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A defence of the Malaysia arrangement

June 26, 2012

I was very impressed with today’s opinion piece by Professor Clive Kessler in The Sydney Morning Herald in defence of the Malaysia plan. He explains it as a challenge to the Greens Party and the Coalition. I agree with him. I reproduce his article below:


Asylum deal could be solution to many Malaysian shortcomings


And now another hundred souls lost. Another hundred souls on all our consciences.

Responsibility is widely shared: by refugees themselves who risked this recourse, and the people smugglers; by the Indonesian government, which 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. For all their talk about “Islamic solidarity”, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments prefer to see themselves, and to serve, as transit points for Muslim refugees from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Burma.

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 who seek to mobilise fear and resentment, and to ride to power inflaming them further.

At the head of the list come those who have obstructed all progress towards implementation of the “Malaysian solution”. That means especially Tony Abbott and his spokesman on immigration, the “hard man” in this awful passion play, and also the holier-than-thou Greens.

Wrapping themselves in the mantle of all virtue, the Greens have opposed the ”Malaysian solution” on the grounds that Malaysia is not a paragon of human rights practice. That it fails to measure up to ideal standards. Standards by which even Australia itself must be deemed a failure.

A set of arrangements has been negotiated by Australia with the Malaysian government. These arrangements are not perfect, neither is Malaysia. But they are workable. So why resist implementing them?

Abbott’s reasons and strategy are clear. 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 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 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 ”Malaysian solution” because of Malaysia’s defects and shortcomings.

Having spent a scholarly life, over half a century, studying Malaysian society, culture and politics, I know those shortcomings far better than most. Even so, there is a good case to be made for the ”Malaysian solution”.

It provides the most workable, humane, long-term sustainable approach now on offer. It is a policy that stands somewhere between saying no to everybody and yes to everybody who shows up here.

The Malaysian plan would effectively recognise the international nature of a problem – of a cynical exercise in which Australia stands at the end of the line of a game of pass the “hot potato” – and would regionalise the practicalities of its handling and management.

If we here in Australia could agree to the ”Malaysian solution” we would “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.

But more than that, there would soon develop two classes of asylum-seekers in Malaysia: those who came under the enhanced, if imperfect, human rights provisions and protections of the scheme, and the many other refugees there who do 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.

Implementation of the ”Malaysian 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.

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.

These last 100 souls must tell us, if those who have died at sea before them have failed, that the time for partisan political “haymaking” on this issue is over.

Emeritus Professor Clive Kessler is an internationally recognised expert on Malaysian culture, society, history and politics.

4 Comments
  1. Javid van der Piepers permalink
    June 26, 2012 3:06 pm

    Abbott and the Greens? So don’t worry about targeting the people that actually stopped it last time – David Manne and the High Court…?

  2. Ralf Kluin permalink
    June 26, 2012 3:35 pm

    In my opinion, The Liberal Party of Australia, led by the hon. MR. T. Abbott MP, fails to view
    Australian security interests in global terms and is leading the Australian people into isolationism. I recall statements made by certain Liberals that the UN is a waste of time. Australia must remember that the UN requires proper support from all the people, including the maintenance of its elected officers and staff. The safe movement of people around the world is the responsibility of every nation and Australia must play its proper humanitarian role so that humanity can live with dignity.

  3. Richie Gun permalink
    June 26, 2012 3:42 pm

    I heard Sen Brandis defending coalition policy on QANDA. If Malaysia is not a paragon of human rights practice, remember that the plan is to take 4000 out of Malaysia for every 800 we send there. So, for the greatest good for the greatest number………

    And if it works, people will be deterred and no-one will be sent to Malaysia.

    BTW can someone please explain how TPVs are a deterrent?

  4. June 26, 2012 4:01 pm

    I am sorry but I am disappointed that this piece has the full support of our Foreign Minister. For three reasons. First, Professor Kessler (conveniently?) neglects the history of Malaysia offering refugee placements to Muslim populations displaced by conflict in the region since the 1960s – Cambodia, Philippines and Indonesia to mention a few instances where local ethnic conflicts have led to muslims seeking and being granted asylum in Malaysia. Not a perfect solution by far – what of Christians and non-ethnic Malays who also need refuge? – but the quotation marks for Islamic solidarity is too dismissive for my liking. We need the support of our neighbours and this is a serious issue where progress, rather than finger pointing, is needed. My second point is why should those defending the human rights of the most vulnerable populations – people without anyone to represent their rights on their behalf – be dismissed as ‘purists’? I am disappointed that we are not upholding a purist position – at home and in the region. Moreover, what is a purist? Abiding by our obligations to the 1951 Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? If it is so inconvenient then by all means lets get serious and start talking about removing our signature to the 1951 Convention. People need to start thinking about the consequences of what they uphold as a convenient political solution – Malaysia may start to act more ‘enlightened’ – or in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – or it might not. The Malaysia solution is no different to the Pacific solution – they are political solutions not refugee solutions. The Pacific solution failed – as the last five years have proven and we will say the same of Malaysia (if it goes ahead) in another five years. The only solution is a regional solution. The only way a regional solution will be achieved is if we support the UNHCR in regional consultation. We will not solve this by abandoning the hard won rights of refugees achieved after WWII. We must not coerce the UNHCR to agree to solutions that they deem less than desirable – which is their view of the Malaysia ‘solution’. We must see our neighbours as responsible partners with a burden to share equitably. Australia has lost all credibility in the region when it comes to developing a regional sharing agreement of the kind like the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action (see http://www.protectiongateway.com), yet this is what we need. The one thing I do agree with the commentary above is that we all need to remember our responsibility to protect those without a sovereign willing to provide such protection; we need to shelve the politics, seek the support of those who can provide us with long term solutions, and stop thinking we have all the answers here at home by sending the problem offshore.

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