On a recent weekend excursion out of the city, I stopped for coffee at a cluster of roadside shops selling refreshments for travelers heading to the jungle-shrouded highlands that form the spine of Malaysia. A young man was sweeping the small yard outside the outbuilding that housed the restrooms; he was the janitor and handyman, he said, but he was wary when I tried to strike up a conversation.
He was from Bangladesh, he told me, and had been in Malaysia for three years. He was called Yunus, but there was no way I could tell if that was his real name.
During the rest of my weekend trip, I noticed how many immigrant workers there were in the countryside, as accustomed as I am to seeing them in the capital city. They’re on construction sites, in factories and on huge palm oil plantations. But most Malaysians will encounter those who work in the lower ends of the service industry, waiting tables in cheap restaurants or, in Yunus’s case, cleaning restrooms.
These immigrants tend to be found in what the locals call “3D jobs”: dangerous, dirty and difficult. In short, jobs that few Malaysians nowadays are willing to do.
Workers from Malaysia’s lower-income neighbors — Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal, Myanmar and, increasingly, Bangladesh — have become ubiquitous here, yet they remain largely disconnected from the rest of society and have generally been absent from any discussion of national identity. But a recent government communiqué has pushed them into the limelight and forced Malaysians to confront, with unusual frankness, the deep-seated prejudices that some hold against low-skilled workers from abroad.
Malaysia’s foreign work force consists of just over two million legally employed workers together with an estimated two million more who are undocumented (out of the country’s total population of about 30 million). Many Malaysians feel that the slowing economy is unable to support such numbers, and express fears of an immigrant-fueled crime wave.
Despite these concerns, the government last month announced a plan to bring in 1.5 million more workers over the next three years from Bangladesh alone. Almost immediately, public debate of the issue, which had been simmering for some time before the announcement, was reignited in spectacular fashion, dominating headlines and chatter on social media.
One of the most prominent — and openly xenophobic — voices opposing the program, which was agreed on with the government of Bangladesh, was a group called Pertubuhan Rapat Malaysia, which held a news conference to warn of the dire consequences of admitting such an influx of foreign workers, from serious crime to disease and terrorist attacks akin to those committed by the Islamic State.
“It has become a norm for them to rape local women,” the organization’s president, A. Rajaretinam, said. He went on to accuse foreign workers of spreading disease and “conquering everywhere.”
This prompted a flurry of responses, notably from women’s and migrants’ advocacy groups like the Women’s Aid Organization and Tenaganita, which condemned racism toward foreign workers and highlighted the risk of xenophobic attacks. But these groups, too, were firmly opposed to the government’s plans. They want instead for the government to give legal status to undocumented workers already here. Labor organizations like the Malaysian Trades Union Congress argued for the protection of jobs for locals, rather than employing foreigners at lower wages.
In a matter of days, the government reacted by freezing the recruitment of foreign workers, including those from Bangladesh, while promising a review of employment policies. But by then, the issue was firmly in the public domain, engendering further arguments about how Malaysia treats its foreign workers.
For city dwellers here, one of the most pressing concerns is crime, particularly violent crime like armed robbery and rape. Crimes that involve foreign workers command special attention. The recent arrests of six men from Myanmar, accused of killing two Bangladeshi workers who refused to pay extortion money and dumping their mutilated bodies in the jungle, was just one recent example of the type of news item that tends to get amplified so that foreign workers seem perpetually to play the role of dangerous outsiders.
Yet government statistics from 2013 showed that only 1 percent of crime in Malaysia was committed by foreigners. And a World Bank report from the same year found that increased immigration actually tended to reduce most types of crime.
Recent vigilante attacks on foreigners accused of crimes have begun to stir a more robust defense of the rights of foreign workers, with the immigrant-rights group Tenaganita taking a lead in proposing tough regulations on the agents and intermediaries responsible for bringing in workers from abroad. The group is also lobbying for educational programs for those already here.
In a widely shared Facebook post, a student at the private Sunway University told about his friendship with an Indonesian cleaner on campus. He described her difficult journey to Malaysia, the 12-hour shifts she worked and what life was like on her minimum-wage salary. It caught attention as a rare example of a Malaysian reaching across social and cultural barriers to form an empathetic link with a foreign worker.
All this focus on migration and labor suggests that Malaysia is beginning to look harder at itself as the maturing, middle-class country it aspires to be — even if, for now, more liberal attitudes are in a minority. As I found in my rather stilted conversation with Yunus, a lack of trust and a huge gulf still divide foreign workers from Malaysians.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire, and a contributing opinion writer.