Ugly turn in polemics on foreign workers

A-Rajaretinam

To go by the arguments offered by some public figures, there are probably legitimate reasons for opposing the government’s move to import another 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers.

Unfortunately, the polemics on the issue took an ugly turn with outrageous remarks from someone claiming to speak for a coalition of NGOs. Pertubuhan Rapat Malaysia President A Rajaretinam told a news conference that the Bangladeshis would “rape our women” and “make us sick” and pose a threat to national security with “terror activities,” presumably because they are Muslims.

He did not provide statistics to show that workers from Bangladesh indeed tend to be rapists, disease carriers and Islamic militants. So we can safely conclude that he was giving vent to his racist sentiments. And that spoils everything, even his plausible argument that the recruitment of foreign workers meant a denial of jobs for Malaysians.

Malaysians have been opposed to the government’s plan for a variety of reasons. Before Rajaretinam came along, many of the arguments have generally been valid ones, attacking the plan from an economic point of view.

Klang MP Charles Santiago, for example, said that the argument for more foreign workers appeared to be a matter of making money for brokers rather than meeting labour needs. Hindraf Makkal Sakthi Chairman P Waythamoorthy said the government’s interest in foreign labour was to rake in revenue from worker levies and to enable local manpower agencies, all politically-connected, to collect hefty fees from these unfortunate foreigners.

Those are legitimate arguments. The people making them backed them up with facts, citing economic realities and the policies in place. They even named politically-connected companies.

The argument made by Rajaretinam, however, was not backed by facts. It may have elements of truth in it, but his was less of a well-reasoned argument and more of a display of outright xenophobia. According to a news report, he made remarks such as these: “It has become a norm for them to rape local women. They rape the wives and daughters of people here. They act like they have a licence to rape. This will become worse. We’ve noticed that they are a threat to local health. We don’t know whether the ones who come here are clean or not.”

When you speak in such a tone, you can’t fault your listeners for thinking that you’re motivated more by your racist feelings than your concern for the wellbeing of the nation. Your other arguments may be legitimate, but your readiness to condemn people – without proof of their undesirability and without masking your racism – is fatal to your credibility.

It’s interesting that Rajaretinam also said his group was planning a “multiracial” protest. That’s reminiscent of so many racists who preface their remarks with “I’m not racist, but… .”