Three ironies of our xenophobia


The first irony: We are now into the new Malaysia, where we are supposed to be celebrating our diversity. But one of the ironies of our time is that this celebration stops short of embracing the ‘other’ in our midst – migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.

The second irony: The other bigger irony is that many of us are ourselves descendants of migrants from other lands who arrived in Malaysia in search of a better quality of life. Yet, we are unable to empathise with the present-day migrants in our midst who make up around 20% of our population (2m documented workers, some 4m undocumented – total 6m out of a population of some 30m). That’s as large as the Chinese Malaysian population.

The third irony: We don’t seem concerned about where they go to school (in the case of children of refugees and asylum seekers), where they are housed and where they go for medical treatment, if at all. Are they best kept out of sight and out of mind in segregated housing? So this Malaysia that we are so proud of today – does it exclude or neglect the right to their basic human needs and for them to be socially integrated into local society?

The irony is that we don’t seem to have a problem with expatriates living, working, playing and studying side-by-side with us. Is it a class thing? You tell me.

Meanwhile read this piece by the Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign, published in Aliran:

The Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign (PSHTC) views the recent statements by Jagdeep Singh, the Penang state executive council member for housing, local government and town and country planning, with considerable dismay.

The statements and the opinions carried within are xenophobic in nature and will only serve to fuel the hostility and disrespect directed at migrant workers by far too many in our local population. To blame all social ills on migrant workers is disgraceful.

The PSHTC does welcome the fact that the Penang state government has recognised that migrant workers have a legitimate right to housing. We also welcome the fact that the Penang state government has taken some responsibility for supplying some of this housing. These are huge steps forward.

But the approach being taken (segregation) and the attitudes being articulated simply reinforce xenophobic stereotypes, myths and prejudices which divide people rather than unite and disrespect people when we should be showing respect.

Migrant workers are here because of us. We need them to be an absolutely crucial part of our economy. They almost literally are building our future. We have gone to their countries of origin, recruited them, promised them all sorts, and asked for them to come here. We are responsible for them being here because we need them.

Yet we know that they are subject to awful working conditions, and many thousands of them have been cheated, threatened, abused and harassed and face huge challenges when it comes to housing and health. We turn a blind eye, fail to provide basic protection and redress, and when they die, as they do, in worksite ‘accidents’, we couldn’t care less that no one has insured them or even knows who they are or that their families are left to suffer.

Not content with our utter disregard for their contributions to our economy and state, we have the temerity to accuse migrant workers of stealing our jobs and causing every manner of ‘social ill’. It is us who are ill. Here we are in a place where we begged Unesco to give us heritage listing on the basis of the wonderful diversity of our island, a diversity we so proudly heralded as built on the way different migrant communities have merged together over time and fused into a harmonious whole.

And yet now we turn around and say migrants are a problem, we want nothing to do with them, we need to hide them away in special dormitories, please don’t disturb us. Unesco must be shocked at this complete U-turn. Let us hope they do not consider delisting us.

Does Jagdeep really think that by kicking migrant workers out of low-cost flats, there will be no more social ills? Is this really a serious thought?

First of all, migrant workers are the recipients of far more abuse and ill-use than anything they have ever done. Just ask domestic workers, for a start. Hundreds, if not thousands of them, face sexual and physical and mental violence, day after day, from Malaysians. But they are isolated and ignored, with nowhere to go, no right to redress. Or ask any of the women and men migrant workers working in conditions many would describe as modern-day slavery, with no protection, no redress, bullied and hit and worse, by Malaysian employers, agents, company persons and neighbours. Who is ‘ill’ here?

And ‘social ills’ in low-cost flat areas will exist whether migrant workers are there or not. There has been and will be anti-social behaviour of all sorts, drug abuse, sexual harassment and violence, domestic abuse and violence, stigmatisation and abuse of persons with disabilities, abuse and neglect of the elderly, and more. All of this has been perpetrated by Malaysians against Malaysians and others. Jagdeep must be aware of this! So why blame migrant workers?

But beyond the ‘social ills’ of particular locations are the ‘social ills’ consequent from our attitudes and our prejudices. Malaysian employers want cheap labour so they can maximise profits; so they employ migrant workers – and not Malaysians (it is employers who are depriving Malaysians of jobs). The previous BN government allowed the recruitment and outsourcing of millions of migrant workers through unmonitored private companies. Again, quick profits at the expense of migrant workers and ordinary Malaysians.

The result of this profits-first-we-don’t-care-about-the-consequences attitude is deeply unhealthy for our society and the women, men and children who live here. These are the culprits, these are the unhealthy dividers and profiteers, arguably the cause of ‘social ills’, and sadly apparently backed by some of our politicians. But instead we blame and demonise migrant workers. Not the right conclusion.

