On 15 May, about a week after Israeli police raided Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque during the final Friday night prayers of Ramadan, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin appeared on television to condemn Israel and put his pro-Palestinian credentials on display.
“Let us pray for [the Palestinians’] wellbeing, and may they be protected from the cruelty of this tyrannical regime, and for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land to end soon,” Muhyiddin said. He went on to list a slew of contributions his government has made toward Palestinian causes, including a donation of US$120,000 to UNRWA, the United Nations agency responsible for aiding more than 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants who have been displaced by conflict with Israel.
The raid on Al-Aqsa was the latest escalation in tensions over an Israeli court decision to evict six Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem where Palestinians have long resisted displacement by Israeli settlers. The militant Palestinian nationalist group Hamas, which governs the besieged coastal enclave of Gaza, responded to Israel’s actions by firing thousands of rockets into Israel. Israel launched 1,500 air, land and sea strikes against Gaza, displacing 72,000 Palestinians.
The day after Muhyiddin’s address, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein spoke at a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and condemned Israel further.
“We must be very clear with ourselves—what has happened in Gaza are nothing but crimes against humanity, and the Israeli Zionist regime is to blame,” the foreign minister said.
Throughout May, the hashtags #FreePalestine and #GazaUnderAttack trended on social media in Malaysia for several days, while local mosques and even skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur displayed the colours of the Palestinian flag in solidarity.
But even as Malaysian leaders rally support for the Palestinian struggle, especially whenever violence flares up between Palestinians and the State of Israel, the same Malaysian leaders consistently disregard the rights and dignity of the hundreds of Palestinian refugees living in the country.
Rhetoric Vs. Action
Malaysia is home to nearly 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers who are registered with the UN Refugee Agency as of May 2021; 760 of these are Palestinian refugees. The government permits these refugees to stay in the country on humanitarian grounds, but since Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, and Malaysian law does not distinguish between refugees and undocumented migrants, these refugees are deprived of many basic human rights. They cannot access public services like education, their access to banking services is restricted, and they can be detained for the mere act of working.
One Palestinian refugee living in Malaysia, who requested anonymity due to fear of legal reprisals, describes his situation as “confusing”. After living in the country for five years as a refugee, his dream of earning a master’s degree in business remains in limbo due to legal restrictions.
“When I came here, I had no idea about the situation of refugees. I was shocked to know that as a refugee, I had no chance to join a public or even a private university,” he tells New Naratif.
For successive Malaysian governments, support for the Palestinian cause only extends as far as its political usefulness.
Refugees like him cannot help but question the lack of a legal framework to address these hardships, especially in a country whose government has made a point of publicising scholarships for Palestinian students to come study in Malaysian universities—as long as they are not Palestinian refugees already living on Malaysian soil. (When critics of the scholarship offer complained in 2019 about taxpayer money going to foreigners instead of local students, the previous Malaysian government led by the virulently anti-Zionist Mahathir Mohamad backtracked and said the scholarships would in fact be funded privately.)
For successive Malaysian governments, support for the Palestinian cause only extends as far as its political usefulness. In March 2018, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition released a manifesto that pledged to give refugees the right to work and to “ratify the 1951 International Convention on Refugees” in order to “help our brothers more meaningfully”. This would have made a significant improvement in the lives of hundreds of displaced Palestinians, not to mention the tens of thousands of other refugees living in Malaysia. But after Mahathir and PH won the general election and became Malaysia’s ruling coalition in May 2018, none of those changes were implemented. Instead, the PH government blocked UN Refugee Agency officials from accessing migrant detention centres in August 2019.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional coalition, which brought down the PH government in a February 2020, has taken an even more hostile approach toward migrants and refugees, despite paying lip service to the Palestinian cause. In May 2020, Malaysian police launched a series of immigration raids in Kuala Lumpur and sent more than 2,200 refugees and migrants to detention centres, where many were exposed to COVID-19 and threatened with deportation.
It appears that every successive Malaysian government has two things in common: with their words, they support Palestinians—one of the world’s largest refugee populations—but with their actions, they oppress the refugees living under their care.
Malaysia’s support for the Palestinian struggle is nearly as old as Malaysia itself, but it has always been strategic. Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman rebuffed Israeli overtures toward diplomatic relations in order to court support from Muslim countries in the Middle East in Malaysia’s confrontation with Indonesia between 1963 and 1966. Tunku’s government prevented Israeli diplomats from entering the country, took positions against Israel at the UN and announced in 1966 that Malaysia no longer recognised Israel. Over the next few decades, Malaysia was Southeast Asia’s strongest backer of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
But this stance has long been tarnished by a blatant contradiction: Malaysia’s hostility toward other refugee populations—even Muslim ones, like the Rohingya.
“When I came here, I had no idea about the situation of refugees. I was shocked to know that as a refugee, I had no chance to join a public or even a private university.”
In May, as the death toll in Gaza climbed, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin pledged to protect Palestinians living in Malaysia in response to unconfirmed reports of Israeli security threats against Palestinian figures abroad.
“The government of Malaysia again emphasises its stands to continue to support the aspirations and struggles of the Palestinian people,” Hamzah said in a statement.
This was the same minister who, in April 2020, responded to a viral fake news story about a Rohingya refugee community leader demanding Malaysian citizenship by saying Rohingya refugees have “no status, rights or basis” to make demands of the Malaysian government.
“The government does not recognise their status as refugees but as illegal immigrants holding [UN Refugee Agency] cards,” Hamzah said at the time.
The same government that has promised to support and protect Palestinians in Malaysia deported more than 1,000 people back to Myanmar in February, defying a court order and appeals from rights groups to stop the repatriation process. A Malaysian official claimed Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers were not among those who were deported, but rights groups said some of the deportees were asylum seekers from ethnic minority groups who had fled persecution in Myanmar.
When it comes to human rights, Malaysia likes to pick and choose whose to uphold and whose to violate. When there is no political benefit to aiding certain refugees, Malaysian leaders show no moral qualms leaving them out in the cold.
When The Hashtags Fade
On 20 May, Israel and Hamas announced a ceasefire in Gaza after 11 days of fighting. Among the hundreds of Palestinians and dozen Israelis killed in the fighting were more than 60 children in Gaza and two in Israel. But even after the ceasefire, Hamas has continued launching incendiary balloons toward Israel, and Israel has responded with airstrikes. Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah continue to resist the Israeli court’s decision to evict them from their homes. Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians have not changed, but the world’s attention has, even in purportedly pro-Palestinian Malaysia.
Public messages of solidarity are important, but they must be backed up by action. Sound bites alone will not help Palestinian and other refugees in Malaysia pursue higher education, land stable jobs, earn a living wage, or live in peace with their human rights secured. Only real and effective policy changes can ensure the protection of their rights.
But if Malaysia’s anti-refugee policies endure, and if Malaysia’s hypocritical, empty lip service to the Palestinian cause goes unchallenged, there is little reason to believe refugees in Malaysia—Palestinian or otherwise—will be able to thrive in a land far from home.