Worse than a Crime:
Malaysia’s Migrant Workers: Part 2
In May of 2020, a few months into the first MCO, in a pique of depression and hopelessness, I wrote a piece arguing that Malaysia’s exploitative and unfair colonial economy never disappeared: that it only shifted from the backs of our coolie and indentured labour Malay, Chinese, and Indian ancestors; onto the shoulders of Bangladeshi, Nepalese, and Burmese workers. That we owe these workers, and our ancestors, a moral debt to protect them and their basic human rights.
In the year and change since that piece, conditions for migrant workers in Malaysia have only worsened. In the wake of spiking Covid-19 cases, a new FMCO (amazing how our government can stack acronyms upon acronyms until all the meaning is sapped out of all of them), and widespread critiques of the government’s remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to containing Covid-19, #KerajaanGagal, #DengkiKe, and the multiple scandals and controversies that have plagued them in the immediate past, the government has turned again to its favourite punching bag and scapegoat: illegal immigrants.
By August of last year, the government had deported a staggering total of 20,000 immigrants, an unconscionable number in the middle of our apocalyptic times.And with the latest public statement from Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin declaring that the government will “go after” illegal immigrants — a promise he has had a track record of keeping — the future of migrant workers in Malaysia is only looking bleaker and bleaker.
Even the increasingly widespread use of “PATI” (Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin) as a dehumanising term to refer to these workers is a worrying sign, if for nothing other than being an uncanny reminder of UK and US political rhetoric about “illegal immigrants”. How ironic and hateful that for all our leaders’ posturing about importing “Western” ideas whenever it comes to human rights and political freedom, they’ve been so incredibly happy to borrow from Trumpian and Tory rhetoric on migrants and immigration.
The news stories of the treatment of these migrant workers in question scarcely need to be recounted. Every other day, it seems, there’s some news story or other about a fresh crackdown or attack on these workers, or even those who would speak up for them.
Inconsistent & alternating promises that undocumented migrant workers won’t be arrested for volunteering for the vaccines followed by fresh crackdowns, a pattern which dates back as early as April of 2020, with the infamous crackdown on Masjid India and Menara City One.
The expulsion of Al-Jazeera journalists, in retribution for their 101 East section which embarrassed the Immigration department, and the subsequent deportation and “permanent blacklisting” of the Bangladeshi worker, Mohammad Rayhan Kabir from ever re-entering Malaysia.
The illegal deportation of 1086 Burmese migrant workers in February 2021, in defiance of an order from the Kuala Lumpur High Court, in the wake of Myanmar’s military coup d’etat and subsequent descent into civil unrest no less.
Briefly, a government program and hotline was even established by the so-called “National Security Council” (MKN), calling for citizens to call in and report with any news or information they might have on “illegal” migrant workers: a fascistic policy that should set alarm bells ringing for anyone who fears the expansion of Malaysia’s police state.
And of course, the most recent incident following Hamzah Zainuddin’s hateful announcement: the wake of the raid on 156 migrant workers in Cyberjaya.
The above video by Norman Goh is incredibly telling of everything wrong with Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers, especially where it pertains to Covid-19. The workers humiliatingly seated on the ground in crowded rows in the middle of the night. Toxic disinfectant being sprayed upon them in dehumanising fashion, in direct opposition to the World Health Organisation recommendations. The certainty of their unhygienic, poor, and inhumane detention that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of the ill illegal migrant.
All this supposedly in service of “toughening up” on migrant workers whom, we are told over and over again, are “taking advantage” of Malaysia and our generosity, and making it worse. They are, we are told, stealing our jobs and taking our place. That we must be cruel and punish them to reclaim our benefits and wealth
To which the obvious question is this: What wealth? What wealth is there for an exploited, isolated, and beaten migrant worker to find in Malaysia?
The wealth of having your pittance of a salary withheld for months, accruing enough debt that you have no choice but to kill yourself? The wealth of having your passport confiscated by your manager, and your uncertain legal status used to force you into modern slavery? The wealth of being physically and emotionally abused, degraded, and humiliated by your employer?
There is only one freedom available for migrant workers in Malaysia: one that is plentiful and widely available. The freedom to work, or be deported, or die.
Malaysia is sick. We are sick to the bone with a disease that will kill us all. But this plague was not brought into the body politic by migrant workers who came here only in search of work, as all our ancestors once did. Malaysia is sick instead with a cult of cruelty, infected by our own leaders.
