Maid to die in Malaysia

MARCH 1 — How responsible are we for Adelina Lisao's death?

As Malaysians.

The 21-year-old experienced unimaginable physical horrors inflicted upon her over months, succumbing on February 11. She was an illegal, a maid and Indonesian. None of those facts are reasons for her to die.

Her alleged tormentors have been charged since. They will not be spared by the system, but will that be enough? And was enough done before her young life ebbed away from the shell of her battered body? Because if enough was done, she wouldn’t be in a grave today.

How shattered truly is the house-help system?

The hurt is not new

We were warned. On January 26, a fortnight before Adelina stopped breathing, Chin Chui Ling and Soh Chew Tong, a married couple in their forties, escaped the gallows over the death of their Cambodian maid, Mey Sichan.

They killed her six years prior.

The Appeals court ruled they were responsible, however they were not cold-blooded murderers. They will serve out a lower sentence. They may not have intended her death, but since she weighed a mere 17 kilogrammes at the end, from starvation and associated ailments, it’s difficult to empathise or to not think of them as cold-blooded.

Tellingly, it happened in Penang’s Bukit Mertajam where Adelina’s journey prematurely ended. As if nothing was learnt.

Casting rocks in the form of words at the culprits appears to be our main response.

As if it suffices to shame these acts on social media. “Netizens outrage ends abuse,” is the headline in their cyber reality which equates to change. But it is not.

It does very little.

Live-in maids have been a staple of Malaysian life for decades. Not for the working class, but for the middle-class. It is common — and necessary — to a point it is not worth discussing. Not at all till there is a shortage brought by a moratorium or foreign maids being turned off by our country.

Then it is a brooding subject which may even affect voting at the general election.

The arguments are about how unfair a supply cut is rather than what umbrage neighbouring countries felt in order to bar their people from jobs here or why workers in depressed regions prefer to aim for other markets or remain unemployed than fly into Malaysia.

For we do loathe self-examination. Truth be damned, if it suggests Malaysians are in the wrong.

Lucky for middle-income families, the government takes great interest in negotiating with foreign countries on their behalf. With reason.

The lifeblood of our economy, professionals and SME owners, want calm at home as they produce at work. The maid is therefore central to the nuclear family’s wellbeing. Government recognises it and responds, even if it pays scant regard to pressing problems emerging from an unregulated industry.

Further, stay-in maids live in depressing environments, not only are they in a foreign country, but they sleep in a foreign home. A migrant hovel is far more desirable than the room by the kitchen in a Sri Hartamas semi-detached double-storey.

What prevails is a sense of “at work” when inside the abode, and employer seamlessly “assuming” the help is at their beck and call.

It is a vulnerable arrangement rife for abuse.

I agree there is the danger of over-legislating working conditions, therefore being detrimental to the attractiveness of the industry itself. However, using that as an excuse not to provide substantial protection for workers in lieu of employer's benevolence to do the right thing, is naive.

The situation, compounded by the crass master-serf mentality present in our economic, political and cultural domains, generates a false ownership think among employers.

“You live in my house, eat my meals, and even if you provide some assistance I still have to pay you ‘clean’ at the end of the month, on top of the agent fee. Of course, I can do what I want with you.”

Not the majority of those with maids, but enough.

Not in my house

While employers risk mistaking themselves as owners rather than hirers, it does not downplay the community’s complicity in the matter.

Adelina’s abuse was well-recorded by neighbours, and they eventually acted. What made them hesitate to act long before?

Was it our indifference to wrongs when they occur outside our premises? Or when they happen to those we are indifferent to, perhaps?

Bystander apathy is rampant in Malaysia. In the aftermath, society can’t stop speaking about the tragedy, but till it is a tragedy they have very little to report about it.

The great families

When scepticism about the live-in maids is unfurled it is cue for good families to present their happier stories with their maids.

I do not want to be caught in an anecdotal running battle.

“I took my maid for our Disneyland trip” to “There was the time I paid for her daughter's wedding in Papua.” It can go on.

Firstly, there are amazing people with maids, as there are amazing people without maids. Their exemplary behaviour does not alter the fact they would not want to be maids themselves.

And even if they were consigned to a life of being a house help, they would rather not sleep in the house they provide the help. No matter how lovely the family paying them.

It’s worth digesting that fact first.

Of course, it is without doubt, that kindness exists.

The higher question is if we are kind to what is within our powers, or do we extend the obligation to the wider legal and social policy constructs governing live-in maids? To ensure kindness is the default for most employees in the house-help industry.

Or are they foolish enough to imagine the larger industry is not theirs to worry about as long as they do right by the maids they possess?

If we are serious, the doorway for new discussions would open. Of whether local help, rather than foreign perform the job, with higher pay and with limited hours. To expect critical support but not physical monopoly of a serf. Demand more from government to enable both parents to work, raise kids and care for a home.

Look for cleverer solutions for our families.

‘I’m not ugly’

Malaysians may have little regard for politics or ideas of participation in a system of equals, but they will be offended if they are called uncaring.

We refuse to see ourselves as any less than world class in showing love. I believe there is an astounding amount of love being bestowed by Malaysians, however I am less inclined to believe it is distributed equally and to difficult places as much.

We pick and choose, more than we should. If the love is on principle, unhalting and faces our worst demons, then maybe our love will shine through and the crown of a loving people will be ours to hold.

Not quite, presently.

Adelina Lisao just wanted a better life. She did not want to die so quickly, so painfully. If we are going to be involved only when there are body-bags what does that say about our responsiveness to problems in our midst?

Or to find solace in isolated prosecutions of the worst cases. That these courtroom shows make up for the reign of terror threatening thousands of live-in maids across the country.

Which is why the answer to the initial question is fairly straightforward.

How responsible are we for Adelina Lisao's death?

Loads more than we care to admit. A sense of shame over the matter rather than mindless rhetoric would be a great place to begin.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.