February 27, 2011
Controversial 'Sulu Sultan' Mohd Akjan Ali's life-story resembles a rags-to-riches tale.
But his “self-proclaimation” and subsequent contentious call for Suluk descendents in Sabah to give him their loyalty reopened a sore wound in Sabah’s psyche – illegal immgrants and the “covert” Project IC project in the 1990s aimed at increasing Umno’s vote bank in Sabah.
Today these “illegal immigrants”, who are former runaways from the Philippines and Indonesia, form the bulk of Sabah’s citizenry.
They are also now Sabah Umno’s “lifeline”, eating into every aspect of native Sabahans’ rights.
Akjan Ali’s rise is a rags-to-riches tale bearing some semblence to the award-winning movie “Slumdog Millionaire”. (In the movie, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai won a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s reality show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”)
Akjan, the Ferari-driving millionaire clocking in frequent flyer miles, was once rumoured to have been a carwash boy, cobbler and bus conductor, who spent his days on the city streets in Kota Kinabalu.
But a press release issued by his “interim government of the Sulu Sultanate” press release issued on Feb 7 tells a different story.
If what it says is to be believed, Akjan, now called Sultan Shariful-Hashim II, has lived a charmed life.
The “new sultan”, a Suluk, was born in Jambangan, Nipah-Nipah, Jolo in the southern Philippines on Nov 23, 1957, his virtual government states.
His Malaysian identity card, however, states that he was born in Sabah on July 7, 1957.
Akjan, who recently resigned from Umno, has himself admitted to being “born in Kudat (Sabah)” who loves his country.
However, he adds that he will give up his Malaysian citizenship before his “actual” coronation as sultan.
His Feb 7 media statement states: “On Nov 11, 1962, he (Akjan) was taken by his uncle Hasirin B Sumabud to Camp Sibaud, Sandakan, for security reason. He later became a Malaysian citizen when Sabah joined the then Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.”
It’s a fact that from 1962 to the late 1990s, many Philippine nationals fled the conflict in the south of their country and settled in Sabah.
Fellow Filipinos whose parents or grandparents came from the Philippines say, Akjan falls into this category of citizens of ambiguous origin.
They are adamant that Akjan was not born in Sabah.
Nothing much is known about his youth but Akjan claims he went straight into business presumably as a sub-contractor at the relatively young age of 19 years right out of school.
According to Akjan’s “interim government” profile, he is today “among others, the executive chairman and managing director of at least seven companies including Tanah Teguh Sdn Bhd, Konsortium Khazanah Watan, Malaysian Maestro (M) Sdn Bhd, Interise Capital Sdn Bhd, Nautica Technologies Sdn Bhd, Bestcom System Sdn Bhd and Plus Million Synergy Sdn Bhd.
A search on the Internet also revealed a company called Mohd Akjan Holding Sdn Bhd at Wisma Merdeka in the centre of the city’s business district.
According to political sources, Akjan’s “growth” began in the 1980s when he took the opportunity to get close to former Sabah chief minister Tun Mustapha Harun.
Mustapha had himself nursed an aspiration to become Sultan of Sabah.
Akjan’s link to Mustapha came through Usno legal adviser, the late Abdul Razak Rouse.
It was during this period that Akjan allegedly became involved in helping immigrants from the Philippines apply for permits to live in Sabah.
He was already quite influential among the Filipino community in the city then and was frequently seen around the city’s central market area on the KK waterfront where many of them plied their trade or just hung around.
It was here that he mingled with many immigrants after Friday prayers at the surau at the neighbouring Filipino market and gained Islamic credentials.
Pioneer Umno Sabah member
Akjan is currently chairman of Pertubuhan Kebajikan dan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia (The Islamic Welfare and Sermon Organisation of Malaysia) or Pekida Malaysia, Sabah division, a supreme council meber of Pekida Malaysia, and its international affairs chief.
The position has gained him respect in the eyes of many Filipino Muslims.
When Umno spread its wings to Sabah in the early 1990s, he was among the first to join the party through the Sepangar division.
Sepangar is the site of the Malaysian naval base and, according to sources, was built using immigrant labour.
He was welcomed by the new party that came into existence with the closure of Usno and Berjaya.
Their first task was to recruit new members and regain control of the state after Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS) pulled out of the Barisan Nasional coalition.
PBS had pulled out from the BN on the eve of the 1990 election and the coalition was desperate to topple the local party from power.
Akjan’s value to the new party was the sizeable number of followers among the Filipino community residing on Pulau Gaya and the squatter colonies in Kampung Likas, Mengattal and Telipok.
According to sources, it was during this time that Akjan and other former Usno leaders were given the task to issue Malaysian ICs to Filipino immigrants and register them as voters.
That project came to be known as the infamous “Project IC ”.
The “new Malaysians” recruited subsequently became Umno members and helped lift Sabah Umno membership to about half a million and thus become the second biggest Umno bastion in the country after Johor.
About a year after PBS was ousted through the wheeling and dealing in the aftermath of the 1994 election, Akjan and other Umno operatives were allegedly arrested and detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
The arrests were triggered after he was allegedly caught with a briefcase containing about 2,000 ICs at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport on a return flight from Kuala Lumpur.
It is believed that he was detained for allegedly selling the ICs to Filipino illegal immigrants in Sabah for between RM500 and RM3,000.
After his release from a two-year detention, Akjan repositioned himself in Umno at federal level and managed to align himself with former premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
“Akjan used to call on him in Putrajaya and became the envy of some Umno leaders from Sabah. He even had a kind of second home there (Putrajaya),” said a source.
He is also reputedly close to several influential figures in Sabah society.
Akjan’s efforts paid off and he landed one of the so-called government mega-projects – to build the General Operations Force (GOF) Sabah headquarters and housing for its personnel at Kinarut, about half-an-hour drive from the city, for close to RM200 million.
The project, however, saw several delays and cash injections as the initial allocation was deemed insufficient.
Critics claim this was mainly due to money disappearing into the pockets of some people. The project remains incomplete to this day.
Filipino workers recruited to build the complex staged frequent strikes due to non-payment of salaries.
At the same time, Akjan bought himself a brand new red Ferrari said to be worth about RM1 million and built a palatial residence in Likas where he owns several properties and plots of land.
Akjan’s success reflects the culture of the Filipino refugees who fled civil strife in the southern Philippines and worked hard to rebuild their lives in Sabah.
If you walk around the capital city and other major towns in Sabah, it would be quite easy to spot Filipino traders who have taken advantage of the situation in the state.
Though many are still poor, there is a sizeable number of traders in the open markets who drive around in luxury cars and have the other trappings of the rich.
The only way to distinguish them from the local is from their distinctive way of speaking or dialect.
Akjan was certainly not part of the Sabahan elite club when he began his rags-to-riches climb.
His story reveals Sabah’s crippling social fabric. The great Sabah experiment that helped boost the population of the state has come at a price.
The government-sponsored “free enterprise” has left just too many important problems unsolved.
For one it has given rise to a growing population of locals who are known for their hostility to immigrants whose large numbers have transformed the city and the state.