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GE13: Double jeopardy for migrants

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In GE13, we witnessed disturbing patterns of latent animosity that reinforce our already discriminatory and prejudicial attitude towards migrants/immigrants, laments Linda Lumayag.

Photograph: Sinar Harian
Photograph: Sinar Harian

GE13 had come, but not gone. Its effects and implications however are here to stay.

In the run-up to the elections, we heard a lot of stories that foreign workers were transported from one place to another, specifically those coming from Sabah and Sarawak, to vote in Peninsular Malaysia. This news was fodder for anxiety levels to rise among Malaysians who were concerned with the volatile position of those who wanted change.

There are two historical junctures upon which migrant/immigrant communities are made easy scapegoats, hence intensifying the ethnic prejudices against them.
The first historical juncture was when the Mahathir administration created a huge political vacuum by granting thousands of identification cards (ICs) to undocumented immigrants in order to subvert political support for the existing government that was unsupportive to the federal government based in Kuala Lumpur.

The second juncture was the recently concluded GE13, during which allegations were made of “foreign workers” as voters in certain areas in the peninsula.

We need to understand how migrants are being exploited and made victims in Malaysia’s domestic frontier to advance the political agenda of the current dispensation. The infamous Project IC, which was orchestrated by the then Mahathir administration to gain a foothold in what was once an opposition state, was instrumental in creating an environment where migrants and immigrants were pitted against each other.

An IC documentation is important for one’s survival – from police harassment, immigration deportation, children’s access to school, skilled employment etc. No one other than the former prime minister Mahathir himself had acknowledged this in connection with Royal Commission on Inquiry’s (RCI) ongoing saga on Sabah’s illegal immigration.

The fact that indeed immigrants were given identification cards and, by implication, were able to cast their votes in the elections, is a clear display ofa divide-and-rule strategy (locals vs immigrants) to wrest political control in resource-rich Sabah state.

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It is crucial to understand how these machinations have engendered a sense of animosity and latent hatred between “we”/“us” and “they”/“others”. It is latent because, on the one hand, the “we” group was too wrapped up in fear to fight against a very strong Umno machinery. The “others”, who were composed mostly of poor immigrants especially from the Philippines and Indonesia, can only go with the “flow” – to cast their vote in favour of the ruling government.

In that elections, Sabah fell into the hands of the BN, which also ruled Peninsular Malaysia. Imagine the kind of animosity towards the immigrant communities who, by this time, had also taken roots through a socially and historically connected networks of family members, relatives and friends.

It should be noted that even if migrants/immigrants were given genuine ICs, there were also those who received such a document but never tried to use them in elections. During my fieldwork, at least one mentioned that she was too scared to use the IC for whatever purpose, except to travel from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur in 1992. She knew for a fact that the document she was holding was not genuine. She kept the document nonetheless until she applied for a new passport in her country’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

There were also those who have been in Sabah even before Merdeka and yet, are still, waiting for permanent residence status to be given to them. In 2006, a 78-year-old woman who sailed from southern Philippines to Sandakan when she was still in her early 20s, shared her story of years of waiting for the legalisation of her stay and that of her large extended family.

It is convenient to paint a picture of migrants and immigrants as beneficiaries of Project IC. And, yet, there are also those who are genuinely residing in East Malaysia because of employment and marriage but are never part of the larger scheme to get involved in the political exercise such as national elections.

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Now, enter GE 13. Days before GE13 took place, there was an exposé related to an alleged plan by the Umno government to ferry voters who are foreign workers from East Malaysia to the Peninsula. In fact, a communique between parties involved was also revealed in the alternative online media. This exposé has again created another round of discrimination and animosity. This time it is in Peninsular Malaysia.

So, then, how are we supposed to know who are illegal voters when they can present their ICs at the polling stations? Did their names appear on the electoral rolls? Were the ICs being scrutinised at the polling table? Who could ascertain a fake IC?

On election day, the Malaysian public was quick to respond to a possible participation by foreign workers in their respective polling stations by forming a citizens’ army of observers or “pemantaus” aimed at dissuading foreign workers from voting.

At this stage, the response of the local community was rather overwhelming with some even ready to confront those who “look like foreign workers”. While this is commendable in the sense that local people have become aware of what was at stake in this political exercise, there are disturbing patterns of latent animosity that reinforce our already discriminatory and prejudicial attitude towards migrants/immigrants.

These disturbing circumstances cannot be faulted on the foreign workers/migrants and immigrants at all. Foremost, foreign workers are not at all responsible for whatever scheming manipulations that the government was trying to do. If there could be a substantial number of them voting in the elections, the ones to be faulted are no other than political leaders who blatantly ride on the incapacitated position of foreign workers who only know how to obey and who would have no voice to resist the demands of their employers. Their inability to decide on their own accord would have been further strengthened by their fear of being unemployed, fired or isolated in the event that they start to question what is demanded of them.

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Secondly, foreign workers/migrant/immigrant workers were already made victims in this whole process and they were doubly victimised by the Malaysian public. As someone shared after the elections, threats, intimidation and even violence was applied to those who fit in prevalent idea/profile of a “foreign worker”. Such acts could have been the result of a felt need to protect the sanctity of the election.

But the process has turned out to be unjust and discriminatory. How can we then justify our way of castigating them? Would it have been better if we had confronted their employers who allowed these workers to be used by the powers-that-be?

The art of profiling migrants and foreign workers as people who steal jobs meant for locals, carry strange diseases and, more recently, participated in the just-concluded elections will eventually intensify the already bad profiling of foreign workers in the country.

With so much at stake in the multi-ethnic composition of Malaysia, the second historical juncture where foreign workers, migrants and immigrants have been placed in a scandalous position which is not of their own making will strengthen prejudices and discrimination against migrants/immigrants in the country.

Perhaps, by then, we are no longer looking at the latent and intense negative perception of these communities but perceptions that have become manifested in Malaysia’s laws and other national instruments, thus, further eroding the dignity of migrants and immigrants.

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