Book Review



The Indonesian Exodus to Malaysia

By Sidney Jones

Hong Kong: Asia 2000 Ltd and

University of Wollongong: Centre for Asia Pacific Transformation Studies, 2000

157 pages


This slim volume by Sidney Jones provides us with a better understanding of what Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia (both legal as well as illegal) have to undergo in their quest to escape unemployment or underemployment and grinding poverty at home. Reading it enables one to put a human face on abstract theories of migration that emphasise “push” and “pull” factors, or view migration as just another way to enhance “human capital”.


Ordinary Malaysians typically encounter Indonesian migrants in the form of male construction, plantation or timber workers and female domestic, food service or janitorial workers. Indonesians constitute one of the largest groups of foreign workers who do what Jones calls the “3-D jobs” (difficult, dangerous or dirty) that Malaysians shun in good economic times. As with all immigrant groups that insert themselves into a foreign society at its lowest levels, negative stereotypes about them abound, e.g., they are blamed for contributing to higher crime rates and other social ills as well as for the proliferation of squalid “squatter” settlements in Malaysian cities and towns.


Although reports of cases of abuse of Indonesian workers (especially domestics) appear in the Malaysian mass media from time to time, public awareness of their vulnerability to victimization is low. Jones does a good job of discussing how they can be victimized at all stages of the odyssey from various parts of Indonesia to Peninsular and East Malaysia. Indonesian workers - especially illegal workers - are also vulnerable to abuse and exploitation after arrival. According to Jones, those who victimize them include the people who smuggle them into Malaysia (often members of syndicates who make a lot of money from the smuggling of human beings), labour contractors, employers, and corrupt or brutal immigration and law enforcement officials – both in Indonesia and in Malaysia. The more egregious cases of victimization include the kidnapping or tricking of women in Indonesia into forced prostitution in Malaysia, debt slavery, nonpayment of wages for extended periods of time, beatings and abuse of domestics (including physical, verbal, psychological and sexual abuse) and inhumane working hours and bad working conditions. If proven to be true, alleged harsh conditions, malnutrition and ill-treatment in Malaysian detention camps established to house illegal migrant workers awaiting deportation can also be included in this category of victimization.          


One major omission of this book is its lack of a theoretical perspective. References to the scholarly literature on labour migration are on the sparse side - endnotes consist largely of items from the mass media in Malaysia and Indonesia such as major newspapers and popular periodicals. A second major omission is its lack of a thorough discussion of the research methodology. We are told that the author interviewed migrant workers but no details are given about the number of interviewees or their demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Thus, one is unable to determine whether the author has managed to interview a reasonably representative sample of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia. Jones mentions in various places that Malaysian employers who are faced with labour shortages are happy to employ (and often to exploit) them. Jones also mentions that the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) opposes immigration of foreign workers because of the downward pressure that foreign workers exert on local wages. It would be helpful if there were more detailed discussions of how they are exploited (especially workers who are not domestics) and also, on the nature of relations and tensions between Indonesian workers and local workers. Nevertheless, in spite of all these omissions, this book remains a useful contribution to studies of Indonesian migrant workers in Malaysia. One major contribution is how the book illuminates the fact that this exodus of Indonesian workers to Malaysia is a lucrative business for many different groups of people in the country of origin as well as the country of destination. Another is Jones’ pointing out of how easy it is for deported illegal workers to slip back into the country. Jones also mentions why many Indonesians resort to illegal immigration: it is because the process of getting into Malaysia as a legal migrant is costly and too bureaucratic in nature. Hopefully, this book will contribute to a more sympathetic understanding of the hardships of foreign workers in Malaysia and more enlightened public policy toward them on the part of the Malaysian authorities.


Reviewed by: Phua Kai Lit