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Is this the best solution for the Rohingya refugees in Malaysia?

A most difficult column to write, this is. I have been juggling with my emotions, facts, idealism and realism. Here are my thoughts, written under an intense emotional difficulty.

Don’t get me wrong about the Rohingyas from Myanmar. I have contributed hundreds of ringgit to an NGO helping with education of the children of the people.

I had questions about them. They were booted out of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia. Is it because they are not grateful to the countries harbouring them? Good contributors to the state they are in? Why is it we are now seeing their demands here in Malaysia?

Did the alleged rape incidents in Myanmar by the Rohingyas fuel the anger of the monks and the junta? How true is it that they, through their links with local jihadists, are said to have killed Buddhist monks, battle the authorities and create mayhem in Rakhine? Are they actually Bangladeshi refugees, rather than a distinct ethnic group called the Rohingyas? Are they in Malaysia, paying for themselves through a syndicate of human traffickers? It is reported that each migrant paid their trafficker about 15,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about US$3, 500.00) to sail to Malaysia where there is now a Rohingya diaspora flourishing, to the unease of the local community.


We need to read more on those above. But reading these events from 1971, post-British India history and the birth of Bangladesh, this story sounds like the incident that sparked World War I. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Isabella by a Serbian rebel.

I like to find parallels in history and to discern lessons from the historicity of things. I was old enough to understand the issue of Pulang Bidong, of the Hai Hong. Of the Vietnamese refugees and how they created chaos, challenging the fishermen and security forces in Terengganu. A lesson learned about opening doors. Arms wide open.

Anyway, I thought: Would it be great if members of Rohingya-championing political parties (such as PAS, PKR, and DAP) and also human rights groups such as SUARAM  or concerned citizens open their homes to adopt Rohingya families to showcase what can work? I think Malaysians can learn from this of this model functions well. 

I read that debate is still raging in Malaysia. On the plight of the Rohingyas, on whether they are not refugees but those brought in through human trafficking activities. I followed the debate in cyberspace, closely trying to understand the issue’s complexity, like an academic searching for a truth of the matter to conclude.

Here is what I gather so far: We may all want to think like humanists. But the reality still lies in the “nation-state”, sovereignty and citizenship rights. Listen to those who want Rohingyas out, to the Israeli view of the Palestinians and even to the lamentations of the supporters of Donald Trump as well. You’ll feel less angry. One will get angry easily in an argument if one lacks the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. Those so-called “leftists” in Malaysia will continue to turn left. Difficult to come back to see the Middle Path of Righteousness.

I’d say: Give the Rohingyas the basic needs now: food, shelter, education. Till they are strong enough to journey to the designated island.

The reality is that when two million Malaysians are out of jobs and will soon be fighting for them, they will start hating the immigrants and refugees. Time to see what Selayang, for example, has become. Time to give jobs to Malaysians. To not allow foreigners without papers to monopolise the livelihood of locals. This will be a source of conflict between the locals and the foreigners, especially those from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

The government must act fast to prevent this social catastrophe.
There is thus a view by Malaysians to send the foreigners back and to give jobs to Malaysians. The view is getting stronger. Animosity will grow. Malaysia simply can’t afford to manage the problem of others when her own unemployment issue looms large. Even the US is bracing for over 23 million job losses as of today, stopping immigration and sending illegals home. And what is Malaysia doing?

This is about realism. Not about some NGO sentimentality. Nor political desperado-ideology.

This is happening in countries all over the world confronted with sudden mass unemployment and with millions of cheap foreign labour and refugees in the country. Happening in Europe, the US, everywhere. Malaysians without jobs will turn their anger on foreigners, at the class level wherein social anger is projected elsewhere, rather than at the owners of the means of production.

Then, there is the issue of helping fellow Muslims. I have questions about this, too.

Maybe the concept of ummah has been wrongly used. Not all Muslims are the same. National origin and ideology still shape thinking. An American Muslim. A Malaysian Muslim. A Rohingya Muslim. A Saudi Muslim. A Planet Mars Muslim. Each is different. Culture and acculturation are contingent upon the idea that religion is culture as well. Nation-states shape consciousness and behaviour. A basic concept of psychology. Determines whether one is cultured or one is crude.

If the Rohingyas are despised anywhere they go, there must be something wrong in the way they conduct themselves as a people. Islam should have taught any refugee the ideals of self-reliance, gratefulness, self-dignity and cleanliness. Not the contraries.


