Malaysia has today denied it had frozen the recruitment of workers from India, after reports quoted officials saying a ban was in place as the government cracks down on dissent by ethnic Indians.
"Let me categorically state that the Ministry of Home Affairs has never come out with any rulings or circulars that we have stopped taking foreign workers from India," Home Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad told a press conference.
Radzi said he was shocked at news reports of the freeze, which quoted a Home Ministry official who cited government documents and said the measure covered unskilled labourers as well as priests, sculptors and musicians.
The news caused waves in India, which has already expressed concern over the heavy-handed treatment of ethnic Indian activists in Malaysia.
Religious leaders had condemned the apparent decision, which came after unprecedented protests by ethnic Indian Malaysians last year and the jailing of prominent activists under laws that provide for detention without trial.
Radzi said that the intake of workers from Bangladesh was frozen last October "because it did not benefit us and many agents cheated the workers."
But he insisted that "we are not also tightening the intake of workers from India. There is no decision to stop taking workers from India."
The nation's top non-Muslim religious body - the Malaysian Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism - said yesterday the government had already been refusing to issue new visas for foreign priests.
Foreign priests already in the country have only been given six-month renewals and told they must leave after expiry, it said, complaining there would now not be enough Hindu priests to conduct prayers at important temples.
No applications from foreign priests rejected
Radzi insisted that no applications from priests had been rejected, but admitted the government was trying to reduce foreign labour, with 2.1 million foreign workers already here among a population of 27 million people.
"Our policy is we want locals to take up the jobs as priests, musicians and sculptors," he said.
"We need to take action to ensure there are not too many foreign workers, and at the same time ensure our industry does not suffer. The government target of foreign workers in the country is 1.8 million."
A row over race and religion has gripped Malaysia in recent months, triggered by a mass rally last November when protesters alleged ethnic Indians faced discrimination at the hands of majority Muslim Malays.
Indian workers are the third-largest foreign workforce in Malaysia, numbering almost 140,0000, most of them hired by restaurants.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people are ethnic Malay Muslims while the rest are mostly ethnic Indians and Chinese who are largely Hindu, Buddhist or Christian.