Foreign Workers in KL - Uncovering The Hidden Truth

Posted by shloke 05 November 2009
A worker unloading a lorry full of bananas, KL Wholesale Market. (Picture captured with my Nikon D60)

I am not a journalist, but just a typical young urban worker in Kuala Lumpur (KL). I've always wanted to try out street photojournalism. But, I was a reserve homeboy and a shy guy. In addition, street photography is not an easy task. Starting conversations with people you don't know is difficult and almost impossible. Generally Malaysians are not comfortable having their portrait photos published in the mainstream media, especially internet.

Having my Nikon D60 DSLR camera gave me the needed push and motivation to approach strangers. It made me look like a professional photographer or an acclaimed writer. Actually, I try to act like one :)

I remember vividly my very first street photography. It was a solo trip to Bazaar Baru Chow Kit (Translation: Chow Kit New Bazaar) in KL. My conservative mom said 'Chow Kit is one dirty notorious place infamous for transvestites, prostitutes, drug addicts and robbers. Local news report including The Star paper paints a gloomy picture. Read this article Policemen beat a retreat (The Star, Friday October 17, 2008).

But, the shroud of mystery, the risk and the social issues made me even more curious. I decided to pay a visit. It was meant to be a short trip exploring Bazaar Baru Chow Kit. But, I end up discovering the entire place in four hours. Believe it or not? Bazaar Baru Chow Kit is a beautiful market - a hidden gem amidst the hustle and bustle of KL City.

At first, I hold tightly to my Aussie's leather wallet and Nikon D60 camera. I was worried sick about 'CHOW KIT'. The moment I stepped my feet into the market, I know I was transported to a whole new world. A unique world rich in COLOURS, LIFE and CULTURE. The traders were amazingly friendly, courteous and talkative! 50% of the traders are foreign workers (Indonesians and Bangladeshis) and another 50% are locals (mostly Malays and Chinese).

The warm reception was really captivating and inviting. I rarely see this type of vibrant culture and hospitality in KL - perhaps KL folks are too busy chasing materialistic needs. I was walking from one stall to another. One hour later, I stumbled upon a murtabak cook. I was amazed seeing his murtabak making skills. Murtabak or Mutabbaq (Arabic: مطبق‎) is a dish commonly found in Malaysia. It is Malaysia's signature meat pie with minced mutton, along with garlic, egg and onion, and is eaten with curry sauce.

The Murtabak Man in Bazaar Baru Chow Kit, KL (Picture captured with my Nikon D60)

Here is a snippet of my conversation with Mr. Santoso:

Me: Gerai Ana....Mana Ana?
(Translation: Ana's stall....But, where is Ana?)

Him: Ana boss saya. Saya Santoso. Tukang masak.
(Translation: Ana is my boss. I'm Santoso - a cook)

Me: Santoso, Encik dari Indonesia?
(Translation: Santoso, Are you from Indonesia?)

Him: Ya, dah 15 tahun kat Malaysia.
(Translation: Yes, it's been 15 years)

Me: 15 tahun???? Kenapa Encik pilih Malaysia?
(Translation: 15 years???? But, why do you choose Malaysia?)

Him: Saya dah PR kat Malaysia. Bini, anak pun rakyat Malaysia. Senang cari nafkah kat Malaysia. Kak Ana boss kedua. Dulu, kerja kat tapak binaan.
(Translation: I am a permanent resident of Malaysia. Both my wife and kids are Malaysians. Life is better here. Kak Ana is my second boss. Before that, I worked as a construction labour)

I still remember this conversation. Why? It was my very first street - photojournalism. It was like chatting with my dad! After talking to him, I felt proud to be a Malaysian. It was a fruitful outing. Soon after that, I wanted to meet more foreign workers and dig even deeper. So, I drove my car to Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur (Translation: KL Wholesale Market).

Nearly 80% of the workers are Bangladeshis and Indonesians. Chinese and Malay traders/bosses hired foreign workers as full time helpers. As usual, the traders pulled me aside (assuming I am a journalist) and poured out their grouses. They talk so much about Malaysians being 'lazy' and not willing to work as veggie sellers. They decided to hire Bangladeshis because they are trustworthy and keen to work long hours....unlike 'lazy Malaysians'.

In addition, they lament about the emergence of Myanmar refugees seekers selling 'second hand' and cheaper veggies. They understand their status but at the same time lambasted the local authorities for lack of enforcement. It was surreal listening to all sorts of complains and issues thrown at me. Nonetheless, it was great stuff. I nodded my head and try to be as neutral as possible on those arguments.

After that, I decided to meet up a group of Bangladeshi workers. Surprisingly, these workers speak good Malay...well almost perfect. The Bangladeshis are a bunch of jolly workers even though they are separated from their families, wife and kids.

PUMPKIN OR ME? Jolly Bangladeshis in KL Wholesale Market (Picture captured with my Nikon D60)

Two Bangladeshi workers with degree came to KL, Malaysia to work as veggie sellers. The Chinese man is the boss! (Picture captured with my Nikon D60)

Another foreign worker in Cameron Highlands veggie farm. Foreign helpers are all over Malaysia - from Federal Territory (West of Malaysia) to Sabah and Sarawak (East of Malaysia). Migrant workers are here to stay. (Picture captured with my Nikon D60)

Here is a sequence of my conversation with a Bangladeshi worker:

Me: Berapa lama dah kerja sini?
(Translation: How long have you been working here?)

