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An Overview Of Immigrants In Malaysia

Throughout human history, migration of human beings is a pre-requisite of human progress and development. Without migration, human being would be doomed to an existence worse than that of the animals. Even animals migrate to seek a better life. The first humans migrated out of Southern Africa thousands of years ago and spread throughout the world and people have been moving about since then. People also migrate because of factors like wars, poverty, discrimination, and for political or even religious reasons. In modern times, people often migrate for security, work and even for education opportunities.

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Organised immigrant labour migration and free immigration in Malaysia took place under the British colonial administration in the 19th century. During this period, the British required immigrant labour from China, India and Indonesia to help them in the exploitation of natural resources of the colonised countries establishing plantations and building infrastructure. It is mainly because of immigrant labour provide a steady, adequate and cheap supply of workers at a time when the locals labour was either deemed unsuitable or was not interested in working under the same harsh conditions as migrant labour. This period of free movement into Malaya saw large numbers arriving to work as well as returning home. However, because of free immigration and economic difficulties in the countries of origin, many immigrant workers decide to settle down in Malaya permanently.

Malaysia’s rapid economic development since independence has relied on Malaysian workers moving from rural-to-rural and rural-to-urban areas and immigrant workers, especially from Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Asian countries. In the case of movement from rural-to-rural areas, rapid migration was swift mainly by government intervention in rural development and agriculture. Rural-to-urban migration accelerated after government intervention in urban and industrial development was stepped up, especially after the second Malaysia Plan.

The “push” and “pull” factors at the international level in the region also caused workers to migrate to Malaysia for employment. The accelerated economic development programmes and the sustained high economic growth rates in Malaysia over approximately three decades caused the influx of immigrant workers to meet the increasing demand in the Malaysian labour market.


There are many theories that attempt to explain why people migrate. Among others is the “need and stress theory” [30] . This theory holds that every individual has got his own needs to be fulfilled. These needs take various forms including economic, social, psychological and cultural. The higher the chances that an individual’s needs will not able to be fulfilled, the higher the stress he suffers from. If this stress grows beyond tolerable limits, the individual will force himself to move to a different area, which seems to promise possible fulfilment of his needs.

The migration of people from one country to another country is not a new phenomena. Since early days of colonialism, the colonial powers travelled around the world in search for raw material and new territory. Some of them moved to seek for freedom of worship and some even moved because of the instability of the government. The migration of Muslims from British India to form an Islamic state of Pakistan is one of the biggest voluntary migrations in history [31] .

Wars and conflicts are another reason for mass movements of people and this kind of movement is categorized as refuges. Because of the situation are so serious, the international consciences were moved and many voluntary organisations were formed to assist these refugees. The Vietnamese Boat People is a good example of the mass movement of people of this nature. Today, we still can see refugees fleeing their country because of war and a good example is the latest situation in Liberia and Sudan. These people who enter another country through unofficial channels are known as illegal immigrants who later, may create problem to the host country.

In modern days, seeking for a better life and a stable economy become the main factors that influences migration. Sociologist have long analysed migration in terms of the “push-pull” model [32] . This model differentiates between push factors that drive people to leave home from pull factors that attract migrants to a new location. Push factors occurs within sending states, that is, those that send migrants abroad, while the pull factors occur within receiving states, that is states that received migrants from abroad. Push factors are negative aspects of the sending country, while pull factors are positive aspects of the receiving country [33] . In fact, these differentiating factors are really two sides of the same coin.

In moving migrants must not only see a lack of benefits at home but also a surplus of benefits abroad. There are also more ambiguous factors, called network factors that can either facilitate or deter migration. Generally, the network factors are the networks of friends and relatives already settled in destination countries that serve as sources of information and anchor communities for newcomers [34] . The network factors also include, cost of travel, the ease of communication and international business trend. These factors are not related to a specific country, but still have a profound effect on international migration.

The Pull Factor

Generally, there are two factors attracting migrants to receiving countries. First, the higher standards of living and higher wages; economic provide the both biggest push and pull factors for potential migrants [35] . Second, Labour Demand; almost all developed countries have found that they need immigrant labour. Rich economies create millions of jobs that domestic workers refuse to fill but immigrant workers will cross borders to take [36] . In the case of Malaysia, a wave of labour migration began in the early 70’s where shortage of labour became critical especially in the plantation sectors. In mid 80’s, the labour shortage becomes acute and this has attracted more immigrant workers into the country.

