Malaysia’s experience with Covid-19 shows how quickly fortunes can change when dealing with a pandemic. For the most part of 2020, the country seemed to have things under control, even as neighbouring Singapore saw a massive surge in cases. In August 2020, foreign diplomats in Malaysia even congratulated the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (or the king) for the country’s “exemplary success in controlling and coping with the spread of Covid-19”. Earlier in the year, the World Health Organisation and Chinese authorities praised the Southeast Asian country for its containment efforts. All this praise was warranted considering that up till October, Malaysia had fewer than 13,000 Covid-19 cases – only about a quarter of Singapore’s total at that time.
By the end of the year, however, things had changed for the worse. The total number of infections had ballooned to 100,000, and in January, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced nationwide movement restrictions to curb the soaring number of cases.
What went wrong?
Malaysia’s initial success in containing the virus could be attributed to the country’s early response. In less than two months after the first case of Covid-19 in Malaysia, a Movement Control Order (M.C.O.) was enforced. It prohibited all movements other than for employment or consumption within a narrow range of essential sectors. Even outdoor exercise was banned, with over 20,000 arrested for movement violations. Aggressive contact tracing, strategic mobile testing and clear public messaging all played a part in the nationwide Covid-19 strategy.
In May, however, there were warning signs from neighbouring Singapore. A huge outbreak in migrant worker dormitories in the city-state had created concerns about a potential outbreak in Malaysia’s migrant worker population. Non-governmental Organisations and human rights activists had expressed concerns about Malaysia’s “brimming dorms and hostels”. To add fuel to the fire, a report released also showed that 90% of foreign workers in Malaysia were not provided with regulation-compliant housing. This means that many of the dorms lack even proper running water and sanitation facilities.
To its credit, the Malaysian government did implement some policies in response to the Singaporean experience. In April, it placed Kuala Lumpur neighbourhoods with cases of Covid-19 among migrant workers under tight lockdown, and in May, it ordered that all migrant workers across the country be tested. While the testing was supposed to be completed in five months, as of February 19, it remains unfinished. It is also to be noted that testing is unlikely to include many undocumented migrant workers and refugees in Malaysia.
Migrant Worker Woes
Migrant workers in Malaysia have been bearing the brunt of the pandemic. Outbreaks in factories and dormitories have accelerated the spread of the virus in the country, and has exaggerated the already existing issues that migrant workers face. Broadly categorised, there are five such of these issues that the pandemic has made more pronounced.
Migrant workers who are occupied in the country’s construction industry live in extremely cramped ghettos called ‘kongsi’ houses, leaving no room for social distancing. Coupled with unhygienic conditions, these houses become petri-dishes for the virus to spread. Even during the pandemic, authorities found that most workers staying in these houses did not have access to personal protective equipment like masks and hand sanitizers. Many also worked in logging industries near these dorms, which meant that the living quarters would always be filled with sawdust and mud.
On-going immigration raids instil fear and create new clusters
There are around 2 to 4 million undocumented migrants and refugees living in Malaysia, according to the International Organisation for Migration. To put things into perspective, that is greater than the 2 million registered foreign workers in the country. While immigration remains a contentious issue in Malaysia and many other societies, a response to Covid-19 is only effective when it encompasses the entire population.
Initially, Malaysian authorities seemed to have understood that this was the case. At the start of March, the Minister of Defence made a public assurance that anyone coming forward to get tested or treated would not be arrested due to their immigration status. However, just two months later in May, authorities conducted raids in the downtown neighbourhood of Masjid India in Kuala Lumpur, home to over 100,000 Rohingya refugees. 7,551 foreigners were checked, following which 1,368 undocumented migrants including those from Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan were detained. Out of those arrested, 98 were children. Then, when these individuals were sent to immigration detention centres, clusters were formed in these overcrowded holding areas. It was also in these detention centres that Malaysia saw its first Covid-19 fatality where a 67 year old man from India had succumbed to the virus. Experts say this will only go onto drive undocumented migrants even more underground, hampering efforts at contact tracing in a population whose exact numbers cannot even be verified by authorities.