Him: Tiga tahun
(Translation: It’s been three years)

Me: Boss sini....OK? Bagus?
(Translation: Is your boss OK? Good?)

Him: Boleh
(Translation: 'Can'. Note: He was staring cautiously at his Chinese boss)

Me: Satu bulan dapat berapa?
(Translation: What is your monthly pay?)

Him: RM700 - RM 800
(Translation: RM700 - RM 800. Note: 1 MYR = 20.0 BDT - Bangladeshi Takas)

Me: You suka Malaysia?
(Translation: Do you like Malaysia?)

Him: Malaysia BOLEH!
(Translation: Malaysia Can. LOL! Even Bangladeshis are saying that)

Another two Bangladeshis workers with degree came to Malaysia to work as veggie sellers. Other than that, I also met up some Bangladeshis in Cameron Highlands, Penang Island, Malacca, Perak, Kedah and Selangor. Overall, these migrant workers are bona fide hardworking people. We need them! Without them.....Who is going to built our skyscrapers? Clean out toilets (virtually) and grow our veggies?

It saddens me when people look at them as pariahs. The labeling and stigma is so unkind. We as Malaysians need to discard our third world mentality and appreciate their contribution to our growing economy. We need to educate ourselves to be more tolerant irrespective of their social standing. To be 1Malaysia, we also need to be understanding and caring to all. I believe in equality and universal human rights.

More migrant workers around Malaysia. Please hover (to read more) or click (to view larger image). (Picture captured with my Nikon D60).

Read More About My Journey:
  1. (Migrant Workers In Malaysia: An Overview From ISIS)


  1. Mizzsharon Says:
  2. I like the fact that you made and effort to talk to these people, asking them about their origins and stuff.
    And yes, I do find it rather dangerous, to walk around in the alleyways of KL with your proud Aussie wallet and DSLR. LOL. You might be attracting necessary attention there.
    Anyway, GJ =)

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Alamak... ramainya orang asing!

    Ha ha... Aren't we also "orang asing"? Or maybe 2nd class citizens?

    Look at the way they treat us.

  5. Shelyn Says:
  6. This is one of your best posts to depict with insight aspects of foreign workers. I agree with you that many foreign workers are treated unfairly mainly because of the Malaysian mentality seeing them as refugees without understanding how they actually contribute to the growth of our economy. Your courage to act as a journalist is very encouraging. Very good work you have here! Keep it up!

  7. shloke Says:
  8. Mizzsharon,

    Thank you Sharon!

    Trust me - it's not easy to start a conversation with a total stranger. A bit of stuttering at first :)

    Surprisingly, Chow Kit is not so bad after all. I felt safe knowing that the police station is located in the bazaar.


    According to Vijayakumari Kanapathy, Senior Analyst, Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Malaysia):

    "Malaysia is an exporter as well as an importer of labour, but its in-migration far outweighs its out-migration. We exports highly-skilled labour and imports low-to-
    medium skilled contract labour." I guess 1ondoncaller falls under 'export high-skilled labour' category :)

    As of December 2005, we have over 1.9 million. Well, we need their manpower.


    WOW! Thank you for your wonderful comments and kind words. All of us shall work harder and make our blog better!


  9. mim Says:
  10. amazing photos.
    it makes me want to run and hide my pictures.
    voted. 10 stars!

  11. David Jr Says:
  12. Awesome stuff here! For sure, you have a strong chance for the BlogforFT prizes! Keep up the great work.

    Malaysia Asia

  13. wk Says:
  14. wow, u have a very good post here,
    definitely your travel blog is very good!

    will be visiting here again in the near future!


  15. shloke Says:
  16. mim,

    I LOVE your pictures and articles as well. Thank you for your kind support!

    David Jr


    I'm keeping my fingers crossed :) This is one tough competition. I noticed loads of wonderful entries in the public category. Chances are VERY SLIM.

    Will definitely do better in future.

    wk a.k.a WhyKimi?

    Hi! Welcome to my photo & travel blog :)

    Thank you! It was a 'spontaneous' article.

    Cheers to all!

  17. fufu Says:
  18. wow...nice stories... great!! i gotta surrender and let you stand in front of the stage... you have such a great life there... good =p

  19. shloke Says:
  20. fufu


    mylo is an ordinary and typical Malaysian. Always wish for a better and happier life + more traveling - just like fufu :)


  21. oh im very impress on hw u tale d story bcoz KL including chowkit(although im not living in there~) is just like an ordinary place for i found nothing special there but by reading ur description plus with d awesome photos had encourage me to appreciate d 'dirty' yet interesting place like chowkit.huhu..if u wanna do d nex street photojournalism, y don't u invite me to join. hehehe ^^ nice one!

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Traveling & photography are the most rewarding & enriching experiences in my life. Photography is all about discovery, enjoying myself, having adventure, learning people & nature. The greatest experience for me is the connection I felt with NATURE. If you haven’t seen Malaysia, you haven’t seen the world! My photography works are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.
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