Contradictheory: Missing the big picture about immigrants in Malaysia

  • Living
  • Sunday, 15 Sep 2019

It goes without saying I too celebrated Malaysia’s tremendous win against Indonesia in the World Cup qualifying game on Sept 5. When Mohamadou Sumareh (left in main pic above) touched the ball over the line seven minutes into added time, Harimau Malaya edged a potentially vital 3-2 win over their regional rivals.

On top of that, the winning goal was delivered by somebody who is less jaguh kampung (village hero), more jaguh pendatang (immigrant hero). Mohamadou was born in Gambia, has no Malaysian parents, and was only naturalised in early 2018.

In fact, he is currently Malaysia’s only naturalised football player, while other “imports” such as Matthew Davies and (perhaps) Lee Tuck qualify because they have a Malaysian parent.

The truth is, the use of naturalised players was at one point a little contentious, especially since our great rivals Singapore have long been accused of “buying” success by awarding citizenship to skilled foreign-born players.

Malaysia's Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman himself was not entirely comfortable with the idea (“Plan for naturalised players must be studied carefully, says Syed Saddiq”, The Star, July 28, 2018), although he later lent support to it as long as the main focus was on developing local talent.

In sharp contrast, he certainly was celebrating the winning goal with pride that night in Jakarta. But why stop at footballers and sportsmen? Why not naturalise others who can contribute to Malaysia’s success?

I attended a conference recently in Australia, a country built on immigration if there ever was one. The first European immigrant stepped ashore there in 1788, and immigration has not stopped since then.

The country currently welcomes between 200,000 and 250,000 new immigrants each year, with overseas immigration expected to account for 62% of growth in the coming years.

What does immigration bring you? Better food for one thing. Like the best conference spread I’ve had for a while, and that’s excluding all the stuff I can’t eat because of dietary restrictions. And according to Bernard Salt, a famous Australian demographer and social commentator, immigration improves the economy.

Specifically, it will help increase Australia’s GDP from its current level of US$1.58tril (RM6.6tril) to an estimated US$2.5tril (RM10.4tril) in 10 years, a growth rate outpacing the likes of Germany, Japan and the United States.

With that growth also comes change, and in the coming years Salt says Australia will experience a greater “Asianisation” given the greatest proportion of immigrants will arrive from China and, to a lesser extent, India. And with it, a significant amount of growing pains.

Australia has fairly tight requirements for immigrants, with having the right job skills a strong prerequisite. And given that the number of jobs requiring highly specialised skills has increased dramatically over the last decade (such as doctor or engineer compared with electrician or mechanic), it is likely these new immigrants also have higher incomes.

So what Australia is experiencing now is an influx of non-English speaking immigrants who will have a lot of spending power. This was reflected in my conversation with a local Aussie who acknowledged that they didn’t like hearing people at the bank not speaking English, while such people also are driving up prices of property, services and cappuccinos.

This has increased resentment and fuelled the rhetoric of extremist politicians like Pauline Hanson who have long railed against high immigration numbers replacing the local “way of life”. However, her recent diatribe found few supporters, and her July campaign calling for a plebiscite on Australia’s level of immigration failed.

The feeling is that for Australia’s economy to continue to grow, the country must continue to court highly-skilled immigrants.

I’m not sure we see the bigger picture here in Malaysia. Yes, we celebrate the likes of Mohamadou when he scores goals for us, but I’ve also had friends who said they had Uber and Grab drivers cancel their rides once they see the customer is “black”.

There are apartment owners in Malaysia who try to prevent Africans from renting their apartments (or even entering them), and I know residents of an apartment block who plan to stop units being used for Airbnb because they attract “China tourists”.

The reason usually given for these sorts of decisions is because the people making them had bad experiences with these nationalities. To me, judging the actions of an individual and then applying that judgement to his entire race or country is what people call racism – however justified you believe it to be.

The backlash against “different” people in Malaysia is partly because there are so many illegal immigrants in the country, I think. In the first half of 2019, the Immigration Department conducted checks on over 100,000 foreigners, and about a quarter of that number was sent home to their respective countries because they were in the country illegally.

But a one-sided action against “bad” nationalities shapes the national conversation on who we welcome or don’t. When we see nationalities as caricatures, it’s to the detriment of everybody.

In July this year, there was a protest in front of the Nigerian High Commission because Thomas Orhions Ewansiha, a Nigerian, had died while in police custody. The 34-year-old father of two was a doctoral student and had a student pass when he was taken in.

He was caught up in a police raid after members of the public had complained that Africans in the area were involved with drugs and prostitution.

Was Ewansiha picked up because he was doing something illegal? Or was it simply because he was African, and for some reason it’s really hard to tell apart somebody who’s following the law from somebody who’s breaking it?

That’s why what Mohamadou does is so important. It provides the alternative point of view that foreigners can make a positive difference. Another couple of people who do this that come to mind are India-born Sajith Sivanandan, who was country head of Google Malaysia, and Australian Richard Leetham, CEO of SapuraAcergy Sdn Bhd.

They all contributed to Malaysia’s development, and should be celebrated. Just like we did with that winning goal against Indonesia.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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