In Malaysia, we live in a culture that is very hostile to the poor

The rich are getting relatively richer, while the poor are really struggling – just ask the Malaysian activists and community workers who are at breaking point, fielding daily calls from people begging for food. —

What kind of country is Malaysia? On the eve of the country’s 65th birthday on Aug 31 – a lifetime in human years – it’s an apt time to ask this. How much, for example, do we value the humanity of all?

Two incidents struck me recently. We detained a mother and her three young children and threatened to deport them, allegedly unlawfully. And we wrongfully convicted a legal migrant worker, and then wrongfully whipped him before an appeal was heard.

These stories probably barely made a blip in the minds of many. But I see them as rather telling of how we treat the poor, the defenceless, and migrant workers.

In the case of the mother, she was born and bred in Malaysia, as were her children. She is stateless, but has the right to Malaysian citizenship, as she was born to an Indonesian mother with permanent residence status.

In mid-July, the Immigration Department said it would be deporting the family to Indonesia, a country none of the family members had ever stepped foot in (nor are citizens of).

Fortunately for her, lawyers and a powerful Malaysian child activist, Datuk Hartini Zainuddin, took up the mother’s case. For now, the government has agreed not to deport the family.

The shocking whipping of Sabri Umar, an Indonesian migrant worker, occurred in Tawau, Sabah, on June 23, despite a pending appeal.

Some 45 human rights groups as well as local unions issued a joint statement about the case, stating that documents tendered to the Sabah Sessions Court were allegedly false – Sabri was legally documented as a worker with a Malaysian company, with a valid work permit.

“The employer who knew that Sabri was not an undocumented worker failed to bring [this] to the attention of the police, prosecutors and court,” noted the statement, signed off by human rights lawyer Charles Hector, who heads the group Malaysians against Death Penalty and Torture.

The statement also called for an end to whipping, noting it “inflicts serious physical and psychological injury, where victims are known to pass out”. Seriously people, this is 2022. Must we still resort to such a brutal, medieval punishment? How does whipping make us a better country?

Hector also points out that many migrant workers lose the ability to claim money owed to them when deported to their home country. How many migrants have been cheated of hard-earned wages this way? We use them, abuse them, then discard them.

Sabri’s case was wrong on so many levels. But at least on July 22, the Tawau High Court acquitted and released him from prison, acknowledging that the caning was carried out against Malaysian law.

However, Sabri was only given a two-week pass to remain in Malaysia – hardly enough to ensure justice is served.

These cases are disturbing, but at least lawyers, activists and the High Court took them on.

But we can’t rely on the High Court to rectify mistakes made by lower courts where the sums involved are RM10,000 or less – the right to appeal is denied. A recent Bill passed in Parliament could have enabled this right to appeal. Perhaps it’s a small matter to some – MPs earn RM16,000 a month. But for the poor, this is an enormous sum.

Remember, the median salary in Malaysia is only RM2,000 – that means half the working population earn less than that. So imagine the impact of this law. Imagine paying RM9,999 wrongly.

“Being ordered wrongly to pay such sums, or being wrongly denied the claim by court is a big deal,” says Hector, adding there is “no rationale” for discriminating by monetary value in a claim.

No judge or court is perfect. That is why there is an appeals process. In fact, says Hector, many lower court judgements are overturned or corrected on appeal.

We live in a culture that is simply hostile to the poor. We trample on their rights or even take their rights away.

Why do we make it so hard for them? They are already living in hard times, with rising inflation causing a steep hike in the prices of some essential foods, including healthy foods such as vegetables or eggs (now 13% more expensive since June 2021). Food security is becoming a major concern, given that more than 60% of our food is imported.

We chase economic growth, but who is benefiting? Income inequality is growing, as shown by the rising Gini coefficient index, which measures incomes and inequalities.

The rich are getting relatively richer, while the poor are really struggling – just ask the activists and community workers who are at breaking point, fielding daily calls from people begging for food.

We need to be doing far more to help them. Yet we seem to be preoccupied by minor matters, hauling people up for minor offences. We arrest brilliant cartoonists such as Fahmi Reza and Zunar for poking fun at the establishment as well as comedians who essentially do no real harm. (Clearly, we can’t laugh at ourselves.)

Where are our priorities? Have we forgotten fundamental human values? What kind of country are we now?

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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