Why exclude foreigners from free bus service?

I recently read about the Smart Selangor bus service no longer being free for foreigners. This is the latest xenophobic policy to treat migrants inhumanely. It has been condemned by a slew of societies and movements, which begs the question: why do we continue to come up with these kinds of policies?

It would not be a gross exaggeration to say that dividing and/or segregating one sector of society from another (regardless of whether they are citizens or not) harks back to the practices of the US before the civil rights movement.

Before the 1960s, the blacks in the US would have a different bathroom and certain areas of buses in which they could not sit. How is this any different?

It’s as if our message is: we allow you to do our 3D jobs, you can work here, but you will not enjoy the same benefits – equal benefits with Malaysian citizens. It is also – let’s not pretend otherwise – directed at labour workers because they are most in need of this kind of service.

Is there some kind of lack of funds that requires Malaysia not to give out Rapid KL cards to foreigners and, now, to limit the use of the Smart Selangor bus service (by adding on a price tag), specifically for foreigners? I highly doubt it.

Why do some Malaysian policies reek of bigoted beliefs? It is telling of a society that is unable to welcome everyone to our nation. We cannot preach of being a multicultural nation and then ostracise foreigners as and when we please without any grounds for doing so. Perhaps we are in need of a Rosa Parks here to spark a movement like the Montgomery Bus Boycott to end this stigma attached to fellow human beings.

The latest estimation of migrant workers in Malaysia stands at 3.85 million (based on the Labour Force Survey and National Employment Returns 2016/2017). This is not including undocumented migrant workers, which makes the number more likely almost six million. Given that Malaysia’s population is around 32.6 million, that makes up almost 19% of Malaysia.

Putting aside for a moment that these are estimated figures, the reality is that migrant workers make up a reasonable chunk of our society. To ill-treat them (as we are so wont to do) is equivalent to a modernised form of apartheid. In fact, our laws to protect migrant workers are, as it is, paltry.

At present, there is the Employees Provident Fund, the Workmen’s Compensation Act and the Employee Social Security Act, but these only apply to legal foreign workers. As for undocumented migrant workers – it’s safe to say that the law is blind to them.

This is, of course, on paper. In reality, as we might have seen and come across, most migrant workers don’t even have days off, they are so badly treated. One sometimes questions the state of our country as a growing nation and a diverse country.

Exploitation by employers is an unspoken truth in this nation –known, widely seen but never brought out into the open. What is common though, and brought out into the open, screened and televised, are government raids, arrests and deportation. I sometimes wonder what this says about our priorities. Human rights does not appear to be one of them.

What I am trying to say here is that there needs to be a total and serious consideration of how we treat foreign workers. There was even a recent attack on foreign workers for ruining Malaysia’s status as a sought-after food haven (I am talking about Penang’s proposed ban on foreigners cooking).

At almost every juncture, there is an attack on foreign workers. They are the scapegoats. When will we stop this? It was already an issue in the early 2000s and we are heading towards 2020.

We should move away from xenophobic policies and we should stop denigrating migrant workers in open spaces (as I sometimes observe). We should instead re-evaluate our laws to protect them. We should in fact be thanking migrant workers for contributing to Malaysia, for taking on jobs to which Malaysians are averse.

Instead, we not only ill-treat them, we fail to provide them with adequate protection under our laws and now even deprive them of basic necessities and make their lives difficult on that front.

I’m not sure who is to gain from this – it doesn’t even appear to be financially driven. One can only conclude that these policies are merely to segregate, distinguish and divide foreigners from citizens, stemming from decades of prejudice.

Parveen Kaur Harnam is a lawyer based in Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.