Making sense of GE13

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At GE13, the term ‘foreigners’ has become a euphemism for imported illegal voters. But those who have made Malaysia their second home are left in the dark, says Linda Lumayag.

A house is not a home
A house is not a home

I wait with mixed emotions the result of GE13. Faithfully reading the online news, blog forums and the print media, it is still too close to call who will eventually hold the reins of power for the next five years.

I refer to non-citizens, to people who have made Malaysia their second home either as temporary residents – international students and workers – or as permanent residents, who do not have the right to vote in Malaysia. In my case I cannot vote because I am not a Malaysian citizen. Nonetheless, I have lived in this country for almost 25 years. For non-citizens like myself, there are nagging thoughts that come to the fore. A new government will determine the fate of thousands of non-citizens who faithfully contribute to the development agenda of the country. Having resided in Malaysia long enough to dramatise its recent history, allow me to read or imagine the thoughts of the non-citizens at this point of time.

First, would a change in government allow for a greater transparency when it comes to who comes and stays in this country? Would this mean that a comprehensive migration policy related to the position and condition of migrants by virtue of work, marriage, or education would be given a space in the new leaders’ political discourse? In particular, would this mean that thousands of foreign domestic workers working full time in middle-class Malaysian households would be granted the right to a weekly day off, in response to MTUC, Tenaganita and other civil society groups’ call for a weekly day-off? That it is not just because domestic workers and groups are asking for it but because it is almost impossible to work seven days a week without an opportunity to be alone with oneself or to meet friends and relatives away from the prying eyes of their employers. That the granting of the weekly day-off be made mandatory irrespective of the workers’ country of origin who by observation come from Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines or Vietnam. Or, would the new government re-examine whether its Employment Act could cater to the labour interests of all types of workers, rather than having its application limited to local workers, thereby dislodging and excluding the existence of other categories of workers coming from across the national borders?

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Second, migrant workers eagerly await the new dawn where they are paid regularly rather than having to wait for months to be paid a measly sum, after deductions. In other words, migrant workers would expect that the new government will usher in a new era of strong governance in matters related to the strict adherence to the rule of law, for example, paying workers what is due them. By implication, if there are employers who flaunt any provision of the law, the arms of the law will be there to mete punishment.

Third, it is a simple wish of migrants to be freed from unnecessary harassment at the hands of bogus enforcement officers who may succumb to bribery in cases when migrant workers fail to show valid travel documents. While there are migrant workers who may be working illegally across the country, meaning without valid work permits, they remain victims of a system that provides them with false hopes and promises of better job prospects.

Would Malaysia be able to provide a competitive and excellent education that is forward-looking and globally-attuned in this fast-changing environment? Would it mean that international students who have come to our shores would be treated with respect and decency by giving them the same hospitality accorded to whoever wants to experience a unique life in Malaysia? What about the quality of education in private and public colleges and universities? Would Malaysia provide well-rounded teaching staff who would welcome these students in their class? International students expect a more challenging university environment, maybe more challenging than what they have experienced in their home country.

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A challenging university environment, according to students I have met, means there is an active sharing of insights during lectures and meetings rather than a monologue. It means that students are given the space to speak their mind rather than a ‘jalan sehala’ delivery or, in the words of a friend of mine, “preaching” to the students. International students bring with them high expectations: that Malaysia is indeed a beautiful country and being multicultural, multireligious and multiracial, it will definitely provide them with the best platform to grow and learn something that is not to be found in another country. However, their living experiences sometimes point in another direction that seems to dampen their expectations. For instance, the college/university does not embody an “experiential” learning such that after lectures they are back to their own selves or connect with other international students and rarely is there a venue for them to engage with local students.

Another category of non-citizens are those foreign spouses especially women who are married to Malaysian nationals. Would post-GE13 be generous to many foreign spouses whose patience and perseverance has been tested since they have arrived in Malaysia? Would Malaysia optimise the pool of interesting and talented human resources and see that they enjoy the right to work and to practise their profession as doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, scientists, accountants and ensure their economic contributions are regulated at the national level? At least for some women foreign spouses who have resided in this country for ten years or so, it was not easy to find work and to practise their profession or trade due to an ambiguous immigration regulation.

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Would post-GE13 administration examine the status and conditions of foreign spouses who for some reason or another have never been given a space to prove their “niche in the sun”? They belong to a category with the potential to demonstrate their talents, skills and time to help shape Malaysia into the kind of country we all want it to be. The thousand foreign spouses who remain silent, voiceless and faceless have made a direct and indirect contribution to our society be it in their quest to sustaining a united family or by their voluntary work in the local community.

Would post-GE13 be humane enough to understand and resolve the increasing number of stateless children both in Peninsular Malaysia and in Sabah. That these children should not be seen as culprits but as victims in the whole scheme of the migration and immigration process. I personally feel that when a government continually invokes a legalistic perspective on statelessness, there will be no end in sight.

Children being children should at all costs be spared from any political manipulations at the expense of, actually, the future of Malaysia. It is safe to say that these children, without access to education, will pose another round of problems as they grow up. These social problems are actually nontraditional security issues – drug addiction, prostitution, unemployment, poverty – and these will pull down our quest for a mature and democratic society. It is only by acknowledging and recognising the existence of the problem of stateless children that a new government can begin to move forward, and not to step backward to allow forces of manipulation and inefficiency in the system to direct the future of these children.

In closing, innumerable questions remain at stake when a a new government comes to power. I have provided a sneak peek into some of those questions above.

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