Recent revelations about Malaysia’s mistreatment of foreign workers (“illegal immigrants” in local media parlance) reveal the extent of the Malaysian regime’s brutalities against people. Kuala Lumpur has for years been suppressing documented evidence of torture and deaths at various ‘deportation’ camps set up as holding centres for refugees. The camps are crowded with Muslim Filipinos and Indonesians arrested for ‘overstaying’. Once welcome, these ‘foreign’ people’s only crime now is trying to feed their families without work permits.
Earlier this year, a new law came into force permitting the caning of foreign workers without work permits unless they left by July 31. The sudden policy caused panic. Mahathir had to try to reassure his neighbours, who were aghast at reports of abuses of their citizens. .
Protesters gathered at the Malaysian embassies in Manila and Jakarta, burning Malaysian flags and portraits of Mahathir. As if that were not enough to unnerve Mahathir, lawmakers have filed resolutions urging Manila to revive its claim on Sabah state (North Borneo) and other islands. The dispute nearly sent the Philippines and Malaysia to war in 1968.
Since then, Manila has downplayed the claim, and both countries have concentrated on regional cooperation. Desperate to impress the US after September 11, 2001, both upgraded their ties to military and political cooperation, Malaysia betraying the Moro struggle earlier this year by handing over Moro National Liberation Organisation (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari back to Manila. Now it seems that Malaysia will have to fight alone should any border dispute arise out of the current anger. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has stayed away from the current dispute. On September 4, scores of protesters gathered in Manila to condemn Manila’s lukewarm reaction to the mistreatment of their countrymen by Malaysian authorities.
Indonesia’s assembly speaker Amien Rais expressed anger at Mahathir’s decision to cane Indonesian citizens. Amien also warned Mahathir that “for every action, there would be a reaction. We would not keep quiet.”
Amien’s comment fuelled calls for Jakarta not to be “cowed down by Malaysia’s arrogance” against Indonesian workers, who were once wooed and welcomed to build the ‘mega projects’ that Mahathir had prided himself on. Anti-Malaysia demonstrations were held by various groups demanding that Jakarta protect its citizens. One of the groups is the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI), a ‘militant’ Muslim group accused of having ties with al-Qa’ida.
The Malaysian government was not in a position to react, let alone angrily, but stepped cautiously. It is haunted by past experiences with its giant neighbour in the nineteen-sixties. The late Sukarno had then led a “destroy Malaysia” campaign and nearly won.
Many say that the current expulsion of the estimated half a million Indonesian and Filipino ‘illegals’ is an attempt to consolidate support from Mahathir’s non-Muslim allies in the ruling National Front. Not long ago these allies, especially the Malaysian Indian Congress, expressed dismay over the conversion rates of Hindus to Islam, helped by marriages with Bangladeshi immigrants working in estates and plantations. The government then started recruiting workers from Nepal and India instead.
Malaysia’s abuses have also largely been out of the sight of domestic and international monitors. When such abuses are brought to light, the Malaysian regime responds in the only way it knows: by attacking the information sources rather than investigating the problems. But Malaysia’s record speaks for itself: its treatment of Muslim Rohingyas fleeing from the Burmese military rulers, as well as the torture of migrant workers at an immigration camp near Kuala Lumpur, are well known. Two years ago, testimonies were given in court by former Bangladeshi immigrants who related how they were tortured while in detention: they were forced to perform sexual acts on other detainees, denied proper food and clothing, kept in crowded mosquito-infested cells with foul toilets, and forced to stare into the sun. Irene Fernandez, the director of the NGO that exposed these abuses, now faces charges of “malicious publication of false news”, while the people she accused are still free.
Most of these workers had no means to return home; others were robbed by ‘foreign worker agencies’ owned mostly by cronies of the Mahathir regime. This was confirmed by the man who was once at the helm of the government’s immigration policies, Mahathir’s own former deputy Anwar Ibrahim. Writing in the Islamic Party’s Harakah newspaper, Anwar said: “These companies are controlled by UMNO [Mahathir’s party] leaders and their family members.”
These foreign workers do ‘lowly’ jobs shunned by locals. Their long working hours, low pay, tough working conditions and squalid living quarters were ignored by the Malaysian government. The immigrants were also at the mercy of corrupt police officers. The sight of policemen harassing immigrants on roadsides is not uncommon.
The worst thing is that these ‘immigrants’ are almost all Muslims suffering at the hands of a ‘Muslim government’. It would probably be foolish to expect their own governments to come to their aid. The coming weeks, however, will show which way the regional spat among ‘friendly neighbours’ is heading. It might even persuade the Islamic movement in these areas to look ahead and think beyond ‘their own’ colonialist-drawn ‘national borders’.