UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.


Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN)

Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific


    A. Introduction

For a large part of human history people were free to move between regions for economic, political or socio-cultural reasons but such freedom is curtailed in modern times with the demarcation of political boundaries and the creation of nation states which institute immigration laws to regulate cross-border migration. However, these laws are often inadequate or not enforceable and international migration continues. In the last three decades or so, labour migration the world over has accelerated. In the Asia-Pacific region, the acceleration is accompanied by a shift in the direction of major labour flows. By the 1970s, the United States and Europe were no longer the main focus of migration from Asia; instead a large wave of migrants moved to the Middle East and then to newly industrialised countries in East Asia.

Most, if not all, countries are party to international labour migration either as labour exporters, importers or both as in the case of Malaysia. While over a million aliens work in the country, an estimate of over 200,000 Malaysians are found working in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. This paper provides an overview of labour mobility in Malaysia, its consequences and the role of the government. The focus is on labour in-flow, a major concern in Malaysia today. The state of research to date will also be examined briefly to identify key research issues that can be undertaken in the near future.

    B. Malaysia: A Brief Introduction

Malaysia, as a political entity, is geographically divided into east and west Malaysia, separated approximately 800 miles by the South China Sea. East Malaysia comprises the states of Sabah and Sarawak; while West or Peninsula Malaysia, consists of twelve semi-autonomous states. These states form a federation, a parliamentary democracy headed by a constitutional monarchy.

Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population is categorised by the government into two types, viz. the Bumiputra and Non-Bumiputra. The former term Bumiputra, which means literally ‘the sons of the soil’ refers, in Peninsula Malaysia to the Malays and the aborigines; and in Sabah and Sarawak, it refers to over twenty indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Iban, Bidayuh, Kadazan, Murut, Dusun, etc. The term non-Bumiputra refers to those of immigrant descent, chief of which are the Chinese and Indians. According to the last census carried out in 1991, the population was over 18.55 million of which 6 per cent were non-citizens. Of the 17.5 million Malaysians, 61.7 per cent were Bumiputra, 27.3 per cent ethnic Chinese, 7.7 per cent ethnic Indians and the rest comprising ‘others’. The majority of the population, i.e. over 80 per cent, were in Peninsular Malaysia. In 1995, the population was estimated at 20 million with a labour force of about eight million.

Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population is evidence of earlier in-migration which took place largely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Under the British colonial rule, capitalist economic enterprises were introduced and with them the necessary infrastructure. The opening of large scale plantations (coffee, coconut and rubber), the expansion of tin mines and the construction of railways, roads and buildings required a large number of workers. As the local population was too small and generally not responsive to wage labour, the colonial authorities recruited and encouraged the entry of foreign labour, especially from China and India and, to a lesser degree, from neighbouring Indonesia.

Under the British colonial administration a divide and rule policy kept the immigrant workers apart from each other and from the indigenous population. In Peninsular Malaysia, for example, the local Malays (and the Indonesians who, because of socio-cultural similarities, later assimilated with the Malays) were confined to the rural areas engaged mainly in peasant farming. The official policy of the British was to encourage the Malays to remain peasants, albeit better peasants than their forefathers. The Indians were mainly employed as wage labour in the plantations and in the construction sectors, especially building roads and railways; while the Chinese worked in the tin mines and involved themselves in trade and commerce in the urban areas. Such segregation may exclude a small number of elites in each ethnic group; among the lower classes which form the main bulk of the population, however, it was the norm. Such a pattern of economic and geographical segregation is still found in Malaysia today, in spite of the government’s attempt to eradicate it. Thus, the Malays and other indigenous groups are found largely in the rural areas, the Chinese in towns and cities and the Indians in estates and plantations.

During the colonial period, Malaysia (then Malaya and British North Borneo) was predominantly an agricultural country depending for export earnings on two primary commodities, rubber and tin. After independence in 1957, attempts were made by the government to reduce the country’s dependence on tin and rubber and to steer the country towards industrialisation. To achieve these objectives the government formulated and implemented a series of five year development plans. Since Malaysia’s inception in 1965, six development plans have been implemented: First Malaysia Plan (1965–70); Second Malaysia Plan (1971–75); Third Malaysia Plan (1976–80); Fourth Malaysia Plan (1981–85); Fifth Malaysia Plan (1986–90) and the Sixth Malaysia Plan (1991–95). The seventh one is expected to be launched very soon.

The Second Malaysia Plan which encompassed the New Economic Policy (NEP) laid the foundation for industrialisation in the country. Two decades after its implementation, manufacturing, palm oil and petroleum replaced rubber and tin as the mainstay of the economy. Manufacturing, for example, account for 32.4 per cent of GDP in 1995 and 25.5 per cent of employment. GDP growth is now 9.5 per cent, per capita GDP US$8763.00 and the unemployment rate of 2.9 per cent. The growing economy has its attendant problems. While employment grew at the rate of 3.2 per cent per annum between 1990 and 1995, labour supply increased at only 2.9 per cent. The resultant labour shortage was made worse by the selective attitude of local labour due to expansion of education, improvement in living conditions and access to upward mobility.

The implementation of the NEP which was designed to restructure society and eradicate poverty in 1971 led to a massive population drift to the urban areas. This led to acute labour shortage in the rural and plantation sectors which was overcome by the importation of workers from Indonesia and Thailand, Malaysia’s traditional labour suppliers. Initially, such recruitment was made surreptitiously as there were no legal provisions for the importation and employment of unskilled or semi-skilled aliens. The labour shortage later expanded to the construction sector and domestic services. Again, aliens were recruited, albeit illegally, to fill the gap. As illegal entry persisted not only has the traffic in immigrant labour increased in volume, the Indonesians and the Thais are also joined by other nationalities from countries in Asia, the Middle East and the African continent.

