BOOK REVIEW: “Irregular Migrants and the Sea at the Borders of Sabah, Malaysia”, 188 Pages, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
The just-released book, which began as a PhD thesis by Vilashini Somiah, forms part of the “Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship” series, dubbed the Pelagic Alliance, published for 20 years by Palgrave Macmillan.
It’s an interesting read on Sabah, the Sulu Sea and the Philippines. The illegal immigrants in Sabah include those from Indonesia, Timor Leste, and other countries as well. The focus of the book lies on those from the Philippines.
“Irregular Migrants and the Sea at the Borders of Sabah, Malaysia”, very human in its touch, details many human rights cases which describe the plight of the illegal immigrants or PTI (pendatang tanpa izin) in North Borneo.
The Author, Orang Asal (Indigenous) from the mother’s side, generally does not go beyond the legal twilight zone. There appears no acceptable way forward in the book, politically and legally, for the PTI. Still, it makes good material for a human rights documentary for audiences everywhere.
The pre-occupation with human rights issues, based on humanitarian considerations, are the least of the concerns of the Sabah and Malaysian governments on the PTI. Politics gets in the way. That sees the PTI being regularly rounded up, arrested, interrogated, detained and deported.
Philippines Not Home
No doubt, as the Author discovered, those deported in the morning invariably return within a month, not literally the same evening as public perceptions hold. It’s home in Sabah where it’s family, has been for a quarter century or more, perhaps as long as 40 years. The Philippines was no longer home and many PTI in Sabah live and die as one. In the absence of bank accounts, gold is their only avenue for savings and investment.
Banks in Sabah caution account holders against being party to illegalities with “others” i.e. lending their names to be used to operate bank accounts.
The Orang Asal see the PTI, despite being welcome labour, as a threat to their sovereignty. There’s always the risk, as the Sabah Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Illegal Immigrants discovered in 2013, of the PTI entering the electoral rolls.
In law, the onus may be on the PTI to get “proof of identity” which, at the same time, will not see them entering the electoral rolls. The government, except for advising exit and legal entry, cannot get involved on the plight of the PTI. Politics mitigates against it.
Identity For All
It may be recalled that Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar pledged in Oct 2008 that “everyone in the country would be given an identity but not necessarily a Malaysian identity”.
The welfare of citizens remains the primary duty of a government. It’s not the PTI who elect the government. It’s political suicide if a party is seen as being sympathetic to illegal immigrants.
The ruling Parti Warisan ran the gauntlet on the issue in the snap Sabah polls on Sat 26 Sept 2020 and found itself booted out of power after Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin placed National Registration Dept (NRD) officers to vet voters in the electoral rolls.
The pandemic comes as a “blessing in disguise” for illegal immigrants provided they get vaccinated. The PTI can use the vaccination certificate as “proof of identity”.
At present, less than 100K PTI hold the coveted “proof of identity” IMM13 from the Immigration Dept. The document, renewable every year, allows the holders to work. It isn’t recognised by banks for opening accounts. Other foreign workers, 700K in 2010, have work permit.
2010 National Census
The 2010 National Census, the 2020 figures being delayed by the pandemic, found 3.2m people in Sabah including 1.5m Malaysians, 600K with “documents which need verification” and 400K “undocumented” people. The 3.2m people include the 700K work permit holders.
If Parliament does not declare Amnesty for illegal immigrants in Sabah, they can exit and enter with valid travel papers. The Orang Asal will fiercely oppose Amnesty.
Foreigners, as in other countries, don’t need citizenship to stay in Malaysia.
The children of the PTI provide an alternative route to regularisation. Their status, as “school leaving certificate” holders, may qualify them as permanent residents (red MyKad holders). Red MyKad confers Malaysian, but not Sabah or Sarawak, permanent residence status.
It’s not true that the PTI children cannot enter Malaysian government schools. The Education Dept will always permit them. They are discouraged by the high school fees viz. RM120 per month per child. The parents can always Appeal to the Education Dept on the fees payable.
The parents of children who acquire red MyKad, via the school leaving certificate, can apply for the Malaysian green MyKad (temporary residence). Curiously, this is a valid document in Sabah and Sarawak but must be renewed every year.
In law, if there’s no Amnesty, migration to Malaya remains the best option for PTI families in Sabah. From there, the world is at their feet. Many try to exercise this option and are sometimes nabbed in Kuching and Kuala Lumpur.
Although Sabah needs an unending supply of labour, the number of locals being insufficient and worsened by Sabahan seeking work outside the Territory, there’s only place for foreigners who have valid travel papers. That helps avoid the ever present threat of being rounded up, followed by arrest, interrogation, detention, probably even worse things, and deportation.
Sabah and Sarawak have local permanent residence status separate from the red MyKad. It’s unlikely that the Borneo Territories will confer local permanent residence status on illegal immigrants.
Sarawakians In Sabah
Red MyKad holders don’t need work permit in Malaysia i.e. at least in Malaya. It’s unclear whether they need work permit in Sabah and Sarawak.
Sarawakians in Sabah automatically have permanent residence in the Territory but not vice versa. There’s law which requires Sarawakians to get work permit in Sabah. Many may not take the trouble to get work permit since red MyKad holders are not required to get them in Malaysia, albeit in Malaya. The Federal Constitution states that inferior law is null and void to the extent of its inconsistency with superior law. – New Malaysia Herald
About the writer: Longtime Borneo watcher Joe Fernandez keeps a keen eye on Malaysia as a legal scholar (jurist). He was formerly Chief Editor of Sabah Times. He’s not to be mistaken for a namesake previously with Daily Express. References to his blog articles can be found here.
Note: The points expressed in this article are that of the writer’s, and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the New Malaysia Herald.
Longtime Borneo watcher Joe Fernandez has been writing for many years on both sides of the Southeast Asia Sea. He should not be mistaken for a namesake formerly with the Daily Express in Kota Kinabalu. JF keeps a Blog under FernzTheGreat on the nature of human relationships.