As the government in Malaysia continues to ease lockdown restrictions nationwide, trying to bring back some semblance of normality to its citizens, it is still purging low-cost neighborhoods in the central Klang Valley region of undocumented migrants, while battling the media for control of the news.
Ministers portray their handling of the lockdown as necessary and in the interests of the people.
However, a 25-minute Al Jazeera documentary released by the 101 East production team two weeks ago was the latest media report deeply critical of incidents occurring in early May, when the authorities suddenly descended on a number of areas in and around Kuala Lumpur, rounding up thousands of undocumented migrants, herding them into trucks and taking them to immigration detention centers, pending deportation.
In addition to the original events, the report detailed the plight of migrants around the city — ordinarily in demand for low-paid manual labor — who found themselves without any means of supporting themselves and, in many cases, going hungry.
The authorities were enraged, and the production crew were all detained on suspicion of sedition.
Led by Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob — who heads the committee controlling the lockdown — one Cabinet MP after another rolled out statements denouncing Al Jazeera and the report, insisting the team be swiftly brought to justice, while continuing to push the story that the mass detentions were in the interests of the public.
A host for state media channel Bernama TV went as far as calling the Qatar-based network Al Jahiliyah, an Arabic slur referring to ignorant pagans, ending her show by telling Al Jazeera to shut up.
It is prudent to mention that this is not the first time Al Jazeera and the Malaysian government have locked horns, having had their fair share of run-ins over the years.
Previous reports were sharply critical of the then-Barisan Nasional (BN) administration, in particular former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor, resulting in the summary deportation of journalist Mary Ann Jolley for her role in the coverage.
Meanwhile, this latest contretemps between the government and the network has reinvigorated calls to bring the media back to heel.
Newspapers and television stations were strictly controlled under BN until 2018 but allowed more freedom during the two years of the reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition.
Back under authoritarian rule, the Cabinet does feel that it would have the leeway to press its policies home if it wasn’t subject to constant scrutiny from the media.
This coupled with the reinvention of the Propaganda Department would allow the government to once again promote Malaysia overseas as the harmonious melting pot of cultures, not a fractured society riddled with racism and xenophobia.
Unfortunately, the backlash from this report indicates the latter. Police are hunting Bangladeshi Md Rayhan Kabir, who appeared on camera in the documentary, after the Immigration Department revoked his work permit for giving the interview to Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, charities are reporting a flood of hundreds of migrants — mostly Rohingya — seeking temporary shelter, having been suddenly locked out of their accommodation.
Some claim landlords came and turfed them out on to the street, while others say the locks were changed while they were out at work.
It appears that, as a consequence of Al Jazeera airing the report, the government instructed Kuala Lumpur city authorities to strictly enforce a law preventing landlords from letting property to undocumented migrants, on pain of prison time and fines in excess of US$7,000 for each instance.
Up to now, officials have turned a blind eye to such laws or, in some cases, been sufficiently compensated to look the other way because of the sheer volume of foreign labor in the country and, indeed, its dependence on them to keep its economy turning.
The government has flatly denied the incident, even deflecting questions in Parliament, saying that if anyone were to be targeted, it would be illegally employed foreign workers, not refugees.
However, the charities hotly dispute this assertion, while it is known that the authorities do not discriminate when rounding people up, being primarily concerned with legal immigration status and not the excuse.
Malaysia regards any foreign national, including refugees, as an illegal immigrant if he or she does not have the required documentation, regardless of reason.
The issue of how to handle Malaysia’s enormous undocumented migrant community, estimated to be between 2 and 4 million, is further compounded by how Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will tackle domestic unemployment.
The effect of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to put 2 million people out of work in the coming months and Muhyiddin’s government is under pressure to provide a solution to this issue.
There is a growing perception that the mass detention of undocumented workers, pending deportation, is the start of opening up jobs to Malaysians, but there has been no mention of this by the administration to date.
Right-wing observers have already called for foreign nationals to be sent home en masse, while trade unions say this would go a long way to solving a looming domestic employment crisis.
However, the crux of the problem is that Malaysians do not want to do the dirty jobs for which foreigners are employed, not least for the measly pay.
Already, employers of traditionally foreign labor have seen Malaysians come and go within days, put off by the long hours and the toil, the latter seemingly preferring indolence and cash handouts.
On top of which, foreign labor is not afforded the relative luxury of minimum wage and similarly Malaysians are not offered any real incentive to take on work they deem as beneath them.
So, without any evidence to the contrary, the Malaysia’s continued attacks on vulnerable sectors of the community cannot be viewed as anything other than just that, lending justification to the accusations of racism and xenophobia.
A melting pot of cultures it is not.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.