    C. State Responses to Alien Labour

In spite of the large number of illegals and the attendant problems associated with their presence, the Malaysian government is yet to come up with a comprehensive policy on the issue of immigrant workers. From time to time, measures are taken to address specific problems arising out of alien (legal and illegal) employment, but these measures are at times in contradiction with each other. Thus mixed and confused messages and signals are sent out the aliens, recruiting agents, employers, the general public as well as government officials who are entrusted with regulating the entry and employment of foreign workers. An outline of these measures is given in Table 1.

Throughout the 1970s no action was taken to address the issue of labour shortage and the infiltration of illegal aliens. It was only when the number of illegals became large and noticeable and their presence began to cause problems for the local population, especially in the urban areas, that steps were taken to address the problem. The first of such measures was the formation of the Jawatankuasa Pengambilan Pekerja Asing (lit. Committee for the Recruitment of Foreign Workers) in July 1982 and the signing of the Medan Agreement with Indonesia in May 1984. The latter, which was designed to regulate the inflow of Indonesian workers for the plantation sector, was later extended to domestic maids. Subsequently, in 1985, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed with the Philippines to import domestic maids. In 1986, permission was given to employers to recruit labour from Bangladesh for the plantation sector, and from Thailand for the plantation and construction sectors. Legal provisions were made to allow the private sector to form agencies for the sole purpose of recruiting alien labour direct from their country of origin.

In spite of these measures, aliens continued to enter the country clandestinely. In January 1989, amidst protests from some members of the public, trade union leaders and some politicians against the increasing number of illegal workers, the government sent directives to employers in the plantation sector to register and regularise their illegal workers. This exercise, called the Program Pemutihan Pendatang Tanpa Izin (lit. Program for the Regularisation of Illegal Immigrants) received minimal co-operation from plantation management and had to be postponed twice until mid 1991. Its success was limited.

Many factors contributed to the failure of the government’s efforts to curb the illegal inflow of foreign (Kassim 1991, 1993; Zanifan Md. Zain 1991). Legal importation of alien labour was and still is time consuming and costly and, therefore, unpopular with prospective employers who prefer illegals as they are also easy to control and mobilise—and such labour could easily be found. There was, by the late 1980s, a large reserve of illegal aliens in the country whom employers could recruit readily. In Kuala Lumpur alone, unpublished data at the City Hall Enforcement Directorate reveal that in 1989 there were over 12,000 Indonesians living in squatter settlements in the capital. The actual number was of course much higher as there were many Indonesians and other aliens living elsewhere such as in kongsi (makeshift living quarters for workers) at construction sites and in private housing areas such as the Malay Reservation areas. Fresh recruits, especially from the neighbouring Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines in the case of Sabah and Sarawak, could also be brought in illegally, with relative ease.

The Malaysian coastline and border is far too long to be patrolled effectively by the marine police and immigration personnel which are limited in number. The difficulty is further compounded by public apathy and abetment induced by socio-cultural or economic reasons. Many Malaysians, as alluded to earlier, are of foreign descent belonging to similar ethnic groups as the illegals, some of whom may even be their distant relatives. The illegal entry also generated business opportunities and benefited many—especially informal recruiters, landlords, employers and syndicates supplying fake documents. Public collusion was induced by government inaction; few overt sanctions were taken against those who abetted the illegals even though they clearly infringed the immigration and employment laws. This emboldened many more to break these laws with impunity.

In the 1980s there was also a basic flaw in the way the issues of labour shortages and illegal aliens were dealt with by the government. Measures taken from time to time, such as the Medan Agreement, the MOU with the Philippines, etc, were made on an ad hoc basis and addressed only labour shortages in the plantation and domestic services. Labour shortages in other sectors, especially in construction, where thousands of illegal aliens were employed by the mid-1980s, were ignored. Without legal avenues for their recruitment, foreign workers in these sectors continued to be recruited illegally. The number of undocumented alien workers in the country continued to grow alongside legally recruited ones and with it the negative consequences of their presence and employment (see below). This caused strong antagonism against the aliens (including legally recruited ones) among some sections of the public. The need for measures to overcome the problems developed greater urgency. Legalisation of the aliens appeared to be the only answer and this was done through a period of amnesty when the undocumented workers were expected to register and legalise their position. This was confined to the Peninsula only.

The amnesty was first announced in November 1991. Initially it was directed only at domestic maids who were given a month to legalise themselves. The response was encouraging and this induced the government to extend the legislation exercise to 30th June 1992 to cover those in the construction and plantation sectors. In April 1992, the Immigration Department also registered illegal aliens employed in the manufacturing and services sectors as a result of mounting pressure from manufacturers and others and in anticipation of an official directive from the government to extend amnesty to them.

During the amnesty period, i.e. between November 1991 and 30 June 1992, illegal aliens were to register themselves at thirty registration centres specially set up by the Immigration Department all over the Peninsula. The onus for registration was on the employers who, after registration, would take their respective workers to their respective embassies to get their temporary travel papers and have a medical check-up to ensure that they were not suffering from any communicable diseases. Only after passing the medical check-up could the illegal aliens be brought back to the Immigration Department to get their temporary work. Those who were found to be suffering from communicable diseases were to be deported.

The registration exercise was accompanied by police measures to prevent further illegal entry, code-named the Ops Nyah I (lit. Get Rid Operation I). Under these on-going operations, the Police Field Force was deployed to patrol over 100 posts, especially along the coasts of Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, Melaka and Johore, where illegal entry by aliens is most active. The patrol squads were to arrest illegals trying to come into Malaysia and turn them over to the Immigration Department who, in turn, would deport them.

At the end of the registration exercise on 30th June 1992, 442,276 aliens had registered. The Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Home Affairs estimated then that over 200,000 illegals were still at large and to force them out the police were directed to establish and implement Ops Nyah II (lit. Get Rid Operation II). Under the Ops Nyah II, raids and unannounced checks were carried out in areas suspected of harbouring illegals such as the squatter settlements and construction sites. Like the Ops Nyah I, the Ops Nyah II is an on-going exercise.

