Orang Afrika di Malaysia: Antara stereotaip dengan kenyataan

First published on Merdeka Review, 13th May 2012. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Terdapat pelbagai teori media yang mengatakan bahawa saluran media mempunyai kuasa untuk mempengaruhi pendapat awam, terutamanya kuasa untuk mengeruhkan lagi sentimen perkauman terhadap pekerja dan penuntut asing yang sudah lama berakar umbi di minda dan jiwa rakyat kebanyakan. Sentimen perkauman terhadap lelaki Afrika di Malaysia didapati lebih parah daripada wanita. Tanggapan buruk ini banyak disumbang melalui stereotaip lelaki Afrika sebagai kaki lawan dan penjenayah yang memporak-perandakan keamanan dan budaya kita. Stereotaip ini muncul di kaca televisyen, di internet, dan di muka akhbar. Seringkali orang berkulit hitam disamakan dengan orang Afrika seolah-seolah Afrika itu satu negara yang monolitik, tanpa kepelbagaian budaya, bahasa, dan rupa. Realitinya, ramai yang meneruskan pelajaran atau datang mencari rezeki di Malaysia datang daripada latar belakang sosial, kelas, agama, bahasa, dan keadaan geopolitik yang berbeza.

Kini, kita sering mendengar di wahana media tentang “kebanjiran” pekerja dan penuntut Afrika pada tahap yang membimbangkan di seluruh pelusuk Malaysia, dari Kota Kinabalu hingga ke Alor Setar. Kita menggarapi migrasi sebagai satu masalah “baru” yang melanda negara, yang menyerupai gejala jenayah, hakisan budaya tempatan, dan meningkatkan satu iklim yang menakutkan dan penuh bahaya. Kehadiran populasi Afrika dianggap sebagai sesuatu yang baru, seolah-olah tidak wujudnya sejarah migrasi dan penempatan orang-orang dari benua Afrika.

“Gelombang” pertama pergerakan orang Afrika (atau “Negrito”) ke Asia bermula lebih kurang 100,000 tahun dahulu, dan kemudiannya berkembang di Pakistan selatan, dan kepulauan Polynesian dan Melanisia. Golongan ini berpecah kepada etnik Khyeng di Pakistan, Jawawa di Teluk Benggala, dan Agta di Filipina. Sejak 1970-an, kedatangan warga asing ke tanahair dimangkinkan oleh situasi ekonomi dan globalisasi. Tahap penghijrahan yang meninggi jelas menunjukkan kemakmuran ekonomi Malaysia dan gawatnya ekonomi negara-negara penghantar para penghijrah. Malangnya, tahap kesedaran sosial tidak setimpal dan jauh kebelakang; lain kata, kemakmuran dan pembangunan tidak pernah menjamin perikemanusiaan dan keadilan.

Pada 31 Mac, seorang pelajar IPTS berusia 35 tahun yang bernama Onochie Martins Nwankwo telah dipukul sehingga mati di Hulu Langat di tangan lima anggota RELA. Onochie dipercayai mencabul seorang pencuci wanita di tempat tinggalnya. Wanita tersebut melapor bahawa beliau melarikan diri daripada Onochie dan meminta tolong kepada kumpulan suspek-suspek yang kemudiannya bertindak dengan membelasah Onochie. Di sebuah negara yang mempunyai sistem perundangan yang dicipta untuk menjamin keamanan dan menghukum pesalah dengan saksama, anggota RELA tidak berhak untuk menjatuhkan “hukuman” mereka ke atas mendiang Onochie. Motif di sebalik pembunuhan beliau berbaur perkauman terhadap orang-orang berkulit hitam.

Disebabkan layanan kelas kedua yang terpaksa dipikul oleh warga Afrika amnya, kesahihan kes cabul yang dibayar oleh Onochie dengan nyawanya mungkin tidak dipersoalkan lagi, seperti kesahihan kes-kes jenayah lain yang melibatkan warga Afrika yang lain. Tragedi seperti beberapa penuntut IPTS dari negara Botswana pernah dilaporkan membunuh diri disebabkan tekanan yang dicetus oleh perkauman dan layanan buruk warga Malaysia. Ekoran kejadian tersebut, kematian seorang warganegara Nigeria bulan lalu di tangan pengganas RELA, yang kemudiannya mencetus pertunjukan perasaan oleh kumpulan sewarganegara di Ulu Langat kini menunjukkan betapa parahnya keadaan perkauman yang mengganas dan berdarah di Malaysia dewasa ini.

