If there is peace in the Southern Philippines, will the thousands of immigrants in Sabah finally leave? Local pundits don't think so.
The exodus back simply won’t happen, said Kota Kinabalu-based social activist Marcel Jude. This, he added, was because many Filipinos had flocked to Sabah for economic reasons.
Jude was asked his views following the signing of a peace agreement between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels and the Philippine government last Sunday.
Pundits generally felt that the peace agreement would mean little to the Filipinos who fled to East Malaysia in fear for their lives.
“In the 70s, there were war refugees…,” Jude, a the lawyer, told FMT referring to the Islamic insurgency which has reigned in the Southern Philippines since 1969.
“But that was only the tip of the iceberg. People came here because Malaysia was economically better.
“Whatever happens in the Southern Philippines will not see the lessening of illegal immigrants to Sabah. It will continue to have this,” he said.
The large number of immigrants have been a contentious issue for local Sabahans. Many groups have raised concerns of becoming minorities in their state, due to the huge influx of foreigners over the years.
Recent records have put this number at 889,700, which is at least 25% of the state’s 3.2 million population. Others have estimated this figure to be higher.
More than 150,000 people were estimated to have been killed during the Philippines’ 53-year-long insurgency.
Consumer economy driven by immigrants
Things, Jude added, were also complicated by children born to immigrants staying here, many of whom had no connection to the Philippines.
To make matters worse, some of the Filipino immigrants were even supposedly given Malaysian identity cards over the years, certifying many as Sabah-born natives.
The federal government has set up a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) to look into the issuance of citizenships to illegal immigrants, a matter that allegedly took place during prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reign.
But legalised or not, Jude said that these people would eventually take over the state’s economy, bit by bit.
“Before, during Chinese New Year, all the shops would be closed because the Chinese [would go on holiday]. Now if these people closed shop, the whole economy here would come to a standstill.”
“I don’t see why they would want to go back when they’re all making good money. Why would they want to go back?” he said, alluding to the immigrants.
Local State Reform Party (STAR) politician Awang Ahmad Shah was just as pessimistic about the whole idea.
He alleged that poor economic conditions in the Philippines would not attract Filipinos to go back home.
Himself married to a Filipino, Awang said: “The problem in the Philippines is that although the amount of land is huge, it is all owned by the elites and those in power.”
“So the village people don’t even have land to buy a house. And the cost of living is just too high. Petrol, diesel and cooking oil is just so expensive.”
‘They will never leave Sabah’
Malaysia’s seemingly lax restrictions on immigration, he added, were also a factor.
According to him, the government was not making it difficult for Filipinos to stay in Sabah.
“We have to make their life tough. If they are illegal, we must send them home. It is not a question of being inhumane… chasing them out. But if we don’t do that, they will never leave Sabah,” he said.
Universiti Teknologi Mara Sabah political analyst Arnold Puyok was similarly doubtful of the idea of Filipino immigrants leaving the state.
He said that it was a debatable matter even if peace came to the Southern Philippines and economic development there in full sway.
“We have to know the reasons why the immigrants are here. It boils down to the issue of whether they feel safe to go back to their own country,” he said.
Puyok added that the only way to solve Sabah’s immigrant problem was to have a “concrete” bilateral agreement between the Filipino and Malaysian governments.
Aside from the RCI, the federal government has said little on what it intends to do with Sabah’s immigrants, a population which appears to be rising in number every year.