Skip to navigation
Skip to main content
October 2002, Volume 9, Number 9
Malaysia's tough new immigration laws went into effect August 1, 2002--the Immigration Act (Amended) 2002 calls for illegal foreigners to be fined up toM$10,000 ($2,631), imprisoned for five years, and to receive six strokes of the cane. On August 9, 2002, four Indonesians were sentenced to be fined, caned and jailed under the new law, which had mixed reactions in Indonesia.
There are also stiffer penalties on employers of unauthorized foreigners.
During the "amnesty" between March 22, 2002 and July 31, 2002, some 290,177 illegal foreign workers left- they did not have to pay fines or risk imprisonment and caning. Those leaving included 243,772 Indonesians, 18,933 Indians and 16,648 Bangladeshis. Another 50,000 illegal foreigners are expected to leave without penalty as seats on planes and boats become available. Indonesia said that, as of mid-August, 320,000 migrants had returned, and that another 160,000 returned via the Indonesian border town of Nunukan in East Kalimantan from East Malaysia.
Malaysia has a population of 22 million, about 60 percent Muslim, 30 percent Chinese, and 10 percent Indian. In March 2002, Malaysia said there were 770,000 registered migrants, and an estimated 600,000 illegal foreigners in the country, two-thirds of whom were Indonesians.
In August 2002, Malaysian employers complained of labor shortages, and there were predictions that vegetable prices might rise 30 percent as harvest workers disappeared. The Master Builders Association of Malaysia said that 70 percent of the 500,000 foreign workers employed in construction were unauthorized Indonesians. In response, Malaysia issued 30,000 new work permits in the first two weeks of August 2002, about 2,000 a day, and by mid-August allowed Indonesians to be employed in construction once again. Human Resources Minister Fong Chan Onn said: "Malaysia aspires to be completely independent of foreign workers but the hard reality is that in the process of transition from a labor-intensive economy to a tech-intensive economy, we need a period of adjustment."
The Malaysian government justifies the crackdown by saying that the illegal Indonesians commit a disproportionate amount of crime. Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare expressed understanding for Malaysia's expulsion of illegal migrants, saying: "both sides could no longer close their eyes to the reality that the illegal immigrants, mostly from Indonesia, were underpaid and overexploited. With the new policy, Indonesians employed in that country will be paid in accordance with the standard salaries...[future migrants] will have the necessary documents, such as work visas, passports and labor contracts." He said that most of the expelled migrants expect to return to Malaysia: "Let's just say they are having a two-month vacation at home while they apply for their work visas and passports and improve their skills to go back to Malaysia legally."
The Indonesian government tried and failed to get a one-month extension of the amnesty, so that foreign workers could leave through August 2002 without penalty. Indonesian navy ships were sent to Malaysia to pick up migrants who could not fly back to Indonesia. A leader of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals complained that the government was unable to do anything about the expulsions: "It means we are really a nation of coolies, and a coolie among nations." Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, said that Indonesia had been a "coolie between nations" in colonial times, moored between the continents of Asia and Australia.
As pictures of Indonesians desperate to leave Malaysia appeared in August 2002, and 20-30 migrants died from lack of water and food in detention camps, the Indonesian government announced that it would "prepare a MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] that covers the recruitment and replacement of these workers, and the concept will then be discussed with Malaysia in September." There was criticism of the Indonesian government's efforts to get its workers back to Indonesia legally rather than dealing with illegal workers desperately trying to leave Malaysia. . Up to 480,000 Indonesians may return, according to recent estimates.
In Indonesia there was a crime wave, as Indonesians took advantage of returning migrants. Newspapers reported that so-called calos charged returning migrants extra fees to get on ferries to their home towns, and that some were kidnapped or robbed, since many migrants bring their savings with them in cash.
Indonesia-Taiwan. Taiwan stopped the entry of migrants from Indonesia, saying that too many were running away from their employers, in part because Indonesian brokers charge high fees, and the Indonesian government requires brokers to deduct NT$3,000 a month from the wages of Indonesian migrants, which they are to get at the end of their contract. According to Taiwan, of the 5,089 foreign workers who absconded since 1980, 2,800 were Indonesians who ran away in 2001. By running away and working illegally, Indonesian migrants can earn more than they can as legal workers.
"Indonesians Protest New Tough Malaysian Immigration Law," Associated Press, August 26, 2002. "Govt not proactive in dealing with illegal RI workers in KL, says justice and human rights minister," Jakarta Post, August 23, 2002. Jane Perlez, "For Some Indonesians, Echoes of 'Coolie' Nation," New York Times, August 18, 2002. "Four to be caned under Malaysia Immigration Law,: Reuters, August 9, 2002. Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, "Malaysia turns down Indonesian requests on workers," Jakarta Post, August 9, 2002. "Indonesia, Malaysia sign pact on immigration technology," Channel NewsAsia, August 8, 2002. "Illegal workers arrive home in Southeast Sulawesi," Jakarta Post, August 8, 2002.