GE13: Double jeopardy for migrants

In GE13, we witnessed disturbing patterns of latent animosity that reinforce our already discriminatory and prejudicial attitude towards migrants/immigrants, laments Linda Lumayag.

Photograph: Sinar Harian
Photograph: Sinar Harian

GE13 had come, but not gone. Its effects and implications however are here to stay.

In the run-up to the elections, we heard a lot of stories that foreign workers were transported from one place to another, specifically those coming from Sabah and Sarawak, to vote in Peninsular Malaysia. This news was fodder for anxiety levels to rise among Malaysians who were concerned with the volatile position of those who wanted change.

There are two historical junctures upon which migrant/immigrant communities are made easy scapegoats, hence intensifying the ethnic prejudices against them.
The first historical juncture was when the Mahathir administration created a huge political vacuum by granting thousands of identification cards (ICs) to undocumented immigrants in order to subvert political support for the existing government that was unsupportive to the federal government based in Kuala Lumpur.

The second juncture was the recently concluded GE13, during which allegations were made of “foreign workers” as voters in certain areas in the peninsula.

We need to understand how migrants are being exploited and made victims in Malaysia’s domestic frontier to advance the political agenda of the current dispensation. The infamous Project IC, which was orchestrated by the then Mahathir administration to gain a foothold in what was once an opposition state, was instrumental in creating an environment where migrants and immigrants were pitted against each other.

An IC documentation is important for one’s survival – from police harassment, immigration deportation, children’s access to school, skilled employment etc. No one other than the former prime minister Mahathir himself had acknowledged this in connection with Royal Commission on Inquiry’s (RCI) ongoing saga on Sabah’s illegal immigration.

The fact that indeed immigrants were given identification cards and, by implication, were able to cast their votes in the elections, is a clear display ofa divide-and-rule strategy (locals vs immigrants) to wrest political control in resource-rich Sabah state.

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It is crucial to understand how these machinations have engendered a sense of animosity and latent hatred between “we”/“us” and “they”/“others”. It is latent because, on the one hand, the “we” group was too wrapped up in fear to fight against a very strong Umno machinery. The “others”, who were composed mostly of poor immigrants especially from the Philippines and Indonesia, can only go with the “flow” – to cast their vote in favour of the ruling government.

In that elections, Sabah fell into the hands of the BN, which also ruled Peninsular Malaysia. Imagine the kind of animosity towards the immigrant communities who, by this time, had also taken roots through a socially and historically connected networks of family members, relatives and friends.

It should be noted that even if migrants/immigrants were given genuine ICs, there were also those who received such a document but never tried to use them in elections. During my fieldwork, at least one mentioned that she was too scared to use the IC for whatever purpose, except to travel from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur in 1992. She knew for a fact that the document she was holding was not genuine. She kept the document nonetheless until she applied for a new passport in her country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

There were also those who have been in Sabah even before Merdeka and yet, are still, waiting for permanent residence status to be given to them. In 2006, a 78-year-old woman who sailed from southern Philippines to Sandakan when she was still in her early 20s, shared her story of years of waiting for the legalisation of her stay and that of her large extended family.

It is convenient to paint a picture of migrants and immigrants as beneficiaries of Project IC. And, yet, there are also those who are genuinely residing in East Malaysia because of employment and marriage but are never part of the larger scheme to get involved in the political exercise such as national elections.

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Now, enter GE 13. Days before GE13 took place, there was an exposé related to an alleged plan by the Umno government to ferry voters who are foreign workers from East Malaysia to the Peninsula. In fact, a communique between parties involved was also revealed in the alternative online media. This exposé has again created another round of discrimination and animosity. This time it is in Peninsular Malaysia.

So, then, how are we supposed to know who are illegal voters when they can present their ICs at the polling stations? Did their names appear on the electoral rolls? Were the ICs being scrutinised at the polling table? Who could ascertain a fake IC?

On election day, the Malaysian public was quick to respond to a possible participation by foreign workers in their respective polling stations by forming a citizens’ army of observers or “pemantaus” aimed at dissuading foreign workers from voting.

At this stage, the response of the local community was rather overwhelming with some even ready to confront those who “look like foreign workers”. While this is commendable in the sense that local people have become aware of what was at stake in this political exercise, there are disturbing patterns of latent animosity that reinforce our already discriminatory and prejudicial attitude towards migrants/immigrants.

These disturbing circumstances cannot be faulted on the foreign workers/migrants and immigrants at all. Foremost, foreign workers are not at all responsible for whatever scheming manipulations that the government was trying to do. If there could be a substantial number of them voting in the elections, the ones to be faulted are no other than political leaders who blatantly ride on the incapacitated position of foreign workers who only know how to obey and who would have no voice to resist the demands of their employers. Their inability to decide on their own accord would have been further strengthened by their fear of being unemployed, fired or isolated in the event that they start to question what is demanded of them.

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Secondly, foreign workers/migrant/immigrant workers were already made victims in this whole process and they were doubly victimised by the Malaysian public. As someone shared after the elections, threats, intimidation and even violence was applied to those who fit in prevalent idea/profile of a “foreign worker”. Such acts could have been the result of a felt need to protect the sanctity of the election.