Terdapat beberapa faktor yang menjadikan Malaysia sebagai destinasi tarikan ramai penuntut Afrika. Pertama sekali, kerana kos pembiayaan untuk pendidikan tertiari adalah lebih rendah daripada di Eropah, Amerika Syarikat, atau di Australia. Kemudahan dan kualiti pendidikan juga dianggap setanding dengan IPT di negara-negara tersebut. Sesetengah IPT memperuntukkan RM25,000 bagi penuntut pasca-siswazah antarabangsa. Kedua, ramai penuntut yang beragama Islam dari benua Afrika yakin bahawa gaya hidup di negara yang majoriti Islam seperti Malaysia membantu memelihara akidah mereka. Ketiga, visa untuk belajar di Malaysia lebih muda diperolehi berbanding negara-negara barat yang kini mengetatkan polisi imigresen negeri masing-masing. Dan keempat, ramai akan mengambil peluang untuk meninggalkan negara masing-masing untuk kehidupan di luar negara kerana nilai prestij mereka akan meraih daripada pengalaman merantau dan gaji yang dijangka lebih lumayan di sini. Faktor-faktor diatas begitu logikal, tetapi mampukah kesemuanya menangkis prejudis terhadap warga asing Afrika yang menular?

Terdapat lebih kurang 22,000 penuntut di IPT dari benua Afrika; yang terjebak dalam gejala jenayah dan sosial adalah sangat minima mengikut Menteri Pengajian Tinggi Mohamed Khaled Nordin – terdapat hanya 66 kes dilaporkan membabitkan orang Afrika lewat tahun lepas. Menurut Abiodun Musa Aibinu, wakil Diaspora Nigeria dan Profesor Madya kejuruteraan mekatronik di Universiti Islam Malaysia (UIA) pula, hanya 5% daripada 5,000 warga Nigeria yang berada di Malaysia terlibat dalam pengedaran dadah dan penipuan (“black money”). Hakikatnya wujud hierarki manusia di mana layanan yang diberikan kepada mereka di lapisan bawah pekerja, penuntut IPT asing, dan golongan pelarian secara automatis jauh lebih teruk. Tetapi kesemua warganegara Afrika yang berkulit hitam digolongkan sebagai “pariah” di mata rakyat Malaysia: walaupun sebagai seorang pensyarah, Abiodoun juga sering menjadi mangsa penghinaan orang-orang tempatan.

Sebagai rakyat Malaysia, kita merayakan imej negara kita yang berbilang kaum – itulah satu-satunya “keistimewaan” yang diwarisi daripada sejarah kolonial kita. Tetapi sayangnya, kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya yang dibanggakan hanya dikhaskan untuk mereka yang berwarganegara Malaysia, walaupun mereka yang bukan banyak menyumbang kepada pembangunan dan melancarkan kehidupan seharian kita. Kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya Malaysia senantiasa berubah dan kita seharusnya menerima bahawa migrasi adalah hakikat masakini di era globalisasi dan geopolitik dan ekonomi dunia ketiga yang tidak pernah lelah goyah.

The boy who cried "Witch!": Saudis investigate domestic workers for witchcraft

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Something decidedly medieval is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Fears of black magic and curses cast by Indonesian domestic helpers have spread across the country, and  Saudi employers increasingly feel the need to hire private investigators to check their domestic workers for suspicious behavior and evidence for witchcraft.

Investigators, mostly foreign women from neighboring countries, are paid to search for photographs, hair, or clothes belonging to the employers before the domestic helpers are repatriated, reports Arab News. The employers do not do this themselves because they feel it is immoral and something Islam prevents them to do.

This is a strange story, worthy of trashy tabloids and supernatural fiction. But clearly, superstition is a habit that dies hard, often with dire consequences. There is no mention in the report about the rampant abuse of migrant domestic workers by Saudi employers, but I assume that that is the long running back story that needs no introduction. Abuse of domestic workers ranges from emotional and physical abuse to rape, slavery, and even murder. There is very little sense or a trace of rationality to fear domestic workers for practicing black magic unless one’s judgment is clouded by xenophobia and the normalization of the dehumanization of working-class foreigners. Even the Saudi religious police, the mutawa, have become self-styled witch-hunters, lacking only a burning stake in the middle of a city square to complete the image in a country where witchcraft is illegal and punishable by death.

But stories of black magic do not just arise out of thin air. They are a byproduct of a larger economic and political structure that renders migrant workers vulnerable to xenophobic and racist attacks. The U.N. research institute for social development has identified three aspects attributable to the heightened xenophobia in the Middle East. First, a preference for a temporary contract labor. Second, discriminatory employment practices and the special “allocation” for menial jobs for migrant workers; and finally, a culture of disdain towards those who are visibly different.

Abuse of every despicable kind is by no means limited to Saudi households, but is also widespread in where I come from, Malaysia. High-profile cases involving horrific abuse of domestic helpers grabbing international attention in the last ten years have hardly left a dent on the conscience of many Malaysians. Having been brought up for a number of years with a domestic helper at home while both my parents went to work, it is an accepted way of life for a significant proportion of Malaysians. Domestic helpers provide huge relief for double income families, and many became part of the family, joining in on holidays and included in family portraits. Muslim Indonesian maids are preferred in most Muslim households for a variety of reasons, food preparation and religious sensitivity among them, but they are also some of the most badly treated.

