Malaysia likes to portray itself as a tolerant and multicultural country, with its ethnic and religious diversity touted as a major selling point for attracting tourists and investors alike.
But this image has been tarnished in recent years as tensions increase between Malaysians and the country’s growing African population. This friction has marred the smiling faces extolling “Malaysia, Truly Asia” that festoon tourism posters in airports around the world. The portrait of a “truly Asian” Malaysia appears, for many Malaysians, to largely exclude Africans.
On the face of it, this appears bizarre, given Malaysia’s cosmopolitan nature. Lacking the homogeneity and single-minded vision of citizenship characterizing places like South Korea or Japan, Malaysia would appear to be a prime candidate for welcoming Africans into its fold. Unfortunately, the country has failed to capitalize on its potential, with Africans in Malaysia experiencing frequent discrimination and racism.
To begin with, Malaysia seems an unlikely place for mass immigration from Africa, yet the Southeast Asian nation has increasingly become a favored destination for international students and healthcare tourism. Africans looking for academic opportunities and/or healthcare can enjoy high standards of both for a fraction of the cost of similar services in more traditional destinations like Europe.
Malaysia invests heavily in Africa
Moreover, Malaysia has silently built up a substantial investment portfolio in Africa, capitalizing on decades of engagement with the continent. In fact, in 2011 alone Malaysia invested US$19 billion in Africa, making the capital, Kuala Lumpur, not Beijing, Africa’s largest partner. Malaysia’s dominance in the palm-oil industry also ties it to Africa, where it is looking to expand, aided by the fact the oil palm is native to many West African states.
Malaysia’s status as a modern Muslim country also provides it with greater access to Muslim-majority African countries, especially given Malaysia’s role in the halal food and services sectors. Lastly, Malaysia’s leading role in the Islamic finance — or sukuk — sector allows it to further augment its disproportionate footprint in Africa.
These connection have, in recent years, led to a sharp increase in the number of Africans immigrating to and working in Malaysia. With more traditional destinations in Europe restricting access in the wake of the regional migrant crisis, Africans are turning to Asia for opportunities. To this end, 25,467 Africans were granted student visas in 2012, with more than 70,000 Africans moving to Malaysia in the same year. Figures for 2013 — the most recent available data — show more than 79,000 Africans entering the country.
Relations between Malaysia’s established ethnic groups are not always harmonious, so a certain apprehension of the unknown directed at Malaysia’s newest demographic is expected
The new phenomenon that is mass immigration from Africa goes some way to explaining the — at best reserved — response from ordinary Malaysians. Relations between Malaysia’s established ethnic groups are themselves not always harmonious, so a certain apprehension of the unknown directed at Malaysia’s newest demographic is expected. Nevertheless, the real problem is when this apprehension metastasizes into prejudice.
Africans in Malaysia are singled out based on skin color, with little no allowance for the nuances that a billion-plus, 54-country continent naturally entails. “The media, in some ways, is responsible for this,” argues Kofi Addo, a Ghanaian embassy employee: “Every article where Africans have been involved in a crime or immigration issue, their country of origin is never clarified. They are just Africans … Most of us are here legally and make an honest living. It’s time [the media] started reporting on the contribution we make to this country.”
That being said, some positive coverage has been seen in reporting on the merits and accomplishments of African soccer players in Malaysian clubs; high-profile positions which help transform perceptions about Africans in the country.
Nevertheless, anti-African sentiment is common in social media, but also in the traditional media, as seen by the widely read 2014 editorial in one of Malaysia’s top Malay-language dailies — Utusan Malaysia. The article in question lamented about the spate of negative stories involving Africans and mused on the feasibility of Africans successfully integrating into Malaysian society.
These generalizations and skewed press coverage are reflected in the blanket term Awang Hitam — which roughly translates to “black guy”; although this translation lacks the term’s pejorative connotations. The term has entered public discourse and reflects a state of mind that seems to cut across Malaysian society.
Complaints tar all Africans equally
Many Malaysians point to a perceived increase in crime and general disturbances in the wake of increased African immigration. Specifically, cultural differences see many locals chafe at public drunkenness and general rowdiness. While Muslim Africans are more accustomed to these norms, complaints about suggestive clothing, solicitation and the harassment of women tar all Africans equally in the eyes of many Malaysians.
