The Malaysian immigration question

comments     Steven Sim Chee Keong     Published     Updated

US President Donald J Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries has provoked reactions in USA and worldwide, not least in Malaysia.

While the debate on border control is still hot, I want to bring our attention to the immigration question in Malaysia.

We must not forget that we have our own immigration problems which are bordering crisis - and I’ll explain why below via the four critical issues which the government needs to deal with in order to resolve our immigration question.

Ultimately, we must answer the question on how to position Malaysia to tap into the global talent pool while protecting our workers and honouring universal humanitarian values in regards to migrants.

‘Yes’ to stricter border control but ‘no’ to victimising migrants

As such, while we agree to stricter immigration and border control, we cannot agree with immigration policy which victimises genuine migrants.

Taking actions such as the blanket ban a la-Trump not only runs counter to established human rights principles (and where do we draw the line from here?), it also disadvantaged us from the perspective of free movement of talents and manpower.

The four immigration issues we need to deal with on the Malaysian front are:

Malaysian Migrant Industrial Complex

Firstly, 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 works for the government.

As a result, we now have as many migrant workers as the population of Indian Malaysians and as recent as last year, the government even attempted to bring in another 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers.

I have shown from calculation 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 to support local businesses but rather is taken to be a lucrative business in itself.

Insiders syndicate

Secondly, there is the insiders syndicate which facilitates human trafficking and human trading activities across our borders. In May 2015, Malaysian police discovered human trafficking camp and mass grave of refugees in Wang Kelian, Perlis along the Malaysian-Thai border.

Such refugees death camps were also reported to be found in places such as Perlis, Kedah, Perak, Pahang and Penang. As early as 2009, international reports implicated Malaysian government officials in human trafficking activities in Malaysia.

With the discovery of the mass grave in Perlis, 12 police officers were arrested allegedly linked to human trafficking. A news outlet in 2015 exposed a report by the Special Branch stating 80 percent of our border guards are “on the take”. And we are not talking about officials in some obscure jungle posts.

In May 2016, over 100 people within the Immigration Department mostly stationed in KLIA were implicated and investigated for sabotaging the Malaysian Immigration System (MyIMMS), a computerised immigration management system, to facilitate various violation of immigration laws. The director-general of the department admitted that this insiders syndicate has been in operation since 2000.

Refugees and undocumented migrants

Thirdly, while Europe and USA are dealing with the Middle Eastern refugees question; Malaysia and Asean have, albeit at a much lesser degree, the Rohingyas question. Our most recent experience was the images of over 10,000 Rohingya boat people stranded just outside our waters in 2015.

About one thousand of these were then granted permission to land and were housed in a detention centre in Kedah. Out of these, 371 received refugee status by UNHCR. After a year, more than 300 were still stranded in the detention centre. But these are already the “fortunate” ones.

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, women and children being sold as sex workers. There are an estimated 2-3 million undocumented migrants in our country.

Together with the 2 million documented migrant workers, these make up about 16 percent of our total population; that is, more than the Indian, Kadazan and Iban population in this country put together.

In other words, imagine that at least one in 10 persons in Malaysia is an undocumented migrant; or two in 10 if we include documented ones.

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 in our job market. On one hand, our country is experiencing acute brain drain, acknowledged by the government’s formation of Talent Corp to deal with the problem, while on the other hand, our job market is flooded with low skill low wage migrant workers.

This means, while companies are starved of talents, locals have to compete for blue collar jobs and other entry-level jobs with migrant workers, often to the disadvantage of the former. This situation is definitely unhealthy for our economy in the long run.

Approach to the Malaysian immigration question must deal with the four critical issues

A solution to the Malaysian immigration question must deal thoroughly with all four issues above. I have previously proposed four key measures to be taken immediately by the new director-general of the Immigration Department, Mustafar Ali. Here, I further expand these four key measures into following 10 specific steps:

1) Border control is critical. We must not allow our country to be a hub for human trafficking nor terror-related activities. A thorough audit of border management system must be conducted all over the country.

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 insiders syndicate in our immigration system.

3) 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 a proper rationalisation of power between the Home Ministry and Human Resources Ministry when it comes to dealing with migrant workers intake. The Human Resources Ministry must play a greater role compared to now where it is being overshadowed by the ‘more senior’ Home Ministry. The latter should only focus on border control and law enforcement.

I have previously shown that the confusion of power between the two ministries and the usurpation by the Home Minister in matters related to intake of migrant workers have caused the indiscriminate inflow of migrant workers, abuse of power as well as failure of border control.

6) A proper national human resource route map is urgently needed to ensure job policy protects Malaysians while we take advantage of the global talent pool. This should be done in consultation with the industry, unions and rights groups.

7) Malaysian industry must be incentivised (and penalised if necessary via a carrot-and-stick strategy) to upgrade, upscale and upskill. One example is to use the South Korean strategy of export-discipline as both a boost for local industry to sell in a global market which is getting more competitive each day and 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 to import new low skilled workers should be imposed once the 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. Moratorium can be lifted up accordingly 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 as well as the new challenges and opportunities of globalisation for Malaysia.


STEVEN SIM CHEE KEONG is MP for Bukit Mertajam and director, Penang Institute.

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