A New Form of Racism in Malaysia?

February 18, 2016

A New Form of Racism in Malaysia?

by Adam Reza

Adam Reza

Adam is an Economics major and a long suffering Arsenal fan. He fancies himself a believer of the progressive values of the left and is a huge admirer of the works of John Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Krugman. He is a keen follower of the local political scene and blogs occasionally about all matters politics and policy at his blog adamreza.wordpress.com. In his free time he enjoys reading, cari makan, playing with his two cats at home and a good game of futsal. Adam tweets at @adam_reza on Twitter.


It is 7.30pm and as I look out the windows of the KL tower, I can’t help but marvel at the view of the city below.

As the sun dims, an expanse of jet-black emerges, swallowing up all traces of sunlight. In a matter of seconds, rays of green, yellow, red and blue are freed from the shining lights of the twin towers and office buildings, bringing about a gentle sizzle in the city skyline.

This is Kuala Lumpur’s daily masterpiece. A result of the twin miracles of economic growth and modernisation driven by a man with a vision called “2020”. Even the most ardent of opposition supporters will not disagree, KL is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s success and we all acknowledge his contributions.

But as with all success stories, there are always unsung heroes. In Malaysia’s case, long overlooked have been the stories of the very hands that built this city: the foreign construction workers from countries that include Bangladesh and Indonesia.

Like extras and props in a movie scene, we see them, but we do not notice them. Indeed we neglect them, as we are too fixated on the main actors.

This has not been the case this past week as Malaysian chat groups and timelines have been saturated with remarks about the debate on whether this country needs 1.5 million more low-waged Bangladeshi labourers.

Suffice to say, such a conversation is not unique to Malaysia. Indeed, this is a global debate. A wave of migration from Eastern Europe has split the political Right in the UK, while movements south of the US border have long been a contentious issue in America politics.

What is worrying is how the nature of the debates here in Malaysia has been steeped in ethnic bigotry and casual xenophobia, revealing a new face of racism.

While this is something that we have come to expect from the likes of Perkasa, it is alarming that self-professed “moderates” have been complicit in spouting rhetoric that is just as vile.

One only needs to look at the comment sections of both alternative and mainstream medias that are populated with xenophobic comments and stereotypes, ranging from “smelly eyesores” to “uneducated simpletons” and “social cancers”. These are comments that are not dissimilar from Neo-Nazis who think that all Muslims have bombs strapped under their clothes.

Demeaning terms like “Bangla” and “Indon” are thrown around like loose change and have become so entrenched in our daily lexicon that the ostensible face of moderation in DAP, one Zairil Khir Johari, casually used the term “Bangla” in a debate with Umno Youth’s rising star Shahril Hamdan last year that is up on Youtube for all to see.

Zairil is not the only politician who has been guilty of making such remarks, indeed politicians from both sides have played this card for political gain time and time again, none more sinister than the purported plot to turn this country into the dystopia known as “Banglasia”, a move that I imagine the likes of Donald Trump would tip their hats to.

The egregious thing about such racially charged political remarks is that it takes the human element out of migrants who are already here, treating them like mere pawns in a game of chess, oblivious to the long hours worked and in the case that I intimated to earlier, the hazardous work environments that they occupy.

Ironically, it is no different from the politics of racial division and hate that moderates condemn.

Ultimately, the current state of play gives me a dreadful premonition at how the future will unfold because whether we like it or not, migration of both low and high skilled workers is here to stay and the socio-cultural make up of this country will inevitably be more cosmopolitan.

It is imperative that we remember that this is not unprecedented. Malaysia has never been static and migration has been intrinsic in our DNA since Malacca. It is the very reason why Malaysia is the melting pot it is today.

And no different from the low-skilled migrants that some of us look down on today, our ancestors were brought in to do the “dirty jobs” of their times, working the rail-tracks, tin mines and rubber estates that built the economy of Malaya. I imagine that they held the same aspirations: to work hard and make a living for their families in the hope that their children would live a life better than theirs.

In this world of socially constructed borders and nation states, a thorough debate on migration policy is and always will be necessary. But we need to take the element of xenophobia out of the equation.

This is a true test of the moderate and race-blind Malaysia many of us aspire to, failure of which will render our brand of “moderation” a vacuous slogan, the consequences of which we are all too familiar with.


20 thoughts on “A New Form of Racism in Malaysia?

  1. Zahid Hamidi should manage the importation of foreign workers better. It is more than just a means for giving money for cronies and promoting extortion by our paramilitary agencies. –Din Merican

  2. Um, there is no such thing as a “new” form of racism. Racism is racism, and if this writer actually had some life experience he would understand that beneath the bromides, this country seethes with racism .