At the end of 1992, only about 20 per cent of those who registered eventually applied for work permits (The Star, 26 October 1992). The rest of the registered aliens, i.e. around 375,000, are technically still illegal as they have not obtained their work permits—their Sijil Lawatan Kerja Sementara. It is clear that illegal aliens have not responded fully to the amnesty granted to them and the legalisation exercise has achieved only limited success.

In spite of the Ops Nyah I and Ops Nyah II, illegal inflow continues; the crackdown on illegal aliens has not stopped illegal entry by foreigners. Between December 1991 and December 1995, there were on average about 53 illegal landings on the Malaysian coasts bringing in on average 1,116 illegal aliens per month (see Table 2). For about the same period, on average 773 illegals were arrested each week under the Ops Nyah II (see Table 3).

The limited success achieved by Ops Nyah I and Ops Nyah II, forced the government to look at other ways to curb the illegal entry. Since 1995, these exercises have been complemented by actions to crack down on those who abet illegal entry such as informal recruiters (taikong), harbourers and employers of illegal aliens and suppliers of fake documents. A number of arrests, widely reported in the national dailies, have been made and those caught included corrupt officials in the police and the immigration departments. Amendments to the immigration law relating to illegal entry are being develop, a bill will be tabled in the next parliamentary session to increase the fines for harbourers and employers of illegals from RM10,000.00 to RM50,000.00 for first offenders and RM10,000.00 for subsequent offences.

The persistence of illegal entry and employment is viewed, in part, as a consequence of the high cost of legal recruitment. Consequently, at the end of 1995, the government did away with recruiting agencies except those for foreign maids and fees charged by the maid recruiting agencies are now regulated.

In the eastern states of Sabah, similar measures have been taken but their enforcement is not as rigorous as in the Peninsula. In Sarawak, no measures have been taken so far although the issues of illegal aliens and their employment have equally serious implications on the economy and politics of the state.

    D. Alien Workers: Size, Country of Origin and Job Distribution

As a large number of alien labour arrived illegally it is difficult to determine their exact number. It was only after the initial phase of the registration exercise on 30 June 1992 that an indication of their size first became available. Over 425,000 illegal aliens registered and when the registration exercise was extended to 1994, another 65,000 registered bringing the total to over 480,000. The majority of them were Indonesians followed by Bangladeshis, Thais and Myanmarese.

Until December 1995, over 51,000 illegal aliens were apprehended under Ops Nyah I and around 136,800 under Ops Nyah II. The illegals came from about 53 countries but the largest number (about 89 per cent) came from Indonesia, followed by Bangladesh (about 13 per cent) (see Table 4). A substantial number have been deported while the rest are remanded at the eight detention depots. They will be deported once they are verified by their respective embassies/consulates. In spite of the on-going operations under Ops Nyah I and Ops Nyah II, an official of the Internal Security and Public Order Department at the Malaysian police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur told the writer that to date about 250,000 illegals are still at large in Peninsular Malaysia.

As a result of the steps taken by the authorities, more foreign workers are entering Malaysia legally. Until March 1995, about 375,128 work permits had been issued to foreign workers who applied for entry from their home countries. In addition, 151,427 work permits have been issued to aliens who registered under the amnesty program in 1992. Another 11,176, who registered in the state of Pahang, have not been included in the data because information on their nationalities was not available. Thus, in the Peninsula alone the total number of legal foreign workers comes to around 598,793, comprising nationals from at least ten countries. The largest number are Indonesians (65 per cent), followed by Bangladeshis (21 per cent); about 7 per cent are from the Philippines and 5 per cent Thais. They are engaged in domestic services, plantations, construction, manufacturing, services and ‘others’ which usually refers to work in the tourist industries such as hotel staff or workers at golf courses (see Table 5).

Assuming that the statement made by the police officer (see above) that there are about 250,000 illegal aliens in Peninsular Malaysia is true, then the total number of aliens is about 850,000. This figure is believed by many to be a gross under-estimate. For example, a government backbencher in the southern state of Johore claimed in a meeting of the Johore State Assembly in December 1995, that there were now about one million Indonesians in that state alone (The Star, 16 December 1995).

In the eastern state of Sabah official records indicate there are about 37,655 legal alien workers in the state. They comprise mainly Filipinos and Indonesians. In Sarawak official records show that their number is lower, i.e. around 24,407. In addition, these two states also harbour a large number of illegals whose estimates vary between 500,000 and 700,000. There is of course no way of verifying these estimates.

It is therefore very difficult to arrive at a reliable figure on the number of illegals in the country. For the moment many quarters (including personnel from the Ministry of Human Resources) put the total number of the alien workforce in the country at 1.2 million. Thus aliens account for about 14 per cent of the total labour force in the country and 7 per cent of the population of about 20 million in 1995.

The actual total number of aliens in the country must of course be larger. In addition to the workers, there are also members of their families, i.e. wives, children, aged parents and other relatives whom they have smuggled in. Many of these relatives are not in the workforce and therefore not accounted for in the registration exercise which was aimed only at those in employment and not at aliens in general.

    E. Social and Political Effects of Labour In-Migration

Social and political effects of migration can be problematical only when aliens pose or are perceived by the host population to pose a threat to them. To understand how such problems can arise it is necessary, firstly, to identify areas of competition and conflicts and, secondly, to examine the prevailing stereotypes and images of the aliens which can influence the perception of the host population towards them.

