COVID-19 Op-ed

‘Malaysian Malaysia’: The Rise of Xenophobia

Written by admin

Aslam Abd JalilDoctoral

‘Malaysia for
‘Malaysian Malaysia’ was a concept
that advocated that all Malaysians were born equal regardless of their ethnic
or religious backgrounds. This slogan
championed by the late Lee Kuan Yew
caused the separation of
Singapore from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 because it challenged the
special position of bumiputera or sons of the soil.
Until today, Malaysia is still struggling in the nation building process due
to the growing friction and animosity between different races. Interestingly,
an invisible enemy called corona virus has managed to finally ‘unite’
Malaysians to safeguard their homeland from (in)visible ‘intruders’.Un/Welcome to
Malaysia is home to around 6
both documented and undocumented migrants which also
include refugees (International Organization for Migration, 2020). Evidently,
they fill in the labour force gaps as cheap labour which has transformed
the economy
(Pappusamy, 2014). Recent incidents of the refugee
boat turnbacks
(ReAct, 2020) and immigration raids of undocumented
migrants (“Malaysia ‘detains migrants, refugees’…”, 2020) despite the government’s
assurance not to arrest
them (Arumugam, 2020) have raised the
emphasis on national sovereignty and security. Due to the movement control
order (MCO) amid Covid19 pandemic, public health concern has become an excuse
to stop saving lives at sea and flex political muscle on immigration control.
Things get worse when fake
is spreading like a wildfire on social media (“Fake Whatsapp
message…”, 2020).The vilification that Rohingya demanded Malaysian
citizenship and equal rights sparked outrage which led to xenophobic
and racist discourse
(Augustin, 2020). Baseless forwarded social
media messages such as refugees
get daily allowance
, UNHCR card provides legal immunity and refugees
get driving license
have been denied by UNHCR, refugees and
activists. Some anecdotal stories are circulated to demonise ethnic Rohingya
particularly regarding their way of life that is deemed unacceptable
according to the local ‘values’. My observation found that the
unsubstantiated claims have made some Malaysians regardless of race and
religion to repeat the same narrative of Myanmar junta to justify genocide committed
against Rohingya such as calling for their expulsion or even killing them.
The rise of hatred towards refugees is evident through several anti-Rohingya
petitions which were pulled down
due to hate speech (Chung, 2020).
It is worrying when two petitions garnered 250,000 signatures that urged
Malaysian Government to send stateless Rohingya back to their ‘country of
origin’, as if they had any.Fighting hatred with
The refugee and migrant communities in
Malaysia have expressed fear of the xenophobic sentiment against them more
than fear of corona virus. They ‘blame’ their own identity for being
oppressed, unwanted and ignored. In response to the rising xenophobic
sentiment, some individuals and organisations have taken proactive measures.
To combat fake news, some Rohingya activists created a group on social media
to counter misinformation circulated by netizens. Meanwhile, Rohingya Women Development
Network (RWDN)
and Elom
initiated a positive campaign called #ThankYouMalaysia
#GratefulRohingya. Rohingya community residing in
Malaysia and other parts of the world flood their social media accounts with
their personal stories of fleeing genocide and the dream of going back ‘home’
as well as their gratitude towards Malaysians and Malaysian Government in
providing sanctuary and objecting the atrocities committed by
reflection for Malaysia/ans
Malaysia has been very
vocal on the injustices happening in the world especially regarding Rohingya,
Palestinians, Bosnians and Syrians. In fact, Malaysians have welcomed
refugees and migrants for decades because of our compassion and humanity.
While a comprehensive solution needs to be formulated urgently particularly
through ASEAN and The Bali Process, turning refugee boats away is inhumane.
Malaysia was and is an immigration nation. The tourism tagline “Malaysia
Truly Asia” resonates with Malaysia’s cosmopolitanism that has attracted
diasporas from Asia and beyond to call this land their home. Unfortunately,
the rise of right-wing nationalistic sentiment is worrying. We adamantly call
Donald Trump and Fraser Anning as perfect instances of racist individuals due
to prejudices against migrants. Ironically, it seems that our society is
heading in the similar direction. Although Covid19 and racism are invisible,
these ‘viruses’ could cost millions of innocent lives if they keep
spreading.Stay home, spread love and save lives. #HormatNyawa:SaveLives@Sea
T. (2020, March 22).  Don’t worry about being detained, just come
forward for Covid-19 testing, please, New Straits Times.
Retrieved from,
R. (2020, April 25). Fake news sparks hateful remarks against Rohingya
refugees, Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved from,
N. (2020, April 28). Anti-refugee petitions pulled down after breaching
policy on hate speech, Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved
WhatsApp message creating distrust of refugees, says UNHCR” (2020, March 19).
Free Malaysia Today. Retrieved from
Organization for Migration (2020). Malaysia: general information. Retrieved
‘detains migrants, refugees’ amid coronavirus lockdown”, (2020, May 2).
Aljazeera. Retrieved from,
P. I. D. (2014). Migrant Workers Contribution towards the Malaysian Economic
Transformation, Paper presented at the Asian Conference on
Globalization and Labor Administration: Cross-Border Labor Mobility, Social
Security and Regional Integration in Manila, Philippines
Retrieved from
Action for Change (2020). #HormatNyawa: Save Lives at Sea.
Retrieved from—————————————— Based on the
author’s interaction with some individuals
The author is
also part of the group
Based on the author’s communication with
Rohingya Women Development Network (RWDN) and Elom Empowerment

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