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Thursday, 20 June, 2002, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Clock ticking for Malaysia's immigrants
Indonesian labourers wait on ground outside a police station
Attitudes towards foreign workers have hardened

The Malaysian Government has said an amnesty for illegal immigrants will run out at the end of July, and on 1 August a new immigration law will come into force.


With workers being laid off, the government is sending a clear signal - Malaysians come first

It will provide for tough penalties both for illegal immigrants and anyone who employs them.

Malaysia is one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asia, and its economy relies heavily on foreign labour.

So why have attitudes towards immigrants hardened in Malaysia?

Scramble for papers

In Ampang, Kuala Lumpur's embassy district, hundreds of Bangladeshis mill around outside their high commission.

Most of them are there to get travel documents so they can take advantage of an amnesty declared by the Malaysian Government and leave without paying a heavy fine for being in the country without the proper papers.

Indonesian migrant workers rounded up in police raids
Migrants have flocked to relatively prosperous Malaysia
One of them, Amdi Dulal, told me: "I came to Malaysia six months ago, through an agent. The agent took my passport and ran away, so I could not locate where the agent was.

So I could not earn the money I spent coming to Malaysia. That's why I feel bad about having to leave. I want to stay, but without documents I have to leave."

Amdi is one of two million, or more, foreign workers in Malaysia.

The majority are outside the law, having overstayed work permits, entered without them, or like Amdi have been left stranded by an agent or an employer.

But many, too, are well established in the country. Migrants account for 20% of the workforce, and have played a key role in Malaysia's rapid economic growth over two decades.

But in the five years since the Asian economic crisis, and with the current global slowdown, demand for that labour has shrunk.

Malaysians first

And with workers being laid off, the government is sending a clear signal - Malaysians come first.


We have lots and lots of foreigners who are... on the pretext of working here, but, you know, they commit crimes at night

Kuala Lumpur resident Stephen Kwan

"The government has now to recreate confidence with the local population that jobs will be assured for them, saying that we will now have this mass repatriation of migrant workers," explained Irene Fernandez, head of the country's human rights organisation Tenaganita.

The public also blames immigrants for crime. On a new housing development on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, residents pay private security guards for protection.

"We have lots and lots of foreigners who are... on the pretext of working here, but, you know, they commit crimes at night," said one resident, Stephen Kwan.

The government has been quick to seize upon the suggestion that illegal migrants are responsible for rising crime.

So has the conservative New Straits Times newspaper which has campaigned to have foreign workers sent home.

Its news editor, Ashraf Abdullah, says that research carried out by the paper suggests crime committed by migrants has increased as the economy has slowed:

"When they can't find jobs they resort to crime. We did a special report a couple of months ago. (It revealed that) the crime rate involving Indonesians and the Bangladeshis and the Filipinos has increased - doubled, tripled."

'Just jealous'

But there is resentment at this suggestion among foreign workers.

Abdul Gani, an Indonesian worker, claimed Malaysians were jealous.

"The foreigners are hard workers when they come over here. They work very hard and a lot of jobs are given to them rather than to the locals."

Indeed the Malaysian Government is well aware that deporting all foreigners is out of the question.

Crucial role

Many are employed as domestic help, and the key rubber and palm oil sectors would also suffer, according to Shamsuddin Bardin, the executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation:

Balancing act
Foreigners now make up 20% of workforce
Vital for construction and agriculture
More than half the 1.7m foreign workers are illegal

"If we allow all the foreign workers to be deported, say for example in the plantation sector, then I would say this sector would face a standstill. Because put it this way, our local workers are not keen to work in this area. Another sector would be the construction sector."

Deportations have also caused problems for the countries to which the migrants are returned, complicating Malaysia's foreign policy.

But concerns about employment, and popular fears over crime are not the only factors strengthening the governments resolve to act.

There are also suggestion that Muslim radicals are present among the illegal immigrants. And images of riots - which have erupted during the past year in the camps where those rounded up have been detained - have received wide press coverage.

Whipping for law breakers

So the Malaysian Government has proposed changes to its immigration laws, and the changes will mean crippling fines for employers and the threat of public whipping for both illegal migrants and those who hire them.

Last year a reported 120,000 illegal immigrants were expelled.

Their presence in the country in the first place is a reflection of its economic success - Malaysia has joined that list of countries to which migrants are drawn by dreams of a better life.

But the concern that immigrants might now threaten the very stability on which that success is founded has prompted many Malaysians to ask whether the rush to develop has simply stored up problems for the future.

See also:

04 Apr 02 | Asia-Pacific
26 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
22 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
22 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
13 Dec 01 | Country profiles
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