Malaysians trapped in modern slavery

Josh Hong

A lack of good job opportunities is forcing Malaysians to seek better prospects overseas. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, December 27, 2022.

THE trend of Malaysians – the Chinese especially – going abroad to work can be traced back to the 1970s, when the Barisan Nasional government signed deals to supply labour to oil-rich Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

As a child, I used to hear anecdotes about the Middle East from a friend’s father who worked in Riyadh as a migrant worker.

That was the first time I heard of a city named Dubai that grew to become an important financial and travel hub in the world. 

While the number of contract Malaysian labourers was relatively small at the time, the country’s people were among the first batches of migrant workers that contributed tremendously to the rapid development and growth of the Gulf states.

In the mid-1980s, Malaysia’s vibrant and world-famous tin industry was wiped out, no thanks to the foolhardy Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who failed miserably to corner the world’s tin market, leaving tens of thousands jobless, redundant and forced to seek their fortune overseas.

Many chose to work illegally in Australia, Britain, Japan and the United States.

The situation was exacerbated when the government refused to bail out the MCA-owned cooperatives that were saddled with huge debts, giving rise to ta large number of Malaysians gaining admission into foreign countries on a tourist pass only to vanish into the local illegal labour market. The phenomenon was known “jumping from an airplane” in Chinese.

Figures provided by the British and Australian governments may be indicative of the dire situation today.

In 2010, the British Home Office revealed that 20,000 Malaysians were working illegally in the UK and threatened to revoke the visa-on-arrival facility for visiting Malaysians.

In 2019, then Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia Andrew Goledzinowski said 33,000 Malaysians had overstayed Down Under and were applying for refugee status. 

Until June, Malaysians continued to top the list of nationals applying for the humanitarian programme in Australia even though they had a less than 2% chance of success.
And then there Singapore, where the bulk of Malaysian migrants can be found. A 2018 report by the Human Resources Ministry-affiliated Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis showed that as of 2010, there were 385,979 Malaysian residents in the island state.

We can assume the number must have gone up considerably given the weakened ringgit and lack of job opportunities at home in the past decade.

Various factors contribute to the growing Malaysian diaspora, chief among them being the economic policy of the successive BN administrations which widened income disparity, weakened the ringgit, and failed to transform the economic fundamentals. As a consequence, Malaysia has been unable to break out of the middle-income trap.

As low-paying, labour-intensive jobs do not appeal to Malaysians, it is only natural that more and more people will look for greener pastures elsewhere.

It was thus not surprising to learn that about 1,000 Malaysians were held captive in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and the United Arab Emirates as slave labourers.

They were among the 28 million people worldwide who fell for job scams out of desperation for gainful employment.

Until and unless wealth is equally distributed across the world and between countries, labour migration will continue to be the norm.

We are thus helpless to stop anyone from going abroad to work; nor should we.

But the Malaysian government is duty-bound to ensure a safe, orderly and ethical migration process so as to produce mutually beneficial outcomes for all.

The Anwar Ibrahim administration must lower the cost of living and create more viable jobs to stem the outflow of Malaysian workers, and certainly to save our young people from falling for false promises of high-paying jobs overseas and becoming victims of traffickers and forced labour. – December 27, 2022.

* 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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