There are many reasons Indonesians migrate to Malaysia. In recent decades it has generally been motivated by economic motives. If traced further, there are other more interesting reasons for the move. In the case of the Kerinci people who entered Malaysia from the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, they initially entered Malaysia to escape the pressure of Dutch colonialism which had begun to take effect in Kerinci. The next generation entered Malaysia as part of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Mecca. They reproduced there and became the focus of the next generation who entered Malaysia for reasons of visiting family. As the economic crisis hit Indonesia in the late 1990s, migrating to Malaysia became an alternative to enduring a stagnant economic life at home. Habizar, who is the inspiration behind this story, is one of the young Kerinci people who are looking for good fortune in Malaysia. Interestingly, while he was taking his graduate degree in Kuala Lumpur, he worked as a migrant worker to sustain himself.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
A professor is waiting for a bus to the Universiti Malaya (UM) campus. This American Cornell University alumnus and Universitas Gadjah Muda (UGM) professor is currently a visiting professor at UM. A young boy who is also waiting for the bus catches the professor’s attention. This young man’s appearance is simple. It turns out that they are both Indonesians, and a warm dialogue rises up between these two generations. The young man is pioneering the future. He works as an Indonesian worker in the UM complex. However, unlike Indonesian workers in general, he is also registered as a Master’s degree student at UM. I am fortunate to have met these two great people. The professor is Professor Sjafri Sairin. After completing his stint at UGM, he is now my colleague and fellow lecturer at UM. The young man Habizar is from Kerinci. We were both going home for the holidays. I met him in Ujung Pasir, the beautiful lakeside village of Kerinci. Habizar is the inspiration for this article.
Kerinci people have migrated to Malaysia since the 19th century. One of the pioneers was Haji Abdullah Hukum. He entered Malaysia when he was 15 years old with his father in 1850. In Malaysia he is known as the founder of the Kampung Kerinci settlement in Kuala Lumpur at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.
This village is now an elite area in the Malaysian capital — inside stands UM, the State Mosque and other magnificent buildings. Abdullah Hukum and Kerinci Village are important stations on the LRT transportation hub for the royal capital. In 2012 Kampung Kerinci had changed its name to Bangsar South. However, due to local Malay protests, the name Kampung Kerinci was reinstated. The sense of historical pride in maintaining the name of Kampung Kerinci is strong. I’m lucky to have passed this station. Hopefully one day I can stay in touch with fellow Kerinci people there.
The people of Pulau Sangkar, my hometown in Kerinci Hilir, entered Malaysia from the early 20th century onwards. They left Kerinci to escape the Dutch colonialists who had arrived in 1901. The next generation entered Malaysia in the 1920s.
Kampung Kerinchi in the 70s
In its heyday, Kampung Kerinchi had a big settlement of slum squatters comprising locals as well immigrants from Jambi, Sumatra in Indonesia. As development extended into the area in the 90s, some of the squatters were demolished to make way for the development of low-cost flats and medium-cost apartments. Source: www.carigold.com/forum/threads/transformasi-kampung-kerinchi.636995
This group was on their journey for pilgrimage and were transiting in Malaysia. Furthermore, much later in the 1980s, the people of my village began to migrate to Malaysia again. The main motive was to establish friendship with predecessors whom had already settled in Malaysia. The peak of the migration of the Kerinci people, including those from our hamlet, to Malaysia occurred in the 1990s, especially after the earthquake that devastated Kerinci in 1995. The situation was exacerbated by the economic crisis that hit the region as the price of coffee and cinnamon fell sharply. I have published an article about this titled Preserving Ancestral Land and Ethnic Identification: Narratives of Kerinci Migrants in Malaysia.
In Malaysia the Kerinci people live in groups in many places, generally according to their hometown origin. Many Pulau Sangkar people live in Hulu Langat, in the village of Semungkih. I visited Hulu Langat twice. On my first visit I stayed at Kak Mastura’s house. Interestingly, even though she is not a Kerinci person, she has developed the Kerinci cultural art in the form of Rangguk Dance. For this reason, together with her husband, Bang Syahril, who is of Kerinci blood, they founded the Ethnic Bamboo art studio. They vigorously promote Rangguk Dance at various events in Malaysia. On my second visit I stayed at Yumpaek’s house. This brother from my hometown is married to a fellow Kerinci person who migrated there. Later I found out that the Kerinci people don’t only live in Hulu Langat — they spread in all directions, including Kuala Lumpur.
The number of Kerinci people in Malaysia fluctuates in relation to the socio-economic conditions in their home community. When an economic crisis hit home, the numbers travelling to Malaysia increased. Malaysia provides a safehaven at times of economic downturn in Kerinci. During this time of crisis, a group of about 50 people from my village left for Malaysia, old and young. Amongst them was my fifth sister, Ms Muslim. When the Kerinci economy — and that of the Kerinci Hilir area in particular — began to recover, one by one they returned to their hometowns, my sister included. She had planned to be expelled by the Malaysian government because deportation meant returning home for free. To ensure the same she made sure she was deliberately arrested by the Malaysian authorities. Now the number of people in my village in Hulu Langat can be counted on the fingers. Those who stayed on are generally those who have raised families there.
