Malaysia, like the United States, is a country of indigenous, immigrant, and refugee peoples. And like the United States — whose iconic Statue of Liberty proclaims the familiar words “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — Malaysia is treating as disposable a new generation of people arriving at its shores, fleeing violence and looking to rebuild lives and livelihoods. In the midst of a global pandemic, the Perikatan Nasional government, recently installed following the tumultuous overthrow of Pakatan Harapan, is rounding up hundreds of South Asian migrant workers (and their families) and confining them in detention centers. While Malaysia has housed over 100,000 Rohingya refugees, they also recently turned back to sea boats carrying Rohingya refugees, citing COVID-19 concerns. In short, Malaysia is refusing to recognize the humanity of our neighbors at a pivotal moment when a global pandemic is showing us that we are all in the same boat; our survival depends on how we treat each other.
Malaysia has touted “multicultural harmony” as its exemplary achievement from the early years of independence, through every decade of the “Malaysia, Truly Asia” tourism campaign; from Reformasi to 1Malaysia; from Bersih to Malaysia Baru. Our national slogans obscure historical and contemporary realities: that Malaysia operates on a race-based hierarchy that continues to oppress marginalized populations. These include, among others, poor Indian families, generations of whom have been bound to plantation life and excluded from access to educational and economic opportunities, and Orang Asal communities in Peninsular and East Malaysia, who are systemically displaced to make way for development projects.
And yet, on March 2, 2020, upon being sworn in as the country’s eighth prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin declared himself “a brother to the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, the Sikhs, the Ibans, the Kadazans, the Dusun, the Murut and those of various ethnicities.” What does this brotherhood actually mean when it comes to Malaysia’s entrenched racism and classism? Where is his sense of brotherhood with migrant workers who do the “3D jobs” (dangerous, dirty and difficult) that keep the country running? And today, what does brotherhood look like for refugees fleeing persecution and seeking a place to begin anew?
From a policy perspective, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainudin stated clearly that the government carries no obligation to address the needs of refugees. Hamzah explained that since Malaysia did not ratify the Refugee Convention of 1951, “The government does not recognize their status as refugees but as illegal immigrants holding United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) cards.” This callous disregard for those most recently confined to the margins of Malaysian society is an extension of the way this country has historically treated our poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
The home minister and members of parliament appear blind to the challenges facing refugees and migrant workers. A recent press release from the Malaysian Bar Council explains that “there could be various reasons for the presence of these undocumented migrants. These range from cases of expired permits that have not been able to be renewed by employers due to restrictions on movement during the period of the Movement Control Order (MCO), asylum seekers who have yet to get their certification from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or those who are victims of long-term systemic failures, among others. As a nation, we have relied on these communities who constitute our informal labor market and economy.” Joseph Paul, a member of Tenaganita, outlines additional challenges facing undocumented migrant workers in his recent article in the Malay Mail. Beyond the complex realities there lies a basic fact, summed up perfectly by writer and director Jo Kukathas in a recent social media post: “They are legally human. That’s all that matters.” These voices from different corners of the Malaysian public square remind us that beyond identity cards, economic value, and citizenship status lies our shared humanity.
Our treatment of undocumented workers and refugees suggests that we need this reminder. Clearly, our policy decisions are informed by our past and will shape our futures. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Malaysia joined other Southeast Asian nations in housing Vietnamese refugees. And yet, the Malaysian Navy also tugged refugee boats out to sea, abandoning thousands of Vietnamese families risking everything to reach our shores. Author Monique Truong, in a Facebook post critiquing the rhetoric comparing the COVID-19 death toll in the United States to American lives lost in the Vietnam War, notes that “the lessons of war teach us nothing about cooperation, empathy, or respect for all human life.” These values are fundamental to a rigorous and honest multiculturalism. The Perikatan Nasional leadership needs to treat migrant workers and refugees as human beings deserving of the basic protections we expect for ourselves and our loved ones.
Human Rights Watch made this point in mid-April, when it called on Malaysia to “put in place systems to ensure that its fundamental human rights obligations coexist alongside public health measures… People arriving by sea, whether quarantined or not, should be placed in facilities that can guarantee social distancing, appropriate health monitoring, and access to health care.” In a social media protest on May 3, Malaysians rallying behind #MigranJugaManusia posted a series of similar demands. These included releasing migrant workers and refugees who have been arrested, ensuring that detention centers meet WHO guidelines, and keeping family members and legal advocates informed on the status of detainees. I would add to this that the government should also put an end to its long-standing pattern of intimidating journalists and activists documenting the state’s abuse of power. The police questioning of Tashny Sukumaran, a journalist with South China Morning Post who reported on the immigration raids, is just the most recent example of government attacks against press freedom.
In these times, what we do to and for the least among us will speak clearly for who we are and how we move forward as a nation and as members of a global community. Tunku Abdul Rahman, declaring Malaysia’s independence from Britain on August 31, 1957, issued a challenge to Malaysians eager to build a shared future: “I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya: to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty — a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world.” It is time to prove ourselves worthy of this vision of what Malaysia could be. Who we welcome and who we turn away are indelible markers of who we are as a nation.
Sheela Jane Menon is an assistant professor of English at Dickinson College (Pennsylvania, USA). Her work has been published in/is forthcoming from ARIEL, Verge, The Conversation, and The Malaysian Insider.