It is funny how Malaysians may disagree with one another over political views or religious matters, but we bond quite well over our distrust of migrants, observes Syerleena Abdul Rashid.
When a racial riot broke out in southern Italy sometime in early 2010, the mindless attacks on African immigrants prompted Pope Benedict XVI to respond by reminding people that, “an immigrant is a human being, different in background, culture and tradition, but a person to be respected, and possessing rights and duties”.
Malaysians tend to get emotional when such issues arise and share the same concerns with the rest of the world when it comes down to how we feel about migrants.
Whether you want to believe or not, Malaysia is one of those countries made up of migrants.
My great grandparents were migrants and so were yours. They fled their homeland in pursuit of greener pastures in faraway lands.
Moving and starting a new life is always a tough decision – but try to understand the motives behind the choices, the fear, the suffering, and the hopelessness which force human beings to board rickety boats and plunge forward into a new strange world.
It takes a lot of guts to face that kind of risk and this type of fortitude is simply disappearing in our society.
We have become content, complacent and indifferent. We have become this way because of the misplaced entitlement created by those in the corridors of power.
This misguided suggestion that we are guaranteed something simply by being born has created a nation of whiners where Malaysians would rather outsource reforms to our politicians.
We know racism is horrible but many of us are guilty of allowing it to permeate into our society, one way or another.
We may dislike the awful things our local bigots say; we hate it when they call other Malaysians “pendatang” and we just know how evil racism is – but, strangely, we are okay with xenophobia.
Xenophobia simply means an “intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries”.
Malaysians suffer from large doses of this simply because of how the government condones institutionalised racism.
Malaysians identify themselves based on ethnicity – you are Malay, Chinese, Indian and as for the rest, well, you’ll have to be content with checking the “lain-lain” box for the rest of your lives.
Xenophobia feeds on perceptions, and one of the most common observations is how those in power make us believe that our country is full of “foreigners”.
I guess we have Project IC to thank for this because now we know how foreigners have been used by the regime to secure position in government – and that makes us queasy and paranoid.
Xenophobia isn’t just an isolated occurrence. It thrives when economic suffering and social ills become permanent fixtures within a community or society, and Malaysians’ negative perception of migrants reflects this.
The truth is often a bitter pill to swallow, but let’s face it, our economy isn’t healthy: look at how the value of our ringgit has decreased over the past few months. The alarming numbers of bright, capable Malaysians leaving our country for better economic prospects simply signal a distressing pattern: an irreversible brain drain, which no one knows how to prevent.
Our country is losing out and Malaysians are worried.
We worry that these foreign migrant workers will steal our jobs, corrupt our daughters, infect our wholesome lives with their foreign diseases, litter our neighbourhoods and fill our towns with their bizarre, non-readable foreign language.
It is funny how Malaysians may disagree with one another over political views or religious matters, but we bond quite well over our distrust of migrants. Our fears get the better (or worse) of us and this allows our hatred to cloud our better judgement.
We need to remove that hatred and begin to create a platform where Malaysians can discuss such matters in a more reflective, rational and civilised manner.
We need to look into our very own insecurities and understand why we are so apprehensive towards them.