Stop treating immigrants as punching bags for our own problems

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The anger and apathy towards foreign workers for no valid reason is bewildering, says Nicholas Chan.

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sulekha.com

As far as I am concerned, President Obama made a landmark speech announcing the Executive Order he would take to put in place some long-due immigration policies that have dogged his nation, still besotted by a political gridlock.

I won’t go into the specifics, nor do I think these measures by themselves are a great leap forward. But the president’s public reaffirmation – that America is a country of immigrants, owes its success to immigrants (no matter what their legal status is), and its policy-making is to be guided by the principles imbibed in the US Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” – is something that is worthy of great applause.

While some may say this is just the usual theatrics or sandiwara (in Malaysian terms), a look at how most European leaders have floundered under the pressure of ethno-nationalism and xenophobia in the aftermath of the economic crisis further demonstrates the timeliness and audacity of Obama’s speech.

Sadly, similar political will is nowhere else to be seen even in the US’ closest ally: British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to be pandering to the anti-European union, anti-immigration sentiments of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

I understand some might say I sound like an Obama lackey, but how can I not rejoice at this rational and firm-willed speech when my own country is being plagued by serious and substantial accusations of humanitarian crises concerning human trafficking, refugees’ welfare and sweatshop working conditions for foreign workers. It is as if we are creating a social underclass whose contributions (in blood and sweat, literally) are not only blithely casted away, but are turned into a punching bag for whatever flops we mostly have ourselves to be blamed for.

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For example, the recent Cameron Highlands landslide incident was followed by an ugly, high-profile and undignified blaming and persecution campaign aimed at our foreign workers, who are obviously lowly paid pawns in the greater scheme of things that has been responsible for plundering Cameron Highlands throughout the years.

As a recent visitor to the place, I found it difficult not to notice the extent of wanton development there. Large swathes of hill land are being cleared for building projects, and it begs one to question how questionable the approval process for these projects must have been, seeing how precarious the sites in question were

If anyone is to be blamed for the landslides, it is these people who have reaped massive profits – through legal or illegal means – by degrading the Cameron Highland’s ecosystem. It is these developers, illegal farm operators and corrupt who have created jobs for economic migrants to move in and inflict the damage. Letting the real culprits off the hook while making the immigrants a fat scapegoat to be continuously milked for cheap populism and demagoguery is a classic form of manipulation and bullying.

The revisionism of history and the ethno-religious exclusivism evident in our public discourse further complicates Malaysia’s predicament. This results in a large segment of the population and even the country’s leaders ignorant and delusional about Malaysia’s immigration history, which extends way before the primordial Malay nation-state, constructed by the British. The Nusantara region had a very porous border, and the Malay Archipelago benefited to a significant extent from the free movement of people and goods from as far away as China, India and the Arab world.

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Even the current face of the nation-state of Malaysia is a result of a huge immigrant population –whether brought in by the British or not. Indeed, there has not been a time in modern history when this land was devoid of immigrants. Like it or not, economic immigrants contributed vastly to the economic and socio-cultural enrichment of our country and like America, it has become stronger for it.

It is not just rude to disregard or deny citizens with immigrant origins (largely the Chinese and Indians) their place in history, but it is totally unbecoming for a country that aims to achieve developed nation status to be so inhumane in its treatment of migrants and refugees.

That said, the Sabah scenario might warrant a different analysis due to its different geopolitical context and alleged political manipulations, but I will leave that to another discussion.

Ironically, the top echelons, the state capitalists and their cronies never actually has a problem with the immigrants as they were the basis of their enterprise, providing cheap labour for larger profit margins and acting as a conveniet bogeyman towads whom public anguish could be directed.

The anger and apathy towards foreign workers for no valid valid and rational reason is bewildering. The usual lament that they robbed us of our jobs is almost nonsensical seeing how these migrants are actually doing the jobs we won’t want to do ourselves anyway.

As our job scopes never overlapped but instead complement edeach other most times, it is not their industry but our own lack of productivity and of high-income jobs that have forced our country into a middle-income trap.

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If we are so desperate in hunting for the culprit for our low wages, perhaps the findings by Khazanah Research Institute that only 33 per cent of GDP goes to wages and the rest business profits is a good place to start (although the findings should not be taken at face value).

There is a greater challenge of inequality that the world faces and no evidence has shown that immigrants are responsible for it. It is a systemic issue, not a human one, let alone one that can be attributed to those who are at greatest risk of victimisation by the system.

As technological advances have made our world “flat” (Thomas Friedman’s terms), it is saddening to see how savagery still remains to constrict us as hermits who refuse to accept that diversity is essential to the survival of humanity. Seeing how Christopher Nolan’s galactic epic Interstellar raises the prospect of how we might one day all be immigrants as we move to a different planet, we might begin to find this “us-versus-the-barbaric-them” mindset
truly pathetic.

Certainly, it is disheartening to see that how we are so bent on making our countries inhospitable to our fellow human beings after our ancestors tried so hard to make the wilderness hospitable for all of us. Have we forgotten that hospitality is also a benchmark of civilisations too?

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