Since the era of decolonization and in the present day, the transnational circulation of Nepali labour to Malaya/sia has been an important albeit understudied linkage in the context of migration studies in Nepal. The proposed panel endeavours to explore migrant labour connections and dynamics between Nepal and Malaysia, examining both historical patterns and contemporary dynamics. Malaya was the regimental home of military labour migrants – i.e., British Gurkha families – during the post-colonial era and it has since continued to assume significance in the contemporary period with an estimated half a million Nepalis working in the security and manufacturing sector. Notwithstanding transformations that have occurred across time, the centrality of Nepali labour migrants in service of security continues to be a defining and enduring feature of the transnational engagement between Nepal and Malaysia, and the last two decades have brought a large presence of Nepalis in manufacturing. Through in-depth analyses of policy and print media representations, cemeteries, and everyday experiences, the three papers will provide a macro/micro perspective into various dimensions of transnationality and consider the implications of migrant regimes and rights, soldiering and social worlds, and labouring and life-making. Drawing on extensive archival and/or ethnographic research, the complexities of transnational relationships and migrant transience through the lens of Nepal-Malaysia will be critically evaluated. In so doing, we hope to highlight multifaceted dimensions that extend beyond mere economic considerations and stimulate discussions on the interplay between colonial legacies and contemporary futures within the context of South-Southeast Asia.

Keywords: Malaysia, labour migrants, livelihood, rights, security, soldiering, media and Gurkha
Chair/Convener: Hema Kiruppalini, Research Fellow, Asia Research Institute, NUS, Singapore
Discussant: (TBC)

Paper 3.1:
Author: Sampreety Gurung
Affiliation: PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, Cornell University
Paper Title: ‘This is how our bodies have become maintained’: Temporalities of Work and Life among Nepali Migrant Workers in Malaysia

Words like ‘OT (overtime) and ‘night duty’ have become part of the everyday vocabulary of Nepalis working in Malaysia. Both migrants and recruiters refer to the availability of overtime as a defining feature of good work, while the nightshift is seen as a time of relative freedom and an opportunity to extend the non-working day. How might regimented schedules of overtime and nightshift work – valorised by workers and capital alike – be interrupted by possibilities for life-making outside of work, and with what outcomes? Situating these dynamics in the context of wageless life in Nepal and migrant disposability in Malaysia, this paper examines the rhythms of migrant labour and life among Nepalis in the manufacturing and security sectors, showing how migrant life is both reproduced and attenuated by competing desires to work, sleep, play, and engage in other forms of life-making. In doing so, I ask what forms of life become valued and made disposable within regimes of free migrant labour. The paper draws on fieldwork in Malaysia and Nepal in 2022-2023, a period that coincided with the reopening of Malaysian borders, increase in the minimum wage in Malaysia, and historically high recruitment fees amidst the promotion of ‘ethical recruitment’ practices in Nepal.

Paper 3.2:
Author: Hema Kiruppalini
Affiliation: Research Fellow, Asia Research Institute, NUS, Singapore
Paper Title: Gurkha Graves: Unearthing a Social History through the Bygone ‘Family Lines’ of Malaya

In 1948, following the aftermath of India’s independence, the ten battalions of Nepali Gurkhas that had long served the British Raj were reconstituted. While six battalions remained in India, four were transferred to Britain, and subsequently, the ‘regimental home’ of the ‘British Gurkhas’ – as they came to be known – moved to Malaya. From the late 1940s till the early 1970s, British Gurkhas were actively involved in the Malayan Emergency (1948- 1960), Brunei Rebellion (1962), and Konfrontasi (1963-1966) and there is no dearth of books on their military involvement during the period of decolonization in Southeast Asia. This paper, in contrast, seeks to uncover the lesser-explored social history of transnational soldiering. By adopting Gurkha graves both as an archival source and a subject of ethnographic study, it endeavours to illuminate the impact and enduring significance of military mobility on the colonial present. During the period of decolonisation, Gurkha families sojourned in various parts of Malaya and Singapore and resided in ‘family lines’ as a gated community. Tracing the long-forgotten cemeteries across Singapore to Sungai Petani, this paper aims to foster a nuanced understanding of the intersections between colonial histories, military migration, and the socio-cultural and religious dynamics of Gurkha families. In so doing, it offers a history from below deliberating on how these graves not only function as sites of historical memory but showcase the negotiation of multivalent processes and identities within the heterogeneous Gurkha community.

Paper 3.3:
Author: Jacob Rinck
Affiliation: Postdoctoral Fellow, Asia Research Institute, NUS, Singapore
Paper Title: Migrant Rights between Nepal and Malaysia: Mapping Emerging Transnational Publics

Abstract: In 2018, transnational reporting by The Nepali Times/Himal Khabarpatrika and Malaysiakini uncovered systematic corruption in the recruitment of Nepali migrants for work in Malaysia. In the wake of this scandal, the Nepal government instituted a ban on outmigration to Malaysia, which it lifted only after a new bilateral agreement was signed later that year. By all available evidence, the substantive terms of this agreement, such as the provision that employers were to cover the entire costs of migration, were never effectively implemented. This paper, however, focuses on what this episode can tell us about emerging transnational publics in Asia. For this purpose, I examine and contextualise three key actors involved: The Nepali Times/Himal Khabarpatrika and their history of reporting on migration, Malaysiakini in the context of debates about labour rights and anti-trafficking policies in Malaysia, and the International Labour Organisation’s place in the making of international migration infrastructures. Thereby, this paper seeks to map out transnational engagements with labour and migrant rights that are emerging alongside intensifying flows of labour and capital between Nepal and Malaysia.