    And really, folks should stop using the term “moderate”.
    In Malaysia, Conrad, we love labels as a way of differentiating ourselves. I agree, racism is racism, old or new, extreme or moderate. UMNO promotes racism and NEP is embedded racism in a national policy as cronyism and elite nepotism. Hey, I am also guilty of using labels.–Din Merican

  3. At corner of this debate really is those in the know remember that Najib is famous for Phantom voters when he nearly lost his seat in Pekan. The ” donation” story is also an old MB excuse. So it’s very probable vote rigging will be massive – Najib will use PAS dividing the opposition as excuse.

  4. PAP in Singapore encourages immigration from China and India to shore up its eroding political base amongst native-born Singaporeans.

    UMNO Baru in Malaysia trying to import Bangladeshis to do the same for GE 14?
    In other words, the “Sabah card” applied to Peninsular Malaysia?
    (I think that even politically conservative groups such as our police and military and
    extreme right wing groups such as Perkasa would not like this devious strategy at all).

  5. Let’s get real here. Whether they are called Bangladeshi or Bangla, do people really believe that Malaysia need 1.5 million more foreign workers? That’s 5% of the total population of Malaysia!

    Or are we getting another 1.5 million voters in the general election?

    This young Malay writer misses the point altogether. He should be more worried the politicians who are stealing from the country and now trying to rob us of an election too.

  6. “This young Malay writer misses the point altogether.”

    Not at all. He gets the point. He just hasn’t put much thought into it. Racism is systemic and personal here in Malaysia. Corruption is something that is easier to get a handle on. But the racism is a much harder beast to slay.

  7. With all the mess Najib and his sycophants have done to this country, do you think they will follow the rules of the game in the coming GE14? It’s not possible to get rid of race based parties for the survival of UMNO unless there are free and fair elections which I believe it can never happen under Najib with so much of cash in hand.

  8. These national issues are being raised one by one to divert attention from the main issues. Most of these issues are red herrings and should raise the red flag among all citizens. In the meantime, the issues that are going to determine the future of the nation are being slowly pushed to the back-burner.

  9. This young Malay writer literally lives in an ivory tower blinded by the glorious KL setting sun which casts an obscurantist shadow on the real world below.

    These over a million foreign Muslims are mostly single virile young men in the prime of their lives, sexual lives, coming from a country where the female of the specie are there to satisfy their manly urges which can never be legislated away by Parliament or the Labour Department.

    And who would these 1.5 million Muslim men pursue in Malaysia? Yes, young Malay Muslim girls working in urban areas away from the restraining moral culture of conservative Malay kampongs.

    A social, cultural time bomb waiting to explode. But what has this to do with Zahid’s brother? Nothing.

  10. “…we need to take the element of xenophobia out of the equation.”- Adam Reza.

    A well written piece, Adam. I am impressed, as not many Malay youths your age can write as good or string a simple sentence in English. Oldies like Pak Din, Bakri Musa and orang malaya are relics of a past when English was taught not as a subsidiary but a primary language of communication.

    Having said that, pray tell us how you wanna take the element of xenophobia out of the equation when the country will soon be overwhelmed by 1.5 million unwelcomed Banglas?

  11. My business is supported by imported labor, and I do not now live in Malaysia to avoid the NEP discrimination to my non bumi children. I have hired Nepalese, Bangladeshis, Pacific Islanders, Chinese from PRC, and when I was in Malaysia I hired Filipinos (back then), Malays, Malaysian of Indian and Chinese ethnic groups, Kadazhans and other minorities in Malaysia.

    I can tell you that bringing in Bangladeshis is going to be a huge mistake. They are productive only in intense supervision, with for the plantation sector that they are intended for will be most unsuitable. The experience in Sabah and Sarawak has already shown that the Indonesians and Filipino workers are far more productive.

    If the workers are hired for 3D, I would especially recommend Filipinos, who are hardworking, speak English, but are Christians. I have an entire business run and supported by these hardworking people from the Philippines. I also want to point out that during my work in Malaysia, the hardest working people I have had to joy to manage, were the Malaysian of Indian ethnicity (I am not of such). If given the opportunity, training and respect, they work up wonders. I am also impressed with young Malay female professionals from the East Coast, somehow they have a drive not seen from their counterparts from the West Coast.

