Malaysian bullies

During a recent house-hunting excursion I was struck by a funny-looking store room. I thought it was strange that it had windows. When I was told it was the maid's room, I was even more amazed.

It was so small that swinging a cat would have resulted in a concussed animal. You could probably stuff two and a half single beds in it - if you had a chainsaw.

The room was almost like an afterthought, a small space perched on the edge of a house, like some embarrassing corner. My curiousity was raised. Surely this could not have been a serious room to live in. After all, I've seen numerous episodes of Downton Abbey and their servants' quarters have plenty of space to have trysts and fights in.

In fact, counties in present-day England have laws concerning minimum room sizes. A sleeping room requires 6.5msq if the living room area is separate. As a comparison, a cell in a US prison would be about 4.5msq.

The room I saw would have been less than 5msq. I'm not sure though if that qualifies as "inhuman" because I also read in a forum for expats in Hong Kong that maids there have to make do with between 2.5 and 4msq. One anecdote told of a maid who was expected to sleep on a mattress under the sink.

Although official figures say that 240,000 maids work in Malaysia, the Malaysian Maid Employers Association estimates that the actual number is closer to 700,000 when illegals are taken into account. These hardworking individuals enable parents to work long hours while letting children experience a rich extra-curricular regime of tutorial classes and piano lessons.

Yet, it seems like cheap maids are a valuable resource that many have taken for granted and advantage of. Stories of maid abuse in Malaysia have received much publicity. Most notable is the case of Nirmala Bonat, whose employer was sentenced to 12 years jail for scalding her maid with hot water and an iron.

While we hope this is an isolated incident, the ugly truth is that maids are treated as second-class citizens and - even worse - that this is accepted by Malaysian society.

Apart from the cramped living conditions promoted by whoever it was that designed the house, we also restrict their movement by holding their passport or by not allowing them to leave the house at any time.

Maids do not generally have public holidays off, nor are they compensated with overtime - mainly because their scope of work is never clearly defined. Some may also do double duty as staff if the employer runs a small restaurant or shop.

On top of that, I have personally witnessed many otherwise polite individuals scream at their maids in frustration. It feels like they're thinking: "How can you be so stupid and not follow simple instructions?!!" instead of "Thank God, at least I have someone to help me around the house".

This has not been a recent problem. In 2009, a representative from the Indonesian Embassy said that Malaysia was the most problematic of all the Asian countries that take in Indonesian maids.

Bear that statement in mind when you read that, in Hong Kong, a survey suggested that one in five maids have faced physical abuse, and one in 20 have been sexually abused. As a result, many Indonesians have lauded their country's announcement that they will send no more maids to any country from 2017.

In all this, it surprises me that I don't see many people asking an important question: if Malaysians are such a caring and polite society, then why do we treat maids so badly? Could it be that as a society, we are structured to condone and accept abuse when it is meted out by somebody in authority?

In a previous column about the work of sociologist Geerte Hofstede, it was pointed out that Malaysia is still an extremely hierarchical society in which extreme deference is given to those seen to have higher social standing. It may be that the reverse is also true: that those of higher standing do not empathise or sympathise with the ones beneath them.

We often hear about the race problem in Malaysia, but perhaps the issue is that of a class problem.

As a result, all the work done in trying to promote harmony based on races getting along together is bound to fail as long as the rich feel they are superior to the poor, or that those of one religion are more deserving than of another - or that employers are more important than employees

A mantra of this column, so much so I could write a theme song about it, is that there is more that binds us than sets us apart, and the sooner we understand that respect must be fairly given and earned from all, whatever your social status, the better off we will all be.

The guy who designed the maid's room to be only slightly larger than a prison cell would do well to bear that in mind.