Filipino workers, who majority are Christians on the other hand, suffer lower rates of abuse because arguably, they are better protected: thanks to government lobbying, Filipino migrant workers are paid better than their Indonesian counterparts, and in places like Jordan, bans have been imposed on potential employers to receive Filipino domestic helpers due to reports of abuse. They are also a smaller group compared to Indonesian female migrant workers. Most Filipino maids are older than Indonesian workers, better educated and skilled. But this is not about numbers–cases of abuse no matter how high or isolated deserves the attention and effective action.

It’s difficult to piece together the macro structures such as the economy, world poverty, and immigration policies with attitudes of ordinary families toward domestic helpers to fully understand what brings people to commit inhuman acts on other human beings. I often wonder if whether having a person contracted to live under one’s roof has anything to do with it. Bringing in someone to cook, clean your clothes, look after the children and/or elderly relatives must involve a tricky negotiation over privacy and other practical matters included in having another person under the same roof.

Perhaps there’s very little in terms of a middle way between welcoming a domestic helper as a new member of the family or simply as a stranger in the home. If the case is the latter, then life at home must be uncomfortable not just for the employers and their family, but particularly for the domestic workers who’ve travelled far from home to find a better life. Is this an effect of our changing values vis-a-vis a rapidly changing urban landscape where increased contact with “the outside world” through immigration and migration has become inevitable and unsettling for many?

Book review: Race, Space, and the Law

First published at Feminist Review


Institutional racism: we all know it exists, yet many deny it does. In this book, Sherene Razack, author of Looking White People in the Eye, edits a set of deeply disturbing accounts of racially-motivated public policies and resultant public consciousness in North America. Beginning with the premise “Race is Space,” Race, Space, and the Law unearths half-forgotten history of racial injustice and challenges the romanticisation of European settlement which is so deeply embedded in Canadian and American folklore. In other words, it seeks to unpack and debunk the notion of the peaceful collaboration between settlers and the aboriginal community, and the idea that the Native peoples have “always accepted, and to some degree, were willing to agree that being the possessors of a land need not necessarily be the only source of legitimacy of its use.”

Razack’s book brings together disparate laws and fragments of history—laws on drinking establishments, the ban on “unparliamentarian” language, midwifery, mosque-building, a murder of a sex worker, and inner city slum dwellings—to subvert the “universal” values of justice upheld by the law. There are far too many examples in Race, Space, and the Law that illustrate these modes of subversion and resistance in brilliant, infuriating colour to fit into this review, so I will only be able to share a few.

In “Keeping the Ivory Tower White,” Carol Schick sets the predominantly White University of Saskatchewan as a stage for the maintenance of White privilege by exploring the responses of White students to multicultural education. The course, which focused heavily on Aboriginal culture and history, brought out feelings of discomfort. As members of a respectable and intellectual domain of the university, students founded their discomfort and racial insecurity on rationality to side step racist or non-PC misgivings about the content of the course. Schick argues that by making disclaimers and claiming credentials as a feminist sympathizer, students can project themselves as utterly reasonable people—especially as ones who understand the necessity of civility and self-control as they secure White privilege and entitlement.

Renisa Mawani’s “In Between and Out of Place” describes the situation of biracial individuals who symbolised the destabilisation of colonial power through the blurring the racial boundaries in mid nineteenth-century British Columbia. Racial categories, often a product of British colonialism, were crucial to maintaining the “racial order of things,” that determined who had certain rights to land and citizenship. Biracial men and women were perceived to be troublemakers and untrustworthy, and hence there were strict laws on alcohol purchase and distribution for this group. The logic behind this was motivated by the fear of interracial mixing because it might result in, quite simplistically, more biracial people.

Perhaps the most recent challenge to Whiteness is the growing presence of Islam in the West, particularly after the September 11th attacks. In Engin Isin and Myer Siemiatycki’s essay “Making Space for Mosques,” xenophobia and Islamophobia emerged from behind the cloak of neighbourly respectability when the building of new mosques in Toronto was met with resistance. The level of restrictions placed on the Muslim places of worship, particularly on those built on sites of formerly Christian worship, was unprecedented. Suddenly, the “change” a mosque would bring to the look of the neighbourhood became a prime concern for the surrounding residents that resulted in the physical curtailment of the mosque’s development, including the reduction of the minaret’s height and in some ways, its potent symbolism.
These essays reiterate the fundamental premise that space, particularly a public one, produces identities of privilege and degeneracy. I highly recommend this book to people interested in marginalised history and its place in institutionalised racism today. Perhaps a dose of history will give naysayers of institutional racism some food for thought, too.