Fears about propriety and threats to local women are universal complaints of any majority confronted with a new societal element, and as such are often exaggerated. A perfect example of such exaggerated, misplaced fears was the phobia surrounding West Africans (and by extension all Africans) in Malaysia during the 2014 Ebola scare. With a tiny handful of cases (all negative) in Malaysia, notably the well-reported case of Zimbabwean student contracting flu-like symptoms from visiting Nigerian colleagues, there was no real danger from Ebola. Nevertheless, marked avoidance of Africans and other “precautionary” measures were seen, as Africans as a group were seen as potential disease carriers.
Legitimate concerns do exist, such as those regarding the emergence of (mainly Nigerian) online frauds and other scams. A pre-existing problem in West Africa but relatively new in Malaysia, such schemes (aided by Malaysia’s solid internet infrastructure) burden the African community in the country with an unpleasant stereotype. The favored target of such scams is American women, with the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur registering a dozen new cases a week.
Drug offences a concern for Malaysians
Furthermore, a more serious concern for Malaysians is the growing number of drug-related offences involving Africans. Malaysia’s harsh anti-narcotics legislation imposes the death penalty for drug smuggling, with two Nigerians sentenced to death in 2015. More recently, three South Africans were (despite pleas from Pretoria) sentenced to death in late April 2017.
The association between foreigners and drug smuggling is not a new one in Malaysia, nor are Africans any more guilty than other groups, as the number of Asian and Caucasian inmates in Malaysian jails testifies. The heightened media focus which surrounds cases involving Africans creates a perception that there is a stronger correlation than actually exists. Moreover, spurred by tales of success many Africans arrive in Malaysia to find various barriers to formal employment. Short on funds and in a foreign land, some enter the drug trade in order to make easy money.
“Do you think I haven’t tried the usual legal means of making money in Kuala Lumpur?” laments an anonymous drug smuggler. “I am just a black monkey to these Asians.”
‘No Africans’ flyers appear in condos
Concern about disorderly conduct and criminality has seen Africans face increased difficulties in accessing services, with some housing units explicitly banning African tenants. In 2013, a condo in Bandar Sri Subang instituted a blanket ban on new African tenants, with existing occupants being given three months to vacate the building. A similar instance also occurred in the Klang Valley were “No Africans” flyers were distributed in various condominium buildings. Surprisingly, the same condo in Subang has recently attempted another African ban four years after its 2013 effort, with all African tenants to vacate the building by January 7 this year.
The position of Africans in Malaysia has recently entered Malaysian political discourse in an interesting way. Malaysia’s international standing was severely damaged by the revelations of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) embezzlement scandal involving Prime Minister Najib Razak, yet Razak has managed to cling to power. This is a major sticking point with Malaysian opposition parties, including the Democratic Opposition Party led by Lim Kit Siang. With the next election less than nine months away, a 2013 video of Kenyan political leader Raila Odinga was posted November 11.
In the video, Odinga talks about corruption, and specifically references Malaysia. He also tells a joke about corruption involving African and Malaysian officials. The video has been trending in Malaysia, with Siang publicly remarking on it. Speaking on the video he argued that:
“This is a sign of the slump of Malaysia’s international standing and reputation, that instead of Malaysians making Africa the butt of jokes about corruption, Malaysia has become the butt of jokes of Africans [at] international conferences about corruption and kleptocracy.”
The timing of the video’s upload would suggest that it is part of a political gambit to criticize the current government. Siang’s claim that the video demonstrates how out of sync the natural order is (that is, Malaysians the joke makers, Africans the “joke”) plays to existing feelings of superiority over and distrust vis-a-vis Africans.
Veering close to dog-whistle politics for “Afrophobes,” Siang’s statements also act to counter claims that he and his party disproportionately favor Malaysia’s Chinese minority. Odinga, and by extension Africans become a convenient means to deflect anti-Chinese sentiments, instead taking aim at the one group all Malaysians can agree on distrusting.
This episode is a poignant reminder that for many Malaysians, Africans remain quintessential outsiders. Malaysia has the potential to successfully incorporate Africans into wider society. Time will tell if the country’s mantra can evolve from Truly Asia to truly welcoming.