The Push Factor

Generally, there are several reasons driving people to emigrate from their home country. First, lack of jobs/poverty; economic provides the main reason behind migration [37] . In some countries jobs simply do not exist for a great deal of the population. In others, the gap between the rewards of labour in the sending and receiving country are great enough so as to warrant a move. Second, civil strife, war, political and religious persecution; some migrants are impelled to cross national borders by war or persecution at home [38] . Some of these migrants end up in receiving countries as refugees or asylum seekers. Third, environmental problems [39] ; environmental problems and natural disasters often cause the loss of money, homes and jobs.

The Networking

The demand-pull of jobs is linked to the supply push of low wages and joblessness by migration networks. Migration network encompasses everything that enables people to learn about opportunities abroad and take advantage of them. Others are motivated to go abroad by family members who are working or settled down in the host country, contractors, labour brokers and other often-shadowy middlemen or “tekong” who promise the migrants better deals.


The theory of migration occurs because of the “sending” and “receiving’ factors mainly due to the “push-pull” and “supply-demand” forces. The influx of immigrant workers to Malaysia is not a recent phenomena. Malaysia replicates the complexity of international migration that exercises both of imports and exports of labour. Better economic growth and Malaysia’s geographical location that shares common borders with it neighbouring countries has become a “pull-factor” for migration to Malaysia. In contrast, the economic disparity, inequality and poverty in the country of origin serve as the “push-factor” for them to migrate, looking for jobs and better living. Generally, there are many other reasons why these immigrant workers choose Malaysia as their destination. First, Malaysia geographical location, second, the stable and sound government, third, labours shortage, fourth, higher wages and finally, the employer attitudes.

Geographical Location

Malaysia geographical location, which is in the centre of South East Asia is easily accessible either by land or sea. In addition, the easy access and the shortage of enforcing agencies along the extended shores and entry points into Malaysia have caused the entry of many illegal immigrants undetected.

Stable and Sound Government

Since independence, Malaysia has been governed by a stable government and with sound economic growth. This political and economical stability has become the main attraction for migration. Comparatively, Malaysia has been seen as the most stable nation in this region in comparison to her neighbours. As such, others have regarded this country as an “oasis” in the region.

Labour Shortage

Malaysia has been experiencing a very high level of industrial development and it has developed further to be classified as a newly industrialized country. Therefore, from the human assets perspective the country has generated a huge demand of the work force especially unskilled workers for immediate employment in the industrial and manufacturing sectors. The labour shortage in Malaysia has become an important issues and employing immigrant workers is considered to be the most viable short-term solution.

Higher Wages

Generally, the immigrant workers in Malaysia can be regarded as an economic migrant. Comparatively, Malaysian employers pay higher wages to the immigrant workers for a similar job back home. This situation is made even worse, where the wages offered is considered low for the local workers. Thus, it opens the job opportunities to the immigrant workers.

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The Employer Attitude

The Malaysian employers attitude is also another “pulling factors” that attracted foreign workers. Beside that, it is suspected that there has been a simultaneous entry of huge number of illegal workers as well. Similar to the legal workers, the illegal workers were also employed in the construction, manufacturing and service sectors at a very low wage rate. It is a known fact that employers prefer this arrangement for various reasons such as a lower overhead cost and preventing them from registering to the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), Social Security Organization (SOCSO), medical and social benefits. For the illegal immigrants, because of their unlawful status, they become less demanding in terms of salary and other privileges. As for the employers, in order to boost their production, the illegal immigrant workers can be easily employed to work extra hours with minimum wages.


Most of the immigrant workers in Malaysia came from her neighbouring countries; Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand [40] . However, in early 90’s, immigrant workers from Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and few other countries started to dominate the Malaysia’s labour workforce. Therefore, it is only realistic to identify the country of origin of the immigrant workers and examine the “push” factors that make them migrate to this country.


Being the largest country in this region with 1.9 million sq km, Indonesia is facing administrative problems in trying to govern the nations vast regions equally. To develop the whole country, it requires massive effort and resources and this have created a gap between the provinces. Some parts of the country enjoy multi multi-fold development while others are still left far behind [41] .

The problems of socio-economy seem to have centred on its big population, since Indonesia is the fourth most populous country with approximately 225 million. The Indonesian economy is dependence on oil and gas, plywood, textiles, rubber and palm oil. However, the limited resources and infrastructure available were not adequate to accommodate the demands of growing population [42] . This among other factors has caused poverty, which is estimated 24% of its population. Beside that, unprecedented turmoil in recent years, first the Asian financial crisis, followed by the fall of President Suharto, the first free election since 1960, the loss of East Timor, independence demands from restive provinces, bloody inter-ethnic and religious conflict and devastating tsunami had worsen the economic situation, increased the inflation and unemployment rates.