(1) Areas of Competition and Conflict

i) The Economy
Since the 1970s, aliens have been engaged in various economic sectors and in spite of their increasing number, employers are still complaining of labour shortages. This has led many to believe that there is no real shortage but employers prefer aliens especially illegal ones because they can easily be exploited as they have no recourse to law and justice. Aliens are also believed to be diligent, docile and willing to work overtime including public holidays and weekends. In addition they are ready to accept lower pay than that offered to local workers, are tolerant of sub-standard housing and poorer working conditions (see among others, Halim Salleh 1987, and Rima Devei 1986). As illegals they have no choice.

Even some of those who are legally recruited are known to be vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as evidenced by a number of works carried out, among others, by Caridad Tharan (1989, pp. 272–86), Lau (1993/94), Samuel (1987/88) and Azizah Kassim (1995). Some are overcharged by their recruiting agents to the extent that they are forced to work without pay for months to pay their debts. Others are given long working hours, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, made to work on jobs outside their contracts, and some have their pay withheld by their employers. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among contract (legal) alien workers and it is not uncommon for them to run away from their employers before termination of their contract. Many employers, too, are similarly dissatisfied and this drives a few to abuse their workers verbally and/or physically.

In spite of the numerous problems faced by the alien workers they are resented by many, especially those who must compete with them for jobs. Their presence is seen by many, in particular trade union leaders, as an obstacle to their effort to fight for better terms and conditions of service for the local workers.

The negative impact of alien labour employment is also felt in the informal sector especially in the urban areas. Some foreigners take up petty trading, full-time or part-time, to supplement incomes from other sources and thus come into direct competition with local traders for trading space and customers. In the Klang Valley their presence is conspicuous especially at night markets, held nightly at different places in the capital and Petaling Jaya. As the local authorities do not issue trading licences to aliens it must be assumed that they either trade illegally or use licences issued to locals. This is a cause of anger for legitimate local traders.

At the macro level alien workers drain the country’s resources through remittances to their families back home. It is estimated that about 4.5 billion ringgit was remitted to Indonesia alone in 1995. Monetary loss to Malaysia can also take other forms as illegal entry is also associated with the smuggling of foods into Malaysia from neighbouring countries. Such activities deny the government revenue in terms of import duties.

The Malaysian authorities also have to bear the costs of arresting, detaining and deporting the illegal aliens arrested under the Ops Nyah I and Ops Nyah II. The apprehended aliens are sent to the immigration depot/detention camps before their various embassies verify them. Maintenance cost of the camps is high—over RM10 million per year. In addition, the government has to pay for the cost of their passage home, which in the case of the Indonesians comes to about RM50.00 per person by boat. But the cost of sending the Bangladesh’s is higher, they are sent by air which can cost the government RM1,200.00 per person. Thus, it would cost the government over RM3.5 million to send home all the Bangladeshis, (2,928) currently held at the detention centres. In view of the persistence of illegal entry as alluded to earlier, the arrests will continue and so will the cost of deporting them. This is a cause of concern to many Malaysians who would rather see such resources be put to better use for the benefit and welfare of the local poor.

ii) Housing, Amenities and Social Services
A large number of foreign workers live in the urban areas, putting them in direct competition with the local people, especially the poor, for low cost accommodation. Most workers such as the domestic help and construction workers are generally provided with accommodation. However, because such accommodation is often unsatisfactory or for want of a respite from their employers, most alien workers prefer to have a base of their own. Such a place is seen as essential, in the event they are dismissed or when their contract is terminated.

The most popular choice of residence among them are the squatter areas. For example, in 1988, twenty three areas with a sizeable Indonesian population were identified in the Kelang Valley (see Kassim 1988: 236–7 and Amin 1989). By the end of 1991, the number of settlements with alien populations increased considerably. In Kuala Lumpur alone City Hall statistics for 1989 show that immigrants (Indonesians) are found in 56 squatter settlements where there are 2,172 squatter houses accommodating 4.518 families with a total population of 12,401. Hence immigrants account for about 6.8 per cent of the capital’s squatter population which was estimated at 181.496. No statistics on the number of immigrant squatters of other nationalities or on squatters in other towns are available.

The infiltration of alien workers into some settlements in urban areas has increased the market price and rental value of accommodation sought by the urban poor, thus making it even harder for the local people to seek accommodation in these places. It also exacts a heavy toll on limited basic amenities and a settlement area often turns into a slum once immigrants move in, while locals who are used to a ‘higher’ standard of living are forced to move out.

As many of the immigrants live in squatter areas which are prone to flood and fire outbreak, urban authorities are also at a loss to how to deal with the immigrants in the case of catastrophes. The issue of who is rightly responsible for them in such events, representatives of their respective governments or the Malaysian government, has never been resolved. The Malaysian government has on a few occasions re-housed them. Occasionally, there are also reports of immigrants successfully finding their way into low cost flats meant only for the local people (Malay Mail, 17 October 1992). Such an occurrent understandably provokes the wrath of the local population in view of the current shortage of low-cost housing for the urban poor. The recent announcement by the Selangor state government to re-house all squatters, including illegal immigrants, has already been objected to by the Youth wing of the Malaysian political party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant partner in the ruling coalition, Barisan National (BN).

Most of the time the presence of the immigrants not only frustrates, but it also makes it more difficult if not impossible for the urban authorities, such as City Hall of Kuala Lumpur and the Petaling Jaya urban authority (MPPJ) to resettle the squatters and reclaim land for physical development. Aliens often move in almost as soon as an area has been cleared of squatters.

Apart from the strain on urban housing, alien labour also poses a heavy toll on medical and educational facilities in the urban areas. Most of them are poor and they are not provided medical benefit by their employers or not entitled to it by virtue of their illegal status. Even if they are entitled their family members are not. Thus they and their families have to depend on public medical facilities (New Straits Times, 1 December 1995). Many of them have children of school age and again they have to put them into state schools. Hence, the strain on these facilities in areas where the aliens are concentrated such as in the Kelang Valley is great.