Not tourists, not on holiday: World Refugee Day 20th June

Rohingya men seek refuge on the shores of Banda Acheh, Indonesia (source: The Guardian)

From UNHCR Canada:

Often classified unfairly with economic migrants, refugees flee their country not for economic gain but to escape persecution, the threat of imprisonment and even threats to their lives. They need a safe haven where they can recover from mental and physical trauma and rebuild their hopes for a better future.

The intolerance that is often at the root of internal displacement and refugee flows is also present in some of the countries that refugees flee to. Instead of finding empathy and understanding, they are often met with mistrust or scorn.

On World Refugee Day, let’s not forget that some day in the future any one of us could be knocking at a stranger’s door hoping to find a safe and friendly shelter. We should extend refugees the same kind of welcome we would like to receive if we were in their position.

While most refugees want to go home, some cannot safely return. But wherever they are, refugees will always strive to pick up the pieces and start over. The courage and determination demonstrated during their darkest hours will serve them well in rebuilding a new life. On World Refugee Day, let us honour them for these qualities and recognise the richness and diversity they bring to our societies.

Like other countries in South and Southeast Asia, Malaysia has become a major destination for political refugees from Myanmar. But like these countries, refugees are far from welcome. Often dehumanised, mistreated, trafficked for labour and sexual exploitation, and sometimes forcibly repatriated back, their plight are often ignored simply because they are undocumented and a “drain” on the host country’s resources.

What kind of “Islamic” country is Malaysia when we refuse to offer shelter to our Rohingya brothers and sisters? What kind of “Islamic” leaders were Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to “push back” incoming asylum seekers from our shores?

It’s time Malaysia and countries in the region recognised refugees as legal migrants, and work with the international community to alleviate the financial burden of hosting new arrivals and pressure the Burmese junta towards forming a functional democracy. But it’s also time we rethink our privileges as Malaysians and our dehumanising concept of “illegal immigration”. No one should be illegal.

Related links:

Stop the deportation of SOAS university cleaners!

Students and academics of University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) have protested against the brutal arrest of nine members of their cleaning staff for working in the UK without valid permits. Below is the summary of events posted on Facebook:

At 6.30am on Friday the 12th June, ISS (the company who contracts the SOAS cleaning staff) called a meeting for all cleaners.

Within minutes the meeting was raided by approximately 45-50 Immigration and Border police, who entered through the fire doors and the main entrance to the room and detained all the cleaning staff; the officers were in riot gear.

Following the raid the cleaners were locked in the room. One by one the workers were led into another SOAS classroom, where their immigration status was checked. During this process the staff were allowed no representation and provided with no translator (many staff are native Spanish speakers). A trade union representative at the scene was refused access to the staff members.

It is known that the contractor ISS had requested the police action. Two members of SOAS management were present during the raid, liaising with the police. This suggests that the school had prior knowledge of the raid.

ISS have informed UNISON that those cleaners detained may be fast-tracked out of the country, thus they may be deported within 72 hours.

Those detained have been working at SOAS for many years; they have settled in London. Deportation will be devastating not only for the individuals involved but also the families. They are also our friends and fellow colleagues in the SOAS community.

It is not a coincidence that SOAS cleaners were one of the first university cleaners to fight for Union representation and a decent wage. The events on Friday appear to be aimed at sending a clear message to other agency workers in London not to fight for union representation, such levels of intimidation cannot be tolerated.

We believe the heavy-handed treatment which the cleaners received was grossly over the top and ISS/SOAS are complicit in this.

We believe that these appalling events are proof once again that SOAS cleaning staff need to be brought in-house and that companies like ISS which exploit and intimidate workers have no place at SOAS.

Update: Five have already been deported, and the others could face deportation within days. One has had a suspected heart attack and was denied access to medical assistance and even water. One was over 6 months pregnant. Many have families who have no idea of their whereabouts.

This is a public revolt against what being “illegal” means and puts into perspective the privileges of “belonging” and situations we often take for granted. One commenter on the Facebook group says:

The term “illegal” migrant is a complete misnomer. The freedom to move is an international human right-it is not illegal to cross a national border. Undocumented workers make this city work; doing the jobs others wont do, for the lowest pay, working such long hours, often in terrible conditions, just to get by. Paying emergency tax (stuck with temporary NI number), entitled to no health care provision or protection from the police etc. Unable to marry, have families & live the “normal” life that the rest of us take for granted. People live in fear of raids & deportation when all they are trying to do is live. What exactly is it that they are doing that is unlawful? Please people, think critically about the concept of “illegal migrant”. Just because there is a law against something doesnt mean it is wrong. SOAS used to be a place to critically reflect and question the system.