Like Indonesia, Thailand is also facing the problem of poverty, where 80% of the population lives in the rural areas and most of them are poor farmers. The reason is simple; the Thai government is concentrating more on defence rather than the socio-economy development of the country.


The Philippines, which consist of 3,666 islands, is facing almost similar problem like Indonesia in terms of administration and developments of the provinces. Beside that, religious conflict between Islam and Christian has imposed serious threat to the country. This is coupled with the uneven development between the provinces, which has created a disparity situation amongst the citizen while the armed revolution by the militant groups in Southern Philippines post a major threat to its internal security.


This small country with a large population is facing many problems. The high rates of poverty and political instability of the country has influenced the citizen to look for better opportunities in other countries. The country also constantly experiences natural disaster such as floods and drought, which made the situation worst.


The “close policy” of Myanmar to the outside world is one of the reasons for the backwardness of the country. The poverty rates is very high amongst the population of 85% Buddhist. Being a poor country, Myanmar faces the same socio-economy problem and political instability, which hinder the development of the country.


With its ancient culture and the Himalaya as a backdrop, the landlocked Kingdom of Nepal has for many years been the destination of choice for foreign travellers in search of adventure. The country with an area of 147,181 sq km and 26.3 million people is one of the poorest countries in the world where more than 40% of its population is estimated to live in poverty. Being a landlocked country with limited agriculture and other industries, Nepal economy relies mainly on tourist industries.

However, the current political turmoil and the growing Maoist guerrilla insurgency movement that keeps the tourist away are now undermining the Nepal economies. Maoist rebels have been waging a campaign against the constitutional monarchy in a conflict that has left more than 11,000 people dead since it started in 1996. Based on the UN reports, it is indicated that, the rebellion has displaced more than 100,000 people [43] . Nepal also has been at odds with neighbouring Bhutan over the repatriation of thousands of refugees living in camps in Nepal. The refugees, Bhutanese of Nepalese descent fled violence in their homeland in early 1990s. With these ongoing problems, worsen economy and political situation has drive away the people to look for a better living in other countries.

Other Countries

Other than the countries mentioned, there are also immigrant workers from India, Pakistan, China, Middle East and even African countries. These countries are also facing the same socio-economy problem and political instability. However, the numbers is not as high as the other immigrants from the Malaysia’s neighbouring countries. Some enter the country legally but had extended their stay although their visa had expired. Their main reason in doing so is to earn a better living in this country.


In summary, Malaysia needs the immigrant workers for the development, but their presence should not dominate the labour work force because they will definitely pose some positive and negative impact as well as threat to the national security. The positive and negative impact of their presence varies. From the economic perspective, their employment helped the continuous development and economic growth of the country by filling the gap of the acute labour shortages. On contrary, their presence and employment depress wages and this has reduced the competitiveness of local workers and frustrates attempt made by the trade unions to improve their working terms and conditions. A productive and competitive workforce is crucial for Malaysia in order to develop a knowledge-based economy and to achieve its aspiration of becoming a fully developed nation. However, most of the immigrant workers are unskilled or semi skilled labours with lower academic background. Therefore, the government has to formulate a comprehensive policy governing this requirement, which will definitely incur extra cost and procedures to the employer. As a result of this bureaucracy, the employer often blamed the process of importing workers as being lengthy and tedious process. Therefore, they recruited illegal workers who are readily available for employment.

Socially, being less educated, poor and lower social class, these immigrants workers seem to be un-stabled economically, physically and mentally. As a result, negative competitions for a better living can emerged from these situations. For example; their incursion into non-designated jobs like petty trading imposes unnecessary competition to the local traders. They also compete with the locals for cheaper housing especially in the urban areas, which resulted the rise in rental and short supply of houses. Some of them are even move into developing new illegal squatters and this has impose strain on the basic amenities in the areas. Any slightest conflicts resulted from this competition might turn into social clashes between the immigrants and the locals.

Immigrant workers have also been seen as a threat to security and political stability. This stems from their ignorance of the country’s law. This can be seen from various activities such as, illegal entry, involve in criminal activities, over staying, opening government land illegally, and many others. These activities will definitely have serious implication on security. Illegal entry for examples, implies that Malaysia’s has porous borders and was unable protect the borders, allowing not only economic migrants to come through but also any subversive elements. Illegal entry will also enables those with contagious diseases to filter through and spread it to the population.


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