Recognise stateless people in Sabah, think tank urges

Reuters pic.

PETALING JAYA: A think tank has called for stateless people of foreign descent who are born in Sabah to be given some form of legitimate status.

Speaking to FMT, Oh Ei Sun who is principal adviser of the Pacific Research Centre said this would give such individuals access to employment and contribute to meeting the state’s human resource needs.

He was commenting on the plight of stateless children in Sabah, highlighted by Sandakan native Putri Purnama Sugua in her film “Aku Mau Skola”. The film documents the difficulties faced by stateless children in accessing education.

Oh, who is a Sabahan, said there was also a need for the federal government to beef up border patrol but questioned its political will to do so.

Historically, he said, there were no boundaries between countries in the region until those imposed by colonial powers.

“Often, these borders weren’t delineated according to ethnic and communal lines,” he said. “That’s why today you can see ‘sea gypsies’ like the Suluks or Tausugs roaming the seas between Sabah and southern Philippines.

“But after Malaysia was formed, there were political motives to ensure that Sabah would become ‘more in line’ with ‘mainstream communities’ in Peninsular Malaysia.”

According to Oh, it was during the administration of Mustapha Harun in the 1960s that southern Filipinos “of a particular belief” were welcomed into Sabah, not only during Projek IC in the 1990s.

Projek IC refers to the alleged systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants in the 1990s, during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first stint as prime minister. It was alleged that MyKads were issued for political reasons in the run-up to state elections.

Now, Oh said, there were so many Suluks in Sabah that it was causing friction in society. He noted however that they were needed to fill jobs which locals did not want.

By now, he said, there were at least three to four generations of stateless people in Sabah.

“There are many stateless children who will grow up to be stateless adults. They grow up without education and benefits. If they are lucky, they can get a job at coffee shops and estates; if not, they resort to crime for their livelihoods, causing more tension.”

Oh suggested that migrants in Sabah be relocated to the peninsula if they were not needed as part of the state’s workforce.

“Peninsula Malaysia started welcoming them, they should continue to do so,” he added.

Sabah-based NGO Advocates for Non-Discrimination and Access to Knowledge, meanwhile, said the way forward was to lift all reservations that discriminate against children who are non-citizens.

A spokesman for the group which provides paralegal advice and aid to stateless children and conducts research on statelessness, criticised the bureaucracy which it held ultimately responsible for denying stateless children their rights.

The spokesman said judging from the NGO’s work on the ground, many stateless people who qualified for citizenship didn’t know how to apply for it. The application process was also lengthy, the spokesman added.

“So the lives of the children are put on hold without access to affordable education and healthcare, two very basic rights of a human being.”

A coalition of 21 NGOs in Sabah previously estimated that there were some 800,000 stateless people in the state.