Searching for Malaysia’s migration narrative

By Yvonne Tan


#MigranJugaManusia is a hashtag that began as an online protest against the mass arrests of migrants placed under Enhanced Movement Control Order. Utilising all social media platforms on 3 and 16 May, demanding:

1) Stop mass arrests and to free those who have been detained

2) Ensuring those who have been detained to have access to health services and that detention centers comply with WHO guidelines

3) Ensure detainees, their families, community representatives, diplomatic missions, UNHCR and human rights institutions are granted access to information about the arrests, detainees, and health and safety policies.


  1. Met with immediate backlash, one of the popular responses was from The Patriots who criticised the movement for borrowing migration narratives from the US who hypocritically champion human rights despite their history of the slave trade and waging wars throughout the world until today. Emphasizing how the US might be a country of immigrants, Malaysia has always been a place for Malay civilisation:

“Ya, memang betul. US adalah negara imigran. Mereka datang berkelana dari Eropah, dan merampas negara milik Red India. Jadi dari pioneer yang terdiri dari WASP (white-anglosaxon protestant), Mafia Itali, sampailah ke bangsa kulit hitam semuanya adalah imigran.

Berbeza dengan Malaysia yang merupakan gabungan Semnangjung Tanah Melayu dan Borneo. Tapi kesuluruhan kepulauan Nusantara ni memang asalnya negeri Melayu. Penuh dengan kerajaan Melayu. Kalau bukan Melayu pun, ia tergolong dalam leluhur yang sama dalam kelompok Austronesia.”

Betul Ke Negara Malaysia Ditubuhkan Oleh Imigran?


  1. Other reasons for blaming migrants have become popular where 4 Indonesians who tested positive for Covid-19 had run for their lives including for the rising number of cases in immigration detention centres. Meanwhile, netizens have discredited the online protest with the news of a Rohingya teen and his wife were charged with the murder of a 6-year-old girl done in front of a restaurant of a shopping mall in Ampang. Making the connection between ethnicity and wrongdoings have been a regular theme particularly throughout the last week as a reason for the inhumane treatment that is required.


  1. Another viral argument that came about include making the distinction from illegal, otherwise known as Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin (PATI), from legal migrants. Ismail Sabri’s, the Minister of Defence, justification for the crackdown was that PATI have broken the law which jeopardised the majority of the people in the country. Hence, they are allowed to arrest and the freedom for them to reside here as a “human right” will not be taken into account by the government. Several have agreed with him stating that the process of obtaining legal permits also include medical checkups and expensive payments.


Criticising Eurocentrism and the hypocrisy of the West is a valid argument and we should look to our neighbours and history on how we can move forward on the issue. However, there needs to be equal criticism for the hypocrisy of our leaders as well. Najib Razak who has consistently taken a strong stance against the Rohingya genocide, led the solidarity rally to press the Myanmar government to stop its cruelties conveniently during election years. “We want to show Myanmar and tell Aung San Suu Kyi that enough is enough,” Najib had said. “I’m here today not as Najib Razak, but as a Malaysian and a Muslim. There is no assembly more honourable than that which is done for Islam.” Malaysia has previously set up the Gaza Emergency Fund in 1994 and offered refuge to Bosnian Muslims in the same year. Help was given with strong criticism against the West for their indifference to their plights with a similar rally being carried out where 30,000 Malaysians filled the Merdeka stadium. We have done it before, why not again?


But all these discussions reveal the limits of our discourse, missing the point where migrants are but the subaltern, voiceless. There is little attempt to understand the “mass” of migrants themselves apart from the fact they come from neighbouring countries  “fleeing genocide”, “looking to improve their economic situation” and sometimes how well they have assimilated into Malaysia. Previously a family member of mine had a huge anti-immigrant sentiment until a few encounters which led her to speak to some. One of them included my neighbour’s maid. She would regularly come to the back of our house to speak to us, telling us of the ill-treatment she received, the debt she had accumulated from paying recruitment agencies, how she missed her son, extreme loneliness, counting the days her contract could end soon so that she could head back home to see him.


Another defining moment was regular trips to the photostat and stationery shop where she exchanged a few pleasantries with one of the foreign workers. Later on, someone in the shop came in and shouted at the worker for having accidentally photostated the wrong pages and became defensive of him for the treatment he received, telling the person off. As the protest attempts to emphasize humanity, so much of all we see is but a mass of people that is but an easy target to hold responsible for the dire state of a global pandemic.


First-hand accounts of having to navigate the structure of contractual transactions in the labour migration mechanism that can quickly turn into human trafficking and forced labour needs to be heard. Workers usually become entangled in a web of obligations towards their state, recruiters and employers in Malaysia when involving migration expenses, contracts and subsequent debt where the distinction between ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ is but a fine line.


Mass arrests not only of locals but also immigrants is a highly worrying response in a time where prisons have become global epicenters for coronavirus. However, locals have access to lawyers, families’ representatives that migrants should have as well. Time and time again it has been repeated that coronavirus has shown that it could affect anyone rich or poor, and our response has been to shun “lower-skilled” immigrants while “higher-skilled” immigrants do not pose a problem.


