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Exodus from Melaka

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Malaysia, as the tag line goes, may be truly Asia, but Melaka, a colonial port on the western seaboard, seemed anything but Asian to us – that is if you ignored the tens of thousands of economic refuges fleeing new draconian labour laws. However, as we strolled around Melaka’s picturesque colonial heritage, with hundreds of Singaporeans doing their best to imitate Japanese tourists in Versailles, we were worlds apart from the over 300,000 illegal Indonesian workers forced to abandon their livelihoods for what could only be a bleaker future.

The rickshaws, so common throughout Asia, do nothing to quash the delusion that this is not Asia. Everywhere else we have been they are a slow but viable form of transport, pedalled by lean muscular men, a layer of dirt covering both man and machine. Here they are luridly painted and, like ice cream vans, announce themselves with tinny repetitive jingles. Their raison d’être is not transport but to amuse tourists with their over-the-top tackiness. Romancing couples, giggling teenagers and fragile elders take the weight off their feet and enjoy the thrill of the “exotic” as they are pedalled around the city centre.

Melaka’s historic quarter is centred on a small hill, which must have originally guarded the city, and the ruins of St. Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It is the perfect sort of place to spend a few unhurried moments strolling around, but looking out to sea at the hundreds of brand new condominiums sparkling in the sun, with the statue of St. Paul beside you, the illusion of the South of France is complete. A young Muslim couple, sitting staring out to sea, furtively hold hands for a brief moment before moving a respectable couple of inches apart. Even with their backs to us their body language signalled love.

But we hadn’t come to Melaka to bask in its Mediterraneanesque sun. We, along with the hordes of illegals, were leaving Malaysia for Indonesia. Although a mass exodus of bitter and resentful people seems like a blueprint for trouble, we were confident of the Malaysian authorities' ability to control the situation. The large numbers of ticketless and sometimes cashless had gone well beyond the city's normal accommodation capacity and a small tent city was developing by the dock as they pushed, wrangled and networked their way onto a ferry. On advice from our landlady we turned up at the dock a day early to secure our seats for the following day.

The ferry terminal was awash with people, all looking a shade on the wrong side of desperate. The situation looked tense, it smelt of trouble, all it needed was a spark and the whole thing could go up. We didn’t relish having to stand in line for hours, however the port authorities gave us privileged treatment. As much as we resent being singled out on the basis of colour, this time we were grateful. As we stood waiting for our confirmed tickets we could feel the eyes of the crowd upon us, acutely aware that they wouldn’t get the same special treatment.

All told there were half a million illegal Indonesian labourers working in Malaysia’s sweatshops, lumber mills, construction sites and every other industry that needs cheap no-strings attached labour. In an effort to crush this black market and reduce native Malaysian unemployment, legislation was due to be brought into effect the day we were to leave. The new laws treat both illegals and those who harbour them with characteristically harsh Malaysian justice – up to five years in jail and six strokes of the cane. No one was in any doubt that the Malaysian authorities would enforce these regulations and indeed just two weeks later we were to read of the first three-year sentences being handed down.

The following morning we turned up an hour and a half before departure. The crowds were more densely packed than the previous day, all grasping their newly printed identity cards. In Kuala Lumpur, the Indonesian embassy had worked day and night to issue 300,000 temporary travel documents. The Malaysian police were keeping a tight hand on things without resorting to any distasteful elements of crowd control. Once again we were quickly segregated from the bulk of the crowd and put with the single women and children, something my machismo would just have to deal with.

After an hour of our heavily laden packs biting into our shoulders we were told we were in the wrong line. No doubt if we spoke the language we would have gathered as much from the many serious announcements that had emanated from the bullhorns. Cursing, we made our way the short distance to the other terminal, hoping that we had not left it too late. Once again we need not have worried, the uniformed Malaysian passport official immediately spotted our lily-white skin at the back of the line. He actually got up from his desk to escort us in front of the waiting Indonesians.

“I’m so sorry, these people don’t understand these official things”, he confided in us as he stamped our passports. Evidently he associated himself with us, not on the basis of colour, but out of some kind of assumed mutual respect for procedures and authority. We were on our way, wondering how many Indonesians would be left to wait yet another day for passage to a country they thought they had left behind.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Barbara overlooking the bay Melaka - Malaysia travelogues
Photograph of a street scene near China town Melaka - Malaysia travelogues
Barbara overlooking the Bay - not very Asian is it?

A street in China town

Picture of an outdoor climbing wall in Melaka - Malaysia travelogues
Photograph of Dutch square in Melaka - Malaysia travelogues
Even in a small place like Melaka you'll find climbing

Dutch colonial buildings - a major tourist attraction

Picture of a church on a hill in Melaka - Malaysia travelogues
Photograph of a couple in Love in Melaka - Malaysia traveloguess
The ruin of a church A couple in love