The ‘Malaysia Solution’: Has its time now come? — Clive Kessler
JUNE 26 — And now another hundred souls lost. Another hundred souls on all our consciences.
Responsibility for this latest terrible loss is widely shared.
By refugees themselves who risked this recourse, and by the people smugglers.
By the Indonesian government. A government that prefers to see overloaded, unseaworthy boats head south and reach, as soon as possible, some place on the open seas where they will effectively become Australia’s responsibility, not their own.
Here the commercial interest of the smugglers — who want to show that they have a “product” that they can sell, a service that they can deliver — is reinforced by the Indonesian preference to see the “refugee burden” passed on to Australia.
For all their talk about “Islamic solidarity”, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments prefer to see themselves, and to serve, as transit points, not destinations, for Muslim refugees from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
And then, also on the responsibility list, comes Australia.
Perhaps all, or most, or many of us. Those to whom our populist politicians defer, whom they wish to placate.
But especially upon those politicians, of whatever stripe, who seek to mobilise fear and resentment, and to ride to power by inflaming them further.
At the head of the list come those who have obstructed all progress towards implementation of the “Malaysia solution”.
That means especially Tony Abbott and his shadow immigration minister, the “hard man” in this awful passion play, and also the holier-than-thou Greens.
Wrapping themselves in the mantle of high virtue, the Greens have opposed the Malaysia solution on the grounds that Malaysia is not a paragon of human right practice. That it fails to measure up to ideal standards. Standards by which even Australia itself must be deemed a failure.
So, if Malaysia is for them not a fit place for the refugees, neither is Australia. Why then do the Greens urge open, unrestricted entry here to all comers and claimants? On what basis can they do so?
A workable set of arrangements has been negotiated by Australia with the Malaysian government.
These arrangements are not perfect, neither is Malaysia. Nor are we.
But those arrangements have been agreed upon. They are workable.
So why resist implementing them?
Tony Abbott’s reasons and strategy are clear. They are rational if hardly attractive.
On immigration, as on all other matters, he wants, by a chosen strategy of finely targeted obstructionism to all government initiatives (in other words, of “maximum possible nay-saying and mischief-making”), to make the country ungovernable.
That is half of his strategy. The other half is then to spend the rest of his time sneering and jeering that the government is demonstrably hopeless, that it simply cannot govern.
Whose doing is that? Abbott is on a sure winner.
But at least his strategy makes sense for him.
Less fathomable are the Greens and the other “human rights purists” who will not have a bar of the “Malaysia solution” because of Malaysia’s defects and shortcomings.
Having spent a scholarly life, over half a century, studying Malaysian society, culture and politics — and many years living there — I know those shortcomings far better than most.
Even so, there is a good case to be made for the Malaysian solution.
I am not naïve about Malaysia.
But the hitherto obstructed and rejected “Malaysia solution” is about the best available option that is now to be had to the problem we face.
It provides the most workable, humane, long-term sustainable approach now on offer. It offers one that, more than all others, is sensitive to human rights issues and capable of promoting a principled concern for them.
It is a policy that stands somewhere between saying no to everybody and yes to everybody who shows up here — or who tries to and, facing terrible “peril on the sea”, gets less than half-way from Java to Ashmore or Christmas Island.
Neither of those other approaches is sustainable: the former mainly for international reasons, the latter for national, domestic political reasons.
The “Malaysia solution” too has its problems and defects. But implementing it would set in motion a necessary process. It would start doing what needs to be done.
It would effectively recognise the international nature of a problem — of a cynical exercise where Australia stands at the end of the line of a global game of passing on the “hot potato” — and would regionalise the practicalities of its handling and management.
The problem that Australia faces requires both Indonesia and Malaysia seriously to adopt and maintain a fairly clear stance. A policy that does not shelter any cynical “passing-the-back” pragmatism behind disingenuous generalities.
If we here in Australia could agree to the “Malaysia solution” we would not only “cut the link” enabling people to get in touch with a “pilgrimage to Australia” agent somewhere in Asia and then directly claim Australian residence rights and citizenship.
That, of course, has been the government’s argument.
More than that, once the Malaysia solution procedures were activated, there would soon develop two classes of asylum-seekers in Malaysia. Some would come under the enhanced, if imperfect, human rights provisions and protections of the scheme. Many, most other refugees there would not.
Malaysia could not long sustain two different human rights policies, or management regimens, towards two different classes or categories of refugees in their own country.
It could not long support both a more “liberal” regimen for those who, via the Australia-Malaysia agreement, came under appropriate and effective international supervision and protection and, at the same time, a different, far more restrictive and grimly authoritarian policy and regimen for everybody else, all other refugee-status claimants.
Implementation of the “Malaysia solution” would soon put enormous pressure on Malaysia to treat all refugees there in the same, more “enlightened” way, in accordance with the basic requirements of international human rights law and practice.
Beyond that, this liberalising momentum would, in turn, further increase humane pressures on Malaysia to act in general in accordance with international human rights law and practice, not simply in refugee and immigration matters but towards its own citizens, all of them.
A splendid outcome!
Those who are eager to see Malaysia align itself in closer conformity with international human rights principles and standards may have here exactly the instrument that their otherwise impotent rhetoric needs.
This outcome ought to please not only the high-minded supporters of refugee rights in Australia but also those who call for greater liberalism in Malaysia.
That prospect poses a special challenge, which they cannot flee, to those who see Malaysia’s “liberal democratic deficiencies” as the very reason why a “Malaysia solution” for the region’s immigration problem must be rejected.
That outcome, to me, seems a very fine and neat solution all round.
Not perfect, not totally fine and neat, but getting there, heading in that direction.
It is clearly the best, most practicable, course that we might take under the very difficult and always potentially tragic circumstances now obtaining.
Some may object in high-minded horror: “But you are proposing to use these poor refugees as some kind of lever or shoehorn against the Malaysians, and just about everybody else too! You want to use them, and to make use of their plight, instrumentally!”
Well, yes, true.
But that would be a moral defect or offence if everybody else involved in this gut-wrenching imbroglio (the refugees, the agents, the overseas parties, and our own distastefully strategising politicians here in Australia) were totally principled in their actions on this matter.
It would be wrong if they were all impelled solely and exclusively by high-minded and altruistic purposes. By personally disinterested motivations, without any taint or hint of self-interest.
That, of course, is not the case. Nobody is totally pure here, not even the refugees.
They too are acting, in part, but in an essential and undeniable part of their motivation, from self-interest: calculating, strategic and instrumental.
So it is not immoral for us, for Australia as a nation, to act here in this matter in those same terms: provided we are acting in “good faith”, seeking to achieve the optimum outcome for all concerned.
Australia too is entitled — so long as it is acting in “good faith” towards attaining an optimum, or bearable, solution for all parties — to act with a measure of calculated and calculating “instrumentalism” in a context where, in common with everybody else, even the refugees themselves are acting with an undeniable and pronounced degree of similar premeditation in their plans to reach and secure asylum here.
It is time for all sides in our national political life to give the “Malaysia solution” some honest consideration.
These last one hundred souls must tell us, if those who have died at sea before them have failed, that the time for shameless, yet also shameful, partisan political “haymaking” on this issue is over.
* A shorter version of this article appeared in today’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.
* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.