Rohingyas need to be in that island in the Bay of Bengal, built by the Bangladeshis. They need to use their creativity and what is offered to building a new civilisation. UNHCR/Unicef can help. Given an island to settle in, down and for, I believe the Rohingyas can do wonders. Just like what the Jews did with Israel. NGOs can help them. But Rohingyas need to think and act. And adapt, too. We live in a world where there is no free lunch, every day.

Refugees and immigrants are still thinking that there are jobs in Malaysia, when Covid-19 is destroying almost everything. The right to work in any sovereign country is contingent upon visa status, not necessarily pity and clamour for human rights.

Those who want the Rohingyas out need not be called “fascists”. Those who want them to stay are not angelic humanists either.
Having an opinion need not put people in the Either-Or mode of confrontation: If you’re for the Rohingyas staying you’re a “humanist”. If you want them to be settled elsewhere, you are a “fascist”. That’s an argument for simpletons. Why not think like a humanist-pragmatist-nationalist?

I have heard this and asked: Are the Rohingyas taking over Malaysian villagers’ land in the pristine and peaceful island of  Langkawi? Using gangsters to threaten villagers? I have seen this lamentation on video. A cry for help for the governement to intervene, in fact. This claim needs to be verified. And investigated. The police need to help if this is true. We don’t want the beautiful island of Langkawi destroyed.

“Malaysians first” should be the slogan in time of two million people being unemployed. There are hard times ahead!

I also read a report from Amnesty International, a group I was involved in back in the early university days. It was about the Arsa (Arakian Rohingya Salvation Army) harassing the Rohingyas in Malaysia to collect funds for some international terror network.

Herein lies the issue. How do we ensure that the able-bodied Rohingyas in Malaysia do not have and links to groups that would harm Malaysian society? Do you remember the case of train-loads of Syrian refugees entering Europe, mostly men with cellphones? Think of safety before acting based on some illusion of feeling that sense of humanity.

Remember this: ISIS has moved its operation to Southeast Asia after its “defeat” in Syria. In the name of the ummah, however elusive the term is, we Islamic countries in this region would be fertile groups for the ideology of jihadism. Paranoia? Xenophobia? No. I just have concerns and questions on the transcultural flow of group ideologies preyed upon in time of mass poverty.

I love what the Malaysian NGOs and Islamic political parties are championing for the Rohingyas. I want to suggest a programme to help them further if these groups want the refugees to stay permanently.

Perhaps an “Adopt-a-Rohingya-Family” Programme can be done with Muslim NGOs, the Islamic Party as participants. Humanitarianism in Action. This can be a showcase of genuine commitment shown by political parties and NGOs championing the rights of the boat people to stay.

Hopefully, the Rohingyas will find a better home. Malaysians are finding them to be troublesome, as I’ve been reading. If the Rohingyas are not showing good behaviour as guests, help them leave the country to a better place they’ll appreciate.

One truth is that the Rohingyas are kept here as a vote bank. Perhaps. Therefore, their aggressive demands. Their uncontrollable behaviour.

In conclusion, I hope the UN will help get a safe haven for all the Rohingyas. They can’t be staying in Malaysia permanently, especially without the legal papers. 

Again, don’t get me wrong on my view of boat people seeking asylum. Whether they paid their way here through a syndicate or not. I have contributed hundreds of ringgit to an NGO helping with education of their children. I just want to see Malaysians taken care of first. I want to see non-Malays being treated as equals first. As bumiputera (peope with rights as indigenous) too, before the corona-politicians start thinking of giving that status to the refugees and illegal immigrants.

And as I have said: the Rohingyas already have a place they can build a new world, a new civilisation, a new hope. Thanks to the Bangladeshi government for that well-equipped island in the Bay of Bengal. Creativity, humility, and problem-solving ability will help them through. Today, Malaysia, too, cannot afford to help much when, every day of the movement control order/lockdown, the country bleeds RM2.4 billion ringgit per day.

And on a cultural reason, the presence of the Rohingyas will be a huge challenge to society, as a consequence of Malaysia’s corona-politics of ensuring vote banks – from the time of Najib Abdul Razak to Pakatan Harapan and now Perikatan Nasional. That’s not humanism. That’s utilitarian-fascism involving refugees in – “by invitation”.

I end my thoughts here: It is not that I love the refugees less, but I love Malaysia more. Hence my humble little financial contribution to the people. And this essay for my fellow Malaysians.

Help them go back to their homeland. Safely. Yes, safely of course. I accordance with the modus operandi of the Malaysian government in treating refugees.

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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