Jagdeep Singh, together with Minister for Housing and Local Government Zuraida Kamaruddin and others, should stop repeating a negativity and xenophobia against migrant workers. Instead, the new federal and state governments have the chance to be constructive and positive, and review the whole issue of labour migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

Here there is already a document charting the issues and possible solutions. The recommendations of the report “Towards a Comprehensive National Policy on Labour Migration for Malaysia”, collated by the Migrant Workers Right to Redress Coalition, are a product of extensive stakeholder discussions and sharing. The report provides a holistic framework in which to address issues of migration, which we have for so long ignored. Housing is just one aspect. We should stop encouraging xenophobia and start looking at the real issues of migration and what we need to do to solve them.

As Malaysia is moving forward towards what is hopefully a new era, how wonderful it would be if we could enshrine the values of respect, tolerance and unity in our society by respecting the fundamental rights of every person in this country. This is implied in the new Pakatan Harapan government’s Buku Harapan and is set out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Let’s change our attitudes, let’s change our approach, and let’s work together to make sure everyone’s humanity and contributions are fully respected so that we really practise the values of inclusivity and harmony. We have the chance in this new dawn; let us not waste it.

13 June 2018

This piece follows Jagdeep’s reported initiative and comments, where, among other things, he said that it is “a win-win situation: for the public, there will be no more social ills”. See here, for example.

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What is needed now is “damage control”.
As it is unproductive to blame since we all knew who gave such messy approvals.
6 million foreign workers is a lot, its the entire population of Singapore!
NGOs, MPs, ADUNs and businesses to compile their recommendations, worries, grouses or suggestions to the CEP and Prime Minister .
Maybe this can be discuss during their 1st term of Parliament.
Another “population boom” that needed immediate remedy is our civil service. Reportedly at 1.6+ million personnel.


6 million foreign workers put pressure on food prices, vege, fish, etc.
Add to demand for rental housing.
Add new risks of disease (not quarantined).
The idiot BN cronies don’t think they would be affected.

Siong Yee

The Human Resource Ministry expects that the working world in Malaysia will gradually shift to automation to reduce dependency on foreign workers in the country.

Its Minister, M. Kula Segaran said the initiative was to emulate developed countries such as Germany which has been applying the advantages of technology in some of its working sectors.


Parti Ekonomi Rakyat Malaysia (Perkira) urged the authority to investigate former home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is responsible for the the influx of foreign workers, especially those without proper documentation.


What humans do to earn a living has always evolved to suit the needs of society, and the capabilities of the technology at our disposal. But thanks to the rapid development of artificial intelligence and automation we are on the cusp of a whole new Industrial Revolution. Manual and low skilled labour are already feeling the impact of automation – Amazon is experimenting with delivery drones, the fast food industry may soon be staffed with burger-flipping bots, and driverless vehicles are already taking to the road. But those with high skill jobs should not rest on their laurels – legal… Read more »


Some more migrant import locals cannot get jobs, also wages cannot go up.


Too many cheap foreign workers less incentive for local firms to up productivity or go automation.


The Human Resource Ministry wants all restaurants in the country to only recruit locals as cooks from July 1, says its Minister M. Kula Segaran.

He however said all operators would be given up to the end of the year to ensure only local cooks work in their restaurants.

He said the regulations only permit locals as cooks in all restaurants effective Jan 1 2019.


Overt-dependence on foreign workers is short term maxi-gains by employers but long term misery, dangerous service (this you will find out below) & stagnation of wages to locals. Forget about Malaysian Brands, forget about R&D, forget about workers’ rights. My true story: I had once used a towkay-mechanic in Kampung Pisang who employed only 2 foreign workers. Many times, I seen this towkay so free to read newspaper or chit-chat with his clerk. No hands-on, no black oiled hands & so clean was his blue mechanic uniform! So exceptional in mechanic workshop. On one occasion, I had my wheel &… Read more »


Why are non-white foreigners working here known as migrant/foreign workers and white/European workers as expatriates? Xenophonic?


A foreign friend who resides here can walk into a “royal” club any time without membership because of his skin colour.

Before WW2, Japanese were “honorary whites” in South Africa.

How did a few thousand whites rule 100s of millions in India?

There is no escape from mental slavery other than by one’s own realisation.


No need to feel inferior just because you do not have white skin.
However, many spend a lot on whitening BB cream to feel better.


How many migrant workers you want to embrace?

Nothing against them, just too many can cause social problems if they do not have jobs and not returning to their home countries.


Almost all foreign workers tested in a study by Universiti Malaya were found to be carrying microbes which could cause food poisoning and even death, and a small percentage of them harboured antibiotic resistant bacteria, said researchers.

And temporary closure of dirty food eateries is not enough; the Government needs to address the systemic issue, they said.


