Malaysia's tough new penalties against illegal immigrants—undocumented workers now face a minimum sentence of six months in jail and up to six strokes of the cane—are souring Kuala Lumpur's relations with Indonesia and the Philippines. As many as 500,000 illegals, mostly Indonesians, fled Malaysia after the government gave them four months to quit the country, but since the July 31 amnesty expired, courts have ordered canings of over-stayers almost daily and have deported others to overcrowded and sometimes unsanitary detention camps. In the Philippines, protesters burned images of the Malaysian prime minister, and President Gloria Arroyo sent a representative to Kuala Lumpur to discuss the alleged mistreatment of undocumented Filipinos. Meanwhile, protesters in Jakarta burned a Malaysian flag, and the speaker of the Indonesian House of Representatives called the punishments "inhumane and insulting" and encouraged the more populous country to stick up for itself: "As a big nation, we should prevent Malaysia from belittling us. This big nation should hold its head high. If we keep bowing down again and again, little Malaysia will just pat our head."
The Jakarta Post reported that illegal Indonesian migrants "account for 70 percent of Malaysia's construction industry's 500,000 foreign workers," and according to the Straits Times of Singapore, Malaysian bosses prefer to hire Indonesians over nationals of the 10 other nations that the government encouraged them to employ (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan), because "while they shared the government's concern over security issues, they were better off training these workers given the language affinity."
The Straits Times was outraged that illegal immigrants were upsetting relations between three of the region's closest neighbors: "These are law breakers who have breached sovereign borders and worked without proper papers. If Malaysia … wants them shipped out for security and economic reasons … the nations of origin can have no cause to protest. It should not matter that Malaysia had in the recent past of its construction and plantation boom tolerated the illegals' presence and benefited from their labour."
The Jakarta Post acknowledged that Indonesian failures were at the root of the immigration problem—there are currently around 35 million unemployed in a population of 220 million, "and given the government's inability to create jobs, the figure is expected to surpass 40 million in 2004." An editorial declared, "The core of the issue is that Indonesia is at present too poor to feed its own population. With this in mind, Indonesia's first and foremost duty is to put the economy back in order, and do so without delay, so that enough jobs may be created within the shortest possible time."