How to disappear completely: Conversation with a permanent migrant

What follows is a slightly edited transcript of a conversation with a migrant worker from Indonesia whom I have known for some time. Personal details have been omitted for privacy.

Fluid borders

My hometown? Surabaya. 

Going through immigration is easy. It costs about RM250 to 300 per person. After paying, you just go to KLIA and they will tell you which gate to walk through at what time. It’s really simple. The person at the counter, when they see a tourist, they will check the system (fingers typing on keyboard). Then when they see us (Indonesian) they will check a list on their handphone and if our name is there, they just wave us through. The immigration officer gets about RM200 per person. 

If you get blacklisted and want to return, it’s really simple. Just pay extra (RM1000) and they will wipe your name clean. Everything. Then you get new papers. A new passport with a new name and birthdate. Then you come back to Malaysia as a tourist. When the immigration looks at the passport, it’s just me, first time entering the country. I’ve done this many times. 

Between Batam and Johor there are plenty of boats going through. High speed boats with three engines. At night they coordinate with the Malaysian navy. When there are no Singapore boats nearby, we quickly go through. “Everyone gets a cut / Semua orang main.” In the same boats they bring in marijuana and anything else that is illegal. Bottom layer is vegetables, then marijuana, then top layer, coconuts.

Once you arrive in Johor, you find your way to KL. One way is the PDRM (police) truck. We are all loaded onto the truck, about 20 at one time, then the back is covered completely. Who is going to stop a PDRM truck on the highway right? When we arrive here in KL or PJ, they disperse us in 4 – 5 cars that are already waiting.


Every time there is a problem here, they blame it on the immigrants. But we are just here to work hard, not do things like steal motorbikes. That’s what they (Malays) do. They are the ones who don’t want to do dirty jobs but want expensive things. They want to be seen driving a nice car but their pockets are empty. I see it all the time where I live. Families will have such a nice car, but they keep moving because they can’t pay rent. 

The Chinese do not want become policemen, because the pay is too low. How much can you earn when you are just starting? It’s not enough and then you have to earn extra by taking money from people. RM20 here, RM30 there. Just the other day I was stopped at a road block and the officer took my phone number. Later, he called me, asking me to top up his phone. Can you believe it? A police officer calling me for top up of RM20. I told him I only have RM10!

In Indonesia, it’s different. If the police come and asks for you for money without proper reason, people will gang up together and fight them (gesture of pulling up collar). BUT if you are a criminal, no matter how small, you are in deep trouble. If in Malaysia, you steal something and run, people will just look and then continue their own business. In Indonesia, everyone will chase you down and beat you to death. If the police don’t arrive in time, you will definitely die. Many times even if the police arrive, they will just allow you to run. When you are a bit of a distance away, they just shoot you. Done. 

Being nobody

I’ve been here 25 years. I think I’ve changed my identity 3-4 times by now. You work here for 3 days, it’s equivalent to a month’s wages back home. So when we are here, we just work hard, save up money and send it home. No need to spend on much. For us Indonesians, the most important thing is to have a home. Doesn’t matter if it’s just a ‘kandang ayam’ (chicken coop) but it’s our own place. 

My son, they (the agents) offered me a birth certificate for him. RM10K. I said no. I will send him back to Indonesia. I know many people who arrived here by boat, and their children all have birth certificates and now ICs (blue MyKad meaning full citizens). They paid about RM6-7k. They have one identity here, and then when they go back, they are a different person. Everything can be done with money. 

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