Immigrants In Malaysia

Malaysia has a longstanding history of receiving immigrants since centuries ago when the Malacca kingdom was founded in the 1600s. During that time, a small number Chinese, Arabic and Indian traders settled in the country. In the mid-nineteenth century, a large flow Indians and Chinese entered the country to work in tin mining fields and agricultural plantations.

 After achieving independence in 1957, Malaysia continued to receive a stream of immigrant workers. Most of them hail from Indonesia and the Philippines. The inflow of immigrant workers was not restricted until the number of illegal immigrants ballooned in the 1980s. Currently, there is an estimated 3.3 million foreign workers in Malaysia, whereby 2.1 million are legal immigrant workers and the remaining 1.2 million are illegal immigrants [Teoh].

The huge inflow of foreign workers were mainly led by the rapid expansion of the Malaysian economy under Mahathir’s leadership when an average of 9.5 percent during the early 1990s [Hodgson] until the Asian financial crisis. This expansion created many new jobs in Malaysia which was inadequately filled by Malaysia’s population size and in some cases, resulted from the reluctance of Malaysians to take up low-paying jobs in certain sectors, for instance construction and plantation. When the Petronas Twin Tower was built, the majorityof the construction workers were from Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nowadays, plantation jobs are no longer appealing to locals and are increasingly dependent on Indonesian labor. Moreover, Malaysia’s main agricultural export – palm oil depends on these workers.

Thus, to support the expansion and the competitiveness of the economy, a steady supply of foreign labor was needed. In addition, the rising participation of women in the work force and the rise of the middle class created a demand for domestic helpers which compose of foreign workers, particularly Filipinos and Indonesians.

Apart from supporting the growing economy, the government also increased the import of labor from Muslim majority countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan during the 1980s and early 1990s due to the “rising Islamic identity” [Welsh ed. 418]. Labor from Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam and China have also increased in recent years.

Indonesian illegal immigrants waiting to return to Indonesia from Port Klang,Malaysia.

It has been identified that there are more than 150 landing sites in Malaysia [Welsh ed. 419[and the land borders with Thailand in West Malaysia and with Indonesia in East Malaysia are generally ill-guarded. In most occasions, immigrants enter the country through organized recruiters and have relatives or friends who are already in the country. Immigrants have also stayed behind after the expiration of their visas, increasing the number of illegal immigrants.

Unfortunately, the huge population of foreign workers, especially illegal workers has been linked to the rise in crime rates, including robbery, prostitution, murder, identification card forgeries and theft. As a result of this, the public has called for more stringent immigration regulations. The large influx of immigrants, especially Muslim Indonesian immigrants in East Malaysia has also raised ethnic tensions as most of them have been granted citizenship. This has caused a feeling of resentment within the local aborigines (eg.Kadazan and Dusun) and the Chinese population who perceive the government is allowing more migration to increase their support in elections.

Similarly, there have been reports of abuses on foreign workers which led to human rights abuse charges by mainly Indonesia and the Philippines, further causing a rift in their relations with Malaysia. The local government was criticized for their treatment towards both legal and illegal workers during raids. One of which  was a raid that took place after a Sunday Mass at St. John’s Cathedral in Kuala Lumpur on March 27, 1994 [Welsh ed. 422]. About 1,000 Filipinos were arrested in that incident, whereby a majority of them were domestic helpers. The arrested foreign workers were required to present their official documents before being released. Of the 1,000 detained, only 20 were illegal. As a result, this incident was widely publicized and scrutinized and the Philippine government demanded the Malaysian government to issue an apology as it was deemed “insensitive” and disrespectful to arrest worshippers at a Catholic church [Welsh ed. 423].

The government was pretty inconsistent with their immigration policies throughout 1980s and 1990s. As when an economic downturn took place in the mid-1980s, the government increased the registration fees for legal admission. At the same time, they started patrolling the coastlines for illegal entries. They also raided squatter settlements of immigrants and carried out house checks in the Klang Valley and Kuala Lumpur.

Illegal Filipino immigrants waiting to disembark a navy ship in
Bongao after being detained by Malaysian authorities.

In 1996, a new and inconsistent registration scheme for immigrants was introduced as a result of rising demand for labor due to the early 1990s economic expansion. Under this scheme, the registration and legalization period took more than six months. After finalizing it, the government received vast amounts of money from levy taxes as hundreds of thousands of foreign workers were registered. Once the deadline passed, employers with illegal workers were imposed with penalties and the illegal workers were faced with the prospect of deportation. The punishments imposed included fines of up to RM50, 000 for every illegal immigrant, caning or imprisonment for illegal immigrants and recruiting agencies.

A few years later, the Asian financial crisis took hold of Malaysia. The government then conducted two operations – “Ops Nyah I” and “Ops Nyah II” [Welsh ed. 424] to decrease the amount of illegal workers as part of combating unemployment and crime rates. This led to a mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants and the government was again criticized for human rights abuses during arrests and detentions.

Given that the demand for foreign labor rises during economic booms and declines during economic contractions, the government’s policies towards foreign immigrants have been inconsistent. However, just last year - 2008, the government announced its plan to halve the number of foreign workers by 2015.



Back to top
Last Updated Wednesday, April 13, 2009   Contact me at teh20y@mtholyoke.edu
Copyright © 2009 Yen Ping, Teh