Moral Refugees, Malaysia and Covid-19

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Moral Refugees, Malaysia and Covid-19

Author: Nursyazwani, Research Associate, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. She can be found on Twitter and contacted at

Fieldsite: This report is based on a 2-months digital ethnography on Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. I followed the developments in Malaysia by following, observing and engaging with local and refugees’ social media profiles. I study their use of social media affordances such as reactions, comments, shares and posts, and followed the links shared on social media to pages such as petitions and articles.


“Hey, look at this,” a friend texted me a link to a Twitter thread. I clicked on the link and was immediately greeted with vitriolic comments, expletives and images directed toward Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. It was April 2020.

“They breed like mice and eventually [will] become virus, there will be NO vaccine for it, that is why Myanmar decided to wipe them out,” someone posted on Twitter, using a mix of Malay and English language. What followed was a thread of tweets voicing support and affirming the “plague” that Rohingya were spreading in Malaysia.

In a huge turnaround since Malaysia/ns welcomed Rohingya from late 2016 to the country, Rohingya refugees are now doused with hate speech online and offline as they face threats to their livelihood and in some cases even deportation. And while the Malaysian population was placed under the Movement Control Order (MCO) as part of the state’s effort to contain Covid-19, powerful anti-Rohingya sentiments were unleashed in cyberspace. Where once survivors of Myanmar’s genocidal regime, Rohingya refugees now struggle against racism and xenophobia the larger Malaysian society.

What is the spark that triggered this backlash against Rohingya? It remains unclear why the sudden racist and xenophobic outburst – some have pointed to the state’s political strategy of cracking down undocumented migrants; others gestured toward the built-up resentment arising from the growing Rohingya refugee population. Yet, it is also important to recognize the long-standing racism in Malaysia against migrants from developing countries. Whatever the case, the implications of such discourses circulating on social media have led to further caricaturing of Rohingya refugees as primitive, uncivilized and ungrateful “illegal immigrants” who do not deserve Malaysia’s gracious hospitality.

Fig. 1: Comment on Petition “Say no to rohinnya” on
[Translation: It’s enough that our ancestors welcomed migrants in the past, not being racist but I feel sympathy for my community who gave in but finally, their heads are being stepped on. I don’t know how the fortunes of my children and grandchildren will be later.]
Fig. 2: Comment on Petition “Say no to rohinnya” on
[Translation: Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile… No more Rohingya at Malaysia… Malaysia fear that they should listen to their demands. Malaysia need to be firm to the Rohingya community that they have no rights to make any demands with the Malaysian government.]
“Dah kasi betis, nak peha”, a Malay proverb that means “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” draws attention to the ways in which Rohingya were painted as demanding persons taking advantage of Malaysia’s humanity. While Malaysia’s acceptance of refugees deserves commend, refugees are still considered as illegal under the country’s Immigration Act since Malaysia is not party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Consequently, refugees – who are neither legal nor illegal in Malaysia, are afforded very limited rights: although they are allowed to stay in the country, they do not have access to formal education and employment rights, and have limited access to affordable healthcare. For Rohingya, being stateless without state-recognized documents also means that they are made even more precarious as there is no embassy to recognize/support them especially during Covid-19.

When the MCO was imposed on 18 March 2020, academic and media reporting highlight the devastating impact especially on vulnerable communities in Malaysia. Calls were made to the government to provide more assistance to those who lost their livelihood resulting from the lockdown. “Malaysian first” became a rhetoric that pervaded society with non-governmental organizations calling for equal treatment of humanity regardless of legal status.

In the context of such socio-economic uncertainties, Malaysia’s decision to turn several boats carrying Rohingya asylum-seekers was lauded by many Malaysians. Defending the government’s action from human rights activists and organizations, this emerging anti-Rohingya group began to take more tangible actions to “solve the Rohingya problem.”

Struggling  with morality

Food distribution was a success – messages celebrating the previous day’s effort appeared on my mobile one morning in mid-April. It was from a Whatsapp group comprising of individuals of an NGO I have been volunteering with since 2017 during my fieldwork in Malaysia. Wanting to read more updates on their Facebook page, I launched Facebook on my mobile. The first post that appeared on my newsfeed however detracted me from checking on the distribution updates. Rather, what I saw was: “Please report this petition and stop the hate.” I clicked on the link which then brought me to with a petition calling for the expulsion of Rohingya from Malaysia.

Fig. 3: Examples of petitions circulating online

Having spent a few years working with Rohingya refugees and civil society in Malaysia, this was the first time I encountered something that explicitly and unabashedly called for the eradication of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. Yet, what was noteworthy was not just the existence of the petition, nor the emergence of other petitions after each was successfully shut down due to reports made by online users. Rather, it was the seemingly legitimate justifications made by Malaysians on the basis of citizenship to only safeguard themselves.

