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Socio-Demographic Indicators
Human Development Index
Human Development Index, Rank
Gender-related Development Index
Gender-related Development Index, Rank
Population Mid-year (In millions)
Rate of Natural Increase (%)
Life Expectancy (Male/Female)
Sources: aUNDP (2007); bPopulation Reference Bureau (2008)
Economic Indicators
GDP Growth Rate (%)
GDP Per Capita (PPP US$)
GNI PPP Per Capita (US$)
Unemployment Rate
Sources: aUNDP (2007); bPopulation Reference Bureau (2008); cADB (2007)
Malaysia is a booming economy in Southeast Asia with an average growth of over eight percent since the mid-1980s (Migration News, 207). The economy suffered a sharp downturn in 1998, but rebounded to expand at 5.6 percent in 1999. After a sluggish growth in 2001, Malaysia has enjoyed strong economic growth since 2002. Malaysia is the largest producer of palm oil in the world. The unemployment rate is low with around 3.5 percent since 2002. The population consists of many ethnic groups, with the Malays comprising the majority (60 percent), and sizable Chinese and Indonesian communities. The Malays have benefited from an affirmative action policy launched in 1971 to give ethnic Malays special privileges, yet ethnic Chinese continue to hold economic power. On the other hand, the Indians are among the poorest.
The following are among the landmark events that have had a bearing on Malaysia’s migration experience:
  • Freeze on labor importation from Indonesia (January 1990)
  • Amnesty (1991-1994)
  • Launching of Ops Nyah I (Operation Expunge I - to stop illegal infiltration) (December 1991)
  • Launching of Ops Nyah II (Operation Expunge II - to weed out illegal immigrants) (June 1992)
  • Special Task Force on Foreign Labor (the sole agency for recruitment - a one-stop-agency to deal with the processing of foreign labor and immigrants) (October 1995)
  • Freeze on the importation of skilled and unskilled labor except for critical sectors in manufacturing and recreation/tourist industries
  • Hari Raya Amnesty for Indonesian illegal workers (January 1996)
  • Second regularization exercise for illegal aliens from Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Pakistan (August 1996 - January 1997)
  • Freeze on the importation of domestic workers (August 1997)
  • Freeze on the importation of foreign workers lifted (October 1998)
  • Freeze on foreign labor importation (employers were instructed to recruit directly from the immigration detention depots) (April 1996)
  • Amendment to Immigration Act 2002
  • Signing of the MoU between Malaysia and Indonesia – Malaysian employers are asked to pay RM2,415 to a local agent while the domestic worker has to pay her Indonesia-based agent RM1,228 (November 2006)
Malaysia is a multi-ethnic country with a long history of immigration. It allowed foreigners in under British colonial rule, particularly from India and China. A new inflow of foreigners can be traced back to the years of fast economic growth that led to massive rural-to-urban migration and an acute labor shortage in traditional rural economic sectors, especially plantations. Indonesians were then recruited to fill the gap in labor supply on plantations and later in the construction, manufacturing and service sectors. As of December 2006, there were 1.87 million (regular) migrant workers (AMN, 15 November 2007). More than 1.7 million foreign workers are employed in plantations and other industries, while another 320,000 are working as domestic workers (AMN, 31 October 2007). The number of regular migrant workers as of 31 January 2006 reached 1,820,680, up from the 1,615,863 recorded in July 2005. Indonesia was the leading source of migrant workers, accounting for 65.94 percent of all foreign workers in Malaysia, followed by Nepal at 10.92 percent and India at 7.56 percent (AMN, 31 March 2006). A large number of migrants are in irregular situation. An estimated 700,000 are undocumented, mostly from Indonesia, Burma, India, Bangladesh and China (AMN, 28 February 2007). Irregular migration became severe; therefore, (with the amendments to the Immigration Act) Malaysia started in July 2002 imposing mandatory whipping of up to six strokes of the cane for irregular migrants and their employers.A clean-up drive against unauthorized foreigners also continued.[1] Meanwhile, RELA – the People’s Volunteer Corps given power to arrest unauthorized foreigners since March 2005 – has attracted criticism for abuse of power.
Malaysia also decided in 2007 to ban the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers because of various problems arising from agents (recruiting agencies in their home country and outsourcing companies in Malaysia) leaving a large number of Bangladeshis stranded (AMN, 15 October 2007).[2] In 2006, Malaysia lifted its nine-year ban on the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers (AMN, 31 May 2006; AMN, 15 July 2006).
An average of 1,000 Indonesian domestic workers enters the country each month, but the number has recently declined because of low wages (AMN 31 May 2007). As of March 2007, Malaysia had 316,987 foreign workers, 299,877 were from Indonesia (AMN, 30 June 2007). There have been reports that agencies recycle domestic workers and allow these workers to stay in the country for a year up to four times by encouraging them to run away from their employers after the guaranteed period of three months is over. On average, 1,200 foreign domestic workers run away every month (AMN, 31 May 2007). Many, however, also escape their employers’ exploitation and abuse. The plight of Indonesian domestic workers has often attracted news coverage. In response to several incidents involving domestic workers, Malaysia set up a 24-hour hotline to receive calls from abused domestic workers in June 2007 (AMN, 30 June 2007).
Malaysia has launched programs to attract foreign and Malaysian talents abroad, but such schemes have not been very successful. The Brain Gain program, first introduced in 1995 [the 1995 Returning Scientists Program] and run until 2000, attracted only 94 scientists, but only one remains. The second Brain Gain scheme ran from 2001 to 2004 [2001 Returning Experts Program] and less than 200 took advantage of the scheme (Overland, 2007). Malaysia launched a similar scheme in 2006 (the Malaysia My Second Home Program [MM2H]). As of August 2007, 10,300 expatriates had applied for the MM2H program (AMN, 30 September 2007).
Malaysia is home to more than 40,000 refugees, but is not a signatory to any international refugee convention. Thus, it considers refugees as irregular migrants who are subject to deportation. According to the UNHCR, there had been a drop in the number of refugees registered with the agency, from 47,000 as of December 2006 to 37,000 as of May 2007. Most of them are from Burma, comprising largely Muslim Rohingyas (12,700) and Chins (12,200) (AMN, 30 June 2007). In addition, some 500,000 Filipinos are present in the country; most of them are refugees who fled violence in southern Philippines in the 1970s. According to the Philippine government, the number of Filipino irregular migrants, mostly in Sabah, could be as high as 200,000 (AMN, 15 May 2006). The UNHCR put up their settlement in the 1980s, yet the Filipinos are now forced to earn a living after the agency stopped sponsoring them. Malaysia has expressed concerns about social and economic burdens from their settlement. In Sabah, there is a call to shut down all four refugee camps and repatriate all the refugees (see Table 1 for data as of 2000).
Malaysia is also a source country of labor emigration. Affirmative action that favors ethnic Malays in jobs and business also pushed many professionals of Chinese origin to emigrate (Migration News, 1997). The top five favored destinations are the US, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore and Indonesia (AMN, 15 July 2007). Between 2000 and 2006, 16,474 Malaysians gave up their citizenship, of whom 14,316 were Chinese, 1,098 were Malays, 822 were Indians and the rest were from other groups (AMN, 30 November 2007).
Asian Development Bank (ADB)
2007   “Southeast Asia: Malaysia.” In Asian Development Outlook 2007. Available at, accessed on 8 December 2008.
Asian Migration News (AMN) Various Years
Migration News

