One Man’s Opinion
According to the 1951 Convention, a refugee is someone, who owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of their country of nationality or country of habitual residence and is either unable or unwilling to avail him/herself to the protection of that country due to such fear.
In Sabah, initially, the Filipino refugees were temporarily accommodated in five resettlement areas: Telipok, Kinarut, Sandakan, Semporna and Tawau. However since Malaysia was not a signatory to the international conventions that protect the welfare of refugees and stateless individuals, Filipino refugees were considered as irregular migrants. Instead, they were granted IMM13 social work pass which enabled them to register for resettlement identification card (IC). The Sabah state permitted the Filipino refugees to stay and work.
However, under Malaysian law no distinction between refugees and other categories of undocumented persons…thereby leaving refugees vulnerable to the same penal sanctions that undocumented migrants are subjected to, including detention, corporal punishment upon conviction, and eventually deportation. All undocumented persons in Malaysia are legally considered as “illegal migrants”.
However, Azizah (2009:68) contends that even though Malaysia does not equate refugees with illegal migrants, they were given permission to stay and work under IMM13 and that, as long as they renew it annually they are considered legal migrants.
Against this backdrop, the problem of Filipino refugees and the undocumented immigrants in Sabah today is even worse than three decades ago when the resolution of the long-standing problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah was proclaimed as one of the pillars of Sabah Baru in 1994.
I remember in the seventies, there were only 100,000 to 200,000 illegal immigrants in Sabah. But today, their number have mushroomed to 1,158,300 according to a cencus by the Department of Statistics (Daily Express 28 September 2018). At present, the illegal immigrants in Sabah has almost outnumbered the local population, and their number is increasing day by day. In fact in many districts of Sabah such as Kinabatangan, Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau, the presence of Filipino refugees and undocumented immigrants have already overtaken the locals in sheer number and brute strength. In Kota Kinabalu, Pulau Gaya is virtually a mini Philippines in Malaysian waters. Its notoriety for violence is such that even the armed forces fear to tread.
In the major towns, the majority of these illegal immigrants are from the Philippines and Indonesia. Combined together, they have reduced Sabahans into a minority because close to one third of Sabah’s population now comprises these foreigners.
Time and again we hear demands from the Philippines that they are interested in claiming back Sabah. If and when a referendum were to be held, with the help of these Filipinos residing in Sabah, we will surely be defeated – Philippines will be able to take Sabah as their own..
Tragically, the Population Statistics has substantiated Sabahan’s fear of a “reverse-takeover” and the daily encounters and experiences of the man-on-the-street do not lie! The threat and menace of foreigners in Sabah and Malaysia in general can never be underestimated and down played.
The Philippines claim to Sabah is real. It was supported by the Macapagal administration and was based on the “interpretation of the Sulu grant to Von Overbeck and Dent of January 22, 1878, as a lease and not a cession” (482).
However, Sabah was finally incorporated into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. So, the claim had lain dormant for some years, especially when other domestic issues came up and required more attention. One of these is the Muslim successionist movements in Mindanao, which leads to the migration of some Filipinos to Sabah. But until now the Malaysian Government is believed to be still paying rental money RM5,000 a year to descendants of the Sulu Sultan.
Filipino migration to Sabah
Surveying previous studies on Filipino migration to Sabah reflect that there had been three migration waves of immigrants. First is during the pre-war period. Shimizu (3002:74) notes that the first group consists of professionals, like English and Math teachers, clerks, engineers and technical expert, logging companies. They came to Sabah before the second World War and occupied the upper middle class in Sabah society.
The next wave of immigrants saw a massive influx of Filipinos who were severely affected by the insurgencies against the Philippine government in Mindanao for Muslim sucessionist movements in 1973. The conflict between the Philippine and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which later become the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had caused Muslim Filipino communities to move out of their comfort zone. They were accommodated as refugees or irregular migrants by the Sabah state. Sabah then formed a Resettlement Division to deal with the Filipino refugees who have sought accommodation to Sabah. The divisions set-up following criteria to determine the refugee status of Filipinos: (1) must have come from Region 9 (Zamboanga Del Norte, Del Sur, Sibugay). (2) have been directly affected by the unrest; (3) have arrived in Sabah between1972 to 1984; (4) must be Muslims; and (5) must be willing to stay permanently in Sabah (New Sabah Times January 2013).
Finally, the third wave is composed of “economic migrants” in the late 1970 at a time when the economy was sinking after having been affected by the second oil shock and economic mismanagement. These economic migrants were encouraged by Marcos to find work abroad as a temporary solution to the economic meltdown (Shimizu 2002:73).
The Philippine government estimates the current total number of Filipinos in Sabah, including professionals, skilled workers, refugees and undocumented migrants at 800,000 (Free Malaysia Today). The difficulty of accurately assessing the number is exacerbated by the free movement of people from Mindanao to Sabah. Sadiq (2005:106) emphasizes that migration of locals between Sulu and Sabah has a long history due to geographical proximity and regional economic trade that dates as early as the ninth century. In fact, Sitangkai, the southern most village of Tawi Tawi is only around 50 km away from Manakalan, the nearest coastal village in Sabah (Shimizu 2002). Here, the exchange of trade, culture and language has been porus.
Historical relation of the Suluk people with the inhabitants of Sabah at the time of Tun Mustapha’s term had greatly altered the ethnic composition of Sabah. Mustapha, a Muslim of Bajau-Suluk origin was said to have given favor to the Filipino Muslim refugees to increase the participation of Sabah in the national elections. At that time, he was the president of USNO party. By giving immigrant status to refugees, they would enjoy privileges that citizens normally received, including the right to vote.
