Zarzis to Lampedusa and Medan to Penang

The distance from the town of Zarzis in Tunisia to Lampedusa in Italy is about 260km. It is just a touch shorter than that between Medan in Indonesia and Penang in Malaysia. The parallel between the two pairs of cities struck me when I was reading an article about young men running away from the current north-African/Arab world chaos and seeking refuge in places like Italy and France.

Young men in North African countries have for years, crept into southern Europe in search of economic freedom and a better life. I think Zinedine Zidane was one of such people – he and his family had left Algeria searching a better life in France. Just as North Africans stole into Europe, Indonesians have gone to Malaysia for years.

The similarity between the Gibraltar and Malacca straits must however, end there surely. When Kiddo was born, Tress and I sought out an Indonesian maid and was referred to an agency in Port Klang. The office was within the office premises of a local UMNO divisional office. UMNO is of course, the dominant ruling party which is the bane of Malaysia. It struck me as curious that a maid agency had its office within the local UMNO premises and I didn’t like it one bit.

About a year after employing the maid, when I wanted to renew the contract and work permit, my worst fears were realised. The maid’s passport was a fake, and all paperwork produced out of that local UMNO office were forgeries. I could not renew the work permit except through the same local UMNO office.

It was systemic and institutionalised corruption. The local politicians were the local warlords controlling this illegal trafficking of Indonesian women. The machineries of government were exploited to line the coffers of the party and its members and as usual, it is the people – the maids and their employers – who were the victims.

Years down the track and we continue to hear of illegal immigrants from Indonesia going through the borders of Malaysia with little or no impediments. The corruption is systemic and widespread. Indonesians can become naturalised as Malaysians, as long as they can pay. They are encouraged and become supporters and voters of the ruling government in return.

Whereas the Italians of Lampedusa accepted the Tunisians from Zarrziz out of humanitarian ground, in Malaysia it was the almighty moolah which drove matters and determined outcomes. The distance between Tunisia and Italy may be similar to the distance between Indonesia and Malaysia but in many other aspects, the difference is probably gaping as the bald patch on Zidane’s head.