Since then, there have been more promises made by the government. In November 2020, it announced that undocumented migrants stuck in the country would be allowed to work in certain industries. Just this week, the minister in charge of immunisation coordination also made assurances that undocumented immigrants would not be arrested when they turn up to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. While these are obviously positive developments, years of distrust between stakeholders, compounded by the broken promises earlier in the pandemic has resulted in a situation where there is a “trust deficit”. Undocumented immigrants might hide instead of getting vaccinated due to the possible threat of detention, while NGOs might not share information with the government given its hard-line position on refugees.
Believe it or not, Malaysia’s glove making industry is the biggest in the world, accounting for well over 60% of the world’s supply. The pandemic has only enriched these companies and their executives as global demand for their goods have increased exponentially. In fact, the pandemic has minted another Malaysian billionaire from glove manufacturing last year.
The wealth and prosperity does not seem to have trickled down. Malaysia’s biggest cluster was formed in Top Glove’s factories in Meru, Klang. Top Glove, the world’s largest medical-grade glove maker had 28 factories in the district, almost all of which employed migrant workers. As of now, more than 5,000 of these workers were infected, with the Labour Department promising to file charges against Top Glove. Investigations revealed that many of its migrant workers were living in poorly ventilated, cramped hostels that accelerated the spread of Covid-19. The firm had to shut down 28 of its factories at the end of last year to conduct mass testing across its employees. Amidst this crisis, U.S. customs also barred imports from the company due to concerns around forced labour.
Beyond these factories, clusters also concentrate around several construction sites. If we look at the 499 active clusters, you would see that the highest number of cases are concentrated around the Damar Construction Site Cluster, the Segambut Road Construction Site Cluster, and the Cyber Industry Cluster (161 cases).
Loss of Employment and Hunger
Many migrant workers also faced unemployment, irregular employment or hunger due to lockdown measures. Before the introduction of the original Movement Control Order, employers were instructed by the government to limit their human resources to 50% of their total workforce. This effectively meant that many migrant workers saw a drastic reduction their wages, or no income at all for almost three months. For legal immigrants, there were also fears about their immigration status since their work passes needed to be annually renewed by employers.
Food insecurity and hunger also became more prevalent due to the pandemic. On the first level, for migrant workers living outside big cities, restrictions on travel and mobility meant that access to grocery shops and markets was diminished. Secondly, migrant workers without proper documentation were also afraid of getting caught considering the increased surveillance during lockdown. While there was some assistance deployed by trade unions and civil society, the International Labour Organisation argued that this was inadequate. Particularly, aid was unable to be distributed in areas under the Enhanced Movement Control Order (EMCO).
Despite drawing international criticism, many Malaysians have supported the immigration raids on refugees. Xenophobic sentiments, particularly aimed at the Rohingya, have become more prevalent during the pandemic. Some Malaysians have blamed migrant workers for the accelerating outbreak in Malaysia, even though numbers have apparently shown higher infection rates in the local community than amongst migrant communities. According to researchers from the Malaysian Institute of Strategic & International Studies, these sentiments already existed before the pandemic and reflected “deep-seated prejudices and resentment toward such communities”. They were also spread and propagated rapidly through the use of disinformation on social media platforms and messaging applications.
As Malaysia undergoes its second major national lockdown, foreign migrant workers are being moved to hotels in order to abate transmissions. The monthly rent for a hotel room would be around RM200 (SGD 65.54) per worker, with additional charges to cover electricity and water. Amenities such as laundry and food would have to be covered by either the worker or their employer.
Meanwhile in Singapore, many migrant workers are still under lockdown, with the government announcing that they will relax movement restrictions under a pilot scheme that will take place in the first three months of this year. National Development Minister Lawrence Wong had sketched out plans for new dormitories to be built for 100,000 workers with “better standards”. Some of the proposed improvements include increased spaces for individual residents, fewer single-deck beds in each room as well as additional toilets, sick bays and isolation facilities.
Labour rights activists in Malaysia have also expressed concerns about cramped and unsanitary dormitory conditions. The Human Resource Ministry’s senior assistant director has vouched for more surprise inspections across dormitories in the country, as well as stricter compliance with housing standards.
Both countries have seen disproportionate impacts being borne by disempowered groups, prompting wider policy reforms in both dormitories and prisons — a move welcomed by civil society groups and migrant workers alike.