Sadiq (2005:116) explains the significance of granting foreigners immigrant status in Sabah: The goal of the Malays, who dominate the Federal government is to change the demographic and political character of Sabah so that it becomes Malay Muslim-dominated, and because of cultural-religious commonalities, these immigrants and Filipinos can easily be Malayized over time and will support Malay-Muslim parties. Both USNO and Umno were the predominantly Malay political parties. This controversy was sensationalized and became the subject of political controversy, called the “Project Mahathir”, which was believed to have been planned by the Malaysian prime minister himself to deliberately legalize illegal immigrants to increase the participation of Malay-turned migrants in the elections and secure a strong foothold in the administration.
However, the present scenario poses a big problem as many undocumented migrants can easily enter the borders without being noticed. This has been the case for a long time when Malaysia was particularly “soft” on its policies on migrants. However, tougher sanction have been instituted by Malaysia when it experienced “extraordinary” population growth during Berjaya administration (Frank 2006).
The impact of Filipino migration into Sabah
Migration among ASEAN countries is not new and Sabah is one of the states in Malaysia that faces this phenomenon. Even prior to independence, Sabah had already been receiving immigrants from ASEAN countries.The migration phenomenon between ASEAN countries had been occurring long before the establishment of nation-state border system. As a state in Malaysia, Sabah has been facing this phenomenon, receiving immigrants from ASEAN countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Prior to independence, the state already had historical relation with the Philippines as one of the closest neighbors particularly during the rule of the Sultanate of Sulu. After independence, the relationship was further strengthen through the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. The centuries-old relationship rendered migration of Filipinos to Sabah as something not peculiar. The migration took place due to various factors such as trade, da’wah, political crisis, family ties and so on. As a result, it left an impact on almost all aspects of Sabah’s development in politics, economy, society and others (Lasimbang, Tong and Low HB2016:116-117).
As such, Sabah population, originally comprising only a few groups, grew at an “extraordinary” rate following the migration process.
A ticking social time bomb
All and sundry know that when Umno leaders were promising a Sabah Baru to resolve the problem of illegal immigrants in the state, they were actually involved in the racket known as Project IC to legalize the status of illegal immigrants by issuing them false identity cards to become phantom voters to ensure Umno hegemony and determining the political destiny of Sabah. Obviously this is illegal under Malaysian law but the all the perpetrators were only given ‘light’ sentences.
How can the long-standing and intractable problem of illegal immigrants in Sabah be irrelevant to what should be the priority and policy concerns of BN and the Federal government?
The political, social and security turmoils in Sabah today, which Umno and BN leaders have failed to addressed were hugely attributed to their failures that will undermine the international competitiveness of Sabahans in particular and Malaysia in general.
There is no more eloquent reminder to Malaysians, particularly the people of Sabah than the BN’s failures to addressed these problem. And It’s tragic because it had turned the “land below the wind” from a paradise on earth before the sixties into quite a nightmarish land today.
I can still remember the times over the past six decades when Sabah earned the appellation of ” The Land Below the Wind” – not because of its location below the typhoon belt around the Philippines but because it was regarded as a “human paradise” where one can keep the doors open without fear of crime.
Today, however, even if the house is doubly or trebly locked, there is no guarantee of personal safety or property security in the privacy of homes – let alone in the streets and public places. Why? It’s because topping crime incidence in the country, Sabahans have long lost their innocence – with crime and the fear of crime have been their top concern and preoccupations.
In recent years, the social consequences of such crimes had been horrendous. Rape, robbery, murder, drug peddling, home break-ins and petty thefts ara daily affairs in Sabah, in line with the increasing number of foreigners.
The flea markets throughout Sabah speak volumes of their side activities. Stolen items ranging from shoes and t-shirts to hand phones and laptops are sold brazenly in broad daylight, oblivious to the law enforcers but not to the locals who fall victims to these unscrupulous foreigners.
As evidence of their crimes, the press of Sabah provides a daily painful reminder. In fact, the local Daily Express dedicates a whole page on crime in Sabah, much of it involving foreigners – especially Filipinos.
There is an old song that periodically comes back to my mind. The song titled “My Grandfather’s Clock” written by Henry Clay in 1876 describes a grandfather’s clock that faithfully ticks its way through its owner’s life. Childhood, adulthood, and old age are all viewed in a relationship to his beloved time-piece. The refrain says: Ninety years without slumbering,
Tick, tock, tick, tock, But it stopped, short, Never to go again, When the old man died.
This song about the relentless ticking of the clock reminds us of the grave problem of political, economic, educational, cultural, social and security posed by the huge migration and population of Filipino refugees and undocumented immigrants in Sabah.
While money and assets lost can be re-erned and regained, the lives and dignity of rape and murder victims can never be restored.
This is the scenario and general perception on the Filipino migrants which created an image that depicts Filipinos as unlawful and dangerous. Studies done on Filipino migrants highlight the following: “participation in piracy, widespread use of fire arms, high rate of crimes, involvement in setting up ‘lawless’ settlements, underground activities and gangsterism, smuggling, drug abuse and kidnapping” (Ramli et al 2003 in Azizah 2009:76).
Apart from this, the stand off between the royal Kiram army and the Malaysian forces in Lahad Datu should remind us of the constant threats posed by these illegal immigrants in Sabah.
It will not be far-fetched to say that much of the current resentment towards Filipino refugees and undocumented immigrants, conversely, affinity for state nationalism draw inspiration from this episodes. Hence, against this backdrop, change is inevitable, unrelenting and overarching.
Last but not least, as a Sabahan, I sincerely hope and pray that after PH and Warisan + took control of the Federal and State government respectively, Sabah can gain back what she has lost all this while – for a better future for all Sabahans.
-Sindin R. Kiulu