But the process has turned out to be unjust and discriminatory. How can we then justify our way of castigating them? Would it have been better if we had confronted their employers who allowed these workers to be used by the powers-that-be?

The art of profiling migrants and foreign workers as people who steal jobs meant for locals, carry strange diseases and, more recently, participated in the just-concluded elections will eventually intensify the already bad profiling of foreign workers in the country.

With so much at stake in the multi-ethnic composition of Malaysia, the second historical juncture where foreign workers, migrants and immigrants have been placed in a scandalous position which is not of their own making will strengthen prejudices and discrimination against migrants/immigrants in the country.

Perhaps, by then, we are no longer looking at the latent and intense negative perception of these communities but perceptions that have become manifested in Malaysia’s laws and other national instruments, thus, further eroding the dignity of migrants and immigrants.

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24 May 2013 7.05am

IN HONG KONG, migrants have even emboldened themselves by taking the matter to court to have the Government recognise them as Permanemt Residents (not even Citizens)! BUT the Hong Kong Court rejected their requests outright! But in teeming 26 millions (now that 2 millions are in doubt) Malaysia, the Government wantonly and arbitrarily offered empty forms to these … unskilled oil palms estates workers of dubious origin migrants not only in Sabah and Sarawak, but also in Malaya to serve as their Fixed Deposits for GE from 1982 up till now! In yesterdays RCI of Project IC in Sabah, we were told by a Magistrate that parents revealed in her hearings for late Registration of their children’s Births, they were given blue ICs after being offered the by several people! Ahe further added that post 2009 (after the first Tsunami when GOM lost its 2/3rds majority under PM Pak Lah), saw a huge surge of applicants for LRoB! Now we know how they managed to retain Sabah and Sarawak and gained the 57 seats sorely needed toretain Power! That easy, no Court applications, no hassles of… Read more »

kaki pulau
23 May 2013 7.38pm

That discrimination against migrants exists in this country is no doubt true, as it exists in all countries the world over. However, the GE13 situation and the use of migrants to boost votes for a political party is clearly an election fraud which can’t be condoned by any right-minded citizen who abhors corruption and fraud, especially in an election that will determine the country’s future. Dr. Lumayag’s disgust at the apparent racism against migrants is justified but unfortunately colored much of her argument. It is understandable but in the circumstances needs to be refocused on the real causes of the rising xenophobia. Most Malaysians do not support the victimization of migrants, neither do Malaysians take to racism, as ending racist politics is partly what this push for change is all about. What Malaysian voters were angry about was the fraud and the use of “phantom voters”. It is regrettable that certain persons behaved like vigilantes but a majority of the public did not participate, or instigate racial attacks on migrants suspected to be phantom voters. However, if the situation was more objectively examined, some Malaysians who… Read more »

Doug T
Doug T
22 May 2013 11.16pm

I would agree with the use of Kok Keong’s apt characterisation of GE13 – a “dilemma”. The foreigners were caught in a precarious position, and indeed, Malaysian citizens as a whole has not reacted well to these immigrants. However, to say that immigrants are completely “faultless” is to overplay the “victimization” card. Dr Lumayag adopts very harsh use of terminology – unjust, doubly victimized, castigated – but let’s reconsider: did Malaysians react in such a way to merit such blame (lets face it, if immigrants are the victim, by logic, Dr Lumayag is calling politicians the perpetrator, and citizens the accomplice)? I don’t think so. I challenge Dr Lumayag to show evidence about actual incidences that has Pemantaus or even the conscientious public acting in a violent and irrational manner. In a sense, I think what needs to be done is to reevaluate the issue by including the Malaysians’ perspectives as well. I think Malaysian citizens were indeed walking the fine line – but they have not, in fact done anything discriminatory. They had not lifted a finger against those who insisted on voting, nor those… Read more »

Kok keong
Kok keong
21 May 2013 11.25am

The author’s concern has some merits but she misses the point. What should ordinary Malaysians do when they had good reasons to suspect non-citizens were ferried to polling stations to vote allegedly for BN? She suggests citizens could confront employers of the foreign workers. She must be joking. Where to find the employers? What to do when they were found? Does she think the employers would just fess up? Meanwhile, the 9-hour polling time ticked away forever. The author also assumes that most, if not all, Malaysian citizens are callous or heartless towards the non-citizens. Is it not possible at all that they were just unhappy with the situation, not the non-citizens, on that particular day only? Yes, the non-citizens were unfortunately caught in the middle, but, again, what should citizens do if or when they had good reasons to suspect the non-citizens were being exploited to commit foul play given that they believed, with reasonable justification, they could not rely on the police or the EC to do the right thing of stopping these non-citizens from voting? The author is to be commended for her… Read more »

Malaysian Spring
Malaysian Spring
20 May 2013 4.02pm

Let’s be fair to the Malaysian citizens. Can we blame them for being angry or aggressive? They did what had to be done to protect their sovereignty. Perhaps those foreigners will return home and work in other countries now that they have faced the wrath of Malaysia’s citizens when they attempt to do what is rightly labeled as wrong on behalf of unscrupulous employers. I personally wouldn’t mind if they were too frightened to return here again. The thought of just letting them go into polling stations to vote and not try to stop them because they are vulnerable is also not the answer.