It’s seven months since we (the Rakyat) decisively changed our government through the ballot box. 9th May 2018 goes down in history as the ‘re-birth’ of a truly independent Malaysia. The euphoria was real for most, but some like me, wondered where this ‘tsunami’ would take us.
My apprehension was justified, when the very first statements by the newly appointed Minister for Housing and Local Government, YB Zuraida Kamaruddin, took an anti-migrant stance. The Honorable Minister’s maiden action was to call for the eviction of migrants and migrant families from low cost government housing. She also made the sweeping assumption that migrants were the root cause of all crime in this country and that they had to ‘learn to live’ in Malaysian society like all of us Malaysians.
The bad-mouthing of migrants (including refugees and other undocumented foreigners) resident in our homeland was also picked up by the Penang State Executive Council member for Housing, YB Jagdeep Singh Deo. He suggested that foreign workers be housed in specially built dormitories segregated from the rest of Malaysian society and that all low cost housing developments adopt a no-foreigner policy. These statements were made without clear reason of why foreign workers, refugees etc. should be treated in this way, except for the sweeping allegations of their being criminals or potential trouble-makers or even worse.
To me, this was a bad start and bad omen of things to come. Such raw rhetoric set a xenophobic trend. Does Malaysian society want to be famed for xenophobia? Are we foreigner hating people, who call ourselves anti-racist and the most tolerant in the world? Why do politicians shoot off their mouths without thinking? Would Malaysians want to be treated the same way in any other country?
Then, the crack down on migrants started even before 1 September during the so-called registration period for undocumented migrant workers. Ironically, these ‘undocumented’ migrant workers eligible for registration were only those who had initially legally entered the country but had lost their legal status for whatever reason. Refugees and asylum seekers did not fall into this category, so were also arrested, even if they possessed legitimate United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees documentation. Why did this happen?
It was bewildering, for the refugees and asylum seekers who had come to this country seeking refuge and safety from conflicts and persecution in their own homelands. It was also bewildering for us CSOs working with these ‘guest people’, some stateless, who had hoped that the new government would have a more positive and understanding attitude towards their situation. The previous regime used them as a political football to create diversion when things weren’t going right for them. The corrupt used them as cash cows in a system that perpetuated debt bondage, human trafficking and slavery. Both the previous regime and the new one see them as a security risk on the basis of their lack of official documentation or identification. Is this a valid basis for criminalizing women, children and men seeking safety and perhaps a better life without persecution and threat to their very existence?
We who deem ourselves safe, take so much for granted, so much so some dare to scoff at these who daily live in fear, poverty and uncertainty. We become self-righteous in our current security holding in contempt those in a weaker position who need us to understand their situation and their reasons for being here. Many are not here by choice, they are forced to migrate by life threatening and impoverished circumstances.
Watching the political, social and economic developments under the new PH government over the past months, I wonder if this region of Southeast Asia will ever manage to transcend the hunger for wealth to become a better more humane society where national wealth is fairly and justly distributed.