(2) Negative Images

i) Aliens as Health Risks
Illegal entry of immigrants creates an opportunity for people with contagious diseases to enter the country. Many aliens are identified as suffering from whooping cough, neonatal tetanus, malaria, hepatitis A&B, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis (Malay Mail, 22 October 1992 and The Star, 6 August 1992). Some of these diseases had once been wiped out but have reappeared with the arrival of the aliens. These contagious diseases could spread among the aliens themselves very easily as most of them live in congested areas, as well as to others they come into contact with during the course of their work. Tests carried out in 5000 blood samples of foreign workers in 1992 revealed that 1000 of them were AIDS carriers (The Star, 6 August 1992). This figure is excessively high and would be a real cause for alarm if it were proved conclusive.

Aliens in urban areas are also regarded as health hazards because many of them live in squalid conditions in slum areas where there are no basic amenities such as piped water, electricity and proper waste disposal facilities. The government is so concerned with this health problem that it has imposed a condition on all foreign workers applying for work permits to go for a medical check-up and work permits will only be issued to those who are certified to be medically fit. The government has made it a policy to deport all foreign workers who are found to be carriers of communicable and contagious diseases and as a preventative measure it has also insisted employers of aliens provide them with decent accommodation.

ii) Aliens as Causes of Increasing Social Problems
Aliens are also associated with various social problems which include begging, prostitution, ‘deviant’ religious teachings, etc. In 1995, the Minister of National Unity and Community Development is reported to have said that 80 per cent of all beggars caught across the country comprise foreigners (The Star, 17 February 1996). Foreign women are also known to be involved in prostitution as evidenced by the results of frequent raids made on brothels and massage parlours. And of late, amidst increasing cases of abandoned babies, it was discovered that a substantial number involve foreign women. According to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of National Unity and Community Development, out of a total of 56 cases of abandoned babies, in 1993, 36 cases (64 per cent) involved undocumented alien women in Kuala Lumpur, Slangier and Johore (Utusan Malaysia, 1 February 1994).

Aliens have also touched on the religious sensitivities of the local Muslims. A few of them have been known to spread what the government calls ‘deviant Islamic teachings’ such as those preached by the Naqshabandiah sect. There are also reports of aliens, i.e. Indonesian women, committing bigamy. At least 120 migrant women workers from Indonesia have admitted having two husbands, one in Malaysia and another in Indonesia. It seems that many resort to bigamy because they feel unsafe; a husband in Malaysia can protect them. These marriages were conducted by marriage syndicates which are run by Indonesians (Metro, 17 December 1995). Such activities give rise to great concern among the Muslims in Malaysia.

(3) Politics

i) Threat to security
There is a lot of resentment and antagonism against the aliens by Malaysians whose lives are negatively affected by their presence and employment. This sense of animosity is presently contained; however should there be an economic downturn, an open conflict and hostility between the two groups may be inevitable. A clash of this nature can easily affect political stability in the same manner as the bloody racial clash between Malays and ethnic Chinese in the 1960s. The racial riot, on May 13, 1969, in which hundreds died, led to the suspension of democratic government for a few years. In view of the large number of aliens and their concentration in towns, should such a clash occur, it will probably be a great deal bigger and bloodier than the May 13 riot.

The security of the country is also compromised by the illegal influx, which provides opportunities for undesirable elements of other countries, such as criminals (including drug traffickers and smugglers) and subversive political activists, to enter the country disguised as economic migrants. These undesirable elements can be used by parties opposed to the government to create chaos and disorder or even sabotage. There is evidence that these undesirable elements are already there. Criminal activities are rife among the immigrants, as shown by unpublished police records at the police headquarters in Bukit Aman. Between 1985 and 1991, for example, aliens accounted for 1.5–3 per cent of all crimes committed in the country. This number may look small but it is viewed with concern as the crimes committed by them are mainly violent crimes such as murder, attempted murder, armed gang robbery and rape. In the years mentioned, aliens accounted for between 14.7 per cent and 18.2 per cent of all murders committed in the country. The figure for gang robbery was between 32.7 per cent and 48.2 per cent. This pattern of criminal activities was maintained until last year.

ii) Upsetting the Ethnic Balance and Political Power
Labour in-migration is also expected to affect the political situation in Malaysia in the long run. Malaysia has a multi-ethnic population and political parties are ethnically based. These parties compete with one another for power and consequently demography becomes a political issue. Each ethnic group (Malay, Chinee and Indian) is concerned with its numerical strength vis-a-vis the others. In such a context the influx of alien labour, especially of Indonesians (who have close socio-cultural ties with the Malays), is viewed with suspicion by some non-Malay political leaders such as those in the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The accommodating attitude of the government towards immigrant labour is seen by some of them as a deliberate attempt by the UMNO (Malay) led government to swamp the country with Indonesians who, they believe, will eventually assimilate with the Malays and thus increase Malay voting strength. But set against labour recruiting processes and actual labour utilisation, the accusation made against the Malay political leaders appears misdirected. The main importers (including recruiting agents) and employers of foreign labour are the non-Malays, in particular the Chinese, who are largely in control of the construction industry, plantations, factories, large departmental stores, retail shops, etc., where the majority of alien workers are employed. Even in government land development schemes, the contractors and sub-contractors are mainly Chinese and it is they who first started to use illegal foreign workers in the early 1970s.

The presence of other ethnic immigrant groups, such as the Filipinos (except for those in Sabah), the Bangladeshis, Indians and Myanmarese, is not politicised. This is primarily because their numbers are relatively small and because of the general belief that they are transient workers who will eventually return to their own countries.

iii) Offspring of Illegal Aliens: Stateless Children?
As mentioned earlier, there are now more than half a million illegal workers in Malaysia. Many arrived clandestinely, while others arrived with tourist visas but went underground once the visas expired. Many of the illegals have children who were born and raised in Malaysia. These children have no documentation and as such they have no legal status in this country. Children born of illegal immigrant parents may not be accepted as citizens by their parent’s country either: they are stateless!

