July 31, 2023
KUALA LUMPUR — Mitchelle Gorospe Ignacio, 40, felt a pinch in her heart as she looked at photos of her daughter, Thania Nichoelle, going up the stage last month to receive her award for completing ninth grade with honors at Saint Paul University High School in Tuguegarao City.
For this architect, who has been based in the Malaysian capital for a decade, it was another bittersweet moment as an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) — having to be absent in this milestone in the school life of her 10-year-old daughter.
Thania Nichoelle was only a year old when Ignacio left in 2013 for Kuala Lumpur, where she was eventually hired by leading architecture firm RSP Architects Sdn Bhd. She left her child to the care of her husband Romson and her parents.
Despite their separation, the mother said she always feels a deep connection with her daughter — and now pride in seeing from her distance Thania Nichoelle excelling in school.
The feeling is mutual, as Thania Nichoelle has already expressed a keen interest to be “like Mama.” She knows that her mother, who grew up a country girl in Cagayan province, is now a reputable architect in Malaysia — assigned such big-ticket projects as the 118-story Merdeka Tower.
The building — which is almost 100 percent complete and scheduled to be opened by December — is Malaysia’s highest structure, taller than the 88-story Petronas Towers, and the second tallest in the world after the 163-story Burj Khalifa building in Dubai.
Recognition for OFWs
Ignacio was among the Filipinos in Kuala Lumpur whom the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) invited to a gathering with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last Wednesday when he met with the Filipino community in Malaysia at the start of his state visit last week.
As an architect, she stands out among the estimated 322,000 mostly blue-collar Filipino workers there (apart from the 500,000 or more undocumented workers, according to the DFA’s data).
Ignacio said she is happy with the Philippine government’s support for OFWs.
“I feel extremely proud, not only for myself, but I feel proud that as a Filipino, we get this recognition to be part of projects as significant as the Merdeka 118 [Tower] when not all… are given such opportunity,” she said on the sidelines of Marcos’ meeting with the Filipino community at the EQ Hotel.
The building’s name, Ignacio said, comes from the Malay word for “independence.”
She said the tower’s design is inspired by Malaysia’s first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman — particularly his iconic pose when he read out the country’s independence proclamation in 1957, stretching out his right arm as he chanted “Merdeka!” seven times.
Ignacio said three other Filipino architects had been involved in the building’s construction. She counts herself as the “last Filipina standing” in that enterprise.
Besides her involvement in the Merdeka Tower project, other highlights in her resumé include her participation in the design and construction of two already completed railway projects—the Gemas-Johor Bahru Electrified Double Track project, which links the municipality of Gemas to the capital of the Malaysian state of Johor, and the Sentral MRT Linkway in Kuala Lumpur.
Ignacio has come a long way from her hometown of Tuguegarao, where she completed an architecture degree at the University of Saint Louis before working for four years as a casual employee of the city government.
After that stint, she went abroad and found a job in Qatar in 2010.
She returned home three years later, giving birth to her only daughter, then tried her luck again abroad, eventually being hired in Kuala Lumpur.
“There was always this aspiration on what better things you can do, what bigger things you can offer,” she said.
Although she is pretty much settled in the Malaysian capital, Ignacio said she has no plans to become a permanent resident.
“There’s still no substitute for being in the Philippines. We will still have that longing to live in our home country regardless,” she said.
While she is based there, Romson and Thania Nichoelle visit her as much as four times a year.
Ignacio agrees with Marcos’ remarks about the “good reputation” of OFWs not only in Malaysia but all over the world.
“That has really been our trademark as Filipinos—we give our best in whatever task assigned to us, and every difficult task brings out our trait of being responsible,” she said.
She added that “most OFWs enjoy good working conditions here in Malaysia because, contrary to popular belief, their treatment of employees is equal, without regard for gender.”
Ignacio welcomed the news that the President’s meetings last week tackled prospective projects aimed at strengthening ties between the Philippines and Malaysia.
She also said she is ready to lend her expertise to development efforts back home. That would give her time to be with her daughter again.