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Aliens in East Malaysia

(© Christos Georghiou/Dreamstime)

TO those in the Klang Valley who read papers like The Star and The New Straits Times, Sabah must sound like the remote edge of the nation. It is out there, a huge chunk of real estate inhabited by exotic people speaking a strange version of Bahasa Malaysia.

Therefore, it would not be so clear to those participating in the national narrative why Sabahans make such a big deal about illegal immigrants. Are they not in all corners of the nation, numbering in the millions, working in jobs deemed neither lucrative nor respectable enough by Malaysian citizens?

Unfortunately, the national narrative does not always take into account the meek voices of Sabahans. Their problems are often considered too parochial to be of national concern.

Ask any Sabahan though, and he or she will tell you that there is no greater security and social problem facing Sabah today than that of illegal aliens. It is a daily nightmare that Sabahans have to live through and watch helplessly as it reels out of control.

(© Charlie Bishop/Dreamstime)
Exactly how many illegal immigrants there are in Sabah is anybody’s guess. I have been told by a friend from Sabah that one in every two persons in the state could be an illegal alien.

Immigrant facts and figures

Recently, Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) deputy president and Member of Parliament (MP) for Sepanggar Datuk Eric Majimbun expressed shock at discovering a MyKad bearing his surname and address.

He was shocked because the card belonged to a Filipino illegal immigrant.

According to news reports, Majimbun said based on the 1970-2000 census, the population in Sabah increased from 636,431 to 2,449,389 (285%) over 30 years. Compare this with Sarawak’s 106% (from 976,269 to 2,012,616) and Peninsula Malaysia’s 113% (from 10,439,430 to 22,202,614).

He also queried census conducted by the government in Sabah, which showed a 236% increase in the Kadazandusun population between 1960 and 2000. For other bumiputera, it increased by 631%.

Eric Majimbun (Source: sapp.
The figures tell the story. In Sabah, as in Sarawak, the Malay/Muslim population forms a small minority, an anomaly within the context of Malay dominance demanded by the nationalist narrative of Umno. The politics of race is the politics of counting heads, and by that logic, the chief minister of Sabah cannot be a Malay leader.  

The rumour that has been going round in Sabah for decades is that certain politicians have been facilitating an increase in the Muslim population. These politicians allegedly engineer the issuance of Malaysian identity cards to illegal immigrants from the Muslim south of the Philippines and neighbouring Indonesia. This would dilute and therefore marginalise the political significance of the non-Muslim Kadazandusun people of Sabah.

Permanent resident status

Whenever there is uproar in Kota Kinabalu about the dangerous presence of these illegal immigrants, the federal government sends in a task force of sorts. A few thousand of these aliens are then deported. When the furore dies down, these deported foreigners can re-enter Sabah by the next boat or ferry.

To add insult to injury, native Sabahans who try to replace their old ICs with MyKad have been demoted to permanent resident status. This denies them the chance to even vote.

I have been to Sabah many times. In cities and suburbs, there are pockets with almost exclusive Filipino populations that sound, look, and smell more like a slum in Manila or Zamboanga than a piece of Malaysian soil.

For Sabahans, the massive and ubiquitous presence of these illegal immigrants feels like an alien growth in their body. Being so muted and so far away, their unease is not shared by Malaysians elsewhere.

The gravity of this issue drove the SAPP to threaten a vote of no confidence in the prime minister, and subsequently it pulled out of the Barisan Nasional (BN). Recently, even United Pasokmomogun Kazadandusun Murut Organisation leaders have been echoing this unhappiness with the central government.

Finally, the deputy president of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), Datuk Dr Maximus Ongkili, announced that Sabah BN component parties would get to the bottom of the issue. What he omitted to say was that the massive and long-standing problem of illegal immigrants cannot be solved without focused political will from Kuala Lumpur.

Maximus Ongkili (Source:

Solutions and preoccupations

The obvious step to take is the establishment of a royal commission of enquiry specifically designed to investigate all aspects of this issue. This should include a thorough vetting of the National Registration Department in Sabah from top to bottom, as well as any political linkage that might exist in this burgeoning problem.

Unfortunately for Sabahans, the people in the power centre in Kuala Lumpur are all too busy with their party elections. They are also busy putting out sporadic fires on the economic front. Nothing can be further from their mind than the daily problems faced by distant, remote and inconsequential Sabahans.

That is all the reason needed for Sabahan MPs to jump ship and join Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition. Provided, of course, Anwar can promise and deliver a comprehensive plan to weed out the illegal immigrants from the Land Below the Wind once and for all.

Without a change of government at the federal level, both Sarawak and Sabah cannot enjoy the fruits of federalism.

Sim Kwang Yang was DAP MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. His column, An Examined Life, is published weekly on

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