Xenophobia In Malaysia: A Silent Killer Of Unity

Dirty. Uneducated. Poor. Uncivilized. 

This is the vocabulary used to describe the Foreign workers of Malaysia. Embarrassing, but it is the truth. 

There is not a single migrant worker who cannot tell you about the xenophobia they face in Malaysia, on a daily basis. They experience it with their employers who refuse to pay for health insurance. They hear it from the police who prey on every chance to shake them down for money. Again, they hear it from the locals who tell them to get out every day.

It was xenophobia when we started to generalize isolated criminal cases among migrants to all the hardworking 3 million migrant workers. It was the crippling phobia when people conveniently ignore the harsh treatment of migrant workers but choose to support a crackdown on them during a global crisis.

Where did the notion of unity and diversity go? Where did the warmth and inclusivity that we live by go?

Life is hard enough for everyone. But for these migrants in Malaysia, it is a different story of hardship. They do our construction work, tourism, fisheries, textiles, garments, mass productions, and even security. The dirty work and the hard labor are not met with much praise. They are treated like palpable criminals and their words are treated as meaningless, simply because it is coming from a“dirty, poor foreigner”. 

This hardship took a vigilant and cruel turn with the recent outbreak of COVID 19. The world witnessed a cruel crackdown on migrant workers and refugees in Malaysia. What’s sadder was the support that fueled this harsh treatment.

The petitions that got signed, the banning of nationalities, the rampant hate speech and racial attacks on social media, the endless online protests to turn our backs on the Rohingya refugees. The list is endless. What’s ironic is that Malaysians did this while simultaneously preaching against the unfair treatment of Asian Americans, African Americans, and Mexican immigrants in the west.

Again, how was the west’s xenophobic agenda any different from our xenophobic intentions against migrants?

xenophobia in malaysia
some Malaysians react to news about the death of Rohingya refugees in Langkawi Waters

Covid 19 truly brought out the best and worst in Malaysia. There are some instances where Malaysians along with the government truly shocked the world with their not-so-subtle xenophobic agendas. While we understand the importance of prioritizing state security,  it does not justify marginalizing already marginalized groups of the society and pushing them into impossible situations. The hate speech was impossible to escape. It was on the streets, on the markets, and even on the media.

Petition To Ban Chinese Nationals 

Malaysia was not the only country to ban Chinese nationals from entering their countries. At that time, it was one of the first steps many took in order to curb the number of cases. It was a necessary move but the hate speech that fostered a culture of fear against Chinese nationals was anything but necessary.

A global health crisis should not allow for radicalized responses that foster fear against an ethnicity. But such was the case. Malaysians took it to social media to call the virus a “china virus” and fault them for consuming exotic animals and attack on their personal values. We stigmatized them and pushed them further down the stereotypes that perpetuated hatred against Asians. What does that say about our perceptions, when we are east Asians ourselves?

Criticism Of The Decision To Vaccinate Foreigners For Free

Covid 19 does not discriminate against anyone. It does not know our nationality, our visa status. Nor does it know anything of legality. And we certainly imagine a post-pandemic world without vaccinating the majority of Malaysia. This majority includes many foreign students, migrant workers, immigrants, and even undocumented workers.

Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said foreigners will be eligible for free vaccinations including undocumented migrants and asylum-seekers registered with the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. They also further announced that priority will be given to Malaysians before rolling out a vaccination schedule for foreigners.

However, the reaction to this news was still unkind. It did not stop thousands of Malaysians from trying to question a migrant’s right to vaccination just like any other human being. Many netizens took it to social media to express their distaste for the announcements and criticism of the decision. Again, a testament to the lurking racism and Xenophobia in Malaysia.

“What would happen to the taxpayer’s money?” Concerns rise as we fight against this pandemic.

xenophobia in malaysia

Detaining Migrant Workers 

Migrant workers are at the bottom of the barrel in the hierarchy of privileges. No migrant worker demands special treatments. Yet the xenophobia in malaysia prevents them from even gaining the basic priveleges and rights.

Their price for existence includes hostility, unhygienic living conditions, lack of health insurance from their employers, being deprived of basic necessities and human rights, unsafe work environments that provide below minimum wage. These are just some of the things documented migrant workers are subjected to on a daily basis. 

 Unfortunately, cheap labor is addictive.

The pandemic can no way justify the detainment of migrant workers, document or undocumented. In fact, it is a systematic way of using the vulnerability of a global health crisis to gather on the undocumented migrant. Hundred and thousands of people defended the act as a stand for state security. Defending the nation against illegal immigrants is more than necessary for its welfare. Holding them accountable is how we can ensure the safety of both locals and documented migrant workers. However springing to a mass arrest of migrants, asylum seekers during a pandemic? Hardly did anything but dial up the xenophobic agenda and fuel the mistrust between the migrant community and the government agencies.

