Adam Reza

It is 7.30pm and as I look out the windows of the KL tower, I can’t help but marvel at the view of the city below.

As the sun dims, an expanse of jet-black emerges, swallowing up all traces of sunlight. In a matter of seconds, rays of green, yellow, red and blue are freed from the shining lights of the twin towers and office buildings, bringing about a gentle sizzle in the city skyline.

This is KL’s daily masterpiece. A result of the twin miracles of economic growth and modernisation driven by a man with a vision called “2020”. Even the most ardent of opposition supporters will not disagree, KL is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s success and we all acknowledge his contributions.

But as with all success stories, there are always unsung heroes. In Malaysia’s case, long overlooked have been the stories of the very hands that built this city: the foreign construction workers from countries that include Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Like extras and props in a movie scene, we see them, but we do not notice them. Indeed we neglect them, as we are too fixated on the main actors.

This has not been the case this past week as Malaysian chat groups and timelines have been saturated with remarks about the debate on whether this country needs 1.5 million more low-waged Bangladeshi labourers.

Suffice to say, such a conversation is not unique to Malaysia. Indeed, this is a global debate. A wave of migration from Eastern Europe has split the political Right in the UK, while movements south of the US border have long been a contentious issue in America politics.

What is worrying is how the nature of the debates here in Malaysia has been steeped in ethnic bigotry and casual xenophobia, revealing a new face of racism.

While this is something that we have come to expect from the likes of Perkasa, it is alarming that self-professed “moderates” have been complicit in spouting rhetoric that is just as vile.

One only needs to look at the comment sections of both alternative and mainstream medias that are populated with xenophobic comments and stereotypes, ranging from “smelly eyesores” to “uneducated simpletons” and “social cancers”. These are comments that are not dissimilar from Neo-Nazis who think that all Muslims have bombs strapped under their clothes.

Demeaning terms like “Bangla” and “Indon” are thrown around like loose change and have become so entrenched in our daily lexicon that the ostensible face of moderation in DAP, one Zairil Khir Johari, casually used the term “Bangla” in a debate with Umno Youth’s rising star Shahril Hamdan last year that is up on Youtube for all to see.

Zairil is not the only politician who has been guilty of making such remarks, indeed politicians from both sides have played this card for political gain time and time again, none more sinister than the purported plot to turn this country into the dystopia known as “Banglasia”, a move that I imagine the likes of Donald Trump would tip their hats to.

The egregious thing about such racially charged political remarks is that it takes the human element out of migrants who are already here, treating them like mere pawns in a game of chess, oblivious to the long hours worked and in the case that I intimated to earlier, the hazardous work environments that they occupy.

Ironically, it is no different from the politics of racial division and hate that moderates condemn.

Ultimately, the current state of play gives me a dreadful premonition at how the future will unfold because whether we like it or not, migration of both low and high skilled workers is here to stay and the socio-cultural make up of this country will inevitably be more cosmopolitan.

It is imperative that we remember that this is not unprecedented. Malaysia has never been static and migration has been intrinsic in our DNA since Malacca. It is the very reason why Malaysia is the melting pot it is today.

And no different from the low-skilled migrants that some of us look down on today, our ancestors were brought in to do the “dirty jobs” of their times, working the rail-tracks, tin mines and rubber estates that built the economy of Malaya. I imagine that they held the same aspirations: to work hard and make a living for their families in the hope that their children would live a life better than theirs.

In this world of socially constructed borders and nation states, a thorough debate on migration policy is and always will be necessary. But we need to take the element of xenophobia out of the equation.

This is a true test of the moderate and race-blind Malaysia many of us aspire to, failure of which will render our brand of “moderation” a vacuous slogan, the consequences of which we are all too familiar with.

Article was first published on The Malaysian Insider 17 February 2016 7:00AM