Published in The Edge Malaysia, February 2017.
I have been fortunate that The Edge has consented to publish 44 of my columns, 42 of which I am the sole author, with the remaining two having being co-written with Dr. Nungsari Radhi, also a regular contributor to The Edge. Typically, when I write my columns, the topics I choose are borne out of a desire to add an alternative perspective – usually from an Economics view – and a belief that I was making an intellectual or reasonable point that hitherto was not being made. I do not – or at least I try my best not to – choose topics because of strong emotional reactions.
This column is different.
On the 27th of January, United States President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia – for 90 days and suspending all refugee admission for 120 days. This is an outrageous and disgusting measure. The cherry on this cake of sheer horror is that excluded from this list of seven countries are several majority-Muslim nations – which, in some cases, have also faced problematic issues with terrorism – where Donald Trump holds business interests, according to the Washington Post. So much for draining the swamp.
I have three points to make. The first is that while President Trump and his administration may argue that this executive order is not a “Muslim” ban, let us not kid ourselves. It is exactly that. The executive order targets potential immigrants and refugees from Muslim majority countries. It is detestable that a policy should so discriminate against an entire group of people simply on the basis of their religion, rather than, say, their criminal record or their gun ownership history. One can argue that one’s religion is a choice and thus, choices may be worthy of bans, but religion is, in most cases, a choice made by default for most people at birth. Let us also be clear – any time throughout history that groups of people have been persecuted because of their religion, it always ends badly.
Second, while I get the motivation to ‘protect national borders’ as advocated by supporters of this executive order, I find this motivation unfounded and shallow for two reasons. The first reason is that borders are arbitrary and man-made. We need, as a species, to loosen our grip on the idea that borders are end-all be-all constructs. The second is that, we did not get to choose where we were born. Whether you believe that where you were born is pure luck or destined by the Creator, the point remains that you do not get to choose where you were born. As such, some people win the birth lottery by being born in developed countries with political stability, a strong economy, and terrific institutions, and some people lose the birth lottery by having being born in war-torn, corrupt countries.
As such, if you were born into a privileged background, on what basis do you get to say that you ‘deserve’ the life you have, and that some other person does not? We should never forget the fact that many others may want the privileges we have, even ones as straightforward as clean drinking water, or religious freedom, or equal pay for equal work. Putting the two ideas together, if borders are inherently arbitrary and we cannot choose where we were born, saying that a Syrian cannot emigrate to the United States to seek a better fortune, is just the same as saying that a person from Maine cannot emigrate to New York to seek a better fortune. One border happens to be intra-national, the other happens to be international. Both are arbitrary. It is morally inconsistent to ban someone from migrating for reason X simply because that person did not happen to be born in your country, when you allow another person to migrate for the same reason X just because that person happened to be born in your country.
Third, the primary reason that this executive order has garnered such an emotional reaction for me is I truly fear that this situation – where flows or people are controlled based on an attribute that those people were just born into – is within the realm of possibilities for Malaysia. We saw this in the 2013 elections and we still see it today. In the 2013 elections, one of the major hot button issues was attacks on Bangladeshis (or perceived Bangladeshis) because they may commit voter fraud. There were some truly horrifying videos where groups of “peace-loving” Malaysians were beating up a lone Bangladeshi person who, if he was indeed committing voter fraud, was almost certainly coerced or bribed to do so.
Today, foreign workers are a major issue in Malaysian current events, typically viewed in negative terms. There are between two to four million migrant workers in Malaysia, with most coming from Indonesia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and the Philippines working primarily in the low-skilled services and construction industries. These foreign migrants take the blame for a whole range of social and economic issues, from crime to poor economic competitiveness. Whether or not they are actually the cause of these issues deserves a whole article altogether but just consider the notion that these workers presumably left their home countries – where their families and friends are – just to earn a better living in Malaysia. They could not choose into which country they were born; why should we deny them opportunities just because we happened to be born into a more affluent country? If we were born into their circumstances, we may do as they do. Using my analogy from earlier, it is morally inconsistent to oppose a Nepalese migrating to Malaysia to work in a restaurant while supporting a Sabahan migrating to Kuala Lumpur to work in a restaurant.
To be fair, I do see why people get the sentiment of “protecting what’s ours” and “securing our borders.” But these ‘borders’ and these ‘ours’ were, in most cases, not choices people made. I happened to be born within the arbitrary borders of a country called Malaysia but that’s not why I love Malaysia. I love Malaysia because I got to grow up in a multiracial society where I went to school and played sports with people of all backgrounds. I love Malaysia because of all the economic and social opportunities that my family and I got. I love Malaysia because it’s where I fell in love and married my wife. I love Malaysia because of its food, its beauty, its culture, its people. For all its warts, Malaysia will be home not because I happened to be born within its borders but because of the many blessings I have received while in it. As P. Diddy raps in I’m Coming Home, “It’s what made me, saved me, drove me crazy, drove me away, then embraced me, forgave me for all of my shortcomings…” I just think we should let others – especially those that did not win the birth lottery – have the opportunity to enjoy those same blessings.