Are fears over China’s citizens in Malaysia justified? What the numbers tell us

Ida Lim
Travellers queue up to check-in for their flights at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang August 24, 2019. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 22 — Fears of China’s citizens flooding Malaysia illegally have cropped up repeatedly over the past year, but are these concerns justified when we actually look at the figures?

Below are three things to note, based on what the official numbers and data say: 

1. The rumours

Such fears are not new, with the Home Ministry having to quash in November 2016 a viral claim that 235,000 Chinese tourists in Malaysia did not return to China, by pointing out Immigration Department statistics that debunked the rumour.

But such rumours targeting Chinese nationals appeared to be on overdrive at least in 2019, with certain segments of Malaysian society such as social media users and Malay political party Putra repeatedly raising the alarm with wild claims about China’s citizens.

May 2019: Putra’s vice-president Datuk Hamidah Osman reportedly claimed to have heard that more than 100,000 Chinese nationals allegedly obtained Malaysian citizenship under the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government. The Home Ministry quickly refuted this claim, noting that only 37 individuals originally from China had obtained Malaysian citizenship since the PH coalition became government on May 10, 2018 until May 15, 2019.

August 2019: A rumour spread on social media claimed three million citizens from China slipped in unauthorised to Malaysia during a system breakdown at KLIA. 

But on August 26, the Immigration Department dismissed the rumour by clarifying that it had still carried out manual checks on all foreign visitors during the system glitch, and that the system had been restored.

September 2019: 

On September 2, 2019, the National Registration Department (NRD) rebutted a fake rumour that the DAP Kepong was allegedly planning to help illegal Chinese immigrants register for Malaysian identity cards. 

The NRD clarified that the video that had went viral was an old video of the DAP Kepong’s programme in late 2018 for the NRD’s briefing session on how to apply for Malaysian citizenship and identity cards.

Just days later, the NRD again had to deny viral claims on social media that it had been issuing MyKads indiscriminately to China’s citizens, clarifying that the NRD does not give out citizenship to foreigners easily.

The official government website combating misinformation, Sebenarnya.my, has even included the government’s explanations that debunks several of these rumours regarding China’s nationals.

2. Not the biggest group

These fears appear to have been exaggerated, based on the limited statistics publicly available which show that those from China do not even form the biggest group of foreigners nabbed in Malaysia for immigration offences.

In a November 10, 2016 parliamentary reply, the Home Ministry said 295,389 illegal immigrants were nabbed in Malaysia from 2010 to September 30, 2016 for immigration offences.

Out of the 295,389 illegal immigrants arrested, the biggest group by country of origin was Indonesians with 108,077 individuals or more than one third of the total nabbed, followed by those from Myanmar (38,395), Bangladesh (36,335), the Philippines (35,983), Thailand (12,543), Nepal (12,492), India (10,607), Pakistan (9,714), Vietnam (8,442), China (5,113) at the 10th spot, Cambodia (1,973), while the remaining 15,715 are those from other nationalities.

In a November 9, 2017 parliamentary reply, the Home Ministry said 143,419 illegal immigrants were nabbed from 2015 to September 30, 2017, with Indonesians still forming the biggest group arrested at 44,450 individuals, followed by those from the Philippines (26,626), Bangladesh (26,010), and Myanmar (14,281).

The rest of the 143,419 nabbed are from Thailand (7,191), Vietnam (5,756), Pakistan (5,141), Nepal (4,362), India (4,168), Cambodia (1,709), China at the 11th spot (1,654), Nigeria (526), Sri Lanka (322), Laos (75) and others at 1,148.

The Immigration Department reportedly said in September 2019 that it had detained 36,684 illegal immigrants from January to September 10, 2019, with the biggest groups again Indonesians (12,142), followed by those from other countries such as Bangladesh (8,056), Myanmar (3,635), the Philippines (3,149), Thailand (2,127), India (2,006), Pakistan (1,436), Vietnam (1,313), China at the ninth spot (800), and Nepal (765).

Even when it comes to foreigners with valid working passes in Malaysia, China’s citizens form only a small portion or 13,305 (0.65 per cent) of 2,059,382 such foreigners as of May 31, 2019. 

Nine other nationalities outnumber Chinese citizens registered to work here as of May 31, 2019, namely those from Indonesia (726,158 or 35.26 per cent), Bangladesh (584,518), Nepal (327,529), Myanmar (125,675), India (120,639), Pakistan (63,270), the Philippines (53,447), Vietnam (18,830), and Thailand (15,791).