2007   “Malaysia: Foreign Workers, Emigrants, Sabah.” Available at, accessed on 10 February 2008.

Overland, Martha Ann

2007   “The Brain Gain’s Poster Boy Wants Out.” Available at, accessed on 9 February 2008.

Population Reference Bureau

2008   “2008 World Population Data Sheet.” Available at, accessed on 21 November 2008.


United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

2007  “Human Development Report 2007/2008.” Available at, accessed on 9 December 2008.
Table 1[3]
Number of Refugees and Asylum Seekers and Internally Displaced Persons in Malaysia as of December 2000
Refugees and Asylum Seekers1, 3
World Total (All Source Countries)
East Asia and the Pacific Total (In All Source Countries)
Malaysia Total
From Burma
From Indonesia
From Philippines
Asylum Seekers Inflow, 1999 5
People Living in Refugee-Like Conditions 2 4
From Burma
From Indonesia
Internally Displaced Persons 6
1 Note: This table includes two categories of uprooted people: refugees who are unwilling or unable to return to their home countries because they fear persecution or armed conflict there and who lack a durable solution; and asylum seekers who are awaiting a refugee status determination.
2 Note: Many persons live in situations similar to those of refugees, but do not meet the narrow refugee definition. Some are regarded by host governments simply as illegal aliens; others are tolerated or ignored. In many such cases, and often in the absence of credible refugee determination procedures, it is difficult to determine who among them might be refugees. Some refugee-like people are stateless, denied the protection afforded by citizenship.
3 Source: World Refugee Survey 2001, Immigration and Refugee Services of America 2001
4 Source: World Refugee Survey 2001, Immigration and Refugee Services of America 2001
5 Source: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2000 "Trends in International Migration" Paris: OECD Publications, Table A.1.4
6 Source: World Refugee Survey 2001, Immigration and Refugee Services of America 2001 

[1] In July 2007, Malaysia launched a major operation to round up an estimated 500,000 irregular immigrants and some 10,000 refugees have been caught up until August 2007 (AMN, 15 August 2007).
[2] Hundreds of Bangladeshis brought into the country in March 2007 were not given jobs and were kept in appalling conditions for a couple of months (AMN, 15 July 2007).

© Scalabrini Migration Center, 2000. All rights reserved.