Stateless in Sabah

Josh Hong

The 12th Malaysian Plan report says that eight of the 10 poorest districts in Malaysia are located in Sabah. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, September 27, 2021.

THE issue of statelessness in Sabah is not a recent phenomenon, as it started way back in the mid-1970s, when the conflict between the Philippine Army, the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front forced tens of thousands of Suluk and Bajau refugees to flee and seek refuge elsewhere, most of whom eventually ended up on coastal towns such as Sandakan, Tawau, Lahad Datu and Semporna.

The situation became more complicated when politicians in both Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah sought to entice migration of more Suluk and Bajau people in southern Philippines to counterbalance the mostly Christian Kadazandusun and Murut communities in the subsequent decades. 

The connivance and indifference of the state and the federal governments, especially during the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Anwar Ibrahim administration in the 1990s, gave rise to a huge stateless population in Sabah, the actual number of which cannot be accurately estimated.

Although various figures have been cited over the years, ranging from 800,000 to 1.2 million, not many people really understand the socio-economic situation of this diverse group, politicians claiming to want to resolve the problem included.

Owing to colonial rule and post-independence racial politics, Malaysians tend to regard an “ethnic“ community as a homogenous group.

For example, when some express their concern that “the number of foreign workers has surpassed that of the Indians in Malaysia,” they simply overlook the fact that migrant workers belong to different nationalities, or speak different languages and profess different faiths even if they happen to come from the same country, such as Myanmar.

Even the so-called “Indian Malaysians” are a diverse population, with many counting Ceylonese Tamils among them, much to the chagrin of this unique community with a different history of migration to Malaya.

The same is true for Sabah, where the stateless population has long been seen as a whole, despite that they come from various ethnic backgrounds such as the Bajau and Suluk, who speak Bajau, Tausug, Tagalog and Malay.

There are also Dayak that originate in North Kalimantan and Bugis from Sulawesi. While Islam is the main religion, there are also adherents of Christianity, Catholicism and traditional spiritual beliefs.

Put simply, this large population is definitely not as monolithic as we in Peninsular Malaysia imagine it to be.

In terms of identification documents, roughly 60,000 refugees received temporary passes, known as IMM13, that were issued by Malaysia’s Immigration Department in the mid- to late 1970s, after which they and their descendants were allowed to stay on.

However, there were also a significant number of undocumented migrant workers who entered Sabah to work from the 1980s onwards, as well as children born of intermarriages between refugees, undocumented migrants and local residents in Sabah, who became stateless due to a lack of identity documents. 

That many from Indonesia and the Philippines obtained Malaysian identification cards based on falsified statutory declarations – the validity of which could not be ascertained – during the Dr Mahathir-Anwar administration in the 1990s exacerbated Sabah’s already toxic political environment. 

From 2005 to 2008, I visited Sabah on several occasions to understand the situation on the ground concerning the stateless and refugee communities, and found it very common for members of a family to hold different or even no documents.

Today, anyone who seeks to address the issue, even in good faith, would be questioned if they have an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda.

For instance, the Bajau Laut who live on the water just off the coast from Semporna earn a living by fishing and selling their daily catch at the market.

Although they largely linger around the seashore, many have also married local women and established their presence by building houses on an island called Kampung Halo-Halo.

Most of their children do not go to school. But there are civil society groups that provide them with informal education, such as Iskul Sama Dilaut Omadal.

Repatriating this community is near impossible, as either Indonesia or the Philippines may not consider them citizens because many simply cannot produce any documentation that could prove their places of origin.

In any case, many of the stateless and undocumented people have been living in Sabah for decades, with some spanning over three generations, and their contribution to the local economy is beyond dispute.

Many restaurant and bar owners in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan told me they would not have been able to sustain their businesses if they did not hire Filipinos who were willing to work for lower wages.

A good number of their workers also married locals and had children. Thus, to see them as “foreigners” or “outsiders” would be rather unjust.

Recently, Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin announced that the federal government would start issuing a “special card” to long-residing foreigners in Sabah, including their children.

Being a pragmatist, I agree there must be a starting point so that this long-standing issue could be resolved. After all, excluding up to a million stateless and undocumented people from access to medical care, education and legal employment over a long time inevitably leads to a host of social problems, to the detriment of all parties.

Stateless children, in particular, need to be given the right to education and legal employment, failing which some could potentially become targets of criminal syndicates or even armed groups in southern Philippines.

To ensure a smooth implementation, the Home Ministry must engage the general public, media, civil society groups and politicians from both sides of the divide in consultation, simply because a lack of consensus and trust could derail efforts to regularise the status of the stateless and undocumented people in Sabah, with some seeking to gain political mileage especially during elections.

Hence, the federal government must ensure there will be transparency and integrity in the process, as corruption and fraud over the past few decades have undermined public confidence in the authorities’ sincerity in solving the problem.

Last but not least, there must not be any action taken against those who come forward to be registered, be it arrest, detention or even deportation. These could render the entire process an exercise in futility as the targeted groups lose faith in the authorities and go into hiding instead, leaving the issue unresolved for decades to come. – February 21, 2022.

* Josh Hong is a keen watcher of domestic and international politics, who longs for the day when Malaysians master the art of self-mockery. He has spent the last 15 years trying to win his feline friends’ favour as he considers it an endeavour more worthwhile than trusting politicians, aspiring also to be a tea and coffee connoisseur.

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