Although social interactions are supposed to be minimised during these times, maybe try to attempt to hear out those who were never listened to as Spivak said, “for the ‘true’ subaltern group whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself”.


Living in a time of Social Policing

By Yvonne Tan


In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, several phrases have been repeated as ways to combat the spread of the virus. They include “stay home”/ “duduk rumah”, “wash your hands”/ “cuci tangan” and of course, “social distancing” / “penjarakkan sosial”. However, people all over the world have reacted with panic buying and stockpiling all sorts of non-durable goods in order to “prepare” for self-isolation and lockdowns, in which the easiest reasoning for the consumer phenomena is that pandemics shed light on how panic brings out the worst in people. Although panic buying did not necessarily take off within Malaysia, there is still a salient each-for-their-own behaviour that has materialised.


After countless arrests of MCO violators, it goes without saying the pandemic has provided an easy excuse for semi-authoritarian measures by many governments around the world. The Movement Control Order (MCO) refers to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Order 2020 [PCID Order] under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 [PCID Act 1988] where the general penalty for a first offence is imprisonment of not more than 2 years or a fine.


With the government imposing strict measures, what was most unexpected was the increase in policing by netizens throughout social media, proactively lodging reports against MCO violators. After videos of a preacher and his team who had been aiding the poor during MCO became viral, many parties had lodged police reports against him and hence were questioned by the police. Not to mention on 1 April 2020, the Selangor police spokesman, Ismail Muslim during a press conference stated between 18/3/2020 and 1/4/2020, the Selangor police had received 600 MCO-related reports. In another press conference given on 9 April 2020, 380 more MCO-related reports were received bringing the total to 980. If the numbers were true, there is a surge of reports lodged by the public which begs the question why is there a need to police one another?


As social media quickly became a new breeding ground for intolerance and xenophobia, rumours of Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, who heads the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia (Merhrom), had demanded citizenship was subsequently met with immense backlash. This coincided with authorities having denied entry to Rohingyas fleeing the genocide and persecution from the Myanmar government. had taken down the many online petitions started by the public to expel Rohingyas from Malaysia based on the false claims of their demands, one such petition garnering up to 250,000 signatures.


Despite all this, Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani denied ever making such a statement and Rohingya groups quickly apologised and distanced themselves from Zafar, urging that Malaysian authorities take action against him.


This all comes too convenient as neighbourhoods around Selayang Wholesale Market had tested positive for coronavirus and were quickly blamed amidst anti-Rohingya sentiments. Needless to say, it did not take long for authorities to conduct massive crackdowns on undocumented migrant workers. It is a time where every day we are forced to confront how limited resources are, be it the uncertainty of receiving one’s paycheck, restricted movements outside one’s home or access to goods that could quickly go into shortage overnight. With no vaccine in sight, it’s easy to prop up the disciplinary state when attempting to fully accept the reality of the pandemic. Not to mention, fall back on widely subscribed apocalyptic visions of the world such as fear of Islamic refugees arriving on boats, impending climate disaster, major economic downturn and so on [1].


As the nature of coronavirus transmission places responsibility on carriers of the virus who could unknowingly spread it and trigger a domino effect, hence social cooperation and compliance is consistently emphasized. The cause of the virus quickly becomes a game of blaming “irresponsibility” of specific persons, when really it is a luxury that those living paycheck to paycheck cannot afford. It has become a dangerous apolitical idea to blame your neighbour rather than our failing institutions and lack of social security to fall back on in times of need.


The reasoning for self-isolation throughout the pandemic was to ease the burden placed on the health system. However, it is important to reframe that the spread of the coronavirus is not completely in one’s hands but one can mitigate it as much as one possibly can. Rather than feeling the need to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life to comply with lockdown orders, we should seek alternatives done during this global pandemic such as Italy’s suspension of mortgage payments during lockdown to Taiwan’s stimulus coupons to encourage citizens to buy commodities to help affected businesses. As Arendt had noted individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination, “the “ice-cold reasoning” and the “mighty tentacle” of dialectics which “seizes you as in a vise” appears like a last support in a world where nobody is reliable and nothing can be relied upon.” [2]


Although this goes without saying this does not represent all Malaysians as the #KitaJagaKita initiative had also begun and flourished online among others. Hannah Alkaf stated it began with Twitter linking people who want to help with the people who need help. She mentioned “I hope ordinary people – people like us – realise how much of an impact they can make if they simply choose to help someone who needs it. I hope we come to a collective realisation that no society can call itself successful unless we work to raise everyone up, together. I hope we make it through this with kindness and compassion.” And maybe what we need is just that.


[1] Žižek, Slavoj. Pandemic! Covid-19 shakes the world. OR Books, 2020, p. 98.

[2] Arendt, Hannah. Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Brace and Company, 1973, p. 478