A Horatio Alger Tale


Donald Jagau of Malaysia is one of the world’s new consumers. Born in the jungles of Borneo, a descendant of a peaceful rice-farming tribe called the Bidayuh, Jagau was chopping down trees in the forest a few years back when he heard an announcement on his portable radio. An American company needed workers for a new plant in Kuching, located about three hours from Jagau’s village. He made the arduous trip—by river and road—and met an executive from the California-based Zycon Corporation (now Hadco Corporation), a manufacturer of circuit boards for computers and cellular phones. The American liked Jagau’s easy manner and infectious sense of humor. But he liked even more Jagau’s command of basic English and willingness to relocate to the U.S. for a year of training.

If Jagau could learn to run a sophisticated circuit-making machine, he could pave the way for the recruitment of other native Indonesians, thus holding down the company’s labor costs.

Leaving his wife and three children in his village, Jagau flew to Silicon Valley, where he stunned his trainers by rapidly mastering the essential skills of machine maintenance. The 27-year-old proved especially adept at troubleshooting—making small changes in the machine in order to optimize output.

It was in this plant that I met Jagau two years ago. After Jagau returned home, I visited him again last May, in Kuching, where he now lives and works at the company’s new Malaysian factory. I expected to find a happy man. By the company’s standards, Jagau is a great success. He has a good job and has received a series of raises. He even trains co-workers. Compared to his brother, who works as an itinerant tree-cutter, and to other Malaysians, Jagau is among a favored few. While he misses the U.S., and talks of returning, he has a steady job that pays decently. He has just moved into a new suburban tract home. His children are in good health, and his wife, also a Bidayuh from the country, is getting comfortable in the city.

Yet Jagau is bitter. His experience of working in the U.S.—and for an American company abroad—has changed him. Wittingly or not, he’s embraced the American ethos. He feels no loyalty to the bosses who have trained him. He’s consumed with the idea of joining another American company. He wants the higher pay and better training that he believes his employer is denying him.

One evening, Jagau and I sit sipping Tiger beer in a seafood restaurant on the river that cuts through Kuching. It is dark but still hot. “I could earn almost as much money working in the jungle,” Jagau says. “Why do I put up with them?” He pulls out a letter he’s written to another American company that he’s heard may open its doors in Kuching. Then he asks me for advice on creating a résumé. “I know I can do better elsewhere,” he says. “I must be crazy to stay.”

Hearing Jagau complain makes me think about what the company executives have done. In taking him into their hive, they thought they would get the stereotypical Asian worker—docile, grateful, and loyal to his detriment. Instead, Jagau is a budding rebel with an inflated sense of his own value. How classically American.

Jagau’s individualism is admirable in many ways. He’s not afraid to stand up to his bosses, and he proudly maintains his Bidayuh allegiances, even refusing to convert to Islam, which would make things easier for him in Muslim Malaysia. At the same time, Jagau’s desire to please himself, stoked by his year in the U.S., is worrisome. He tells me that he is weighing how to spend a housewarming gift he’s received from a friend in the U.S. The money totals about $200 in Malaysian ringgit, enough to cover the cost of a refrigerator, which he knows his wife covets because their home lacks one. But he wants to apply the money toward the down payment on a motorcycle. He assures me that buying it would not be a selfish extravagance. With a motorcycle, he reasons, he could get to and from work more quickly and plow the saved time into shopping for groceries for his wife.

I’m not persuaded. The motorcycle, it seems to me, will become the means for Jagau to leave his family behind. Lucy, his wife, never attended school and cannot even read her native language. Kuching still bewilders her, and her dependency on her husband is profound. I recall, too, that before leaving the U.S., Jagau confessed to me that he feared he would find Lucy less attractive on his return. “I am modern,” he told me then. “She is not.” While he remains committed to her, he sees her as a person of the village, a relic from his old life. Having a refrigerator, I believe, will empower Lucy and present her, to a small degree, in a modern guise, making her more appealing to him. For two hours, as we go from one motorcycle shop to another, we argue. Finally, he decides to buy the fridge, though he seems unhappy about it. I must leave for the airport, so we can’t celebrate his purchase. But later I wonder whether I had any business giving Jagau advice. Isn’t the refrigerator just as likely to Americanize Jagau’s family as the motorcycle? Isn’t it possible that Lucy will soon enough be buying canned corn from the U.S., or hot dogs?

The next morning, asleep in a Kuala Lumpur hotel, I am awakened by the telephone. I say an unsteady “hello” into the receiver and hear Jagau’s voice in reply. “Lucy is so happy,” he says, then adds: “I start filling the refrigerator today.” For a moment, I want to give him suggestions on what to buy, but then I check myself. Won’t anything I say simply abet the very process of Americanization I fear?