Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan Government which began its fifteenth month in office on July 10 had made a pledge in its election manifesto that it would reduce the number of foreign workers by a third from six to four million. This was a target set to be achieved within the government’s first term in office. Unlike some other unrealistic pledges this was a seemingly plausible one and this government has been perceived to be making some serious efforts in that direction.
There is however no consensus on the number of foreign workers in Malaysia. There is an often understated acknowledgement that foreign workers play a critical and crucial role in the country.
In this year’s Hari Raya message it is noteworthy that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had, while urging his Muslim community to work hard and improve their lot, graciously expressed appreciation inter alia to the estimated seven million foreign workers who had contributed considerably to Malaysia’s relatively comfortable life style. This was a particularly significant statement as it was the first categorical concession that Malaysians were highly dependent on foreign workers who perform various fundamental functions ranging from caregiving, car maintenance, construction services and the production of core agricultural commodities.
Foreigners are employed in virtually every sphere of activity- building and construction services, medical and health services, education and teaching, travel and tourism, manufacturing and motor repair, wholesale, retail and restaurant services, printing and publishing, landscaping and public works maintenance and the hotel, hospitality, domestic household and security business.
These workers hail from a number of Asian countries including Indonesia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar , India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia and some West Asian countries. In the past two decades under the guise of largely being students to obtain visas, quite a substantial number of Africans and Asians have also come to make a living here. One can also occasionally meet Latin-Americans who seem to be operating like some of these other foreigners as entrepreneurs and traders.
A minuscule minority of nationals from some of these countries seem to be involved in crime and other confidence trickster scams and this gets due coverage in Malaysian media. Harsh and brutal treatment of some of these foreign workers also makes it to the media and the law courts. But what is underreported is the rather widespread practice of poor treatment of these workers. This occurs in both the domestic and professional workplace where deplorable conditions of work exist and they are paid relatively low wages.
There are laws governing the employment of these foreign nationals, including a minimum wage but they seem to be observed in breach than in compliance.Estimates of the foreign worker presence also vary on account of a rather huge informal economy in the country.
The excuse that this sort of thing only happens to undocumented workers is a well worn one as on some nights some of these workers can be seen sleeping in the most unlikely work places. This week ‘ The World of Buzz’ carried photos of workers sleeping in metal cylinders at construction sites. A segment of these workers are engaged in dangerous, dirty and despised employment which Malaysians seem to shun.
The current government has attempted to persuade more Malaysians to take up some of these 3D jobs and TVET( technical and vocational education training ) programmes and has targeted those that are weak academically. Some government leaders have criticised the inclination of young Malaysians to seek only employment in air conditioned work places.
This big deluge of foreign workers did not happen overnight. It started in the mid-1980s when Malaysia was the star of Southeast Asia. Malaysia was comparatively stable and booming and the Malaysian Ringgit was a relatively strong currency while some of its neighbours became known for political instability and economic uncertainty and upheaval.
The Immigration authority in the country which is primarily responsible for monitoring entry and exit points seems to have been blasé about this issue while the police seem to have been preoccupied with other duties. By 1990 the presence of foreign nationals( not necessarily workers) was already an issue but the government, particularly the public service, was woefully indifferent or in denial of the problem.
The Public Services Department which is the key agency responsible for manpower planning and deployment in the public sector is a most powerful, over centralised agency that oversees, determines and manages the manpower needs of the public service, including the Immigration and police service. Apparently that department had also not been alert to this growing problem.
Today while the foreign worker is an indispensable and integral part of Malaysia’s work force there is no satisfactory explanation as to how the central and core parts of Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital have become the home, business place and haunt of such a large number of relatively poor foreigners. The major wholesale food markets of Kuala Lumpur are also dominated by foreign nationals.
It is a poor reflection on the current government that pledged a Malaysians-first policy that after fifteen months in office these foreigners still have such a dominant and unchallenged presence in Malaysia.
The entry of such a large number of foreign nationals into the country has pulled down the health and liveability index of Malaysia. Health authorities say that certain diseases that had been wiped out by the late 1970s have resurfaced due to unchecked immigration.
This problem of a large foreign national presence is symptomatic of a larger malaise that has affected the country. Currently the courts are hearing unprecedented larceny charges brought against a former government leader. Malaysians are almost daily being fed a diet of news which suggests gross negligence and laxity on the part of top civil servants who compromised on the principles of good governance and allowed the outflow of billions of Ringgit from the country’ s coffers. They seem to have forgotten their sacrosanct duties to safeguard their country’s assets in order to enjoy their status in a society that has the world’s highest power distance ratio.
Interestingly the amount of honestly-earned overseas remittances( about USD 3 billion annually) by these foreign workers is being made an issue while the country seems to have slept through a decade of the greatest premeditated plundering and squandering of the public purse.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador of the Malaysian Foreign Service with forty five years’ experience in the public sector