Orioles, 3 a.m.

From a balcony drenched in insomnia
I am birdwatching, at 3am.
They perch precariously,
dotting the grim-grey concrete skeleton
of the flyover-to-be.
The bright yellow of their heads
pierces the darkly falling drizzle,
but their birdsong matches the gloom:
Joyless, strained calls and warnings
in notes foreign to my weary ears.

They have come a long way from home.

But why?

They’re far too busy to answer
my silent rhetorical question,
so I must answer it myself.
Birds flock and fly forth on wings of optimism;
on feathered pilgrimages to a better place,
if only for a while.
Even my own ancestors thought so.
A better place.
“They were migrating birds, too”,
I think to myself, on my sleepless balcony,
watching the bickering, glistening orioles.

“A better place.”


Even in a land of milk and honey,
The milk can sour and curdle,
the honey can conceal a bee’s sting,
and the hope that first lifted you
into the sky
can come

The silent grey menace of concrete
lurking in column, block and slab
circles over the orioles without moving
for days, weeks, months,
waiting, waiting, waiting,
to cement its ambush.

The developer cuts corners,
which slashes
the invisible, inevitable thread
dangling over their yellow heads.
Now the concrete smiles in triumph,
And gravity does the rest.

Now the mud is bloodied
the blood muddied
The remaining flock gather
in a fretting, fluttering circle,
waiting for the wail of ambulance sirens
and the harsh caw of the foreman,
telling them to get back to work.

Who cares?
Ah, trick question.
A grieving friend called Bernama
will always give you a minor headline on a slow news day
and end her ignored eulogy with the words
“Police classified the case as sudden death”.

Now the bird will finally fly home
not by its own wings, but by those of an aircraft,
with a blank white shroud
covering the dead memory
of its bright yellow head.

About the Work

“Orioles, 3am” was inspired by my actual observations of the lives of Bangladeshi construction workers in my area. They toiled, both by mercilessly scorching day and rainy night, on a flyover project across the road. Their bright yellow safety helmets with straps reminded me of the head of a bird called Dendang Selayang (Black-Naped Oriole), although these poor birds had to perch on uncomfortable, alien steel and concrete.

Even at 3am, shrouded in darkness and rain, they never stopped working, putting up a beautiful new road for Malaysians to drive over; ironically, the same Malaysians might mutter about the fact that there were too many job-stealing foreigners in KL. Malaysia is a land built significantly by the toil of immigrants, but whether they are sixth-generation or newly-arrived, we seemingly feel discomfited by them. What we don’t feel is empathy; Malaysia, Truly Asia is also Malaysia, Truly Callous. It’s as if a pendatang can never truly “datang”. Paradoxically, we need them, but don’t want them. Equally paradoxically, the old immigrants resent the new, as if no-one else has the right to travel in search of opportunity. Will Future Malaysia be more fundamentally humane, more enlightened, and less hypocritical? Time will tell.

See related references for this work:

Complaints aplenty about forced labour in construction industry, says Suhakam, FMT

A night in a kongsi, Rage

Foreign Worker Exploitation: Dark Malaysian Legacy, Asia Sentinel

Foreign worker crushed to death in construction site accident, The Edge

About the Creative

Gema (“echo”) is intensely interested in hearing our country’s myriad, ever-changing voices bouncing off the walls of Malaysian society.

Get in touch via email at


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