Attitudes towards migrants differ across regions and states; they differ between sending and receiving states. The media tends to directly influence citizens’ perceptions; rather it reaffirms preconceived bias when news coverage is aligned with ‘popular’ individual opinions. The average citizen is rarely in pursuit of evidence supporting his theory. He forms his opinion of migrants based on ‘convenient’ and easily available information. Often, this information is extracted from interaction with like-minded people, hearsay, and his interpretation of occurrences related to migrants. He hears and sees what he chooses to. This selective and skewed perception, when extrapolated to the masses, has proven to be damaging and toxic. Nevertheless, it has fuelled extreme right-wing sentiments, biased policy-making and xenophobia. The display of negative attitudes towards migrants may not be pronounced in ASEAN, but these do exist and take various forms in the treatment of migrant workers.

A study by Harkins and Ali revealed that in Thailand, the media played a provocative role in fuelling anti-migrant sentiments. For instance, headlines such as ’19 barbaric workers seized in Chumphon’ (Daily News, 2016), ‘Over 4,000 Aliens caught poaching Thai’s jobs – mostly from Myanmar’ (Daily News, 2017), and ‘Murderer killed and stuffed a four-year-old in a black garbage bag’ (World Chinese, 2014), display the clear motive of provoking anti-migrant attitudes. During the early stages of education, Thai students are exposed to negative attitudes towards neighbouring countries. This is done via Thailand’s core curriculum. There is also no attempt to disseminat information on the economic, developmental and productivity boost made possible by migrant workers’ contribution.

In Malaysia, there have been open expressions of xenophobic sentiments related to migrants, by groups of like-minded citizens. Their self-assumed responsibility of warning the public against the spread of crimes and diseases has sparked feelings of unrest. They have also taken the liberty to equate migrants to terrorists. Discerning individuals may dismiss unfounded allegations. The same cannot be said for the masses. For, it is this majority that directly or indirectly influences policy-making. The generalisation of migrants as rapists and armed robbers appears to be a fashion statement. On one hand, women’s groups and migrants’ advocacy groups are pressing for the formalisation of undocumented migrant workers. On the other hand, labour organisations are focused on job protection measures for citizens. Low-skilled migrant workers are disconnected from the society that they are helping to develop. The possibility of carving a national identity for them in Malaysia is non-existent by virtue of the ‘3D jobs’ (dangerous, dirty, and difficult jobs) that they are engaged in. They are ostracised.

A 2017 study by Yang, Zhan and Yang showed that Singaporeans are dissatisfied and resent migrant inflow. It is interesting to note that their criticism centres on issues related to employment, housing, transportation and cultural identity. Though it is a society of migrant origin, Singapore has been successful in creating a unique Singaporean culture. This has led to strong sentiments of ‘me’ and ‘the other’. It is a perception, but a deep-rooted one. The government has tried to impress upon citizens that migrants take up jobs that are shunned by Singaporeans, but the citizens are not convinced. Allegations that numerous Filipinos in sales and executive positions have deprived deserving Singaporeans of their rice bowl, prevail. Allegations that many Indian and Chinese nationals have been granted citizenship and thus have driven up housing prices, persist. There is no substantial evidence backing these allegations, but they appear to be thriving on the basis of isolated examples. The crowding out of public transportation by migrants is a steadily strengthening criticism among Singaporeans. This could be due to the frequency with which they are made to come into contact with migrants when using public transportation. Another criticism gaining popularity is the increasing number of scholarships that are offered to foreign students. In this city-state, migrants of all backgrounds and skill-levels do not appear to be as welcome as they could be. The small size of this country and its very closely-knit social fabric are possible reasons.

According to a 2017 World Bank report, across ASEAN’s receiving states (including Indonesia), imposing strict limits on migrant inflow is desired; expectedly so. It is also preferred that priority be given to citizens over migrants when jobs are limited. Sending countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam prefer lower restrictions on migrant mobility. Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia are dissatisfied with their respective emigration rates. These states view migrant outflow more favourably than migrant inflow. This is not surprising as they have been beneficiaries of large amounts of remittances which could be channelled towards national development projects and economic growth initiatives. While there is some acknowledgement in ASEAN that migrants do make a positive economic contribution, the majority feel that migrants are somewhat bad for their country; the majority are also concerned the most about skilled workers leaving their country. Again, the preference for skilled labour is highlighted.

Perhaps there could be more efforts to disseminate accurate information on the need for low-skilled migrant workers and the benefits of their contribution. Perhaps their benefits could be highlighted economically, socially and culturally. Perhaps national authorities could impose stricter regulations on the media in its portrayal of migrants, especially low-skilled migrants. Perhaps ASEAN’s students should be taught to be objective at an early stage; this has always been one of the objectives of receiving an education. More top-down initiatives are needed to integrate migrants into host societies. It is challenging to eradicate the notion of ‘the other’ but it is not impossible to strive to mitigate its causes. In today’s world, it is becoming more and more unclear as to who has not been a migrant at all; at some point in his or her life, or at some point in his or her generational history. Perhaps there could be more transparency on migrant dependency.

Myanmar migrants flock to Thailand for worker registration. Samui Times, 26 December 2018.

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