Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews/Agencies) Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is under attack for an eleventh-hour reversal on his pledge to hunt down and expel illegal immigrants, mainly Indonesians.
The semi-official New Straits Times today said the government was now in a "Velvet glove mode", trying to persuade illegal immigrants to leave rather than force them out.
According to official estimates, the country is home to about 800,000 illegal migrant workers, mostly Indonesians, including many Acehnese. The total number of undocumented residents should be around 1.2 million.
For the popular daily The Star, Badawi's decision to postpone the repatriation of illegal immigrants "is embarrassing to the nation".
Yesterday, the cabinet decided not to launch a crackdown on undocumented workers that would have entailed mobilising a corps of 500,000 volunteers. "Instead of detaining and jailing them we will finger-print them and advise them to go home voluntarily and then release them," Home Affairs Minister Azmi Khalid said.
Critics say the new approach will just encourage illegal immigrants to remain permanently.
In its defence, the government said that it acted out of compassion for neighbouring Indonesia which was recently hit by a devastating tsunami. Most illegal immigrants in Malaysia are from Indonesia, 40,000 of them from hardest-hit province of Aceh, on the island of Sumatra. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had in fact made a formal request to delay the repatriation operation.
Unconvinced, Badawi's adversaries called the Prime Minister's decision a "surrender to Indonesia".
"The government has the support of the people to deport the Indonesian illegal immigrants. What is it waiting for?" wrote Wong Chun Wai, executive editor of The Star.
Public opinion polls indicate that most Malaysians are against illegal immigrants who are seen as responsible for increasing the crime rate and as a burden on society.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak countered the critics arguing that "the softer approach" does not mean that the government was wavering in its stance against illegal immigration. On the contrary, it remained steadfast in its goal. (LF)