Unemployment: Cycle within Cycle Without End

The ringing, didn't have to wait long for him to pick up the phone.

"Assalamualaikum, Zahir." Smiling, I greeted my Muslim friend from south Thailand.

"Walaikum salaam, Abang Z." Zahir replied. Just like many in Thailand, my name is difficult to pronounce, that being the same in Cambodia and my own country, Malaysia. "Abang Z sihat?" (Brother Z, are you well?).

Conversation translated to English.

"Yes, though I'm getting physically tired often nowadays. The packing, the travelling, the usual." I chuckled. "Hope you and family are fine."

The exchange of pleasantries continued for about 3 minutes, from polite inquiries of whether one has eaten to a quick exchange about the weather. Non-compliance to such code of courtesy is often seen as bad-manners in Muslim-majority ThaiSouth, and in most parts of Malaysia - almost as rude as showing your foot to a Thai.

"So you're planning any trips to Malaysia when you're done with classes?" I asked. Zahir studies in a university, in Narathiwat. He aims to specialize in agriculture, part influenced by his parents who works in their family-owned farm in the south.

"I'm unsure. I'm considering to look for work in Malaysia." Zahir said. "Some of my friends (who works in Malaysia) find it (the life style) good."

"But you know ya, Malaysia's has a high cost of living." I said.

"Yes they said that too."

"Then why not focus on a career here (Bangkok)?" I asked.

"I don't know what's going to happen, Abang. No one knows." he said, pausing slightly as if in thought.

We spoke for almost an hour, about his aspiration, his ageing parents and three siblings, and the present situation in his province. His concerns are plenty, ranging from life after graduation, a stable job and income, fears of unemployment and the state of politics in the south. He, like many young people, have all sorts of ideas on what could take place to overcome the current socio-political situation that has bogged down the opportunities. But then again, the views of youth go unnoticed by the elders, be it in Bangkok or Narathiwat.

Many young people have expressed their pride in the way their university, and faculty, have offered the creative flow of learning, and sharing, particularly the interaction among peers on similar thoughts. Though after graduating, the problems of adapting to the requirements of supposedly good behaviour -- one must suppress views to adhere to the greater good of the nation, that sort of thing.

I won't deny that in my country, I've heard far too many complaints among young Malaysians about this or that, and perhaps the culture of expression is different, somewhat. Zahir is worried about his parents, should he migrate to Bangkok in search of a job, and yet opportunities are limited back in his village. His mother wants him to consider working in Malaysia, while his father prefers him to be working in the provincial agency as a civil servant. His siblings would prefer that he travels, though not an option at this point taking into considering of his lack of income.

Unemployment in the south among young people has been a neglected issue for decades. The countryside is rich with hills, coasts and rubber plantations, and for miles as far as the horizon. Modernization is slow, and the almost daily violence and conflict between security forces and militants have petrified the window of opportunity.

A Buddhist Thai man had once candidly told me that Thai Muslims should be grateful of the bounties provided by the greater Buddhist population to the Muslim community, and that Thailand does not understand why the Muslims are so fond of violence or simply appear lazy. His arrogance was quite un-Buddhist, with an air of ultra nationalism, was noted, and I placed him on my list of judgemental Thais, a growing list mind you.

Anyway, back to Zahir. There's very little I could do, except to listen to him talk about his frustration, and increasing dilemma on post-university life. The trouble with his society, with its rigid structure of conformity, is no different than what one can find in Malaysia. He promised, as an afterthought, to focus on his studies, before we ended the telephone conversation.

I sat back, sweating from the night humidity. The shadows blurred from the kretek smoke. Bangkok's downpour offers no solace. I sink back into the memories, into a realm of my younger days, of struggles and hardship.

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