In Malaysia, official documents (namely birth certificates and national identity cards) are prerequisites for all dealings with the state as well as the private sector. Thus, without proper documents these children will have difficulties gaining access to education, housing, health facilities and to jobs. They cannot even travel freely as it is an offence to travel without one’s identity card in Malaysia. This has not become a major political issue as the children involved are still young. However, it will be so, once these children reach maturity and begin to make their presence felt in the economic arena.

    F. Existing Capabilities for Migration Research

Research on alien labour in Malaysia is often difficult and dangerous as it involves the illegals and the various syndicates that protect them. Data on the subject are also acutely lacking as the relevant authorities such as the Immigration Department, the Police and the Task Force on Foreign Labour are usually quite reluctant to release them. As a result, scholars are keen to study this phenomenon. To date there are only a handful of researchers focusing on the subject with research grants from the local universities, the government and foreign funding agencies. These grants are small allowing for small scale studies only.

For future research, funds may be sourced from the following agencies:

  • The government Research and Development Fund;
  • The private sector with vested interest in alien labour such as the United Planters Association of Malaysia, Malaysian Employer Federation, etc;
  • Foreign funding agencies such as Toyota Foundation, Hitachi Foundation etc.

    G. The State of Research on Migration

Studies on alien labour in Malaysia began only in the early 1980s after the problems associated with alien labour began to attract the attention of the public. A major portion of available works are based on studies carried out by the staff of local universities (see, among others, Ariffin 1995; Forall 1989 & 1992; and Kassim 1987–96). In addition, there are a number of works done by university students in the form of graduation exercises or theses for their higher degrees. These studies, the major part of which are not published, are micro in nature and adopt different approaches—legal, economic, political and anthropological. They cover a wide range of topics which include utilisation of alien labour, political implications of their presence and employment, Malaysian responses to them and problems in their legislation, their lives and working conditions and their adaptations. Most of these works concern the Indonesians, ie. the maids and plantation workers and to a lesser extent the Filipino maids. Studies on alien workers in the service sectors such as petrol pump attendants, assistants at laundry shops and restaurants, hotel workers and caddies at the golf courses, have not been attempted. Studies on aliens of other nationalities, too, are scanty. Interest in the study of Bangladeshi workers has just started and to date there is only one work on Bangladeshi factory workers. Most of the studies are on aliens in Peninsula Malaysia, in particular the Kelang Valley (Kuala Lumpur and Slangier), where about 45 per cent of the alien workers are concentrated. Only three studies on migrants in Sabah, ie. the Filipinos are now available in the form of student graduation exercises. There are no studies on aliens in Sarawak.

    H. Focus of Future Research

At the national level there is a need for a comprehensive study and documentation of all aliens in the country. These studies should cover both the legal and illegal workers of all the nationalities in the various job sectors and address the following issues, among others:

  • The dynamics of illegal labour inflow;
  • Exploitation and abuses of alien workers, aliens social networks and survival strategies;
  • Impact of alien employment on housing and other social services;
  • Social problems among the aliens;
  • Involvement of aliens in criminal activities;
  • Business activities associated with the recruitment and employment of aliens;
  • Alien labour utilisation, income and remittances;
  • Alien labour and the displacement of local workers;
  • Formation of alien communities and their management;
  • Relations among migrant groups and between them and the local population;
  • Alien voluntary associations; and
  • Enumeration and documentation of immigrant and emigrant workers.

At the international level, the following is suggested:

  • Co-ordinated research projects between researchers from the labour sending and receiving countries; and
  • Platform for publication.

    Table 1: State Responses to Illegal Labour in Malaysia




    A period of inaction


    Formation of Jawatankuasa Pengambilan Pekerja Asing

    May 1984

    Signing of the Medan Agreement to import labour legally from Indonesia for the plantation and domestic sector


    Sanctions the importation of labour for domestic maids from the Philippines, from Bangladesh for Plantations and from Thailand for plantation and constructions


    Legalisation of Indonesian labour in the plantation sector under the Program Pemutihan Pekerja Tanpa Izin Indonesia


    Second extension to the Program Pemutihan PAT11 for a period of one year


    Formation of a Cabinet Committee on Foreign Labour (Jawatankuasa Kabinet Mengenai Pekerja Asing)


    Amnesty to illegal domestic maids. They are to register, get their travel documents and their work permits.


    Launching of Ops Nyah I (To stop illegal entry by patrolling coastline & borders)


    Registration period for illegal maids extended. Amensty extended to the plantation and construction sector


    Launching of Ops Nyah II (To weed out illegals who refused registration & legislation)


    Exemption order extended to illegals entering Malaysia before 30/6/92 and are employed in manufacturing and services, ie. restaurant workers and shop assistants.

    Permission given to employers to import workers from Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and Pakistan for manufacturing, recreational and tourist industries sectors (to work as caddies on golf courses and all types of jobs in island resorts)


    Formation of the Jawatankuasa Penggajian Pekerja Asing at the Ministry of Human Resources


    Freeze on importation of skilled and unskilled labour except for ‘critical’ sectors in manufacturing and recreation/tourist industries.

    Employment permits to be given to overstayers from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and Philippines who entered the country before 7/1/94 provided their are employers willing to take them.

    The Jawatankuasa Penggajian Pekerja Asing at the Ministry of Human Resource was disbanded.


    Formation of a Special Task Force ie Bahagian Pasukan Petugas Pekerja Asing. A ‘one-stop-agency’ to deal with the problems of foreign labour and immigrants.


    Committee for the Recruitment of Foreign Workers disbanded.

    Mid 1995

    Processing of foreign labour is shifted from Immigration Department to Special Task Force on Foreign Labour

    Recruiting agencies disbanded except for those involved in recruitment of foreign maids. Fees for recruitment are regulated by the government.

