IN Mid-March this year, my source in Kuala Lumpur reported hearing about the Malaysian security authorities barring entry into Malaysian waters of boats carrying refugees suspected to be ethnic Rohingya.
No sooner was I able to confirm the authenticity of the story than a serious controversy had begun in earnest among Malaysians of all descriptions, including former top-ranking government leaders.
Opinion is divided into various dimensions. One group thought that the government should have allowed these people to land and be given food, drinks, medicine, and shelter. Another group consisting mainly of ordinary Malaysians, countering, advocated sending these new arrivals back to where they had come from, adding that there are already too many Rohingya in the country. For the moment, they said, our country cannot afford to accommodate any more outsiders. Anyway, not while the whole country is under a lockdown for fear of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Who knows these boat people could possibly be carriers of the virus and as such were potential agents of its transmission in this country? These are genuine fears among many Malaysians. These people are not strictly xenophobic but in the circumstances are in no mood to be as generous as before; those were normal times. And, times are not normal.
The tone of debate was getting vitriolic, uncharacteristic of polite Malaysians, with some debaters straying from the main topic which is the ban on entry of 202 boat people. These unfortunate souls were bobbling in rickety vessels on the high seas, desperately trying to land in Malaysia, but their boats were pushed back over the territorial waters of Malaysia. After they had been provided with basic food and drinks, my sources added.
Then the controversy became personal with religious sentiments thrown in. Like a virus it has mutated into other nasty side issues. Calls were made to the government to repatriate those Rohingya who are already here. That worsened the controversy even further. It was unMalaysian, I thought.
Views from the East
Although mostly confined to the debaters in Peninsular Malaysia, a few from Sarawak and Sabah also took part in the debate. As preemptive as they could, their stand has simply been that the new arrivals would not be welcome over here, not now, not later. That’s a genuine concern as far as I could ascertain from a cursory survey of opinion among the local political analysts and members of the chat groups to which I belong.
That is a strong signal to the federal government that there is simply no room in the two states as possible sites for settlement for the boat people.
Although Sarawak has had no problem of influx of illegal immigrants, Sabah may have another problem to compound the present. There, the problem caused by the infamous Project IC has not really been solved to the satisfaction of most Sabahans. Any attempt therefore that the state should accept non-Sabahans in large numbers as settlers (even temporary) would be a counter-productive exercise.
State interests aside, the Malaysians in these Borneo States are equally concerned with the problem of the Rohingya living in the peninsula. It’s a problem of national dimension; it’s a Malaysian dilemma.
It is hoped that the government of Malaysia will bring up the Rohingya issue for discussion at the Asean level as soon as possible. To be productive, Asean as a group has to modify its policy of hands off or non-interference with the affairs of a member state. This is not a problem of one country alone; it involves two states – Malaysia and Myanmar – and possibly a third, Bangladesh. It is a regional problem to be solved by the regional powers themselves.
The Rohingya are stateless as far as Myanmar is concerned. Imagine stateless people coming to settle in Malaysia when many of our own people are still stateless. Come to Sarawak for proof!
Malaysia is an attractive destination and a decent place to live in and raise families. And this attraction, like that of a beautiful woman’s, has brought Malaysia the trouble that she does not deserve.
Signing Convention on refugees?
The same source in KL disclosed that a pro-Rohingya lobby has been formed in KL. They have allegedly hinted that even a small country like Lebanon could accommodate a million refugees. By implication, Malaysia with plenty of room, including that in East Malaysia, can do the same provided the country signs up as a member of the Convention on Refugees 1951.
This would be an unwise move indeed. Let’s stick to the status quo: let not Malaysia become a signatory to the Convention. We are the better off without it. Nonetheless, we are obliged as a civilised nation to render assistance to foreigners in trouble the best we can. We have rendered service to the Vietnamese and others in the past. These boat people were relocated for almost a year at Bidong until Australia agreed to take them as permanent settlers.
I’m sure we will continue doing this service to humanity as a responsible member of the community of nations.
The Rohingya had come at the wrong time when Malaysians had to stay at home for fear of the coronavirus. We had to abide by the stay-at-home orders. In such a frame of mind, do not blame us in thinking of our own safety, first.
Didn’t the organisers of human trafficking, whoever or wherever they are, know that the Malaysian borders had been out of bounds to outsiders during this virus pandemic in order to prevent potential carriers of the virus to the local people?
I can’t help feeling that people who organised the human trafficking have taken advantage of the milk of Malaysian kindness. A friend called me, “They have taken us for a ride”, and I said to him that we were being blackmailed.
As the whole episode happened during the current virus pandemic, people are curious about how someone or some syndicate should be so unkind to take advantage of Malaysian hospitality.
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