We are sick with an ideology of hollow and cruel pragmatism: that tells us that the cruelest action that hurts the most people must, by definition, be the sane and pragmatic path: the “only way”. “The hardest choice require the strongest wills,” says Thanos, and we believe him. Our governments and leaders, over and over again, advocate cruel, humiliating, and dehumanising policies for migrant workers. Because these actions are “necessary” for the pandemic to be stopped, and for Malaysia to thrive.
We “need” to deport all these workers. We “can’t” house them in decent conditions. We “have” to treat them like pests and less than human.
None of this is true.
Just as there is no law that says that the morally correction action will always be rewarded with the best outcome, neither is there a law that says the opposite. The most horrifyingly selfish option will not always benefit you. Sometimes cruelty only ends up harming you: and in that way it is worse than a crime: it is a mistake. So it is with Malaysia.
What does detaining these migrant workers in filthy, crowded, and dangerous asylums and detention centers do except kill many of them, and raise the risk of Covid spreading out to the healthy population, like a wildfire being left to rage?
What does deporting them back to their home countries in the middle of a pandemic do except risk Covid-19 being spread to them, their home countries and loved ones, or if nothing else, to the Malaysian officers & staff who have to take care of and process them once they’ve been infected because of our own wanton negligence?
What does spraying these workers down like cattle do except to make them sick, humiliate them, and to show exactly how little basic human dignity we afford them?
We’ve been told that our leaders are making difficult choices to ensure that our survival: that by sacrificing these workers on the altar of the Coronavirus, Malaysia will be purged of our sickness and be able to thrive, not just through this pandemic, but beyond.
All of this is based on a lie. None of this cruelty is necessary for us to survive. None of this cruelty is needed for us to thrive. This is not a ruthless calculus of survival. This is bad math. Bad math and the banality of evil.
This is a plea to those Malaysians on the fence: those who may know about how migrant workers in Malaysia are treated, but cannot bring themselves to care.
You must care for the plight of migrant workers. Not only because nearly all Malaysians, as I’ve argued before, have somewhere in their family history, the blood of migrant workers, beaten and bled and exploited under exactly the same system. Not only because it’s the right and moral thing to do. But because of simple self interest.
It’s been said before, it needs to be said again. Migrant workers are not the problem when it comes to low quality and low wage jobs in Malaysia for locals.
The problem is with the architects of this system: and they deserve your blame. Blame the government which refuses to make laws protecting local workers and mandating better wages. Blame business owners who refuse to hire local workers because they’re not as easily exploitable. Blame our leaders who orchestrate and perpetrate a system of economic violence that holds us hostage. Don’t blame migrant workers, because the truth is this: If every migrant worker disappeared from Malaysia tomorrow, nothing would change.
There would still be exploited, low wage, vulnerable workers whom the government would dehumanise and blame for all Malaysia’s problems and ills: just that these workers would have Indian, Chinese, Malay, Orang Asli, Orang Asal faces. The rest of us would still be stuck in low wage jobs, dissatisfied with our bosses and work, and left scrambling and degraded for work in a system that crushes us underfoot. Malaysia’s society, spiraling towards stagnation and disaster, would look exactly the same.
Migrant workers are only cogs in the machine: wheels on the trolley of capital: wheels that can always be replaced. It doesn’t matter if they’re made in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, or Malaysia.
This can already be seen in how this rhetoric of cruel pragmatism has long infected Malaysian domestic politics. We have been told over and over again throughout the years that we’re spoilt. Greedy. “Malas”. That the government has to be cruel to us: to fail to provide social welfare, to fail to provide healthcare, to fail to provide good jobs and wages, because that’s the only way for us to survive. But none of this is true.
For all our inequality, for all our failings, for all our corruption and incompetence, we’re on track to become a high-income nation by 2024. We have the resources to care for all our people. We have the ability to make Malaysia a fairer place and to smash the wheel of exploitation. We can make the system fairer. But the only way to do that is to start from the bottom, and build up. Any system is only as safe or as prosperous as its most vulnerable link. And there is no link more vulnerable in Malaysia than migrant workers.
We stand with migrant workers. We stand with immigrants, illegal or otherwise. More than that, we stand with refugees. We stand with stateless individuals. We stand with all of Malaysia’s marginalised people and we make things better for all of them, or We. Are all. Fucked.