy hostels, it helped spread Covid-19. This in turn caused bigger losses with shutdowns of factories, hitting the whole economy. In other words, selfishness and stinginess have backfired big time.

In late January, 225 of the 350 clusters recorded have been in workplaces, especially manufacturing. Some 28,477 of the 122,225 migrant workers tested for Covid-19 were positive. Even scarier, only some 12 percent of the 1.5 million documented foreign workers have been tested.

When you add on undocumented foreign workers (estimated at between 3.5 and 4 million), only God knows what kind of epidemic is raging underground, undetected, while Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob keeps on thumping his gorilla chest about how many have been arrested for this and that minor movement control order (MCO) violation.

In the past, we could continue our attitude of apartheid against foreign workers. We heard stories of how they had been cheated by crooked bosses, exploited by parasitic employment agents and harassed by enforcement officers for “coffee money”. 

But we didn’t really want to know too much because it was “them” that was being affected, not “us” privileged Malaysians.

But Covid-19 has shown us that this is no longer an option. We ignore the health of foreign workers at our own peril, because the virus they have will eventually “invade” even the elite gated and guarded neighbourhoods by sinking the whole economy.

We are in this together

When people like former health minister Dzulkefly Ahmad talk of an “all of society” war against the pandemic, yes, that includes foreign workers. As he pointed out, “True leadership recognises that no one is safe until all of us are safe”. 

To add to what Dzulkelfy said, isn’t this the essence of Islam that this Perikatan Nasional government claims to be championing? That we take care of the weakest and most vulnerable among us?

Our authorities cannot say “saya tak tahu” (I didn’t know) about this issue because way back in April 2020, foreign workers hostels in Singapore torpedoed the city state’s handling of the virus. And we were supposedly learning from this.

But sadly, it often takes a major disaster before we do the right thing. For example, take Top Glove, the world’s biggest maker of rubber gloves making record-breaking billions in profits since Covid-19 broke out. 

Yet, 90 percent of its workers' hostels were found not complying with the Workers' Minimum Standards of Housing and Amenities Act. Yes, the law is about “minimum standards”, not fancy hotels.

Last November, this then sparked off the huge “Teratai cluster” of over 5,000 cases and the shutdown of 28 factories. Sadly, it was only when wallets were hit that Top Glove then admitted, “we’ve learnt our lesson”. Would it have killed this mega-rich company if they had given slightly better accommodation?

Even then, when I posted about this issue on my Facebook, there were Malaysians who said, “Why should the company be so nice to these workers?” This mindset was also on display among our most “honourable” leaders. 

When Hannah Yeoh and Fahmi Fadzil questioned the need to test all condo dwellers, Ismail Sabri resorted to the racist argument that the two MPs were “representing foreigners”.

Of course, Top Glove is far from being the only culprit, as these practices are widespread in Malaysia. What can foreign workers do? Speak up to Al-Jazeera and then be deported and blacklisted

Perish the thought if bosses have to “downgrade” from an S-class Mercedes Benz to a mere E-class, or from eating expensive soon hock (marble goby) fish to mere siakap (barramundi), as the cost of treating brown-skinned “foreigners” a bit better.

I can’t help wondering if there’s also an element of racism here. Would local employers treat their workers differently if they were “kaki lang” (Hokkien for “our people”) from mainland China (if they were allowed), rather than from Nepal, Bangladesh or Myanmar?

Reaping bitter harvests

Apart from foreign workers and Covid-19, the law of karma applies elsewhere too. When Dr Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister the first time, he sowed various evil seeds that he himself now lives to taste their bitter fruits. 

For example, he could not legally challenge being kicked out of his own party, Bersatu, because he had changed the law over 30 years ago to prevent precisely that!

Those politicians who have lubricated the backdoor to come to power ala Sheraton, may find the same slippery channel being used against them, if thunder from Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi turns to actual rain. 

Similarly, Umno had engineered frog jumping to take over state governments in Sabah and Perak before, only to become victims themselves when Bersatu enticed their MPs over in 2018.

Seeing the bigger picture, when non-Malays are discriminated against here, they take their money and skills overseas, thus making this country poorer and weaker. 

Similarly, the Nazi’s fanatical racism led to many Jewish-German scientists, including Albert Einstein, migrating to the US, boosting the knowledge base and helping ensure that America, not Germany, won the race to build the first atomic bomb.

US corporations have made the wages of their workers stagnant for over 40 years (by busting unions and shifting jobs overseas). Angry Americans then voted in the “non-politician outsider” Donald Trump to “drain the swamp” in 2016 (which the conman-in-chief didn’t of course). 

The country remains split and ripe for another fascist (this time, a competent one) to come to power unless President Joe Biden takes drastic steps to change the rigged system that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. But will Biden defy the interests of his big corporate donors?

When we abuse and pollute the earth, we may think that toxins flushed into the sea won’t affect us. But what happens when we eat the big fish, which had eaten the small fish, which had swallowed microorganisms, which had absorbed those same toxins?

On the other hand, doing good, reaps rewards. For example, when the US provided more than US$15 billion in the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after the devastation of World War II, they created prosperous countries that could buy American products and become strong allies in Nato.

When we treat the soil well through organic farming (rather than cost cutting by spraying all kinds of chemicals), we reap better health and avoid cancers. Just as Malaysian companies that invest a bit more to ensure their workers have spacious, clean, well-ventilated hostels don't suffer bigger losses from factory shutdowns.

Similarly, the backdoor government should provide more salary support to all companies (even those owned by the “wrong race” which don’t support them), to ensure that they don’t need to lay off workers, so that the politicians can then enjoy more votes from thankful workers. 

In other words, by doing the right thing, by serving the interests of others, we benefit ourselves in the long run. This is called “enlightened self-interest”.

Covid-19 has turned out to be a swift avenger on behalf of karma or the divine (depending on your belief system). It has shown us that when we sow stinginess and selfishness plus political games and incompetence, we reap a destructive whirlwind that threatens to smash our country.

Why not instead sow generosity, kindness and political wisdom? So that Malaysia may reap a bountiful harvest of long-term health, prosperity and happiness - for all. 


ANDREW SIA is a veteran journalist who likes teh tarik khau kurang manis. You are welcome to give him ideas to brew at tehtarik@gmail.com. - Mkini

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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