A future that includes refugees and migrants

SEPTEMBER 3 — In the anime series Sakura Quest, a fictional sleepy farm town in rural Japan is hoping a newly-elected “queen” can rejuvenate its tourism industry, and in turn the livelihood of its residents.

By the end of the first season, a concert involving a major rock band managed to get thousands of visitors to camp at the town and shop at a fair organised in conjunction with the concert.

The visitors came and promptly left like a swarm of locusts and the town reverted back to what it was before. Sleepy.

A similar situation is happening in real-life Japan with many tourist-friendly towns. The federal government wants even more tourists for more revenue, but locals are wondering if it is worth it.

Japanese culture is like a different world with its own rules, from its automated food ticketing machines to not speaking on mobile phones in trains to separating your rubbish into at least four different piles.

In places like culture-rich Osaka, do’s and don’ts for tourists are plastered all over town. Monocle24’s Foreign Desk podcast reported that cab drivers have complained that tourists are directing them to obscure, random houses converted into Airbnb dwellings instead of the usual hotels and inns.

And the recent incident involving Malaysian tourists defecating in a shower has put Malaysia in a negative light. Even worse, this is not the first time Malaysians have caused trouble in Japanese lodgings.

How can Malaysians behave so badly overseas when we constantly kvetch about foreigners here?

We complain that the nouveau riche Chinese lack manners and are uncouth but we also complain about the sense of entitlement and arrogance of the Arabs, even when they have been rich for a much longer time.

While some of the complaints are warranted, this thinly-veiled xenophobia and racism have become part of our contemporary culture; partly carried over from the divide-and-conquer strategy employed by our colonial master and continued in our racial preferential treatments.

An emotional demonstrator during the protest against the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, in Kuala Lumpur on August 30, 2017. — AFP pic
An emotional demonstrator during the protest against the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, in Kuala Lumpur on August 30, 2017. — AFP pic

For Aidiladha, local publisher Buku Fixi released a video chronicling a day in the life of a migrant worker here. From their perspective, rather than that of the capitalists who exploit them or even the locals who hugely benefit from their labour but treat them as trash.

Fixi boss Amir Muhammad told a forum I happened to moderate in July that they made the film as a rebellious response to the mainstream narrative deriding migrant workers — from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar — for “flooding” our cities, especially capital city Kuala Lumpur, during holidays when many locals “balik kampung.”

Regrettably this narrative has also been perpetuated by state news agency Bernama no less.

This casual racism is rarely, if ever, extended to tourists or migrant workers from so-called developed countries, especially when they are white. There is even a special term for the latter — “expatriates” — that we would never use for foreigners from countries seen as inferior.

Several media have reported the rise of “begpackers” in Asia, backpackers who aim to travel the world but almost always do not have the money to fund their trips and resort to panhanding from locals.

These backpackers are almost always white and many locals consider their desperation “charming.” These white backpackers know they can exploit the locals because of their skin colour and they do.

Similarly this can be seen in our attitudes towards refugees from the Middle East, particularly strife-torn Palestine and the Levant area and Bosnia.

With their fair complexion, they are seen as more “desirable” — the women even more than men — and are candidates for convenient marital deals for polygamy.

But the public reception towards our neighnours the Rohingyas has ostensibly been less welcoming. The vitriol from some — particularly the middle class — towards the hundreds of Rohingyas who protested in our capital earlier this week has been astounding in its lack of humanity.

The Rohingyas protested at the Myanmar embassy over the persecution of their brethren back home, ahead of the Aidiladha celebration when most hate campaigns have historically been held.

And yet it was perceived as a deliberate attempt to sow chaos in the capital, to cause gridlock, to disturb the peace here. In turn, some were arrested for “illegal assembly”, in stark contrast to a celebrated Rohingya event attended by the country’s leaders earlier this year.

One of the first “reports” Malay Mail Online had to verify was that “the Bangladeshis had rioted”, which not only echoes the Myanmar regime’s narrative that the Rohingyas are illegitimate immigrants from across the border, but it also managed to malign another group by the same broad stroke.

The Rohingyas were called “ungrateful” for “causing trouble” in a country that has allegedly provided them with so many opportunities. In fact, there is little for refugees to be grateful for here: we refuse to recognise and settle refugees, and in turn keep them stateless with no official opportunity to study and work, while at the same time making them vulnerable to harassments from state- and non-state actors.

The rise of a “Malaysian first” mentality is worrying when it feels so similar to soundbites from a Donald Trump rally; that we should care about Malaysians first and foremost, and at its extreme, only Malaysians.

But we must recognise that this mentality is perhaps the result of a massively flawed distribution of wealth that has hit Malaysian citizens the hardest — even when migrants, foreigners and refugees had little to benefit from it. But who then benefitted the most?

As we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Malaya’s Merdeka and decades of a plural society, we should probably embrace the future of this diversity. Migrants and refugees becoming an integrated part of our society should not be a bogeyman and warning, but a goal that we should be planning for.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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