Fig. 4: Examples of comments on petition and on Twitter, calling for the government to put “Malaysian first”

According to these supporters, accepting refugees would be an immoral act as it would divert necessary resources meant for its own citizens. Here, the pandemic laid bare the lives worth saving: not Rohingya, not refugees but Malaysian citizens. That there were reports of Rohingya losing their lives at sea held no sway. Threatened Rohingya lives were disregarded and considered unimportant in relation to fellow Malaysians. Rohingya bodies were seen as a potential coronavirus threat to Malaysia if they were allowed onto its shores. Leaving Rohingya out on the boats in the open sea would at least protect Malaysian citizens from further spread of the virus.

To worsen matters, the state’s imposition of the Enhanced MCO order (EMCO) from late March further pushed Rohingya – and vulnerable communities – into a deeper hole as they struggled to put food on the table. Those residing in EMCO areas were not allowed to leave the premises. News report and conversations – both online and offline with NGOs and friends on the ground revealed that many Rohingya had no access to food, in some cases lasting for days. And although NGOs like the one I volunteered with, was approached by the Malaysian government to step in and provide food for Rohingya refugees, feeding refugees is still not considered as the government’s problem.

Since Rohingya are stateless, there is no government to claim nor to provide for them unlike other communities whose embassies reached out to provide aid. Unfortunately, there is a huge population of Rohingya residing in Selayang, one of the EMCO areas. The implications are two-fold: first, Rohingya did not receive enough help to tide through their basic necessities (save some assistance from NGOs such as Geutanyoe Foundation which I volunteer with); secondly, photos of Rohingya in these EMCO areas were manipulated by social media users to underline the danger Rohingya bodies posed to Malaysian society: the circulation of such visuals evokes imageries of prisons with residents living in them as criminals.

Fig. 5: Photo of food distribution to those living in an EMCO area shared on Geutanyoe Foundation’s Facebook page. (Photo: Geutanyoe Foundation, Facebook)

In describing the threat Rohingya posed to Malaysia, these online users also undermined the authenticity of Rohingya’s refugee journey:

Fig. 6: A comment made on a petition

Describing Rohingya as “barbarians” who shed “crocodile tears” belittles the trauma and persecution they experienced, which further dehumanises these refugees. Moreover, the virus that Rohingya are purported to carry also takes on an added dimension. In another social media post, an online user described the “explosion” of the Rohingya population as a “plague” that could spread and infect the country’s sociopolitical stability. These caricatures of Rohingya challenge Rohingya’s humanity, positioning them as bare life and as subjects not worth providing for – or even saving.

Struggling Refugees

Scrolling through the Facebook profiles of Rohingya interlocutors and civil society actors makes apparent how Rohingya refugees are struggling during this pandemic – if they were not already struggling pre-Covid. Every day, new posts are published on various profiles or groups on Facebook or circulated on WhatsApp, requesting for assistance for struggling families. From having no food to facing the possibility of eviction, Rohingya are increasingly pushed into a corner as they struggle to prove that they are also fellow humans deserving of life and treatment equal to other legal citizens.

The MCO allows for people to head out for essential services such as purchasing everyday necessities. However, the recent upsurge of racism and possible detention have made many Rohingya afraid to leave their homes. “I’m just too scared to go out. What if they attack me?” one said; “I’m no longer afraid of the Coronavirus, I’m more afraid of Malaysia people,” another said. Such fears are not unfounded given the circulation of fear arising from local harassment toward Rohingya refugees.


Fig. 7: Facebook post sharing an article on the harassment experienced by Rohingya grass-cutter during the MCO period

An observation of discourses surrounding Rohingya refugees in Malaysia shows the ways in which locals portray the former to be less of a Muslim than the Malay/sian Muslim. In a post that went viral, a Malaysian man was reported to accost a Rohingya who was cutting grass: he questioned the Rohingya man about his knowledge of Islam and demanded that the latter recite certain verses in the Qur’an. Although the post evoked anger among social media users as they criticised the Malaysian man for his “un-Islamic behaviour”, it is also notable that many supported the man’s actions by saying that Rohingya were “Shias” who do not actually know Islamic ethics (“they don’t know how to pray”; “they can’t even read the Qur’an!”). By terming Rohingya as “Shias”, a Muslim sectarian group that has regularly been discriminated (e.g. Shias as “deviants” and even “non-Muslims”), it disrupts the Muslim umma (community) rhetoric that Najib propagated to Malaysian public since late 2016.