Does being foreign equal “dirty”? Do Malaysians believe that Covid 19 knows race? Does eradicating a sect of the society eradicate an entire disease? 

xenophobia in malaysia

Netizens may argue that the blame was well justified because the majority of foreigners were reported to have Covid 19. But let’s take a double glance. It is no coincidence that migrant workers were infected more. They worked on the streets, in the wet markets, on the constructive sites, and basically did all of our dirty work. Migrant workers also tend to live together, so it was not easy to minimize contact.

The detention centers did no help in minimizing the number of cases. The contact increased and so did the number of those infected. Many employers who “hired” them did not grant any safety guidelines or gave them the necessary health services in case of transmission (even though the employers were responsible for it).  The very same employers are also responsible for the many undocumented states of migrant workers in Malaysia, but ofcourse, the blind eye continues.

We seem conveniently unaware of the rampant exploitation that happens right in front of our eyes. Hence continuing the agenda that speaks to xenophobia in Malaysia.

Banning Muslim Foreigners From Praying In The Mosque

Again, a decision that only fueled the xenophobia in us. The public justified this decision with the most irrational and insensitive comments. These comments only contradicted the Malaysian support for other Muslim empowerment movements and showed the crystal clear hypocrisy that Islam did not support. Islam did not support such discrimination and hypocrisy under any circumstances.

xenophobia in malaysia

Some secular countries such as Malaysia also banned Jummah (Friday prayer) and other large religious gatherings for a time period. Similarly, we also saw countries discriminating against foreigners, much the way the Malaysian government did. But this is still no justification for such inhumane rules and regulations. In a religion that condones such discriminatory ruling, would it not have been better to simply encourage lesser xenophobic decisions?

Deportation Of Rayhan Kabir

How many of us remember the name, Rayhan Kabir? His life may have been spared, but he was an ordinary man who faced the injustice of xenophobia in a country. His case was an example of the public willingness to stay willfully silent when it comes to the struggles of migrant workers. 

Rayhan Kabir, his only fault was that he was a Bengali in Malaysia. He voiced out the unethical treatment of undocumented workers during the covid 19 pandemic and brought international attention to it through an Al Jazeera Documentary “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown”. Netizens said it was an exaggeration and a lie. The government criticized it as misleading. It was not surprising to see such defense since Al Jazeera has been accused of fake news and propaganda multiple times.

xenophobia in malaysia
Netizens discussing why they started the petition to ban Al Jazeera from Astro

Despite the arguments, whether he deserved his ultimate treatment or not, we cannot deny that there was an element of truth to the statements in the documentary. It was hard to miss the xenophobia looming in Malaysian hate speech. Even way before Covid 19, there was unspoken and normalized discrimination toward migrant workers. The pandemic consolidated with the documentary only showed the extent of the normalized superiority complex and exploitation of migrants. 

The subsequent actions that followed the deportation of Rayhan Kabir showed nothing but ignorance and a lack of empathy. It was easier to ignore the truth than to accept it. The superiority complex Malaysians hold over migrant workers was never more evident until Rayhan Kabir.

The Sickness Of Xenophobia  

Malaysia is no doubt a country of great values. We are taught the value of friendliness, diversity, and empathy. And as proud citizens of Malaysia, it is our duty to fight against the horrific irrational fear.

It is about time we stop justifying our mistreatment of migrants by accusing them of sneaking into our country, while we as citizens are responsible for their “undocumentedness”. Now is the time to hold the government accountable for allowing stereotypes and discrimination to rise above. And now is the time to hold ourselves and our loved ones accountable in the face of bigotry and unsympathetic plight towards migrant workers.

Issues of migrants and fear of foreigners in Malaysia or xenophobia go deeper than just criminalizing an entire marginalized group. There are so many stakeholders in the pursuit of peace between migrants and the nationals. We cannot simply blame the refugees for having lost their land only to take a deadly journey on the sea. Migrants should not be the brunt of our racist attacks and targeted discrimination. Rather, the discussion of migrants and human rights should be an intellectual debate that is free of political propaganda, alienation, and racism. it should encompass humanity, empathy, and spirituality.

Why are we so quick to preach about love, but only to apply the same when it is convenient?

Nur Aimie Farhana binti Ahmad Tarmizie
Nur Aimie Farhana binti Ahmad Tarmizie
Sometimes I wish we could lick rainbows.

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