What to do with the refugees?

[Aliran published an edited version]

As new arrivals stream into our space, let us get our acts together by first acknowledging that by the sheer scale of the problem, it is an oversized load for any country of Malaysia’s or Bangladesh’s stature. Even Germany, Europe’s big sister, is challenged by refugee management. Let us be realistic and start working towards achievable goals.

There is a lot the government can but has not yet done. It needs to be more consistent, stop contradicting their right hand with their left, and spare NGOs from having to work around what it is or isn’t doing.

As with all irregularities we continue to encounter, let us maintain our objectivity as to which aspects are due to incompetence, which aspects are due to negligence, and which aspects are intended evil. Each cause needs a different remedy. Mix them up, we defer the solution to eternity.

If it’s due to incompetence, train them. If it’s due to negligence, discipline them. If it’s due to bad intention, hammer them. Don’t hammer when it is due to incompetence.

Whether before or after the government gets its part right, we, the rakyat (people), the NGOs and profit-making entities have our roles to play. The most efficient solution can come by only if efforts from all channels are concerted. A concert cannot begin until we stop waiting for, or blaming, each other, and downplaying the desperate, crying need.

A Swiss flashback

Blank looks reported by aid workers administering to traumatised refugees fleeing the Myanmar-Bangladesh border bring me back to the tragic bus crash near Sierre (Switzerland) on 13 March 2012. The bus crashed head-on to a concrete wall of a motorway tunnel. 28 died; 22 were children visiting from Belgium. Emergency services arrived within 20 minutes. The response team comprised 60 firefighters, 15 doctors, 12 ambulances, 8 helicopters, 30 police officers, 100 paramedics and 3 psychologists.

28 lives near Sierre in 2012; 400,000 lives from Myanmar since 25 August.

Emergency response arrived within 20 minutes for Sierre; Turkey pledged aid for the Rohingya a week later, Malaysia pledged aid a fortnight later.

What emergency service for the Rohingya, if access was blocked? A multi-disciplinary response team including three psychologists? What a distant luxury.

During the Sierre tragedy, I was living in Switzerland; for all I experienced colleagues, friends and neighbours consumed the news seeing the children on that bus as their own, seeing those parents as themselves. Questions such as the following didn’t arise:

Whether people involved in the tragedy were local or from a neighbouring country (although many Europeans haven’t completely shaken off the remnants from their divisive, war-torn history).

Whether the victims were believers or which denomination they belonged (although many have renounced their faith either not to practice or to be atheists).

Whether those children had ginger hair or freckled faces (although such prejudices do at times happen).

That was solidarity.

If Malaysians have so far been taught tolerance as the key to peace, now is an opportune time to learn solidarity, particularly as our bubble of tolerance is beginning to show signs of wear, tear and rupture. We need to stop seeing ‘the others’ in others, whichever level of tolerance we practice.

An American contrast

At the same time when the Rohingya crisis escalated, stealing the headlines was Hurricane Harvey, which messed up Houston. As disastrous as that was, support services were planned and delivered, the road to recovery was mapped out without hesitation. Not belittling the plight, just noting the contrast — the number of lives lost in Houston is tiny compared to that of the Rohingya.

If news consumers find the flood in Houston more worrying than the exodus from Rakhine, if news subscribers identify more with the flood victims than with the fleeing refugees, there then must be a multiplicative, weighting factor at work. Perhaps some sort of a formula, V = F × N, where V is the value of a collection of people, N is the headcount, F is the multiplicative factor which is not the same for American and Rohingya.

Rwandan lesson missed

As the Rakhine crisis unfolded, the world watched on, telling stories, adding tales, courting skepticism, calculating the risk of making a stand, estimating the cost of doing or even saying something. No sense of urgency. The world waited and hesitated. She hasn’t yet learned her lesson from Rwanda. Desperate people crying for help; she didn’t hear. “No, it isn’t genocide,” she denied. She decides to author episodes of history future generations will struggle helplessly to wipe and hide.

Muslim or not

If Malaysian Muslims protest against the Rohingya persecution more than Malaysian non-Muslims do, if Malaysian Muslims receive Rohingya refugees more warmly than Malaysian non-Muslims do, we may then take a sneak peep into the mirror on the wall and catch ourselves blushing – we failed our 60 years of sovereignty as a multi-faith nation.

Likewise, we fail our 60 years of sovereignty if we give preferential treatment to selected refugees. Let us not forget refugees who are neither Rohingya nor Muslim. We mustn’t have favourites.

Whereas the Muslim identity of the Rohingya is at the core of the long-time dispute in Myanmar, there is no need to over-emphasise their Muslim identity once they arrive in Malaysia. Muslim or not, the reception and care on our part should be consistent and unperturbed.

Complexity beyond us

A bumpy trail of historical developments led to the violence escalating out of hand since 25 August. Unless we personally spent years living among their local community, none of us would be able to understand, analyse or conclude on the matter.

We can diagnose, treat and heal, but there is no need to play epidemiologist here.

