Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Immigration is Not the Problem; Poor Governance is

Written by johnleemk on 12:36:16 pm Jul 28, 2008.
Categories: ,

At the National Summit on Urban Poor & Low-Income Groups a few weeks back, I sat and watched participant after participant stand up to denounce the presence of foreigners in Malaysia. Although Malaysians differ in how vehemently they oppose the presence of foreign nationals here, it seems clear that for a lot of people, foreigners are at best a necessary evil, not something to be welcomed. This is wrong — immigration does not pose a threat as long as it is in keeping with the law, and as long as the law itself is just. If people want to live and work here, if they want to be part of our country, who are we to stop them as long as they follow our laws?

I remember my first brush with xenophobia as a primary schoolkid — in those days it was common to tease people for being Bengalis or some other perceived low-class foreigner. I do not know if this is still common or if our children have moved on to other race-based insults, but I have never understood the point of calling someone out on their race.

Of course, those xenophobic sentiments of my childhood are still out there, writ large on our society and politics. Although we rely on Indonesians to do the jobs few Malaysians want, we have a habit of blaming them for our social ills and, well, for simply being here. Unlike in other countries, where occasionally you might hear a coherent (though almost always still unreasonable) argument against immigration, here we seem to think it is enough to just mention the "problem" of immigration, and everyone will understand how it is a prima facie evil.

Practically all arguments against immigration can be rebutted simply: why would you reject someone who wants to work in your country, contribute to your economy, buy your products, do the work you will not do? As long as the person does not break the law, as long as he or she does not cause trouble, why would you want him or her to leave?

Most semi-reasonable arguments immigration thus focus on this point: that immigration is indeed a major cause of social problems and social ills. In other countries, this is probably a big issue — the Mexican and Anglo-Saxon cultures do not blend well, what more the Swedish and Persian ones! But most immigration into Malaysia is from other Southeast Asian countries, rendering the cultural issue often a relatively moot point.

Of course there are always costs associated with absorbing more people into a country, but why not cover the costs with a tax? Charge immigrants a one-time tax based on how much we think cultural friction, legal matters, etc. cost us; we won't be able to set a real price on them, but it's better than either totally open or closed borders.

It is likewise true that immigrants will use our public services here, at the expense of the taxpayer; but in that case, why not levy taxes on them? All other countries tax their legal immigrants, why not us? If we do not tax our immigrants, why are we so stupid? If we do tax them, why deny them access to the services they pay for as taxpayers? Why rail against racial discrimination when we still want to discriminate on the basis of nationality? If I am unlucky enough to be born elsewhere, should I not have the right to pay taxes to live in a country I like, and in return get the services I pay for?

We love to blame immigrants for the commission of crime; Indonesians in particular are a convenient target for public outrage. The Inspector-General of Police last year stated that foreigners commit 2% of all crimes. Sound big? But foreigners comprise 10% of the country's overall population — 2.7 million out of 27 million — so if anything, they are five times less likely to commit a crime than their proportion of the population would suggest! If we really want to cut down crime, maybe we should place all Malaysian citizens under house arrest — that is after all what one Minister proposed we do to most foreign workers last year.

The real controversial issue, and the only one that I would say is justifiably so, is the fact that many people appear to immigrate illegally but after the fact soon legitimise their residence in Malaysia with the authorities; many, in particular Indonesians, have their applications for citizenship come through before the spouses of Malaysians even have their permanent residency application acknowledged! As I wrote before, I do not begrudge these people the right to seek greener pastures, as long as they comply with the law; I do not mind that the law grants them the right to stay here. What I mind is the the authorities actually prioritising illegals over Malaysian families who have been waiting years in vain for their non-Malaysian relatives' applications to even be heard.

Please, let's not blame immigrants; they are no worse than our ancestors, who migrated here from Sumatera, or China, or India, or a place lost to the fog of history. The point is, nobody should be discriminated against for having the bad luck of being born in another country — everyone should have the right to work here and live here, provided they bear the costs their presence imposes.

Unfortunately, politicians, regardless of which side of the political divide they fall on, love to scapegoat immigrants for our problems. Politicians blame them for high crime rates. Blame them for crimes they have not even committed. Blame them for using services they do not even pay for. Ultimately, politicians advance counterproductive and inhumane measures such as locking up foreigners in their homes and workplaces, and what for?

If the costs immigrants impose are not borne by them — costs I think are relatively low considering their crime rate and their cultural similarities with us — the fault is not theirs, but the government, for failing to properly run its immigration system, and for failing to properly implement an efficient system of taxation. Let's not fault people who want to be here, who want to work for us, who want to enjoy all our great country has to offer; let's fault those Malaysians who refuse to properly enforce our laws and who refuse to treat all people fairly, Malaysian or not.

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