Why Malaysia Is Angry With an Al Jazeera Documentary on Undocumented Migrants

The controversy has spiralled into a diplomatic spat between Malaysia and Qatar.

The spat between Malaysia and Al Jazeera over COVID-19 has erupted into a big controversy, and might affect diplomatic ties between two Muslim countries – Malaysia and Qatar.

The trigger for the row was Al Jazeera‘s 26-minute documentary ‘Locked up in Malaysia’s Lockdown‘, which depicted how undocumented migrant workers are being rounded-up in a military-style crackdown and detained in camps on the pretext of implementing a coronavirus-induced lockdown.

As expected, the Malaysian government reacted very strongly to the allegations, calling them baseless and sought an apology from the Qatari TV news network.

Until now, Al Jazeera has not issued any statements but the Malaysian media – both print and social – has launched a full-throated war against it.

A group calling itself ‘bawang army (onion army)’ has appeared on Facebook, accusing Al Jazeera of tarnishing Malaysia’s image. The ‘bawang army’, which also refers to online comments of people who are always on Malaysia’s side, has launched a virulent campaign against the channel and its journalists.

Government-controlled media outlet Bernama added fuel to the fire when one of its TV talk show hosts called Al Jazeera ‘Al Jahiliyah’, a derogatory Arabic term for ignorance, which is usually used to refer to pre-Islamic Arabia. Although the host was immediately suspended, the row shows no signs of abetting. The Malaysian police has started an investigation into the entire affair and called Al Jazeera journalists and migrant workers featured in the programme to record their statements.

A senior Kuala Lumpur-based journalist, who did not want to be named, says the Al Jazeera documentary will have wider implications, both domestically and diplomatically.

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“On the diplomatic front, we are seeing an old realignment with Islamic countries. Remember that during the Barison Nasional rule, Saudi Arabia was the pivot of Malaysia’s ties with the Muslim world. But Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s second term saw a sharp change in it. Trying to emerge as the leader of the Muslim Ummah (brotherhood), Dr Mahathir called the Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 where bitter foes of Saudi Arabia – Turkey, Qatar, and Iran – were among others invited. However, this did not go well with Saudi Arabia, which not only boycotted the summit but also forced Pakistan to withdraw,” he said, adding that the Al Jazeera episode has come as a godsend opportunity for the Muhyiddin Yassin government to mend ties with Saudi Arabia even at the expense of annoying Qatar.

On the domestic front, it has exposed Malaysia’s dirty underbelly – the way it treats migrant workers, who mostly come from poor countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia and Myanmar.

“Malaysia needs to give a serious thought to the issue of undocumented migrant workers, who pay human traffickers a huge amount of money to get into Malaysia. They take loans from loan sharks and it takes years to pay them off. However, the issue of refugees is different, as they are running away from violence and persecution in their countries. But unfortunately, they are also clubbed with undocumented migrant workers,” he said.

Second, unfortunately undocumented workers have not suddenly appeared. They have been here for years and the authorities did nothing against them or the human traffickers, which brought them here, he said, adding rounding them up under the COVID-19 Movement Control Order (MCO) will not make them disappear and can prove counter-productive, as highlighted by the Al Jazeera documentary. The government must clean up its act and launch an investigation into the collusion between companies hiring undocumented migrant workers and law enforcement agencies.

Asif Ullah Khan is a freelance journalist based in Jaipur and has worked in senior editorial positions at The Times of IndiaThe Hindustan Times Khaleej Times and The Brunei Times.