The Malaysians I wouldn’t want in my classroom

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The humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya refugees has revealed alot about the ugly side of a certain group of Malaysians, observes Melanie Yong.

For the past few days, the Facebook newsfeeds of my fellow Malaysians have been inundated with news about a group of people stranded at sea.

To put things in perspective, these refugees (although some call them “illegal immigrants”) are victims of discrimination due to their stateless identity, a product of centuries-old communal violence for which the colonial powers of Japan and Britain also played a part.

Some of these refugees are also victims of poor government by leaders who have failed to develop their country or have developed it to favour of a few. This has caused a surge in the number of economic migrants flooding into neighbouring Southeast Asia nations.

In turn, these migrants have provided their host nations with a source of cheap labour – unprotected and unrepresented. The migrants mostly come from Burma and Bangladesh, not the countries you would call ‘successful’ in financial or democratic terms.

As someone who teaches and encourages college students to be involved in community work, I had many students going to refugee schools, teaching basic English and other elementary subjects. Often times though, their reflections zero in on the level of education the children at these schools have and how education can enable them to get out of their current situation.

I hate to always be the bearer of bad news (that education can only go so far) but maybe the incidents of this past week would jolt them into a realisation: that the Rohingyas and many other refugees who have fled their countries often do not have a rosy life after their exodus.

But I won’t get into what my students have or lack. I do believe that their involvement in tutoring itself has allowed for a less harsh critique of this marginalised group, going by what their reflections have revealed.

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Stateless children in Malaysia - Photograph: EPA/Aljazeera
Stateless children in Malaysia – Photograph: EPA/Aljazeera

What I would like to focus on, however, is a group of Malaysians commenting on social media who seem to be very much ‘affected’ by the Rohingyas – probably typing furiously on their Apple smartphones or iPads while sipping overpriced artisan coffee at a hip part of the city,

Worse, there is another group of people – possibly sipping on slow-drip coffee in a swanky shopping mall as well – agreeing to their comments without even checking if the allegations made are real or not.

Top of the list of allegations is asking whether the move to rescue and to provide aid to these people is “realistic, sensible and feasible or not” partly due to the fact that the issue is quite monumental and the socio-economic situation here is pretty much *******-up as it is.

The second allegation is that these refugees have an ulterior motive. I really like it when people start thinking outside the box – but to suspect those who have been severely malnourished to the point of death and facing persecution for at least the good part of the last decade … why, I think those making such comments have chosen the wrong target! Also, they make lousy investigators. 😛

Please impart your wisdom on me, old sages; what kind of ‘motive’ do you mean? They want to steal our jobs? Right, that brings me to the next point.

Tell me, have they stolen your comfy office job while raking in a salary to support a middle-class lifestyle? If yes, congratulations to them for being able to overtake a local degree holder and secure such a job. (No, in reality, you can find many of these migrants in the early hours or late at night, working at jobs that you won’t imagine doing – at construction sites and garbage dumps, often for a pay that is exploitative.)

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The opposite of this allegation is the claim that some of these refugees don’t work at all and live off the kindness of aid agencies. Free shelter and food breeds laziness, aye?

Some also point out that there are already poor people in Malaysia whom we should deal with first – as though there is some sort of categorisation or prioritisation as to how and whom we should help. I bet those making such comments have not seen the amount of help given out at the numerous soup kitchens dotting the city and the individuals who have given out of their own pockets to the local community.

It is true the problem is not solved yet, but that is because long-term solutions can only be carried out through a change in systems and policies. We are still a very pro-capitalist country, and policies aimed at redistributing wealth and opportunity are still being sidelined.

Why is it that we are so quick to donate to earthquake victims in Nepal or to support Palestine but then some of us feel hesitant when the boat people off our coasts are equally in need of our help? Is it because it becomes uncomfortable when they come too near or when we would need to share a little bit more from what we have?

We love playing the blame game when clearly we can do our part too. It doesn’t take much to support 1,000 people if we could just scale back on our own spending (and coffee). Even by giving RM1 each, collectively we can do a great deal. But no, let the NGOs or Good Samaritans do that.

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The point is that this issue has revealed alot about the ugly side of a certain group of Malaysians. While we have a lot of natural resources and capabilities, we are not using them to help those in need or even ourselves.

Putting the blame on migrants for straining our finances is like putting the blame on a less well off relative for eating too much from the family cupboard. Sadly, some of these Malaysians making callous remarks are actually highly educated and probably good, respected people in society. Funny how we cry about being victims of racism when we are the real racists here.

Taking action to hold our governments accountable is what we should be doing. So take part and get involved in direct action, dear commenters.

Melanie-YongMelanie Yong is a service learning coordinator at Methodist College Kuala Lumpur. She previously worked for a human rights organisation and is interested in education for social justice.

She recently participated in the Aliran Young Writers Workshop on Multiculturalism, supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives.

“I think the best part of the workshop was to be introduced to a community within which you could bounce off ideas as well as seek solace (in writing),” said Melanie. “And as a teacher, I found it great seeing my students having the opportunity to learn and to publish. Thank you for encouraging young writers to be brave in speaking up.”

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