Looking back at recent developments, Johan Saravanamuttu explores this delicate question in light of global anti-racism protests.
I knew there was something wrong with our way of life when people could be mistreated because of the colour of their skin. – Rosa Parks, 1956
The murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks, two African Americans, have sparked protracted protests not only in the US but in many other cities across the globe.
These outrageous acts of white racism have sent the US reeling in a new political crisis, half a century after the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr.
They have also reminded the rest of the world of the extensive racism that still plagues all of humanity. The graph of the enduring pandemic of racism has remained ‘unflattened’ in the 21st Century.
Many Malaysians are rightly disturbed by the appalling political developments in the US, but do we see the implications and lessons for us? No public protests were held here, even though black lives do matter in our country.
A media report reminds us of the wilful death on 23 January 2013 of 39-year-old security guard Sugumar Chelladury. He had run amok, damaging banana trees and flowerpots, and was chased down by some members of the public and police personnel. They subdued him with one policeman allegedly stepping on his neck while the other handcuffed him. For four hours, Sugumar’s naked body was left on the ground, his face smeared with curry powder. A postmortem later stated that he had died of a heart attack.
From 2000 to 2016, 284 Indian Malaysians died while in police custody. That’s 23% of all custodial deaths over this period. (Even if there were disproportionately more ethnic Indians in custody – which means they may not have been especially targeted – it raises another question: why are there so many ethnic Indians in custody when they make up just 7% of the population?)
So ‘black’ lives matter too in Malaysia!
Let’s now move beyond our customary discussions of race relations and move to another level of institutionalised, everyday racism that has lurked beneath our comfort zones and seldom surfaces in public discourse.
I sense racism is highly prevalent in our attitudes and behaviour towards migrant workers, who have become the bulk of the Malaysian working class or its underclass (the lowest segment of society).
First, Malaysia employs the largest number of migrant workers in the region.
Three countries in South East Asia – Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – house 96% of all migrant workers in the region, and we have the lion’s share. We employ 2.2 million documented workers and possibly another three million undocumented.
Migrant workers, who form 30%-40% of our labour force, typically serve the Malaysian elite and middle class, taking up dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs in construction, essential services and plantations, which locals avoid.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the discriminatory and racist practices towards migrant workers.
In March, the government announced that undocumented workers, refugees and asylum seekers would be provided with free testing and treatment for Covid-19 and would not be arrested.
This policy was reversed on 29 April, when the defence minister announced that all undocumented migrants found in “enhanced movement control order” (tight lockdown) areas across the country would be placed in detention centres or special prisons gazetted by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Three major detention facilities in Sepang, Bukit Jalil and Sememyih, along with several immigration detention centres across the country, hold an unspecified number of migrant workers in cramped facilities.
Mass arrests and detentions of undocumented workers took place in several markets and residential areas where migrant were known to work or live in the vicinity. The authorities quarantined and contained these areas in draconian fashion. Some 40,000 Thai and 11,566 Indonesian undocumented workers were repatriated to check the spread of Covid-19.
As the International Labour Organization (ILO) noted in its 4 May 2020 report on the impact of the pandemic, three buildings housing migrant workers in central Kuala Lumpur – Selangor Mansion, Malayan Mansion and Menara City One – were placed under tight lockdown. Selangor Mansion and Malayan Mansion had about 6,000 residents, 97% of whom were foreign nationals, mostly from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
The UN in Malaysia, the Malaysian Bar and a coalition of 62 civil society organisations expressed grave concern over this action. Others, however, may say such drastic actions were justified. Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Jerald Joseph, for his part, argued correctly that migrant workers need protection rather than detention.
Remember, Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is part of international law. What is holding us back? Even so, a fundamental principle of international law still applies even to those nations that have not ratified the convention: the principle of non-refoulement forbids a nation from returning asylum seekers to a country where they could be in likely danger of persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Beyond the actions of the state, everyday forms of racism are more than evident in our land.
We are all aware of the incredible remarks of the 2017 Miss Universe Malaysia Samantha Katie James, who said that one chooses to be born of colour. She was roundly lampooned over social media.
While her remarks are by no means innocent, they are certainly not as xenophobic as the attitudes of many Malaysians towards the migrant population.
Take the recent treatment of Rohingyas, who were once accepted willingly into the country. On 16 April, Malaysians applauded the Malaysian Navy for intercepting a boat carrying 200 Rohingya refugees off the coast of Malaysia and preventing it from entering Malaysian waters. Other boats had been turned away in earlier months. According to rights groups, dozens of such refugees have died at sea, and the fate of some boats remain unknown.
What is even more incredulous is the current attitude of many Malaysians towards the Rohingyas. A poignant anecdote about a Rohingya worker’s experience will serve to illustrate the insidious racism. After fleeing the brutal military expulsion of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in 2017, 37-year-old Alam Syofik arrived in Malaysia in search of a better life only to have his hopes dashed especially after the coronavirus pandemic.
He recounted: “I’ve been randomly spat on and shouted at so many times, I can still take it. But nothing beats the fear of being threatened with murder just because I am Rohingya. … Some locals are not shy to say they’d ‘love’ to kill me and it doesn’t matter whether I understand where this is coming from or not. I’m sorry, but I’m very scared, it brings back memories of escaping from Rakhine.”
To prove that this is not a mere story, readers are invited to view a signboard barring Rohingyas from praying at a Johor surau.
The prejudice toward migrant workers is all too clear, as a recent news report illustrates. This was when the wholesale market in Kuala Lumpur was reopened, supposedly “cleansed” of foreign workers. Malaysians interviewed showed their approval, saying foreign workers had made them “feel uncomfortable” and “unsafe” and these workers had been responsible for the “dirty” environment of the market.
In response, Aliran condemned the pathetic use of a range of stereotypes, misinformation and unsubstantiated allegations against undocumented foreigners in this and other reports and commentaries: “The undocumented are not in a position to refute such allegations levelled at them, as they don’t have the avenue to respond.” Read Aliran’s full response.
The Oxford dictionary defines racism as “the inability or refusal to recognise the rights, needs, dignity, or value of people of particular races or geographical origins”.
Going by this definition, it could well be said that a vast number of Malaysians are indeed racist.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
22 June 2020