Islamic Relief 2013 Qurban

Citizenship Crisis in Malaysia

June 29, 2006 by  


By Farish A. Noor, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

In the East Malaysian state of Sabah there is a looming crisis over citizenship and residency permits that have been granted to foreigners, mostly from the neighboring country of the Philippines. This has led local Sabah NGOs and civil society groups to petition the federal government of Malaysia to put a stop to the granting of residency status and Malaysian identity cards to foreigners, who are said to outnumber local Malaysian Sabahans by two to one in some parts of the state.

Revelation of the demographic crisis came about as a result of independent reports on a clandestine program of settlement known as ‘Project M’, that was said to have been in effect for almost two decades now. So angry are the locals of Sabah that they argue that the net result of the program has been to turn them into a minority in their own state, and they have asked the government to explain how and why identity cards and residency status was so readily given out to foreigners while many local Malaysians of Indian or Chinese origin have yet to be given full citizenship status or Malaysian identity cards.

It has now emerged that the expansion of the population in the East Malaysian state of Sabah has less to do with a population boom but rather by the granting of entry permits, identity cards and residency status to thousands of migrants from the neighboring Philippines. This has prompted locals in Sabah to appeal to the federal government of Malaysia to put a stop to the granting of residency status to so many foreigners. Yet the question remains: how and why was this allowed to happen over a long period of more than two decades? And while foreigners from the Philippines were granted residency status and Malaysian identity cards, why are there still so many Malaysians–said to number around 30,000–of Indian and Chinese origin who are still denied full Malaysian citizenship and identity cards?

Observers of Malaysian politics have long since realized that Malaysia’s political economy is based on the politics of race and communitarianism. The country’s fragile ethnic and racial balance has been kept together by an elite consensus between the numerically bigger but economically poorer Malays and the economically more powerful Chinese minority. Yet Malaysian politics remains Malay-dominated and with a strong Malay-centric flavour to it. Until today, the history books of Malaysia speak more of the achivements and contributions of the Malays rather than the other communities, particularly the Chinese and Indians who actually helped the Malaysian economy develop in the first place.

Due to the demographic imbalance that favours the Malay majority, Malaysian politics has always sought to ensure and protect the comfort zone of the Malays in particular. The two biggest parties in Malaysia–the ruling UMNO party and the opposition Malaysian Islamic party PAS–are both Malay-dominated and despite their claims to the contrary they cater primarily to the communitarian interests of the Malays.

The majority status of the Malays, however, is guaranteed by the ambiguous cocept of ‘Bumiputera’ (literally the sons of the soil) who are also considered Malay by definition. ‘Bumiputeras’ include not only Malays but also those whose origins are of the Malay archipelago–to include Indonesians, Filipinos and Thais (of Muslim background).

The granting of residency status and citizenship to ‘bumiputeras’ from the Philippines has therefore been criticized as yet another attempt to bolster the majority status of the Malays, while further neglecting the legitimate needs of Malaysia’s Chinese and Indians; prompting the latter to ask: how long do they need to live in Malaysia before they are seen as truly Malaysians?

The present prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, has stated time and again that he is the ‘prime minister of all Malaysians’ and has vowed to break from the communitarian political culture of his predecessors. Yet if the allegations about ‘Project M’ turn out to be true, it would suggest that the policy of favoring Malays and Bumiputeras continues unabated until today in the country.

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