Rohingya area in Sittwe, Myanmar.
Strict measures – and much sensitivity – are required.
US President Donald J. Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from seven Muslims majority country provoked strong negative reactions in the country and around the world.
While the debate on border control is still hot, I want to bring our attention to the immigration question in Malaysia. Our own immigration problems presently border on being a crisis, but ultimately, the question is about how Malaysia is to tap into the global talent pool while protecting our workers and honouring humanitarian values.
There are four critical issues to deal with when we talk about the Malaysian immigration question:
1) The Malaysian Migrant Industrial Complex
Our immigration policy is driven by the Malaysian migrant industrial complex, a network of Umno-linked immigration contractors raking in hundreds of millions, even billions, doing paper-shifting work for the government. As a result, we now have as many migrant workers as the population of Indian Malaysians and as recently as last year, the government attempted to bring in another 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers. I have shown through calculations and official statistics that the number of migrant workers exceeded the federal government’s own projection. The reason is clear: in Malaysia, importing migrant workers is not for the purpose of supporting local businesses but is rather a lucrative business in itself.
2) Insider Syndicate
Secondly, there is the insider syndicate that facilitates human trafficking and human trading activities across our borders. In May 2015 Malaysian police discovered a human trafficking camp and the mass grave of refugees in Wang Kelian, Perlis along the Malaysian-Thai border. Such refugee death camps were also reportedly found in Kedah, Perak, Pahang and Penang. As early as 2009, international reports had implicated Malaysian government officials in human trafficking activities. Following the discovery of the mass graves in Perlis, 12 police officers were arrested. A news outlet in 2015 exposed a report by the Special Branch stating that 80% of our border guards are “on the take”. And we are not talking about officials in obscure jungle posts – in May 2016 over 100 people within the Immigration Department mostly stationed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) were implicated and investigated for sabotaging the Malaysian Immigration System (MyIMMS), a computerised immigration management system, to facilitate various violations of immigration laws. The director general of the department admitted that this insider syndicate has been in operation since 2000.
3) Refugees and Undocumented Migrants
Thirdly, while Europe and the US are dealing with Middle Eastern refugees, Malaysia and Asean have had to handle, albeit to a much lesser degree, the Rohingya question. A recent experience was the images of over 10,000 Rohingya boat people stranded just outside our waters in 2015. About 1,000 of them were granted permission to land and were housed in a detention centre in Kedah. Out of these, 371 were assigned refugee status by UNHCR. After a year, more than 300 were still stuck at the detention centre. But even these are among the “fortunate”.
There are others, possibly hundreds of thousands, who are scattered in camps in the jungle such as the one in Wang Kelian, imprisoned in our cities and towns, subjected to torture and abuses, with women and children being sold as sex workers.
It is estimated that there are two to three million undocumented migrants in our country. Together with the two million documented migrant workers, they make up about 16% of our total population; that is, more than the Indian, Kadazan and Iban population in this country put together.
In other words, at least one in 10 persons in Malaysia is an undocumented migrant; and two in 10 are migrants if we include documented ones.
4) Protection of Malaysian Workers
Fourthly, the discrimination against our own talents (and other global talents) and the indiscriminate intake of low skill, low wage migrant workers are causing a huge problem to our job market. On one hand, our country is experiencing an acute brain drain, acknowledged by the government’s formation of TalentCorp to deal with the problem, while on the other hand, our job market is flooded with low skilled, low wage migrant workers. This means that while companies are starved of talent, locals have to compete for blue-collar and other entry-level jobs with migrant workers. This situation is definitely unhealthy for our economy in the long run.
Approach to the Malaysian Immigration Question
A Rohingya child begging on the streets of KL.
All these four issues have to be dealt with. I have previously proposed four key measures to be taken immediately by the new directorgeneral of the Immigration Department, Mustafar Ali. Let me here expand these four key measures into 10 specific steps:
1) Border control is critical. We must not allow our country to be a hub for human trafficking or terror-related activities. A thorough audit of the border management system must be conducted.
2) A high-level investigation and law enforcement task force led by the Enforcement Agencies Integrity Commission (EAIC), with participation from the police and the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission, should be established to crush the insider syndicate in our immigration system.
3) The Malaysian migrant industrial complex must be abolished: importing low skill migrant workers must not be viewed as a lucrative business for cronies but rather a support for local businesses.
4) Immigration contractors must be appointed via stringent vetting and through a transparent tender process.
5) There must be proper rationalisation of power between the Home Ministry and Human Resources Ministry when it comes to dealing with the intake of migrant workers. The Human Resources Ministry must play a greater role. It is presently overshadowed by the “more senior” Home Ministry. The latter should only focus on border control and law enforcement instead. I have previously shown that the conflation of power between the two ministries and the usurpation by the home minister of matters related to the intake of migrant workers have worsened the indiscriminate inflow of migrant workers, encouraged abuse of power and caused the failure of border controls.
6) A proper national human resource route map is urgently needed to ensure that job policies protect Malaysians while allowing us to tap into the global talent pool. This should be done in consultation with industries, unions and rights groups.
7) Malaysian industries must be incentivised (and penalised if necessary via a carrotand-stick strategy) to upgrade, upscale and upskill. One example is to use the South Korean strategy of export-discipline as both a boost for the local industry to sell on a global market that is getting more competitive by the day, as well as an incentive for them to upgrade.
8) Any immigration reform must not victimise the migrants. A nationwide exercise to register undocumented migrants must be conducted. The cost of registration must be low enough while the price of not registering high enough to ensure greater compliance.
9) A moratorium on the import of low-skilled workers should be imposed once registration is done, and the newly added Section 51(a) of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti Smuggling of Migrants Act 2007 should be enforced to allow the hiring of previously undocumented migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking where suitable. The moratorium can be lifted once we have a proper National Human Resource Blueprint.
10) Finally, the government should establish a Royal Commission on Immigration Reform in the same spirit as the Dzaiddin Royal Commission of Inquiry into Police Reform to thoroughly clean up our immigration system to match modern security needs.
Steven Sim Chee Keong is MP for Bukit Mertajam. He is also on the board of directors of the Penang Institute.