    I think the only real reason for bringing the 1.5 million of Bangladeshi is to first make money from snakehead transactions – 10K per worker x 1.5 million is great for Zahid’s family which thinks of nothing else but themselves, and of course the second, the potential to tip elections in areas where UMNO is weak. For these non productive and non patriotic reasons, Zahid is of course right. Otherwise he would first take care of the excess of workers and illegals in the country before importing more potential problems. The minimum wage in Malaysia also needs to be addressed, workers at minimum wages are simply not making enough to make ends meet. Even in the construction industry, there is a general failure to adopt technlogical advances for increasing productivity. I have not in my many years in the construction industry seen a Hilti Gun. Contractors have yet to use basic technology such as infrared measuring devices. Plantations still use simple cutting tools, power tools such as saws, and automatic drip systems are non existence. Malaysia needs to move towards todays technology to drive competitive edges. Cheap labor cannot be a solution. Then, we are expecting strategic thinking by monkeys out to loot fruits of others, so that dream of a beautiful country we had lost is not yet within grasp of return.

    I do not think that I am the only Malaysian that want to see his head shrunk by Dayaks and hung at Merdeka Square. Collectively, we could toy with that, via facebook say “Dayak Zahid”?

  12. “””I imagine that they held the same aspirations: to work hard and make a living for their families in the hope that their children would live a life better than theirs.”””

    Adam said it well. It saddened me that so many of my generation still have to do the same. We continue to cari-makan elsewhere. It is just sad personally to see so many Malaysian Chinese are working in Macau the past week from a mere casual observation. None of them could ever expected to be Macau citizens. It is worse, as correctly being pointed by Adam, when we label some other groups as “pendatang”, when we are mere “penumpang”.

    Yet, as much I like Adam’s article, I felt it lacks depth. Adam failed to realize “hoping their children live a better life” itself is a postive expression of racism and protectionism. It is a positive responsible rhetoric. Else, we would all indeed be mere “penumpangs” in this society without caring for where the society, we felt belong to, is heading. When the concerns were raised appropriately, it could turn out to be a fruitful discussion to figure out the meaning of sustainable development.

    Behind that racism, is a toxic struggle of class. Bringing in cheap labor favors the established class better to get dirty work done cheaply for a get rich quick development. With the rich paying so little tax in Malaysia, the social cost for feeding, clothing, and educating would inevitably have to be taken up by the entire nation. The moderates “Adam” pointed his finger at, represent the educated professional middle class who has paid the most tax. It also represented an educated class who has concern behind the sustainability of the “project” the immigrants are being asked to build.

    I am looking forward to learn more from Adam who studies economics, to address the real social economic impact and struggle behind this debate.

  13. There is also this possibility:

    Seeing that No. 1’s cash-is-king technique seems to be working,
    maybe No. 2 also wants to build up a pile of cash. How to build up
    a pile of cash? May be the Bangla way?

    (I do not think it is offensive or an ethnic slur to use “Bangla” as a short form of Bangladeshi or “Indon” as a short form of Indonesian at all).

  14. “…KL is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s success and we all acknowledge his contributions”

    How? Adam Reza, please do not speak on my behalf. Adam Reza is not elected to represent us.

    Racism is not independently bad in a vacuum. Superiority generated by racism is bad only if it negatively affects races within a nation, or if it affects bi-national relationship when we unintentionally adopt foreign policy based on poking the eyes of the targeted nation. The sense of superiority, if channeled through the patriotic sentiment of the nation, could help build the basal support for nationhood, a necessary building block for everything we cherish.

    Casting Bangladesh immigration issue as primarily racism issue is an unfortunate distraction, because it is the pride of being Malaysians that enables us to first want to defend Malaysia, and then has the desire to shape the future direction of the nation. Beating at our basal instinct regarding Bangladesh immigrants is not what we should focus; but we should ask what immigration policy should be if we love our nation deeply. For that, ask a mother with a baby how much attention she wants to divide between her baby and her neighbors. Let’s not letting the disciples of Paul Krugman, the fringe of the fringe of American society, that it is illiberal to guardedly protect your national characteristics (likened to the mother’s baby). Don’t shiver when some 15 year old call you racist; instead just replace term “Bangla” with “Bangladeshi (legal/illegal) immigrants”, and move on.

    Don’t repeatedly beat yourself for having some selfish love.

  15. Well Mr/Ms Shiou, our libertarian (?), free market fundamentalist friend,

    You may not be aware that Bernie Sanders mentoned that his economic advisors will be Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich.
    So, if Sanders is elected President of the USA this November, your “fringe of the fringe of American society” will become the mainstream 🙂

  16. Quote:- “…Filipinos, who are hardworking, speak English, but are Christians….”

    Let’s not beat about the politically-correct bush. The 2nd & 3rd characteristics give us the answer to all our questions, besides earning big bucks for “Cash is King” Mrk II of course.

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