Malaysia needs some serious soul-searching

Josh Hong

Scapegoating migrant workers has long been a convenient tool for the powers-that-be to cover up for their inefficacy. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, April 12, 2021.

I WAS shocked to read the news of a Pakistani whose genitals were severed by a group of unknown men in Klang early this week. What kind of a society we are living in these days? And who gave the perpetrators the right to commit such a heinous crime against a foreigner with impunity?

But I perhaps should not have been transfixed at all, knowing that Malaysia is increasingly plagued by xenophobia and hate speech against non-nationals. This time last year, the false allegation that a Rohingya man was insisting on full citizenship rights for Rohingya refugees triggered a virulent attack against the Rohingya community in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adding fuel to the fire was the rumour circulated via a video clip that a group of Rohingya had clashed with Malaysian police and Selayang Municipal Council law enforcement officers, which turned out to be an incident that had taken place in Pekanbaru in Sumatra, Indonesia.

During that period of time, I also received several WhatsApp messages from friends who enquired as to whether refugees in Malaysia did receive a monthly monetary allowance of RM30 per person per day from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which of course was not true.

Although fake news as such could have been easily debunked by calling the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur for clarification, most would elect to not do so, but would forward it to one chat group after another, perpetuating the anti-migrant-refugee sentiment in the country.

No doubt, technology has empowered users in more ways than one, giving the general public a strong sense of control over the information that we receive on a daily basis like never before, which in turn increases one’s means to persuade, influence or even mislead others.

Based on my experience over the past few years, I have to say social media literacy among those whom I interact with regularly in many of the chat groups that I belong to is worryingly low, as I and others often have to play the role of a bad guy by providing senders of fake news with correct or accurate information. It is a thankless duty, of which dereliction is not an option.

Assigning blame on others, especially those who are vulnerable and marginalised, during a crisis has long been a feature of human society. At a time when one seeks certainty (such as a definite time frame that would indicate an end to the Covid-19 pandemic) or assurance (such as continued financial assistance as taxpayer) to no avail, the anxieties could easily be turned into fear or even hatred of the weak and invisible.

With the Covid-19 pandemic further threatening already shrinking rice bowls, the widespread disinformation against the migrant communities merely provides an outlet for latent prejudice to blame the distinct other. In some way, it is not too dissimilar from medieval times when witch-trials against women for disease outbreaks were common.

But it would be unfair to hold the Malaysian public solely responsible for the rising xenophobia in the country, for politicians from both sides of the divide are equally culpable for creating a climate in which the unrestrained xenophobic rhetoric against migrant workers, refugees and asylum-seekers has become a norm.

While technology has empowered users in more ways than one, giving the general public a strong sense of control over information received on a daily basis, this has increased one’s means to persuade, influence or even mislead others. – EPA pic, April 12, 2021.

Last month, Tony Leong Tuck Chee, the state rep for Pandamaran, blamed the migrant workers for a fire that broke out and spread to several wooden houses in his constituency, and called on the local residents to “unite in refusing to rent out wooden houses to migrant workers”, who in his view were “reckless and trouble-prone”.  

How did the DAP lawmaker come to this conclusion is everyone’s guess, but it is most ironic he had congratulated his party for being one that championed “unity in diversity, racial fraternity and social justice” on its anniversary just days earlier.  

If the non-Muslim communities are uncomfortable with the Buy Muslim First campaign launched by certain extremists, how can one respond positively to Leong’s xenophobic statement against migrant workers who play a crucial role in driving the Malaysian economy?

If one looks askance at the way some Umno, Bersatu and PAS leaders resort to racist or religionist sentiment to divert public attention from their policy failures, how can DAP maintain its elegant silence on Leong’s equally outlandish remarks meant as a camouflage for the real issue, such as the low water pressure that had hindered the effort to put out the fire in the wooden houses?

Last Thursday, Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin mocked human rights groups who questioned the government’s appalling treatment of undocumented migrants in detention, telling them to “cover the daily cost to house and feed the immigrants in the detention centres”.

Farcical and outrageous the minister’s response may be, it is reflective of the public sentiment nonetheless. As someone who has received a fair share of ridicule by social media users who often ask me to “adopt a refugee if you care so much about them”, I can clearly see Malaysians simply deserve the government they now have.

But politicians should aspire to be an agent of positive change not fear, so it is the duty of those in power to effect policy change that would benefit society as a whole, rather than play to the gallery and trivialise vitally important political issues such as labour migration and refugee protection.

In any case, the demonisation of migrant communities has a long history in Malaysia. It is worth reminding here that the late Irene Fernandez, founder of Tenaganita, was charged in 1995 with “publishing false information with malevolent intentions” under the notorious Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 following the publication of a report that contained allegations of ill-treatment of migrant populations. She was subsequently convicted and sentenced to jail, but was vindicated when the high court set aside her conviction in 2008. 

When Malaysia was hit by the Asian financial crisis in 1997/98, the Dr Mahathir Mohamad government launched massive operations against undocumented migrant workers in an attempt to distract public attention from the challenge to his political authority.

In retrospect, scapegoating migrant workers has since been a convenient tool for the powers-that-be to cover up their inefficacy. The immigration raids that gave rise to widespread human rights violations against undocumented workers last May, which grabbed international headlines, is a case in point.

We must acknowledge that segments of the Malaysian population are highly susceptible to false information targeting vulnerable minority groups, and it is imperative that we face up to the ugly side of Malaysian society before we can continue to showcase the country as a “model” for pluralism and multiculturalism.

Without some serious soul-searching from top to bottom, I am afraid Malaysia will continue to make headlines both locally and internationally for all the wrong reasons, such as the tragic and xenophobic incident that happened to the poor Pakistani man. – April 12, 2021.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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  • well written Josh. Hope that the people take heed in what you wrote

    Posted 3 years ago by Mike Mok · Reply