Immigration is a hot topic in any country in the world and Southeast Asian countries are no different to the UK or the US in this respect.
Having spent almost three years living in Malaysia and working in a large international company, with my office located on the main Bukit Bintang thoroughfare, illegal immigrants and their plight entered into my life only sporadically.
One of my first experiences came at the local chicken-rice spot I used to frequent with my colleagues just behind Bukit Bintang. After my waitress left to fetch some change from the note I had paid for my iced tea, my Malaysian colleague commented that she was clearly an ‘illegal’ from Indonesia, it was obvious from ‘her accent and manners lah’.
Although now the differing diction and accents are clear to me, this being my third month in the country I have to admit I could not tell the difference between Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Malaysian, let alone their manners and style.
The chicken-rice shop I came to love so dearly employed many immigrants, mainly from Indonesia, and this place was no different from the other kopitiams and restaurants in the area.
The second most memorable ‘brush’ with illegal immigrants in Malaysia came a year and a half later.
Coming to work one sunny morning and entering the office, I overheard a conversation about an incident that had occurred right outside the building in the early hours of the morning.
At around 2am, a gang of Indonesian immigrants cornered and stabbed to death two ‘Banglas’, or Bangladeshi immigrants, about ten metres from the entrance of my office building.
I was told that the police were called, and had arrived, conducted their ‘investigation’, cleared the area up, removed the bodies and left. That was that.
I have no idea whether the culprit(s) were caught, but came to learn that tensions between the various immigrant groups in the city (and no doubt the country) often boiled over into this kind of violence, although rarely off one of the most prestigious tourist areas of Kuala Lumpur.
I have been reading about the recent crackdown on illegal immigrants in Malaysia with interest, and of course dismay.
As in any country, immigrants (whether illegal or legal) are incredibly important, if not vital for the growth of a nation, taking jobs in many sectors and areas that the local population is unwilling to do (such as construction and cleaning jobs) and adding to the vitality and culture of the country (two of my favourite personalities from my home country, the UK, are Dizzee Rascal and Mohamed ‘Mo’ Farah).
They are also one of the first groups to be used as scape-goats when things do not go so well in their adopted country.
Although I have absolutely zero evidence, I find it strange that, after scraping through the elections, having the country’s credit rating outlook slashed from stable to negative, a fiscal deficit of 4.5 per cent of gross domestic production (second highest among emerging markets), soaring crime, and a looming need to cut popular subsidies to qualify for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, that the Malaysian government has suddenly announced a ‘nation-wide exercise to flush out illegal immigrants’.
Malaysia has welcomed immigrants for centuries, this is most clearly seen in the Indian and Chinese influence which has brought with it such amazing food, cultural oddities, music, art and more. Migrants have also helped build some of Malaysia’s greatest landmarks, such as the Petronas Towers, as well as the new administrative capital of Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur’s international airport.
Vibrancy and diversity are at the heart of what makes Malaysia so appealing to the outside world, which in turn feeds the optimism that is so vital for attracting foreign direct investments and placating capital markets.
The economic arguments for welcoming immigrants of all stripes are persuasive, and rather than crack down on them, it would make more sense to assimilate illegal immigrants into the economy, start a process of naturalisation so they can pay taxes and integrate into the community.
One hopes the Malaysian government will look beyond its current problems and realise that, come 2015, the Asean Economic Community (AEC) will ensure that any Asean business can come and do business in Malaysia as can any Asean citizen, and so the dynamism and work-ethic that immigrants bring will be vital to guaranteeing the competitiveness that Malaysia will need to survive.
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Oliver Ellerton is the chief marketing officer at Inside Investor, the owning company of www.investvine.com, a business and finance news portal focusing on Southeast Asian economic topics as well as trade and investment relations between Asian and the Gulf Cooperation Council. The views expressed are his own.