Uproar over intake of Bangladeshi workers exposes rampant xenophobia in Malaysia
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Uproar over intake of Bangladeshi workers exposes rampant xenophobia in Malaysia

OUTRAGE over the Malaysian government’s plan to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers has exposed latent xenophobia in the country.

Certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and media outlets have whipped up anti-Bangladeshi sentiment, playing on racially-charged stereotypes, fears of crime, and economic worries.

Yesterday, a group called Pertubuhan Rapat Malaysia, which is opposed to the government’s plan, accused migrant workers of rape, among other things.

“It has become a norm for them to rape local women. They rape the wife and daughters of people here,” said the group’s president, according to the Malay Mail Online.

“They act like they have a licence to rape. What kind of action will be taken? This will become worse.”

He also asserted that foreign workers brought diseases into the country and had the potential to become terrorists.

Groups like Pertubuhan Rapat Malaysia are not alone. Anti-immigrant sentiment runs deep in Malaysian society, crossing political affiliations that otherwise divide the country.

Bangladeshi workers (and migrant workers as a whole) have long been victims of exaggerated claims and falsehoods. They are blamed for everything from crime to stagnating wages and unemployment.

Some media outlets also add to that fire. A local online portal carried a story about a Bangladeshi man accused of raping a disabled teenage girl. The article – which can only be charitably described as incendiary – included the following question:

“Is it reasonable to believe that more sexual assault cases such as this will take place when the 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers get sent to Malaysia in conjunction with our country’s deal with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?”

And recently, an image purportedly showing a payslip of a Bangladeshi worker made rounds on Malaysian social media circles and online portals. The payslip in the image showed that the worker’s monthly salary exceeded RM5,000 (US$1,200). In comparison, the median monthly household income for Malaysians is reported to be RM4,585 (US$1,100). The disparity is used to rail against what is widely perceived as disastrous immigration policy.

Yet the stereotypes of and accusations against migrant workers in Malaysia fly in the face of evidence.

Only 1 percent of recorded crime in the country is committed by foreigners, the government said in 2013.

A World Bank report prepared in the same year found “no correlation between immigration and crime across Malaysian states for any type of crime.” On the contrary, it revealed that “immigration reduces both the crime rate and the absolute number of crimes committed,” attributing this to the increased economic activity generated by immigrants.

The suggestion that migrant workers earn more than locals is also preposterous. The key incentive behind hiring foreign workers is to lower costs, not raise them unnecessarily.

In fact, the World Bank found that a “10 percent increase in immigration flow slightly increases the wages of Malaysians by 0.14 percent.” This is in addition to the other economic benefits brought by foreign workers.

Nonetheless, Malaysian government officials have been on the defensive since the plan involving 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers was announced. There is a sense, even among those who support the policy, that the government could have communicated it far more effectively.