    Review of penalties & fines for employers, recruiters & harbourers of illegals.

    Dec 1995

    Levies for foreign labour increased by 100% except for domestic maids.

    Jan 1996

    Responsibility for processing documents for foreign labour taken away from Special Task Forced and returned to Immigration Department.

    : This is a revised version of Table originally which appeared in Azizah Kassim (1995a).

    1. Operasi Pendaftaran pekerja Asing Tanpa Izin (PATI), Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia (undated)
    2. Maklumat Mengenai Urusan Pengambilan Buruh/Pembantu Rumah Asing, Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia 1991
    3. Penolong Pengarah, Bahagian Buruh Asing, Jabatan Imigresen.
    4. Labour Report 1987/88 pgs. 15-16 Ministry of Human Resource, Malaysia
    5. Perlaksanaan Ops Nyah I & Ops Nyah II. Urusetia, Ops Nyah II, KDN/KA Gerakan

    Table 2: Results of Operations Under ‘Ops Nyah 1’
    (3 December 1991 - 31 December 1995)

    Date Landings Arrests Deport-
    Freed Dead Under


    1 653

    20 453

    19 133

    1 107





    14 211

    12 761






    11 082

    8 996



    11 762



    7 825

    6 074





    2 560

    53 571

    46 964

    2 522


    4 081

    Ave per Mth


    1 116





    Ave per day







    Computed from unpublished data made available to the writer by the Malaysian Police Headquarters, Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur

    Table 3: Number of Illegals Arrested Under ‘Ops Nyah II’






    Av Arrests per week (day)

    Jan-Dec 95

    30 279

    2 309


    32 835

    631 (90)

    Jan-Dec 94

    38 879

    3 827


    43 189

    830 (118)

    Jan-Dec 93

    37 043

    4 070


    41 584

    799 (114)

    Jan-Dec 92

    17 154

    1 627


    19 268

    963 (138)


    123 355

    11 833

    1 688

    136 876**

    773 (*10)






    Notes * Below 12 years old gender categorisation is not available
    ** In their attempt to arrest the illegals, the Police Field Force rounded up approximately 342,621 alien workers.

    Source: Computed from unpublished data made available to the writer by the Malaysian Police Headquarters, Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur

    Table 4: Illegals Registered & Arrested by Country of Origin

    Registration Exercise
    (Jan 92-Aug 94) %
    Ops Nyah I
    (Dec 91 - Dec 95) %
    Ops Nyah II
    (Jul 92 - Dec 95) %
       Sri Lanka
       Other Countries
    Total Number
    483 784
    51 049
    136 876
    Grand Total  
    671 709

    Notes:* Total number of arrests was 53, 571. Out of this total, 2,522 were later freed when their documents were authenticated by their respective embassies.
    ** This figure does not include those arrested for criminal offences and sent to prison.

    Source: Computed from unpublished data made available to the writer by the Malaysian Police Headquarters, Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur.


      Ariffin, Jamilah 1995, ‘Foreign Migrant Labour in Malaysia: A Study of Institutions and Mechanisms at the Local Level’, Cross-national Labour Migration in Asia and Regional Planning: Implications for Local Level Management, UNCRD Research Report Series No. 10 Nagoya, Japan.

      Devi, Rima 1986, ‘Job and Labor Contracting in Peninsular Malaysia: A Study of Selected Private Plantations, Land Development Schemes and Construction Sites’, M.Phil Thesis, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Malay.

      Dorall, F.R. 1989, ‘Foreign Workers in Malaysia: Issues and Implications of Recent Illegal Economic Migration From the Malay World’, in The Trade in Domestic Helpers, Kuala Lumpur: PDC, pp. 287–316.

      Dorall, R.S. & Sanmunga, R.P. 1992, ‘Gender Perspectives on Indonesian Labour Migration to Penninsular Malaysia: A Case Study’, Paper presented at the Population Studies Unit International Colloquim on Migration, Development and Gender in ASEAN Region, Pahang: Kuantan, pp. 28–31.

      Gooneratne, W., Martin, P.L. & Sazanami eds, 1994, Regional Development Impacts of Labour Migration in Asia UNCRD Research Report Series No. 2 UNCRD, Nagoya, Japan.

      Hassan, Zamri H.J. 1990, ‘Migrasi Illegal Dari Indonesia Ke Malaysia. (Studi kasus di Kalangan Pedagang Kaki Lima Migran Illegal Indonesia di Kawasan Perdagangan Chow Kit, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)’, Fakultas Ilmuy Sosial Dan Ilmu Politik, Universitas Airlangga, Surabaya, Indonesia.

      Kassim, Azizah 1986, Indonesian Immigrants and Urban Squatting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Indonesia Circle, No. 40, November, pp. 29–38, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

      Kassim, Azizah 1987, ‘The Unwelcome Guests: Indonesian Immigrants and Malaysian Public Responses’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, Japan, Vol. 25, No. 2, Sept. pp. 265–78.

      Kassim, Azizah 1988, ‘Immigrant Workers and The Informal Sector In West Malaysia: A Case Study of the Indonesian Workers in Kuala Lumpur’, in Current Issues in Labour Migration in Malaysia, NUPW & PSU, Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malay, pp. 232–54.

      Kassim, Azizah 1991, ‘Recruitment and Employment of Indonesian Workers: Problems and Policy Issues’, Paper presented at ILO Inter-Country Workshop on Migrant Workers in the Plantation Industry, November, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 1–17.

      Kassim, Azizah 1993a, ‘Immigrant Workers in Malaysia: Issues, Problems and Prospects’, in Lee, B.H. & Oorjitham, Susan eds, Malaysia and Singapore: Experiences in Industrialisation and Urban Development, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Malaya, pp. 124–62.

