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Published: Sunday May 6, 2012 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday May 26, 2013 MYT 7:36:06 PM

Fear and prejudice

Africans in Malaysia have frequently been in the news for the wrong reasons, which may well have contributed to the negative perception of them. Three Africans dispel the fear.

HELLO, Nelson Mandela!”

Chemistry professor Dr Noel Thomas clearly remembers this greeting when he first arrived in Malaysia in 1997 and stayed in a hotel at Jalan Pahang.

“I remember walking in the Chow Kit market area one day when some local women greeted me as Mandela. I must say I felt a little surprised but proud too,” Dr Thomas who lectures in Universiti Malaya (UM) says with a chuckle during an interview.

Born in London, Dr Thomas, 55, spent 11 years growing up in Sierra Leone, the birthplace of his parents. He returned to the United Kingdom (UK) for his tertiary education and was teaching at the University of Bath when a Malaysian student suggested teaching in Malaysia.

Opportunity presented itself, and in 1997, he arrived and has been working here since. Dr Thomas also teaches Bible study at the church he attends.

On the whole, his experience in Malaysia over the last 15 years has been positive, but he is not ignorant of the fact that Africans in general have been getting an increasingly bad reputation here over the years.

“I have a Somalian friend who's been here 20 years. When he first came, he said the locals found his hair very fascinating. They used to ask him if they could touch it. But today, he says nobody wants to touch his hair anymore. People feel uneasy when they see Africans.”

Dr Thomas too has had his brush with prejudice here.

“Once, when queueing for a taxi and it was my turn, the taxi driver just shooed me away and asked a Chinese lady behind me to hop in. When you've had a long day and are carrying quite a few heavy bags, it can be rather irritating. But thankfully, this doesn't happen too often,” he says.

Dr Thomas also relates two other times when he got into a taxi, only for the taxi driver to eye him suspiciously.

“One turned around, took a long look at me and then said Normally, you people I don't take. But you I take.' Out of curiosity, I asked him why. He said it was because I have a soft face'. This happened once in Cheras, and again in Petaling Jaya. I guess it's a good thing to have a soft face', whatever that means!” he laughs.

On a more serious note, Dr Thomas says it is sad when people are judged based solely on their race. “To my African brothers, our behaviour in Malaysia, where we have the privilege to work, should be exemplary. It is a tragedy when Africans get involved in criminal activities.

“To my Malaysian friends, it is equally tragic when innocent God-fearing Africans like myself are judged to be guilty until proven innocent.”

Dr Thomas, however, acknowledges that the “aggressive and hostile” behaviour of some Africans, as well as bad press, has not helped their reputation.

According to Immigration Department director-general Datuk Alias Ahmad, there are 31,904 Africans who are active in the Immigration Department records.

“About 90% of this number are here on student visas. The rest are expatriates, their spouses and others who are on social visit passes,” he says.

Alias adds that the number of African students increased dramatically in 2007, when the Cabinet eased the application process for students to come in.

“Sometimes, there is a problem when some overstay,” he says.

From October 2011 until now, in the 3,000 operations carried out under the 6P legalisation programme, the Immigration Department has detained about 10,000 illegal foreigners, says Alias. Of the number, about 450 are Africans.

Over the last few years, Africans have frequently been in the news for the wrong reasons they have been involved in drug smuggling, con artists scams and fights or abductions which may have well contributed to the local prejudice against Africans.

In extreme situations, this has even resulted in Malaysians taking the matter into their own hands as in the case last month of 35-year-old Nigerian student Onochie Martins Nwanko, who was allegedly beaten to death by seven Rela members. He was said to have molested a cleaner at the Venice Hill condominium in Cheras.

The seven Rela members who were detained are expected to be charged with Nwanko's death.

Nigerian student Abdulkadir Shehu observes that too often, only the bad news about Africans get into the press, rarely the good ones.

Abdulkadir, 25, is currently doing his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) with the Anglia Ruskin University, UK. He attends classes at a local college affiliated with the university.

He graduated last May with a degree in business information systems. A first class honours student, Abdulkadir has even published a book titled Build Website with JOOMLA 1.5 in 60 Minutes to teach people to develop their own websites.

“When I graduated last year, there were seven students who had first class honours. All of them were Africans,” he says.

The reason he chose Malaysia, he says, was because he felt the country was more suitable for him as a Muslim. Also, his university tuition fees here cost only a third of what they would cost in the UK.

“People tend to generalise about Africans. If one person commits a crime, then judge him for himself, not all Nigerians. If an African commits a crime, let him face the law,” entreats Abdulkadir.

“We need to bridge that gap. If Malaysians and Africans can get to know each other better, then we can start to slowly change the (negative) perception. But it has to start with interaction,” adds Abdulkadir, who is also the past president of the foreign students' association in his college.

Polite and eloquent, Abdulkadir shares that he, too, has been shunned. “Sometimes, people don't want to come into the elevator because I am in it even though there is plenty of room.

“Another time, when I was running late for an exam, I was so happy to see the bus coming just as I got to the bus stop. The bus slowed down, but when the driver saw me, he just drove off. I was the only person at the bus stop. At times like this, you feel sad, rejected and embarrassed,” he says.

Another example was when his classmate bought a mobile phone but it became defective the next day. “We brought it back to the seller but he refused to change the phone or give us a refund. When we tried getting help from the police, they said it was not a police case and to just settle it with the seller.

“When we went back to the seller, instead of respecting our consumer rights, he called security and said we were harassing him, so we were chased off.”

But that hasn't stopped him from wanting to give back to the Malaysian society.

“I have contacted local universities and colleges, as well as secondary schools, to offer training for web development. If they accept my proposal, I want to go to the schools to teach the students how they can develop their own websites. I am doing it for free. That is how I want to contribute back to Malaysia for giving me the chance to study here. I want to share my knowledge with the other youths.

“I believe we have many good foreign students here who have a vision and mission. People need to know that we are here to really study.”

Another Nigerian student, Ernest Elly, 34, plans to stay on and open a restaurant in Malaysia after he graduates. He is currently doing his Masters in Economics in UM.

He believes that through food, “Malaysians can get to know the African culture better”.

“I would like to have a place that sells local, Western and African food. And my restaurant would be a place where people can come if they want to know more about Africa and to meet decent African people.

“Some people think nothing good comes out of Africa. I want to prove them wrong,” he says.

Related Story: What Malaysians say

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