Over the last decade, economic growth — combined with a push to become a leader in education and information technology in Southeast Asia — has made Malaysia a magnet for students and immigrants from Africa. It should be a success story of progress and cultural exchange, but recently tensions have escalated.
In May, a 30-year-old Nigerian student was sentenced to death in Kuala Lumpur for trafficking 1.7 pounds of methamphetamine. It was the second capital sentence handed to a Nigerian citizen in Malaysia in two months, following the sentencing of another student, also for meth trafficking.
Sandwiched between these headline cases was a more minor crime story — but still a revealing one. A 46-year-old Malaysian schoolteacher, who had “met” a man on Facebook and fallen in love, agreed to loan him the huge sum of $31,000. When she finally met him in person, the man, whom she’d thought was Caucasian, turned out to be Nigerian. He offered to repay the debt — but the bank notes he gave her were counterfeit.
The publicity over such high-profile criminal cases involving Africans (mostly Nigerians) has helped inflame widespread prejudices in a country that until recent years had had little contact with Africans.
According to the most recent available figures, 79,352 African citizens entered the country in 2013; and in 2012, 25,467 student visas were issued to Africans. Many, like those on a student exchange plan at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, sponsored by Kano State in Nigeria, are drawn by Malaysia’s fast-growing, well-equipped higher education institutes, which offer the chance of better employment both in Malaysia and back home.
For many African Muslim students, Malaysia also offers the chance to practice their faith in a modern, cosmopolitan environment. One young Nigerian couple I chatted with at the airport last year explained how their master’s degrees in engineering from Malaysia had led to employment with a respected company in Lagos, and they now traveled frequently for work.
Given Malaysia’s efforts to transform itself into an educational hub open to foreign labor and talent, these kinds of stories should be news, but they aren’t. Instead, a narrative of cooperation between Malaysia and African countries has increasingly morphed in the popular imagination into nightmarish scenes involving African criminality.
Malaysia’s modern infrastructure, efficient banking system and reliable Internet connectivity have, according to a Reuters report, made it an “epicenter” of online schemes — with Nigerians in particular said to be using Malaysia as an operating base. American women have been a major target of these frauds, with the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reporting in 2014 that Internet fraud made up 80 percent of inquiries to duty officers, with a dozen new cases every week.
The tricksters use persuasive stories — posing, for example, as an American Christian stuck in a Muslim-majority country who needs cash to get home. American officials report more than 600 cases a year, with most victims losing, on average, sums “in the tens of thousands”; two women each lost more than $250,000.
These con men, like many of the convicted drug mules and dealers, have often entered the country on student visas, which are easy to obtain and rarely attract follow-up checks. As a result, local prejudice is running high against Africans generally.
Malaysians rarely bother to make distinctions between Nigerians and Ghanaians, Kenyans and Tanzanians. The press, politicians and the public refer to them as “Awang Hitam”; the rough translation “black guy” fails to convey the expression’s pejorative edge.
Recently, an upscale condominium development in Petaling Jaya, a city near Kuala Lumpur, tried to ban Africans from renting apartments within the complex. After negative publicity, the developers backed down, but it is an index of how intense the loathing has become in some quarters.
The increasingly entrenched nature of anti-African sentiment was encapsulated in last year’s widely read editorial in one of the country’s most influential Malay-language dailies, Utusan Malaysia. Titled “Malaysia Can Do Without ‘Pak Hitam”’ (a variation of “Awang Hitam”), it summed up a prevailing view of Africans in Malaysia: that all the stories were the same, and all the stories were bad. It went on to list the social problems caused by Africans, from serious crimes like drug trafficking and online fraud to gathering in large groups and “colonizing residential areas.”
It is in this last grievance that a clash of cultures becomes clear: Africans are accused of rowdiness, drunkenness and harassing local girls — all of which represents the antithesis of the behavior expected in a conservative Asian country. Afraid to challenge these African immigrants because of their physical size, large numbers and “coarse character” — according to the editorial — Malaysians watched as their neighborhoods were overrun by “Pak Hitam.”
Many Malaysians argue that the sheer number of offenses committed by Nigerians and other Africans justifies their jaundiced blanket view — though actual figures are hard to come by. According to a Nigeria-based nonprofit organization, the Legal Defense and Assistance Project, there are 132 Nigerians serving sentences in prison in Malaysia, with several on death row — but the project was able to gather data from only two of the country’s seven maximum-security prisons.
Whether or not there is a crime wave caused by Africans, many Malaysians definitely have a perception that one is happening. And this is feeding deep-rooted prejudice. I once witnessed a local woman on a train holding her nose when sitting next to a passenger of African appearance.
With Malaysian companies like the industrial multinational Sime Darby starting to invest heavily in the growing economies of Africa, and Malaysian universities continuing their drive for fee-paying foreign students, the flow of people between Malaysia and Africa seems unlikely to abate. And neither, anytime soon, does the climate of xenophobia.
Tash Aw is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Five Star Billionaire.