Malaysia Plays the Illegal Immigrant Card Again

In a bid to eliminate a major sore point roiling the state of Sabah, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced Wednesday that the government intends another of its sporadic attempts to rid the East Malaysian state of illegal immigrants.

The question is whether the attempt is more political than economic. Sabah’s lawmakers appear to be up for grabs in the contest between the flagging Barisan Nasional, or national coalition, and the opposition, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, which is threatening to peel off enough Sabah lawmakers in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, to force a vote of no confidence and tumble Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi from power.

The campaign actually began in January (see: Get Out! Malaysia Tells Migrants. Again.). and Najib’s visit to Sabah to announce the renewed effort appears to be as much a part of the political campaign as the economic one. As many as 300,000 illegals have been deported already, Najib said, with hundreds of thousands still in the state. The operation is intended to go after all foreign nationals with no valid personal identification documents either from their homeland – the Philippines or Indonesia – or from Malaysia itself.

Nonetheless, it isn’t the first time the country, one of the most prosperous in Southeast Asia, has set out to drive out people looking for work, and it won’t be the last. The last time was in 1994, when it forced about 380,000 illegals out of the country with threats of imprisonment and caning. Officials say a whopping 2.3 million registered foreign workers are trying to make a living in Malaysia, a nation of 26 million people. Most observers believe the total, including illegal migrant workers, is far 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.

Sabah has been a particular target because of its land proximity to impoverished regions of Kalimantan in Indonesia, and its close sea proximity to the Philippines. There is a close affinity between the Muslims of the three countries that is not shared by the ethnic Chinese and indigenous tribal populations of Malaysia. It is also remarkably easy to get an identity card in Sabah. Unlike Peninsular Malaysia, where late registration of birth is only allowed up to one year after birth, in Sabah it is possible to register as much as 30 years later with a statutory declaration. This is the loophole used by many illegal immigrants to get Malaysian birth certificates and MyKads, the smart cards that Malaysia issues as identity cards.

In fact, it is easy to establish the truth in a statutory declaration by going through a checklist of additional details like name of village, name of village head, schools attended, information on siblings, parents, extended family, spouse, wedding photo etc.

Better to offer a general amnesty to all illegal immigrants who have been in Malaysia for more than 15 years. It's useless to talk to the Philippines.

Under the amnesty offer, all "qualified" illegal immigrants should be provided with temporary ICs provided they surrender their illegally acquired MyKads. The temporary ICs must be renewed every year. Also, they must apply for work permits with their passports if they want to work.

Those who are stateless can be provided with temporary identification documents and allowed to work without work permits. Those who have been away from their country for more than ten years without returning will be declared stateless.

We must solve the problem of illegal immigrants in a humane manner. We must treat them as human beings and not animals. The amnesty offer must be a once in a lifetime offer and not to be repeated for another 15 years at the earliest.

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.

The question is whether Malaysia will ultimately back away from the plan. After driving out hundreds of thousands in 1994, it eventually begged them to come back – legally – to take jobs that Malaysians wouldn’t take.