Typical of many Malaysians, we can be too quick to conclude. This readiness may be benign in some cases, but we do need to refrain from making conclusions about the Rakhine dispute. There is no need to play chief judge here.

Benign examples of over-confident judgments include Malaysians returning from holidays drawing conclusions about people whom they have neither lived nor worked among — carving conclusions on stones with such absolute confidence – seeming to know Brits and Italians better than I, who lived and worked among Brits and Italians for more than a decade.

As a tourist or a bystander, there is no way to understand a foreign people. Let us acknowledge so, and refrain from arguing our heads off who are the angels and who are the demons in the Rakhine dispute. There is in fact no need for us to know who is right and who is wrong.

Let us be objective about the persecution, the exodus and the need as events unfold today. Hundreds of thousands of a people placed in another people’s crosshairs, targeted systematically for ethnic cleansing. Those hundreds of thousands happen to be Rohingya, so we need to help the Rohingya. If those hundreds of thousands happened to be Buddhist, wouldn’t we have rallied for them all the same?

Problem statement

It takes just a moment of objectivity and openness.

Among those hundreds of thousands fleeing for their lives – there is no way one can mistake non-terrorists as terrorists. These can’t possibly be terrorists. Terrorists don’t flee for their lives; they confront by giving up their lives. Terrorists don’t carry their elderly and infirm balanced on a chair suspended on a yolk supported on the terrorists’ shoulders; terrorists would let the dead bury themselves.

Seeing those yolks suspending chairs carrying the elderly and the infirm through treacherous journeys into the unknown, I shudder. My mind shuts me off not letting me think any further. How many among us, with our middle-class rationale, would run for our lives carrying parents, neighbours, relatives or friends who can’t run?

Indeed, there’s no way for us to put ourselves in their shoes. They navigate the mud and the rough, wade the waters barefoot.

We can at least celebrate their motivation and zest for life by embarking on such a treacherous journey into yet another hungry, humiliating and unknown future (that is, if they survive) — at this time when some Malaysians can be so passionless and numb to life that, for instance, direct selling becomes their only motivation and religion to live for.

We can at least join the refugees in thanksgiving for having made it here, having survived a fateful and leaky pipe where many drown, succumb to disease or fall victim to human trafficking. Do we not treasure these survivals so precious?

Do we have that much to lose by giving others a leg up, a window of opportunity?

A Canadian feat

Last year, ordinary Canadians took 11,000 refugees to their own homes for 12 months. That embrace turned out to be a historic feat. The private sponsorship (as opposed to state-led settlement) became a shining example Australia, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand and Argentina took seriously. The New York Times reported, ‘Canada embraced Syrian refugees like no other country’.

Canadians did it in style, although compared to Germany’s long-time commitment and persistence despite saturation and opposition, Canada is a modest, late comer in refugee relief (attributable in parts to Stephen Harper, who was prime minister for a decade).

That feat was a fulfillment of Trudeau’s promise 4 months after he took office. He pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees. 26,166 arrived, some of whom he greeted personally. Competing parties too, pledged to bring in Syrian refugees — albeit by smaller installments – they lost the elections.

The Canadian public thought that was the right thing to do. Canadian politicians dared campaigning for what one wouldn’t have in developed Europe. Can we hope for comparable leadership in Malaysia?

On the issue of refugees and migrant workers, we find parties and people entangled in a shoulder-rubbing dance. Politicians seek to please voters rather than to lead them. Not that voters like to defend any refugee either. Neither wants unskilled comers we can’t even squeeze for sweat and blood.

Consider statements such as, “Stop asking Penang about Rohingya,” and, “Sarawak says no to housing Rohingya refugees”. Did Penangites and Sarawakians gratefully heave a sigh of relief, or are people suggesting anything different?

Ill-treating unwelcome arrivals is therefore the convenient sing-along – politicians and campaigners need not juggle or balance two sides (e.g. having to please the Malays without annoying the Chinese and vice versa). This is how refugees and migrant workers fall victim to the dark side of democracy.


Malaysia has seen better leadership and mountain-moving semangat (motivation) than that. Perhaps, perhaps along the way we have got a little numb, a little cold, a little indifferent. All we need is a bit of a nudge, a bit of revitalization, a bit of awakening.

Decades back, a local tycoon pledged ringgit-to-ringgit donation towards building a cancer hospital at the time our northern peninsular was crying in need of such a facility. That set people’s heart on fire. That mobilised the mass. Donations poured in. That built both the hospital and the community.

I believe:

  • Nobody killed the idea at its infancy, “This isn’t going to work.”
  • Nobody dismissed the public by under-estimating their willingness or generosity, “Who would?”;
  • State and federal governments didn’t accuse each other of depriving cancer patients of funds, or failing families by not preventing deaths.

Whichever way we choose to receive or not receive refugees, let us take heart never to exploit them for political gains. Let us not lose objectivity.

