Written by JOEL M. SY EGCO
Residents of Tanjung Labian leave their village near where Filipino gunmen were locked down in a standoff in the surrounding villages of Tanduo in Sabah. AFP PHOTO
MAJORITY, if not all, of the 800,000 Filipinos based in Sabah may be sent back to the Philippines on the premise that they had acquired their Malaysian citizenship illegally over the past 20 years under a controversial systematic granting of citizenship to foreigners dubbed Project IC (identity cards).
Project IC, which is blamed on former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, was said to be among the factors that led followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram 3rd to “invade” Sabah in February. Most of the Filipinos who benefited from the project in the past are Tausugs from the nearby islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Unknown to many, the Malaysian government has begun an investigation into the “phantom” project, which Mahathir denied ever existed.
On January 14, or just two weeks prior to the sultanate army’s incursion of Sabah, the Royal Commission of Inquiry began its hearings on Project IC.
Amid the offensives against the followers of Kiram, the royal commission was supposed to conduct another hearing on March 5.
Overshadowed by the skirmishes was the fact that in June 2012, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and the federal government formed the royal commission to investigate problems related to illegal immigration in Sabah, mostly targeting Filipinos and Indonesians who comprise the bulk of non-Malaysian natives on the island.
Malaysian news reports quoted former Dewan Rakyat senator and state assemblyman Chong Eng Leong as saying that in 2012, there were 700,000 “Project IC citizens” and that 200,000 of them are on the state electoral list.
There are about 1.7 million foreigners, mostly Filipinos and Indonesians, in Sabah whose population is only three million. Based on a 2010 survey, foreigners comprised over a quarter of Sabah’s population.
Sabah has 926,638 voters, according to a June report by Malaysian daily, The Star.
It was alleged that Mahathir, who headed Malaysia for over two decades from 1981 to 2003, devised the scheme to alter the demographic pattern of Sabah to make it more favorable to the ruling government and certain political parties.
Under the project, Mahathir allegedly granted citizenship to immigrants (including those who are illegal) by giving them identity documents known as the identity card and subsequently, MyKad. Another term used is Project M, where “M” stood for Mahathir Mohamad.
It has been said that Project IC was a secret policy of the Barisan Nasional coalition and its affiliate, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), in order to attain political domination in the state using the votes of immigrants.
Mahathir admitted that Filipino immigrants were granted citizenship in Sabah, but insisted that everything was done legally.
The project was said to have begun in the early 1990s after the entry of UMNO into Sabah politics. However, there were also allegations of mass immigration and naturalization of migrants in the 1970s under the United Sabah National Organization government, and in the early 1980s under Berjaya government. The two parties eventually merged to form UMNO.
Prior to last year’s formation of the royal commission, there had been several government operations to deport illegal immigrants. These operations serve to deport immigrants without proper documentations such as ICs or a valid work permit.
The royal commission, headed by former Sabah and Sarawak chief judge Steve Shim, is investigating the reasons behind Sabah’s population growth which can be attributed largely to the influx of Filipinos.
Among others, the commission aims to investigate the number of “stateless” foreigners in Sabah given identity cards or citizenships.
Under its terms of reference, the royal commission is also tasked to probe if the award of such Ics, or citizenships were according to the law; if those given blue identity cards, temporary identification receipts or citizenships through unlawful means have been registered in Sabah’s electoral roll; and if the authorities have taken any action or made improvements to standard operating procedures, methods and regulations to prevent any irregularities in accordance with the law;
According to some observers, including Malaysian journalists who talked to The Manila Times, the skirmishes between Malaysian security forces and followers of Kiram may result in two possible scenarios: it could hamper the ongoing royal commission investigation and save hundreds of thousands of “illegal” identity card holders from early deportation; or it may speed up the process, especially since Sabah-based Filipinos are now returning to Tawi-Tawi and Sulu provinces by the hundreds daily.
“These refugees could be those who were still waiting for their ICs but decided to just leave out of fear,” one Malaysian journalist who works for a major news organization told the Times.
The Kiram family and Philippine government officials reserved comment on the matter for the meantime but promised to talk about it today.
Online news group Free Malaysia Today quoted Mahathir as saying that his former deputy and current Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim was the main man behind the granting of citizenship-for-votes to immigrants in Sabah in the 1990s.
Mahathir said that Anwar was directly involved in “Project IC,” adding that at times, his former aide had acted without orders from him.
“He normally takes the initiative and sometimes does more [than is required],” another online news portal, Malaysiakini, quoted Mahathir as saying.
He said that Anwar and other implementing officers in Sabah had at times failed to follow instructions from him, adding that the government had taken action against them.
Mahathir also said that he will testify before the ongoing royal commission probe if called.
Meanwhile, Anwar said that he is also ready to testify and denied that he was directly involved in Project IC.
“I have no problem whatsoever. I knew for a long time the project was under the prime minister, that it did not involve a Cabinet process, so it is the full responsibility of the prime minister and finance minister,” he said.
“When I was there, even I was not briefed on the issue [of providing citizenship to immigrants],” he added.
WITH A REPORT FROM RITCHIE A. HORARIO