      Kassim, Azizah 1993b, ‘In Search of Greener Pastures: Malaysian Illegal Workers in Japan’, in Komai, H. (ed). pp. 163–83.

      Kassim, Azizah 1994a, ‘Within and Beyond the Kitchen: The Experience of Female Immigrant Workers in Malaysia’, Paper submitted to the Conference on Linking Our Histories: Asian and Pacific Women as Migrants, University of Melbourne, Australia, September 30–2 October 1994.

      Kassim, Azizah 1994b, ‘Foreign Labour in Malaysia’, in W. Gooneratne, P.L. Martin & H. Sazanami eds, Regional Development Impacts of Labour Migration in Asia, United Nation Centre.

      Kassim, Azizah 1995a, ‘From Neglect to Legalisation: The Changing State Response to the Inflow of Illegal Labour into Malaysia’, Paper read at the Conference on Globalisation: Local Challenges and Responses, organised by the Malaysian Social Science Association at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, 19–21 January.

      Kassim, Azizah 1995b, ‘Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Workers in Malaysia’, in Rokiah Talib & Tan Chee Beng eds, Dimensions of Traditions and Development in Malaysia, Pelanduk Publications, Kuala Lumpur, pp. 163–202.

      Kassim, Azizah 1996, ‘Migration in ASEAN: Issues and Problems from the Malaysian Perspective’, Paper presented at the ISIS Seventh Southeast Asia Forum, 3–6 March, Kuala Lumpur: Crown Princess Hotel.

      Komai, H. 1993, e.d., Overview of Emigrant Workers to Japan in Developing Countries, Japan: University of Tsukuba.

      Lau, P.S. 1993/94, ‘Pembantu Rumah Filipina Di Lembah Kelang’, Latihan Ilmiah, Jabatan Antropologi & Sosiology, Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.

      Manaf, Darul Amin Abd 1989, Pendatang Indonesia dan implikasinya terhadap negara Malaysia (1970-1989), Kajian Kes di Kuala Lumpur, B.A. Disertasi, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi.

      Pang, E.F. 1995, ‘Managing Foreign Workers: The Experience of Singapore’, in UNCRD Research Report Series No. 10, pp. 111–19.

      Salleh, Halim 1987, ‘Changing Forms of Labour Mobilisation in Malaysian Agriculture’, PhD. Thesis, University of Sussex, England.

      Samuel, J.S. 1987/88, ,Pembantu-Pembantu Rumah Wanita Filipina di Malaysia: Satu Kajian Kes di Kawasan Kuala Lumpur dan Petaling’, Jaya. Latihan Ilmiah, Pengajian Asia tenggara, University Malay.

      Shamsuddin, Abdullah 1986, Illegal Immigration and Its Implications for National Security. First ISIS National Conference on Security. Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Kuala Lumpur.

      Stalker, P. 1994, The Work of Strangers: A Survey of International Labour Migration, Geneva: International Labour Office.

      Tharan, Caridad 1989, ‘Filipina maids in Malaysia’, in Trade in Domestic Helpers: Causes, Mechanisms and Consequences, Kuala Lumpur: APDC, pp. 272–86.

      Tsay, Ching-Lung, 1992, ‘Clandestine Labor Migration to Taiwan’, Asia and Pacific Migration Journal, Vol. 1, Nos. 3–4.

      UNCRD 1995, Cross-National Labour Migration in Asia and Regional Development Planning: Implications for Local-Level Management, Report Series No. 10, Nagoya Japan.

      Wandi, Junipah 1991/92, ‘Kegiatan Sosio-Economi Penghijrah Indonesia di Kampung Kerinci’, Laithan Ilmiah, Jabatan Antropologi & Sosiology, Universiti Malaya.

      Zain, Zanifah Md 1991, ‘Public Policies Governing Migrant Labour in Malaysia’, Paper presented at the ILO Inter-Country Workshop on Migrant Workers in Plantation Industry 12–16 November, Kuala Lumpur.

    Government Publications, Reports, Etc

      Employment (Restriction) Act 1968 (Act 353) Regulations 1969. International Law Book Services.

      General Report on Population Census 1991, Vol. 1. Jabatan Percetakan Malaysia.

      Malaysian Economy in Brief, 1995. Jabatan Percetakan Malaysia.

      Memorandum Daripada Ketua Polis Negara - Masallah-Masalah Pendatang Asing Tanpa Izin, Jabatan KND/KN-Cawangan Gerakan, Bukit Aman (Rahsia), (1995).

      Operasi Pendaftaran Pekerja Asing Tanpa Izin (PATI). Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (Undated).

      Perlaksanaan Ops Nyah I % II, Urusetia Ops Nyah II, KDN/KA Gerakan, Ibu Pejabat Polis Diraja Malaysia, Bukit Aman.

      Profail Kanak-Kandak Di Malaysia. Bahagian Perancangan & Pembangunan. Jabtan Kebajikan Masyarakat Malaysia 1991.

      Six Malaysian Plan, 1991–95 Jabatan percetakan Malaysia.

    Magazines & Newspapers

      Asiaweek, February 2, 1996, ‘Vital Signs’.

      Metre (Ahad), 17 December 1995, ‘120 Indon bersuami dua’.

      NST, 1 December 1995, ‘Medical fees owed by foreign workers’.

      The Malay Mail, 22 October 1992, ‘Health Hazards: MPPJ worried over foreign workers spreading diseases’.

      The Star, 6 August 1992, ‘1,000 foreign workers are HIV carriers’.

      The Star, 16 December 1995, ‘One million Indons in Johor, says rep’.

      The Star, 17 February 1996, ‘80% of beggars are foreigners’.

      The Star, 18 September 1992, ‘Illegals compete for health care’.

      The Star, 26 October 1995, ‘Stiffer fines for hiring illegals’.

  • To MOST Clearing House Homepage

    bottom line