Fig. 8: Tweet responding to a thread on Rohingya’s unwelcomed presence in Malaysia
[Translation: “It’s so true. Whoever lives in the same area as the Rohingya gang and have experienced their antics will know why Rohingya are hated. They use Islam to gain our attention but not all of them are [Muslims] and some are just [Muslims] on paper.”]
These racist and xenophobic harassments against Rohingya coincided with the fasting month of Ramadhan, a holy month for Muslims. In a Muslim-majority country where moral values are derived from Islam, rights activists, local religious figures and even Rohingya refugees appealed to the Muslim sentiments of Malaysians. “Please have mercy, it is the month of Ramadhan,” a young Rohingya woman laments on her Facebook; “Does Islam teach you to treat people like that, just because they are not citizens?” another local activist questioned on his Facebook; “What do you think the Prophet would say?” was the most common type of response to the onslaught of racism toward Rohingya.

Yet, despite appealing to locals’ Muslim sensibility, it seems that such rhetoric of Rohingya as “less of a Muslim” has found its way to the hearts of many – even shaping actions on the ground. The most recent announcement by the government to only allow citizens into the mosque was followed by a photograph that was circulated on Whatsapp and Facebook by Rohingya refugees:

Fig. 9: Photo circulating on Facebook of a sign saying that Rohingya are not welcomed. This was after the government’s announcement that only Malaysians are allowed to enter the mosque for prayers.

Moral Refugee-ness

“Go back home”; “No Rohingya”; “We don’t want Rohingya here in Malaysia” are only a few of the comments that have appeared on posts created and shared by Rohingya interlocutors.

Fig. 10: Examples of hate speeches responding to Facebook posts of Rohingya/defending Rohingya

Dah biasa ni Kak [I’m already used to this sister],” someone said to me. She was a young Rohingya humanitarian who had been at the receiving end of hate messages on both her Facebook and in private messages. She continued, “Nak buat apa, kita biarkan ajalah. Tak boleh buat apa-apa kan? [What to do, we just let it be. We can’t do anything right?]”.

Except for one thing. Since the start of online attacks on Rohingya beginning early April, more Rohingya are now posting their stories of seeking asylum, their struggles as refugees, and more so, their gratitude toward Malaysia on their social media profiles.

Yet, beyond gratitude, there are also many who denounced Rohingya who appear to be demanding for rights in Malaysia: “We are grateful to Malaysia for providing us with a place to be safe from Myanmar… Please don’t take those who are demanding for rights as representatives of Rohingya people. Rohingya people are not ungrateful [emphasis mine],” a Rohingya posted on her Facebook, drawing many likes and supportive comments from other Rohingya.

Being a moral refugee means that one has to be grateful, not only to receive provisions but to be accepted into the country for basic protection. The trope of the ‘grateful refugee’ is not new; in fact, it has been employed in various state, media and humanitarian discourses – to name a few, as ways of disciplining docile subjects. Consequently, the pandemic has reinforced particular refugee subjectivities: as Rohingya struggle to become subjects of care, they continue to reappropriate the trope of grateful refugee in order that they be provided for but at the same time, continue to be excluded – as bare life. Like an act of national sanitization, Rohingya are self-sanitizing in order to receive care from the Malaysian population who calls for their sanitization.


The pandemic has unleashed the ugly side of Malaysia. While racism against darker-skinned migrants and those coming from developing countries has been pervasive for decades, recent attacks against Rohingya – in media and political discourses, conspired by the sudden change in government seeking political legitimacy, the pandemic, society and the move toward right-wing nationalism globally – have been on the rise. As countries across the world turn inward to provide for “citizens first”, Malaysia – under its conservative government, joins them as it appears to pander to populist sentiments while also executing their own agenda.

What are the political implications? As mentioned earlier, immigration crackdowns and detention of undocumented migrants have further divided society into e.g. legal and “illegal” persons, Malaysians and non-Malaysians. At the time of writing, Malaysia is seeing an easing of the MCO – but mostly experienced by citizens. For refugees, the easing of the MCO only serves to tighten and narrow the space for them. The most recent controversy included a notice issued by the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) stating that refugees were banned from the Kuala Lumpur wholesale market. While DBKL later clarified their decision on the basis of economic rationale, these spatial exclusions gesture toward the ways in which local community protects itself from “dirty bodies” that could potentially infect local population.

More so, excluding refugees is a refusal to recognize the rights of not only refugees but also of non-citizens. It also speaks to the question of whom one can imagine to be part of its society. And although Rohingya refugees struggle to make themselves subjects deserving of care and provision, the caricaturing of Rohingya online shapes how they are perceived by public and state, transforming them into subjects unworthy of care.

The pandemic in Malaysia has revealed its hypocrisy in moral attitudes. It has revealed the unequal weightage given to certain lives over others. While Malaysia has given Rohingya refuge on its shores, they have been left on their own, with many members of its society rejecting Rohingya from the national community. Rohingya are left in a liminal state between exclusion/inclusion and the question surrounding their rights, lives, and livelihoods is very much left to the Malaysian state. Should Malaysia expand their community borders or will Rohingya be excluded, expelled, and left in search again for somewhere they can call home?