Certainly a health concern for us.


It is only human nature to have likes and dislikes. Am sure many of us here are umnophobic or BNphobic. That does not imply that we are ‘racist” in nature. Furthermore, am sure that many of us are not against certain nationalities or countries. As nationalities is define by political boundaries. The idea of building living quarters or living zones for some foreign workers might have certain advantages. Singapore is doing that. Having personally witnessed foreign workers bullied by young local boys. And nearly all of the drugs abuse cases are done by locals instead of by foreign workers. But… Read more »

Tan Wee Theng

It’s an irony the world over. The second generation of migrants in UK voted overwhelmingly for BREXIT


Xenophobia ? So, this Singh is another Trump but just a smaller one ?
BTW, this PSHTC (The Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign) is yet another NGO has just formed ?


The Malaysian government welcomes more skilled foreigners to the country, specifically in the IT sector, and is open to offering citizenship to qualified workers, said Prime Minister Dr Mahathir, at a meeting with business leaders of the American Malaysian Chamber of Commerce in Kuala Lumpur earlier today.


We have already lost many talents to SingLand.

Mah HS

Bangladeshi workers who arrived here recently said their families made great sacrifices to raise the RM20,000 each to find jobs in Bangladeshi workers who arrived here recently said their families made great sacrifices to raise the RM20,000 each to find jobs in Malaysia.

The workers told The Star that their families sold cattle and farmland, and even borrowed money at high interest rates to secure employment here.

For their own good, they should stop coming to Malaysia so as not to be exploited.


A human trafficking syndicate, spearheaded by a Bangladeshi businessman with alleged political connections with the Home Ministry, raked in at least RM2bil in just two years from Bangladeshi workers looking to land jobs in Malaysia.

An investigation revealed that the workers paid RM20,000 each to their local agents who then paid half of the sum to the syndicate to facilitate work permit approvals and flight tickets to Malaysia.

It is learned that since late 2016, more than 100,000 Bangladeshi workers have been brought into the country under the system, while more than 100,000 are waiting for their turn.


Therefore we are doing injustice to these Bangladeshis if they are encouraged to come here.
Lots of exploitation.

M Pillay

Interestingly, Malaysians regardless of race are embracing South Korean race, as K-Pop and K-dramas are hugh hits here.


Locals shun 3D (dirty, dangerous and demeaning) jobs.
Employers desperate for workers.
Gomen allow easy passage of migrant workers by the millions.

Locals cry foul of scarcity of jobs or low wage offers.
Employers get too used to cheap labor to save costs or prefer to maximise profit from wai lao employment.
Gomen see more monies from influx of wai lao workers. Hard to resist?

When will ‘the egg + chicken’ blaming going to end?


Previous regime imported many wai Lao workers to earn money for the crony contractors. Minister Kula is stopping such unnecessary import.

By the way, is MACC investigating possible corruption involving those HRDF directors who have resigned in disgrace?


Blame those towkays using wailaos to cut costs and Umno cronies duly obliged with import after import.

Mary Chin

Indeed, we keep failing to appreciate our guests. Here’s the heroic spiderman who scaled a building to save a child’s life:
He was an undocumented migrant.

We’ve seen similar life-saving acts by migrant workers in Penang too:

Siong Yee

My nephew was once molested by a Foreign worker who touched her buttocks and pretended nothing happened when confronted. This is one reason why most young ladies dare not take public buses when crowded with foreign workers.

M Pillay

Pinching buttocks in crowded public buses in India and Bangladesh a norm.

Mary Chin

That was an unfortunate incident. My experience has been quite the contrary though. I find them very cautious, keeping away from other passengers, always trying hard to keep out of trouble. Not sure if you consider me a young lady 😉 I ride on Rapid day in day out, alone. I’m just one, your nephew is just one, so we should gather some statistics — if we do the histogram, mean and standard deviation, we shall shall get figures similar to Datuk Seri Noor Rashid Ibrahim’s: “Locals, not migrant workers, are major perpetrators of crime”


Make sure you take precaution so as not to taint your record.


Many unscrupulous Employers like these ‘guests’, exploiting them as cheap labour, suppressing local wages. Just look at the Raj Banana Leaf incident.


No surprise. The whole purpose of legal and illegal immigration is to (a) exploit immigrants for profit (b) undermine citizens’ wages and benefits for profit (c) undermine citizens’ political will through fake documents for migrants. It is the same for “humanitarian” concessions to refugees. If there is no alienation or bogeyman, the rationale for the anti-democratic political parties founded on apartheid and hysteria wanes. The polity is then likely to focus on rightful and urgent demands to the govt. The owners of the low-cost flats forfeited their right to the flats by sub-letting them. That they could sub-let suggests that… Read more »