Malaysia has always been a destination that I wanted to visit and explore. I’ve heard much about the beauty of the landscape, the richness of the culture and the endless selection of delectable foods. Touching down and driving through Kuala Lumpur gave me an uncomfortable feeling of familiarity. The wealth and modernity of the city suggests an air of civility and progressiveness. A place with semblances of the west such as paved highways, neatly placed skyrises and urbanized city scapes surely must have the laws and regulations of the west -- right? Surely such a place must value the same thing that we value in Canada and the United States and surely then, they must also have ways to ensure that human rights are upheld and that the people are looked after.
As Angela described the situation in Malaysia, my heart dropped. Perhaps I allowed my heart to be too vulnerable through Vietnam and Cambodia, because these truths hit me harder and affected me more than what I knew of in our previous destinations. But perhaps it was the truth of being in an industrialized, developed and wealthy nation that is not unlike our own, that has no regard for human life. This contrast in feeling between Malaysia and our previous destinations has much to do with the state of the country. Vietnam and Cambodia are both countries ravaged by recent war, driving them into poverty and underdevelopment. Many of the problems in these two countries thus, can be attributed to poverty and lack of education. Malaysia on the other, does not have such excuses, which makes their terrible human rights record all the more appalling.
In Malaysia, we were faced with the reality of incomplete laws and regulations to combat human trafficking. On the one hand, there is government action and initiatives that address human trafficking, but on the other hand these actions and initiatives stop where nobody is looking. We knew that in Malaysia, prostitution is illegal and hence, brothel raids often occur. This was a relieving thought, as it means that girls trafficked into the sex industry will have a chance to be rescued. However, rescue is a relative word here. Upon realizing what “rescue” really meant, it makes me wonder whether the Malaysian government even knows what that word means. How can rescue mean that the victims of trafficking get locked up like criminals? How can rescue mean that those who are exploited are without medical and mental health care? How can rescue mean that those who were oppressed are forced to stay trapped in crowded detention centres with no rights?
Malaysia is an excellent example of what it means to be legalistic. They follow human rights standards that the international community have set, but they do it just for the sake of needing to do it and have ignored and forgotten the reason why those standards have been put in place. They do it because they need to win favour rather than protect women and children. What good is upholding laws if you’ve forgotten the essence of the law? It does not make you good, it does not mean that you’re making an impact and it does not make you a better country. Evil men have done many good things, out of evil intentions.
The women’s detention centre was a place filled of hopelessness. 200 women were crammed like sardines into a space that only fits 80 and that’s not even the largest number of people who have been in there. These women were reduced to a coloured shirt and a number, their identity and humanity stripped away from them. A large majority of these women were of Vietnamese origin, yet not one staff member there spoke Vietnamese. The women had no belongings, no money, and no way to get out. The only hope they have comes from our Malaysian director, however even her hands are tied. She works carefully to not aggravate the authorities and to stay out of sight of the traffickers and corrupt officials. The girls however, are desperate and often hands her notes, hoping that she could offer them salvation. These women wait and wait, some for their paperwork to come through, others to face their oppressors in court. Unfortunately, in both of these cases, these women are made to wait months and sometimes even years because the government cares little about helping these women find justice and refuge. I could not even imagine being in their shoes, waiting on a future that is so uncertain. Is this truly better? When they were being exploited, they were still able to eat, sleep and have shelter. They were even able to make money. How can being trapped here be any better? I had no idea how to process my anger but to cry hot tears. I was angry at Malaysia for their lack of love for human life, but I was also angry at Vietnam for not giving an ounce of care for their own people. Vietnam has abandoned and betrayed her own people.
The children detention centre offers a little more hope, however the only semblance of a place fitting for a child are some coloured walls and old faded origami hanging from the rafters. We walked through several locked gates with barbed wire on them in order to get to the girls. The girls here were happy to see guests. However, when we sat down to talk to the girls, they expressed their displeasure of being there. Some have been there for well over a year. They told me that the staff treated them “ok” and that there’s nothing to do. In fact, these girls have no education while being there. Many of the girls expressed that they do not want to be in school because of the shame of being so behind. It breaks my heart to see these children basically behind bars, looking at us with no light in their eyes and obligatory smiles. How does the government even think that this is appropriate for children? The only hope that I have here is knowing that four of these beautiful girls will be going home. But my heart is troubled as I think about what would become of their future.
I left Malaysia with very little joy and with a heaviness in my heart that was beyond anything I’ve ever felt. I felt so helpless as I thought about what I could do, what anyone could do. I admit that my view of Malaysia has been completely changed and any mention of this detestable country is spat out with hatred. Upon returning home, I find out further that some of the people there were unhappy about what we thought of the detention centres and aimed to silence us. The rage in my heart only grew stronger as I sat, trying to comprehend why people who were supposed to help these victims, would want to silence us. I realized that stopping sex trafficking in Malaysia had layers beyond what we experienced in Vietnam and Cambodia. I realized now, how hard this fight really is, but it makes me want to fight even harder and to rally more people behind us to help fight this battle. If I have taken anything away from Malaysia, it’s that my very small and quiet voice must now be big and loud because my voice must speak for all of these women and children whose voice has been stamped out.