Get Out! Malaysia Tells Migrants. Again.

The Malaysian government’s recent decision to send home at least 200,000 foreign workers by 2009 and to push more out of the country by 2015 hints at the deep divisions that the migrants, legal and illegal alike, have stirred in their host country.

As with most countries, when hard times start to appear – and Malaysia’s economy is starting to turn down – migrants get the blame for rising crime, stealing jobs from the locals, cultural pollution, overloading school systems, not carrying their share of the tax burden and even spreading HIV, almost none of which is true. Nonetheless, the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi feels it has no choice but to put a stop to the influx in an effort to solve many of the country’s problems, which analysts say isn’t going to do much good, and in fact could do considerable harm.

“The immediate effect (of the expulsions) is that the labor supply will be significantly depleted, upsetting local as well as multinational employers relying on migrant workers,” says Tricia Yeoh, Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Public Policy Studies. “There will be a time-lag while waiting for local Malaysians to fill in the menial labor gaps.”

The question is whether Malaysia will ultimately back away from the plan. The government periodically decides to expel overseas workers, as it did in 1994, when it forced about 380,000 out of the country with threats of imprisonment and caning, only to beg them to come back later to fill jobs Malaysians wouldn’t take. Some analysts believe the government is raising the subject for political advantage in advance of a possible election and that it will die off when the election is over.

Nonetheless, government officials say a whopping 2.3 million registered foreign workers are trying to make a living in this thriving Southeast Asian nation of 26 million people, although most observers believe the total, including illegal migrant workers, is much higher. Much like in the rest of the world where development depends on inexpensive labor, Malaysia, richer than most of its neighbors, has become irresistible for poor workers from the wider region.

They hail from across Asia – Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal and Bangladesh. Most are unskilled and indentured to the recruitment agencies responsible for importing them, taking jobs as everything from waiters and janitors to hotel clerks and security guards. Even the personnel at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport are imported, much to the irritation of the government, which says it would like tourists to see a “Malaysian” face when they arrive in the country. Some are also prostitutes. Earlier this week, 34 women were picked up from a Kuala Lumpur budget hotel after being found in a secret compartment.

Prostitutes or not, migrants face widespread abuse from the Royal Malaysian Police, immigration officials and volunteer quasi-vigilante groups known by he acronym RELA, which translates to “people’s voluntary corps.” In 2006, RELA forces set upon 60 Indian nationals protesting the fact that their employers hadn’t paid them for two months in front of the Indian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, kicking and beating them, some so badly that bones were broken.

More than 1,000 migrants arrive daily at the international airport in and many are forced to sleep in a car park, sometimes for days, while they await processing by their new employers. Tens of thousands more arrive annually by boat, illegally across the Strait of Malacca or from Kalimantan into Sabah and Sarawak, large numbers of them working the country’s rubber and oil palm plantations.

The plight of the workers is the rarely-seen underbelly of Malaysia's economic success. Immigrant labor by and large built the skyscrapers that clutter the Kuala Lumpur skyline, as Malaysians have begun to shun hard labor, preferring instead to work in modern office surroundings with better pay.

Recent events are straining the economy and that limit the use of migrant labor. With the slowing of the US economy, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research has revised Malaysia’s economic growth down to 5.1 percent in 2008 from 6.1 percent in 2007. The institute’s director, Mohammad Arif, says growth could fall to as low as 4 percent if the U.S. falls into a full-blown recession.

"Our economy in 2008 may not be performing as well as it did in 2007, although authorities are putting on a brave face, but we think we should brace ourselves for a slowdown," he says. The institute also put the rate of inflation at 3.2 percent in 2008 due to an anticipated oil price hike if heavy oil and gas subsidies that cost the Malaysian government approximately US$10 billion (35 billion ringgit) annually are eased. The government had earlier promised no further price hikes for oil and gas.

The lackluster economic indicators have put the ruling Barisan Nasional on alert for voter fallout ahead of national elections that may be held as early as March to head off any backlash from discontent over the cost of living and inflation. An independent local non-governmental organization, the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, recently published a poll showing Abdullah Badawi’s popularity at an all-time low of 61 percent.

Thus, the government is bracing for harder times and not taking any chances. Jobs that were once considered unworthy of Malaysians may now be attractive again – or maybe not. In western countries, recent experience is that menial jobs go begging even while people look for work.

In the service sector the government is seeking to implement measures to compel employers to hire Malaysians. In another move, a ban is to be imposed on hiring foreign workers for front-line positions at hotels and the airport.

That measure may not go down well. One business owner told Asia Sentinel that “I would rather hire foreign workers, as they are more committed and hardworking. The locals will just up and leave when they have better offers. I have to deal with a lot of attitude at work with Malaysians.”

The issue of migrant workers has also soured relations between Indonesia and Malaysia. Some 60 percent of migrant workers are from Indonesia but the alleged mistreatment of Indonesia’s Pahlawan De Visa, or foreign exchange heroes, who remit some 4.85 billion ringgit (US$1.5 billion) every year to Indonesia, is a sore point in Jakarta.

Relations with India have also turned sour, culminating in a squabble resulting in a reduction of the number of Indian workers sent to Malaysia after the Indian government raised issues behind closed doors about the treatment of Malaysia’s ethnic Indians, who make up about 7 percent of the population. Recently the Hindu Rights Action Force, which claims to represent economically disadvantaged ethnic Indians, led street protests following which some of the organization’s leaders were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act.

The rise of violent crime is another factor that dogs the migrant issue. Abdullah Badawi himself was stunned by a 45 percent rise in the National Crime Index since the time he took office. The Chinese community, which regards itself as the biggest victim because of its relative wealth, is most vocal. Immigrant workers, particularly Indonesian construction workers, have been blamed, contrary to a Parliamentary Select Committee on Integrity hearing which concluded that 80 percent of crimes in the country are committed “by our own people.” Frustrated by the decline in public safety, fingers are pointed at the migrant workers, so whether they deserve it or not, they take the brunt of the disapproval.