The secret valley of Sumatra
The Kerinci valley is like a donut hole within the Kerinci Seblat National Park, with more than 300,000 people living here. Rich volcanic soil helps support the population, which grows rice in the level valley, and mostly cinnamon, coffee, chilies, cabbage, cauliflower, potatoes and tea in the hills and plateaus. Its lowest point, Lake Kerinci, is an important source of fish for the region. Source: www.wildsumatra.com/about-kerinci
However, this condition does not apply to people from Ujung Pasir, one of the villages in central Kerinci. There are still many of them in Malaysia. For them, Malaysia is not just an alternative. Malaysia is the best choice for developing their economic status. Limited land in the hometown is the cause. Ujung Pasir is indeed located in the Kerinci area with a relatively dense population and a small amount of agricultural land. Another common livelihood is being a fisherman in Kerinci Lake. But the income is not as beautiful as the view of Lake Kerinci. Therefore, economic limitations in their hometowns are a driving factor and economic opportunities in Malaysia are a pull factor which help convince many Ujung Pasir people to migrate to Malaysia. The effect, according to Habizar’s father Nazahir, “More than 120 beautiful houses in Ujung Pasir are the result of migration to Malaysia. Only a few belong to civil servants.”
The number of people who make the journey from Ujung Pasir to Malaysia is supported by the well-developed transportation and communication systems. A strong social network exists among these groups who flow from one place to another. Here, a Mrs. Dewi is ready to arrange the crossing to Malaysia. Her group takes a car to travel from Kerinci to Dumai. After sailing for four hours they will arrive at Port Klang in Peninsular Malaysia. From here they only need to take a one-hour train ride to Kuala Lumpur. In the capital city of Malaysia, there are many relatives from my hometown who have already arrived. So leaving for Malaysia is not something foreign to the people of Ujung Pasir. This includes young people who have just graduated from high school, or those who have completed their undergraduate studies and have not yet found a job. One of those is Habizar.
Habizar was born and raised in Ujung Pasir. But his parents had migrated to Malaysia after the 1995 Kerinci Earthquake. So, since childhood, Habizar lived in his hometown with his grandmother. Money for the cost of living and schooling was sent by his parents from Malaysia. After graduating from SMA Negeri Kerinci, Habizar continued his studies at the English Education Study Program, IAIN Kerinci. Habizar completed his undergraduate studies in 2012. He aspired to become a lecturer. So he registered as a Master’s student at Universitas Negeri Padang (UNP) in Padang but he was not accepted. Unfortunately, good fortune was not on Habizar’s side as yet with his dream of becoming a lecturer not achieved. In a sad mood, Habizar left for Malaysia. He intended to visit his father who had become a migrant worker there.
It turns out that in Malaysia Habizar gained new inspiration. He met several young people of the same generation who also came from Kerinci. They, like Habizar, had big dreams and aspirations. They came to Malaysia not only as workers but also students. Their tuition was paid for by relatives who worked there. Among them there were those who had successfully studied at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and become lecturers and even deans at Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Jambi. So Habizar followed in their footsteps. He enrolled as a Master’s student at UKM and at UM. It seemed that Habizar’s dream of becoming a lecturer still had a chance to be realised.
At first Habizar entered Malaysia as a traveller. He obtained a one-month visa. When the visa expired, Habizar returned to Kerinci. After a few weeks in Kerinci, Habizar received an email from UM that he had been accepted as a postgraduate student at the university. So he went back to Malaysia. Now his status is no longer a traveller, even less so an illegal immigrant. He is now a graduate student at UM, one of the few world-class universities in Southeast Asia.
To lighten the burden on his parents, Habizar went to work. Like many people from his village in Malaysia, Habizar worked in cleaning services. On another occasion he took advantage of his college vacation to become a photocopy officer at his campus. When he left for campus, Habizar brought two sets of clothes: a cleaning service uniform and some ordinary clothes. After work, he changed from his uniform into his regular clothes to attend lectures. As a worker, you often experience things that are common for Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia. On one occasion he was hit by a police raid. He came home late at night because he was doing a lot of homework in the campus library. Unknowingly he had been scouted and suddenly arrested by the authorities. But Habizar could show his ID card as a UM student. Malaysian police then released him and apologised to him. Habizar’s hard work led to success. He successfully completed his Master’s degree at UM.
Habizar (left) at his graduation ceremony at UM Source: Dr Mahli Zainuddin Tago
Ujung Pasir, the shores of Lake Kerinci
D-2 Eid al-Fitr 2022
I am in touch with Habizar. The atmosphere when I meet with him and his family is warm. We are joined by his wife, his two children, his mother-in-law and some of his fellow alumni from IAIN Kerinci at his father’s house. His father Wo Nazahir is outside, busy organising the garage. Innova, Habizar’s car is parked neatly outside. Happiness radiates from Wo Nazahir’s face. His struggle to migrate to Malaysia has paid off. He has a nice house and his son Habizar is now a civil servant lecturer at Jambi University. When I asked when he was going to Malaysia again, he replied with a smile, “Just in Ujung Pasir for now. I don’t know if later…”. Malaysia is not something foreign and distant for the people of Ujung Pasir, nor for the people of Kerinci in general. But it is difficult to abort the decision to spend his retirement life in Kerinci.
Dr Mahli Zainuddin Tago (left) and Habizar’s father Source: Dr Mahli Zainuddin Tago
(Translated by Tan Theng Theng | The article was originally written in Bahasa Indonesia)
This article was written on 7 May 2022 at Pulau Sangkar-Kerinci.
DR MAHLI ZAINUDDIN TAGO
Dr Mahli Zainuddin Tago is Associate Professor at the University of Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta in Indonesia. He is also the Chairman of Lazismu, the philanthropic unit of Muhammadiyah, a major Islamic NGO in Indonesia. He obtained a Master's degree and a Doctorate at the Department of Sociology, Gadjah Mada University. Dr Tago’s research interests are mainly on ethnicity, religion and social change, especially involving the Kerinci people. His publications include Islamic Shari'a and Syncretic Islam in Kerinci Hilir (2018), Pgong Pakae: Conflict and Its Resolution in the Kerinci Community (2020) and Preserving Ancestral Land And Ethnic Identification: Narratives Of Kerinci Migrants In Malaysia.