It is critical that we decouple refugees/migrants from would-be paid-for voters. Some discipline is in order here. Stop seeing them as BN’s guests who will get MyKad and turn up at polling stations voting for BN. Two separate issues here, do not mix. Decouple them.

Revisiting the ultimatum, “Stop asking Penang about Rohingya”, who are we punishing? Is the matter about settling the unsettled, or on state versus federal governments?

A statement such as, “Rohingyas in Malaysia should not have taken to the streets,” is about the last thing we need from Suhakam. Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign promptly responded with an open letter. Implications from such a dangerous statement can be long ranging and not easy to undo, particularly as many Malaysians lack objectivity and independent thinking. Some even think Suhakam is always correct.

In that lack of objectivity and independent thinking, so much is based on packaging and wrapping if not colour-coding – red versus yellow — that mutually exclusive duo – as if we are in our blue or green teams on school sports day. Sokong (support) or bantah (oppose) is so often decided based on wrapping and colour-coding, without checking the contents.

Leaders of all streams whether political, religious, corporate or social must not underestimate their influence and clout. Making a stand defending the defenseless could convert many followers and change local sentiments. Even if it takes effect by merely reducing the hostility towards refugees, our society would benefit from that.

Jailing Ali Juhar Jamal Hussin for attempted suicide, what lesson is he supposed to learn? What lesson are we supposed to learn? What lesson is the world supposed to learn? I was once admitted to Penang General Hospital for high fever. Throughout the night new admissions joined our ward one after another. A staff explained that they were folks who had jumped off the bridge; that was part of the ward’s routine. How many of these folks were charged or jailed?

A personal role

What we can do? We can:

  • write to the editor of every newspaper to condemn Myanmar, calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked;
  • at the same time ask for Boo Su-Lyn‘s Human Rights Award by Suhakam to be revoked;
  • condemn our authorities for ill treatment;
  • condemn syndicates and officials exploiting the powerless and taking bribes.

Yes, we can do all that. Meanwhile, we also have access to a handle which is more direct, that is entirely within our discretion to make a tangible and effective difference.

Besides the obvious option of donation, what else can the individual Malaysian do? A lot. Offer our best expertise without expecting monetary rewards. Let the best specialists and doctors care for the refugees, to the same level we expect for our own families. Let our best teachers teach, meeting a standard on par with the home education some of us choose to give our children. Train them for sports and music the same way we nurture national and world champions.

Let the cream and cherries of our society come forward – those with the best track record, those who are well balanced and mature.

Alongside many fruit-bearing and noble voluntary efforts, many others have fallen short. Being free-of-charge has so far been the highlight. The side effect is that we end up mixing in sub-standard, third-grade, anything-goes, better-than-nothing goods and services. Giving free services doesn’t mean that we can give people scraps, crumbs and leftovers – and feel so over-generous about it. We mustn’t lower our expectations just because it is free. Let volunteerism pride itself by the high quality of services offered, not by the fact that it is free.

We need to overcome that mentality of giving ‘those poor things’ something which is better than nothing, and expect them to be eternally grateful. Those ‘poor things’ might not be able to tell a genuine iPhone from a fake; they can certainly tell a competent teacher from a casual.

Volunteers’ time is precious, and so is the refugees’. Low-quality voluntary services waste everyone’s time. If only joined and concerted, efforts are most efficient.

Models: Geneva vs Vancouver

The best model I encountered is from Geneva, where an up-to-date handbook lists timetables and details of free meals, lodging and bathing facilities around the city. Services by different, independent organisations complement each other in full synchrony. No trumpets, no fuss, no big banners.

Each service operates on different schedules, opening and closing on different days – but there is always somewhere to go for a meal, a lodging or a bath. I too joined the queue and shared a meal, which turns out transformative.

Geneva’s is a user-centric planning. It is more about me, the user, being seen to and having somewhere to go — less about me, the NGO operating a service and doing my part, in isolation.

Contrast Geneva’s style with Vancouver’s. Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver is home to possibly the world’s highest density of welfare services. Scan the streets and you will find some most creative agency names e.g. “The Door is Open”.

It was only in 2015 that a list of agencies was compiled – not by any of the agencies, not by the municipal government, not by the provincial government, not by the federal government — but by a news outlet. (Bravo, Vancouver Sun.)

Each day, a million Canadian dollars is spent on this dumping ground for Canada’s unwanted. DTES remains the hell as it was in the beginning, is now, and probably ever shall be – unless and until each agency starts seeing itself as an instrument belonging to a grand ensemble.

Lessons are free for Malaysians to borrow and learn from.

Our choice

Presented with the refugees’ needs, as always individual Malaysians have a free pick:

I want to help but Najib is already doing that on my behalf by sending the Malaysian Armed Forces.

I will donate but first let me strike the lottery.

I am concerned about the refugees but let them stay where the are in the news, don’t pop out live from the screen/newspaper and spill into our country.

I can accept refugees into my country but keep them out of my territory.

All of the above after dropping the “but …”

Let us never forget to give people our best. Be bold.

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