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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 17:56 GMT
Malaysia's trouble with migrants

By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Acehnese family being deported, 2002
Malaysia has an uneasy relationship with its immigrants

Malaysians have a curiously contradictory relationship with the huge number of foreigners living and working in their country.

Estimates vary, but it is generally reckoned that there are between two and a half and three million migrant workers in Malaysia.

Only one and a half million of them are here legally - in a nation which has an entire population of just 24 million.

So on the surface, it is hardly surprising that Malaysia has threatened to deport its illegal immigrants. But the vast number of foreigners are as vital to the economy as they have ever been.

The foreign workers do the three D jobs that Malaysians don't want - dirty, dangerous and difficult
Shamsuddin Bardin
Malaysian Employers Federation director
When Malaysia was under British rule, millions of Chinese came to the country to start businesses and work in tin mines.

Tamils were brought over to work in the rubber plantations, and Punjabis and Sikhs acted as police officers and worked on the railways.

Their descendants make up a good 45% of those who call themselves Malaysians.

Vital workforce

Now it is Indonesians and Filipinos who fill the factories, building sites and plantations.

"Around 11% of the workforce are foreigners," said Shamsuddin Bardin, director of the Malaysian Employers Federation.

Their labour has helped Malaysia to build up the region's most successful economy after Singapore.

Some argue that foreign workers are taking jobs away from Malaysians.

But unemployment is low and falling - and is currently just 3.5%.

"The foreign workers do the three D jobs that Malaysians don't want - dirty, dangerous and difficult - especially working on plantations and in construction," said Mr Shamsuddin.

Migrant family
Illegal workers are still expected to leave, despite the brief respite

Even young male Malay graduates, a group amongst which there is a shockingly high rate of unemployment, will not take the jobs the illegal workers do.

For 30 years or more, Malaysia has given economic privileges to the Malay community to help it win a more proportionate share of the economy.

But even former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the great champion of Malay rights, ended his 22 years as premier frustrated that, rather than develop a work ethic, many Malays had simply developed a sense of entitlement.

Middle-class Westerners might be happy to slum it for a few years before settling into a career, but their Malaysian counterparts are far less willing to get their fingers dirty.

"That is not our culture yet," said Mr Shamsuddin. "Malaysians who've been through tertiary education want to go straight into middle management. Even those with no degree don't want to take up low-paid jobs."

Blamed for crime

So the move against illegal workers is not because they take jobs from locals.

Indeed the government is offering to help them come back legally, so long as they leave during the amnesty.

Many Acehnese [immigrants] complain that they have money taken from them by the police
Syed Osman al-Noordien
Acehnese community leader
Instead, the campaign has far more to do with a fear of rising crime.

The nation's newspapers are full of such sentiments, and so too are comments sent by Malaysians to the BBC News website.

"Malaysian people... are sick of the increasing number of Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and Indians on our streets. The crimes, gang fights and other social diseases are getting unbearable," said one respondent.

"Malaysia is not safe any more. We are sliding down to become the haven of illegal immigrants," said another.

But many human rights activists say the situation is made worse by illegal workers and refugees being preyed on by police, immigration officials and locals.

"Many Acehnese [immigrants] complain that they have money taken from them by the police," said Syed Osman al-Noordien, a leading member of the Acehnese community in Malaysia.

"Almost all of the police ask for money - 200 ringgit ($50), 500 ringgit ($130). They also take people's phones," he said.

Quite often the sums of money are far higher, up to $500, which represents two or more months' wages.

Abdul Ghani bin Abdul Rahman, a Burmese Muslim refugee, was robbed by gangs of locals posing as police.

"I told them: 'You take blood from me, I don't have money'," he said.

Stories such as this are heard time and time again among the immigrant community. But most Malaysians never hear them, because they are not widely reported.

Self-service Malaysia?

Nor will many Malaysians be pleased to know that their government has again announced an extension to the amnesty allowing foreign workers to leave unpunished - instead of sending in half a million volunteers to round them up.

Home Minister Azmi Khalid acknowledged that the move would "not [be] popular among the Malaysian public".

But it might be welcomed by some small businessmen, such as the owner of my local restaurant.

"I had to wipe the tables myself this morning," he told me the other day.

Kuala Lumpur's cheap eateries rely heavily on foreign labour, particularly from India and Bangladesh.

The government may be encouraging construction and plantation workers to leave and return as legal immigrants, but not restaurant staff.

Instead it is suggesting that eateries become self-service. That will almost certainly be many locals' first direct experience of life without foreign workers.

I wonder whether government ministers will be queuing up with the rest of us to serve themselves?

Malaysia suspends migrant sweep
01 Feb 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia orders migrants to leave
21 Jan 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Illegal workers leave Malaysia
29 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia rapped over refugees
10 Sep 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia cracks down on migrants
01 Aug 02 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Malaysia
14 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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