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August 1997, Volume 4, Number 8

Malaysia: Foreign Workers, Emigrants, Sabah

Foreign Workers. Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who just completed a two-month visit to Japan and several European countries, reported that Malaysia needs to fully utilize existing manpower resources in order to stop its dependence upon foreign workers.

After visiting Japan, Prime Minister Mahathir said that Malaysia must learn from Japan's experience to raise labor productivity rather than import foreign workers.

Malaysia continues to struggle to manage foreign workers and to reduce illegal immigration. In July, the government announced that Malay companies laying off Malay workers and replacing them with foreign workers would lose the right to hire ANY foreign workers. Such employers "will be blacklisted indefinitely and their applications to hire foreign workers later will not be entertained."

An Indonesian boat captain was sentenced in July 1997 to 40 months in jail, ordered to be given two strokes of cane and fined 15,000 ringgit (US $5700) for transporting 45 illegal immigrants to Malaysia on his boat. It is the first time a foreign smuggler has been ordered to be caned.

On July 23, 70 Indonesian illegal immigrants headed for Malaysia were rescued in the Straits of Malacca, some of the estimated 60,000 Indonesian workers are believed to illegally cross the Straits each year. At the end of July, Malaysia was expected to return by Indonesian naval boat about 1,530 illegal immigrants.

There are nearly 100,000 Indonesian women registered as foreign workers in Malaysia. Others are promised jobs in Malaysia by brokers and then smuggled into the country without the proper documentation.

The United Planting Association of Malaysia (UPAM), whose members have 650,000 hectares of oil palms and about 145,000 hectares of rubber trees, says that there are too few farm workers. The current shortage is reported to be 7,400 workers and, with 12,000 foreign workers due to complete their maximum five-year stay in Malaysia early in 1998, UPAM called for the government to extend their stay by two years.

Emigrants. Malaysia is a booming "tiger economy" in southeast Asia that has averaged over eight percent growth since the mid-1980s. However, complex affirmative action rules that limit job opportunities for non-native bumiputras have encouraged many Chinese-Malay professionals to emigrate. About 40,000 Malaysian professionals moved to the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand between 1983 and 1990.

Some of the Chinese-Malays interviewed in California for a July 22, 1997 Wall Street Journal story feared that, despite their US successes, they would be discriminated against in Malaysia. Few Malaysian employers are willing to pay relocation expenses to attract expatriates, and Malaysia is not yet willing to follow the example of Korea and Taiwan and pay US salaries to returning nationals.

Sabah. The Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak are on the northern part of the island of Borneo and have autonomy in immigration policy. On March 1, 1997, Sabah announced a six-month legalization program and as of May 31, 1997, some 140,028 illegal immigrants without employers---27,463 Indonesians and 112,565 Filipinos--had registered. In addition, 3,123 employers registered 12,411 illegal foreign workers and another 2,197 employers registered 2,281 house maids.

The regularization program is scheduled to run until August 31, 1997, with the promise of "all-out action" against illegals in September. Since March 1, 1997, some 1,777 illegal migrants returned home, including 1,080 Indians, 624 Pakistanis, 39 Chinese and 19 Filipinos.

As foreigners take jobs in Sabah, Sabah youths migrate to peninsular Malaysia for jobs, despite assurances that there are jobs in Sabah. The Malaysian Manpower department said that since January 1997, 1,025 Sabahans have gone to work in peninsular Malaysia through a series of joint recruitment exercises between his department and peninsular-based companies. Last year 2,349 left Sabah for jobs on the peninsula. An estimated 20,000 youths from Sabah are working in peninsular Malaysia.

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress claims that some workers in manufacturing and service industries in Sabah are being paid lower wages. The MTUC says that minimum monthly wage for a Sabahan worker, given the higher cost of living compared to peninsular Malaysia, should be no less than RM650. Some workers are earning from RM 6.50 to RM 185 per month.

The governments of the state of Sabah and the Philippines have agreed on a joint effort to regulate border-crossing between Tawi-Tawi in Mindanao and Sabah in Malaysia in order to slow the illegal flow of people and goods between these areas. Under the agreement, citizens of both countries must secure cross-border permits in their own country prior to crossing the border. This plan was first implemented July 1, 1997, but Malaysia backed off saying the government did not have all the necessary measures in place, including cross-border stations.


"Taikong fined, jailed, caned for ferrying illegal immigrants," New Straits Times, July 25, 1997. "Saying goodbye to guest labor," Business Times, July 24, 1997. Hamizah Hamid, "Fully utilize existing labour resources," Business Times, July 23, 1997. "Call girls from China are making use of study visas as a cover to ply their illegal trade in Malaysia," Straits Times, July 22, 1997. "RI women workers detained in Malaysia," Jakarta Post, July 18, 1997.