Double standards in the way Malaysians treat foreigners

Let's not forget the plight of the migrant workers and refugees amid us – and consider how we can improve their quality of life


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By Safiyuddin Sabri

In our search for what it means to be Malaysian, we often overlook the non-citizens who are in Malaysia.

My previous article sought to discern what it means to be a Malaysian and concluded with the thought that it is about what we can do to serve or contribute to the nation.

However, what about non-citizens who also contribute to the national economy? How do we treat them?

Not a few whites, Koreans, and Japanese in Malaysia have achieved success in Malaysia as social media content creators or professionals in the workforce.  

These foreign content creators are popular among the locals – especially if they speak Malay well. Many of us feel proud when we hear them speaking Malay. They receive tremendous support for their social media content, and when they are seen in public places, they are treated like celebrities.

But do we regard factory workers from Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and other developing countries the same way? Is our different perspective of them due to their skin colour, country of origin, ‘attitude’ or occupation? For instance, we don’t seem to be as proud when we come across Bangladeshi workers who are able to converse in Malay fluently.

Most of these migrant workers are here to support their families in their home countries. Others want to build a better life for themselves. Many are willing to work in “three D” jobs  – dirty, dangerous and difficult – that Malaysian citizens are not willing to take up.

Some two million migrants have valid documents to work in Malaysia. Perhaps another three or four million other migrants are undocumented.

Then there are the refugees in Malaysia who have fled from conflict in their home countries. Does Malaysia treat them as full human beings?

As of November 2023, 182,820 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia were registered with the UN refugee agency.

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About 88% of them came from Myanmar, including the Rohingya (107,520 or 58% of the total) and Chin ethnic groups. The rest are from other countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka (IOM UN Migration).

These people want a better life or a safe haven. But why did they head to Malaysia in the first place?

Some Rohingya have lived in Malaysia for many generations. Some arrived because the official religion of Malaysia is Islam. Others may have opted for Malaysia after the government allowed 40 Rohingya refugees to enter the country following their rescue in the Bay of Bengal in December 2013. These may be the reasons why they chose Malaysia as their new home. There is a sense of familiarity with the Muslim way of life practised by the majority here (Togoo, RR and Ismail, FHBM, 2021).

A stateless individual is an individual who does not have a valid citizenship document from any country. There is no accurate data on the number of stateless individuals in Malaysia because they are not recorded.

But according to Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas (DHRAA), 16,000 applications were made through the NGO and 87.6% or 8,223 were children born out of wedlock or adopted by Malaysian parents.

Who are these stateless people?

  • Abandoned children with no parental information
  • Children from an unregistered marriage of a Malaysian father and a non-citizen mother
  • Children of stateless spouses
  • Children of non-citizen mothers but unknown fathers who are then adopted by Malaysian citizens
  • A child born abroad to a Malaysian father whose marriage is not registered
  • A child born abroad to a Malaysian mother

These are the stateless individuals, and the victims are usually children. How can we as Malaysians remain silent when the status of these children makes it difficult for them to get the basics of life, such as education, healthcare and social security?

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“If my late father were alive to see me going to school, he would be happy.”

“I collect rubbish to pay my school fees.”

“When I grow up, I want to help mum earn money.”

“I don’t have documents; that’s why I helped my father at the camp (construction site) lift wood and stones.”

These are the laments of Ariel and Hairi, stateless children in Sabah.

For them, the quest to become Malaysian is so that they can receive an education in order to change the fate of their families.

Do we and the government treat these groups like human beings? Or are they just ‘immigrants’ – because they are not professionals, white or from developed countries?

“I don’t ‘respect’ them if they don’t watch their attitude,” one Facebook commenter said.

Their ‘attitude’ may consist of different things: their hygiene, manner of speech, mindset and so on.

If it is their ‘attitude’ that is responsible for the double standards in our treatment of them, then what the stateless or their children need most is a decent education. They are already contributing to the economy of the country in so many ways.  

The children of the undocumented or stateless are usually marginalised because they don’t get the opportunity to go to school. The ‘attitude’ of these folk may depend on whether they are allowed to live a normal life, including receiving a proper education.

Access to affordable healthcare is also key in improving their quality of life, which will have an impact on overall public health.

At present, foreigners have to pay high fees to receive treatment at government hospitals and private clinics. There are cases of undocumented women (or documented migrants who don’t have the money) giving birth in a government hospital and then running away, resulting in losses to the government.

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Foreign workers also find themselves exploited by certain unscrupulous employers. Sometimes these workers leave their jobs because of intolerable conditions and thus become undocumented workers, especially when their employers hold on to their passports.

What can these workers do if they are exploited in the workplace? Their fate is in the hands of their employer.

If they work illegally and are hunted down by immigration, the employer or agent often escapes. This is because these workers are cheap labour who are treated like disposable goods by many companies that thrive on the back of their labour.

The business of bringing in foreign workers is so lucrative that politicians are also believed to be linked to it. If any of these workers want to work on their own like in a business, some locals in our society grow envious – even though the ones allowing them to take over their businesses may be locals as well.

It’s a no-win situation for these migrants.

At present, there are 500,000 unemployed foreign workers in Malaysia. Wouldn’t it be better to give them, as well as stateless citizens and refugees, the opportunity to work and contribute to the national economy – rather than recruiting more foreign workers who may not have jobs waiting for them here?

So let’s tap into the hidden potential of the foreigners who are already here. Provide them certain basic rights such as education, healthcare and a social safety net so that they can improve their standard of living and thus contribute to the national economy even more.

Perhaps this will end the negative perspective towards them among some locals.

Safiyuddin Sabri is a political science student who has just completed an internship with Aliran.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
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