As for the number of Chinese citizens seeking to remain in Malaysia legally via long-term passes, the Immigration Department received 19,959 applications for new passes or extensions from January to September 26, 2019. Long-term passes include social visit passes, entry permits, passes for spouses or dependants or passes under the Malaysia My Second Home programme.

3. Reason for negative perception

A hint of the Malaysian government’s cautious attitude in the past can be seen in a March 2015 parliamentary reply, where the Home Ministry explained the necessity of visas for Chinese citizens to act as a form of early screening process.

The Home Ministry had then noted reports of Chinese citizens’ alleged involvement in “immoral activities” such as working as guest relation officers, in massage parlours, and in prostitution, as well of complaints from wives of allegedly being neglected by their husbands due to relations with women from China, and purported marriage of conveniences where local men are paid to marry Chinese women to enable them to obtain long-term passes.

Citing police’s 2013-2014 statistics of 8,648 arrests over prostitution and the Immigration Department’s 2014 records of 530 Chinese immigration offenders, the Home Ministry had then in 2015 highlighted that these were figures under existing visa requirements while also expressing concern that allowing visa exemptions would cause a drastic increase in such cases due to the lack of a proper screening system.

In an August 10, 2017 parliamentary reply however, China’s nationals were again not the biggest group of foreigners nabbed in prostitution crackdowns, but were among the biggest at 9,602 out of 51,594 arrested during 2013-June 2017. Other sizeable groups were those from Vietnam (19,342), Thailand (14,591), Indonesia (3,867) and the Philippines (1,126).

Analysts who spoke to Malaysia had among other things spoken of negative sentiments and perception against Chinese citizens amid the backdrop of an alleged ongoing campaign to fan racial tension in efforts to dislodge the Pakatan Harapan government.

The Malaysian government was later seen relaxing entry requirements for tourists from China by introducing in 2016 the eNTRI scheme that allowed visa-free entry for 15-day visits, before expanding this scheme to tourists from India in 2017.

This conditional visa waiver scheme has been the subject of some controversy, following the auditor-general’s findings in its 2018 report released last year that there were no records in the Immigration Department’s system of exit dates for 76,258 (95.6 per cent) of 79,799 Chinese tourists who entered the country in 2016-2018 via eNTRI.

But the Immigration Department has explained that such statistics were due to technical issues in the systems and that the actual figure of Chinese tourists who had not left was 18,341.

Despite the clarification on actual figures and the Home Ministry pointing out that this scheme contains measures to ensure security and prevent abuse, opposition party PAS cited the figures in the auditor-general’s 2018 report when calling for the government to stop the eNTRI 15-day visa-free system for tourists from China and India until overstaying concerns have been addressed.

Among strict measures taken by the Immigration Department is the issuance of Not to Land (NTL) notices to block foreigners from entering the country, including to 20,987 Chinese nationals, with 85,964 out of 22.6 million foreigners intending to enter the country reportedly issued with such notices for 2018 alone. Those turned away in 2018 include Indonesians (43,870), Indians (12,808), Chinese (8,119), a news report said.

According to parliamentary replies, such NTL notices can be issued due to reasons such as invalid travel documents, expired travel documents or travel documents with less than six months’ validity left, failure to obtain visas, those blacklisted or those in the suspect list, or those who fail to prove the purpose or the necessity of their visit to Malaysia while also not having any return tickets to their country of origin.

Some illegal immigrants from China appeared to have managed to enter the country to engage in criminal activities, but the Immigration Department has since late last year been carrying out a series of raids to crackdown on them.

On November 20, 2019, the Immigration Department arrested 680 Chinese nationals believed to be involved in an online scamming syndicate in Cyberjaya, before nabbing more Chinese nationals numbering 104 (November 26 in Sabah), 52 (November 29 in Sarawak), 105 in Perak (December 9 and 12). 

The crackdown by the authorities has continued on this year, including 87 Chinese nationals nabbed on January 1, 2020 and believed to be involved in online scams, and Johor police’s busting of similar illegal syndicates with the arrests of seven on January 3 and 17 other Chinese nationals on January 9.

Given all the figures above, it can be safe to conclude that local concerns of illegal Chinese immigrants or overstaying Chinese tourists are not completely unfounded but may have in some cases been exaggerated. (Read here to see what may be the reasons for the overblown fears.)

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