The last four decades saw Sabah’s population increase unnaturally, from 636,431 in 1970, to 929,299 in 1980, and to an extraordinary 3,120,040 in 2011 – an overall increase of more than 390 per cent. 27 per cent of Sabah’s population today are foreigners. This percentage does not account for the number of illegal immigrants in Sabah. This extraordinary rise in the population of Sabah has brought about serious problems to Sabahans, and has prompted them to actively ask the federal government to address this burgeoning problem. More importantly, the majority of Sabahans strongly believe that this extraordinary increase in Sabah’s population is directly related to the ‘citizenship-for-votes scandal’. This issue has long been an emotive one among Sabahans who feel that their sovereignty has been eroded systematically by the federal government. Many Sabahans, led primarily by Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS/Sabah United Party), since the 1990s, have consistently called for a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on this issue. Then Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohammad (1981-2003) however, consistently refused to respond to this demand.
Due to continued public pressure from Sabahans, civil society leaders, opposition leaders and several ruling coalition leaders, and the importance of Sabah to the ruling coalition, current (caretaker) Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the formation of a Royal Commission (RCI) in 2012 to investigate this matter. Several Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders argue that the increase in Sabah’s population was needed to accelerate economic development. They also contend that the majority, if not all, of the foreigners who were granted citizenship were unskilled and poorly educated, and met the demands for manual labour that the Sabah economy needed. A contending view is that the extraordinary influx of migrants into Sabah is a manifestation of the unethical practises used by the ruling coalition to remain in power. These migrants were needed by BN to boost the votes. According to Kamal Sadiq’s “Paper Citizens” (2009), ‘foreign individuals’ in Sabah were holding multiple Malaysian national identity cards. With access to two or more national identity cards, the ‘foreigner’ can vote using each of those identities. It is argued that the multiple national identity holders’ votes were cunning methods used by the ruling coalition to win the Sabah elections.
But discussions on the controversial ‘citizenship policy’ or ‘citizenship-for-votes scandal’ – although widely believed throughout Malaysia, and especially in Sabah – is premature as there has yet to be a systematic study on this issue, the impact and the significance of this irregularity on Sabah, and Sabah’s political development. Thus far the story is as follows.
‘I help you; You help me’
Since Sabah’s independence on August 31, 1963, and later joining to create the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963, together with the Federation of Malaya (the nine existing states on Peninsular Malaya), Singapore and Sarawak, the number of ‘immigrants’ entering Sabah increased dramatically. This phenomenon was originally caused by the demands for labour to develop the various labour intensive sectors, but also a wave of refugees from southern Philippines from 1972 to 1984. The influx of refugees were primarily the outcome of the war between the Muslim Nations Moro Liberation Front or Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Government of Philippines. Meanwhile, migration into Sabah was also steadily increasing, marked by the entry of immigrants from Indonesia and Philippines, both legally and illegally. Some of these early immigrants were granted citizenship by the government through legal naturalisation procedures which was strict in nature and very limited.
However, during the PBS era of government (1984-1994), more than 300,000 illegal immigrants were detected and documented. Indeed, during this period, not only did Sabah’s population rose extraordinarily, but its characteristics changed drastically. Thus the all-important political question: were these new-citizens/new bumiputras part of a strategy used by the BN, then headed by Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to overthrow the PBS state government? This question is not unusual in Sabah, and is easily answered by most Sabahans. Most Sabahans believe that these ‘new citizens’ which are also believed to be categorised as ‘bumiputera/indigenous or Malays’ are the product of ‘Project IC’. And what was/is the role played by these new-citizens in the various general elections in Sabah? For many Sabahans, again, this question is not unusual and is easily answered. These new-citizens were/are voters and they were/are being used by Barisan Nasional (BN) to win the general election. To Sabahans, the Malaysian government, anchored by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) granted immigrants instant citizenship without due process in return for their votes, as these ‘new citizens’ were compelled to vote for BN.
It is also widely believed that many electoral irregularities in Sabah are related to these foreigners or the new-citizens in Malaysia’s general elections, particularly since the PBS took over state government. Most of them are believed to have voted several times in several different polling stations during a specific general election period based on ‘win/loss’ factor. Based on this factor, if the ruling coalition’s candidate is likely to lose then these new-citizens and new-voters will be transported or given money to go and vote at the identified area. There is also a very disturbing perception among some Sabahans that this citizenship-for-votes scandal is also related to the ruling coalition attempts to strengthen the role of Islam in Sabah. An allegation often made by UMNO is that the PBS state government had an agenda to make Christian as the official religion in Sabah. Coincidentally most of the leaders during the then PBS era were Christians.
‘Project IC’ (IC is the short form for the Malaysian national identity card) is the term used by Sabahans to describe the allegation of the systematic granting of citizenship to foreigners in Sabah in return for their votes, to overthrow the then democratically elected Sabah’s state government, led by PBS, which was part of the federal opposition coalition (Gagasan Rakyat). Also, it is alleged that the aim of this operation was to permanently increase the Muslim population in Sabah believing that they would be against any Christian led political party, and would be supportive of Islamic .
This project is believed to have involved several federal government institutions such as the Election Commission of Malaysia; the National Registration Department;, the Immigration Department; the Ministry of Home Affairs in particular its then Minister (Megat Junid Megat Ayub); the former Sabah Chief Minister (Harris Salleh); and then Malaysian Prime Minister (Mahathir Mohamed).
Through this dubious citizenship granting process, candidates for citizenship were selected from communities that resemble the Malay culture such as the Suluks and Tausug from the Philippines and the Bugis, Banjars, Javanese and Timorese from Indonesia. The individuals identified were then given their IC’s and in return were obliged to vote for the ruling coalition or face the possibility of being arrested. The policy and process was secretive. Several National Registration Department officers and selected individuals were appointed to carry out this ‘secret’ task.
It is widely believed that this strategy allowed Barisan Nasional to remain politically dominant in Sabah until now. There are now many reports and evidence in the public domain, including through the RCI, that this practice is still occurring in Sabah and have also spread to other parts of Malaysia.
The reaction of Sabahans on the formation of the RCI by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak is varied. The optimists believe that this commission will be a successful method in dealing with illegal immigrants in Sabah. The sceptics believe that this commission is just a game of smokes and mirrors played by Najib Razak to divert the attention of Sabahans. Some Sabahans also believe that if those given ICs, temporary identification receipts or citizenship through unlawful means have been on Sabah’s electoral roll all these while, then the ruling government for the past 20 years was indeed illegal as the elections were won through illegal means. That these dubious voters remain on the electoral role remains a concern.
GE13 and Sabah’s future
‘Project IC’ has since become a national issue and is likely to have a have significant impact at the 13th Malaysian General Election (GE13). Testimonies coming from the RCI have supported many of the perceptions and beliefs Sabahans had about the citizenship-for-votes scandal and impacted further the negative perception among voters in Sabah where the ruling coalition is facing a credible challenge from the opposition. The Lahad Datu incursion by Sulu militants have further put the spotlight on the citizenship-for-votes scandal.
Sabahans are increasingly concerned about their deteriorating political rights, their sovereignty as Sabahans as well as the blatant abuse of power that has led to this situation. How these issues play out at GE13 remains moot but the certainty that Sabah remains BN’s fixed deposit no longer holds.
Romzi Ationg is a PhD candidate at the Research School of Humanities and the Arts, Australian National University (ANU). His thesis investigates migration in Sabah.