By Dr. Lim Teck Ghee | Sunday, 20 January 2013 11:03
The pro-Umno author and blogger Syed Akbar Ali, in a post critiquing the Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah, has argued that it would not be out of place to have a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate why one million immigrants who were mostly Chinese and Indians were given citizenship in Malaya in the 1950s (see his post of 17 Jan 2013).
According to him, “surely there must be at least five million Malays on the Peninsula today who may be wondering why or how that particular incident happened? Were they consulted? Was there a public referendum?”
He also asserted that “Let’s not argue about the fairness. Let’s have a RCI first on the issue – how and why 1.0 million Chinese and Indians (including my mamak gang of course) were given citizenship.”
He may have made his proposal provocatively or tongue-in-cheek but a variant of it has appeared as one of the lines of defence used by the former prime minister in justifying the distribution of identity cards to foreigners and their registration as voters in Sabah. According to Dr Mahathir Mohamed , “One should also look back and remember that Tunku Abdul Rahman was worse than me, he gave one million to citizenships to people who are not qualified and not even tested”.
“Why is it when he does it, it is not wrong, and when I do it, it’s wrong?” he asked.
Dr Mahathir’s response has drawn widespread derision since his remarks have appeared in the Internet media. His was not only a shallow attempt to divert attention away from his role in this unconstitutional operation by playing up to the chauvinistic feelings of the Malay audience. He also chose to malign a deceased prime minister in his attempt to get off the hook for masterminding the massive influx of illegal immigrants into Sabah.
There is no comparison between the widely-publicized citizenship deal for non-Malay residents who became citizens of the country based on the principle of jus soli and the surreptitious citizenship-gifting racket that Mahathir and his gang ran.
One was open, transparent and agreed to by all the major political stakeholders in the country, including the Rulers. The other was underhand, opaque, known to only a small group of conspirators and objectionable to the citizens of Sabah and the country as a whole.
For anyone to suggest that this recent (and other similar) political gifting of citizenship is equivalent to that which was carefully negotiated to secure our independence is to scale new heights of political expediency, if not idiocy.
It is necessary amidst the scorn poured on Dr Mahathir to note that he is correct in pointing out that the inflow of people from the southern Philippines into Sabah is not a recent phenomenon. The free movement of people in that region is indeed part of a long historical trend.
But this free movement was ended by the establishment of the two new nation states –Malaysia and the Philippines. As a key figure in protecting our national interest – a responsibility which he swore to uphold when he accepted the position of prime minister – Mahathir should be the first to recognize the difference between the unrestricted movement of people during the pre-colonial and pre-Independence period and the illegal influx that he authorized.
The RCI hearing may yet bring out new discouraging disclosures on the way the former prime minister abused his power to ensure a decisive electoral advantage for the Barisan Nasional and how he sought to prolong his rule over the country by unfair means.
While we may not be able to do anything to revoke the illegal citizenship papers provided to non-Malaysians by the Mahathir regime, amidst all the gloom however, there is perhaps one positive development that we might console ourselves with. This is that we are indeed a nation of migrants with the latest large scale influx of Indonesians, Filipinos and other non-Malaysia migrants – illegal or otherwise – adding to the diversity of the country.
Nearly 80 years ago, R. Emerson, in his classic work, Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule, noted the large size of alien communities as “an admirable index of the extent to which the Malayan way of life has been superseded by the new economy” (Pustaka Ilmu edition, University of Malaya Press, 1964, p.195)
From his table derived from the Census Report, 1931, we can see that “other Malaysians” comprised close to 10% of the population of the Unfederated Malay States (UMS) and Federated Malay States (FMS).
The census at that time had defined “other Malaysians” as covering “immigrant peoples from the Archipelago, ethnographically akin but politically alien to the Malays of the Peninsula, and “aboriginals ethnographically far removed from the Malays but more truly ‘people of the country’ than any other race – in fact the only autochthonous population”.
It is irrefutable fact that a large proportion of the country’s now politically and statistically defined indigenous Malay population migrated to Malaya at the same time or perhaps even later than the immigrants from China and India.
The demographic record is that the Malay Peninsula was thinly populated by Orang Asli and native Malays for a long period of time. Beginning from the late nineteenth century onwards, economic development of the country accelerated with the establishment of British colonial rule. This economic development was the catalyst for the large scale arrival of Chinese, Indians, and migrants from other parts of the Malay Archipelago – notably Sumatra and Java.
Whatever the findings of the RCI, we must realize that all these migrant streams – past and recent – have contributed to our country and deserve their place in the sun.
Population of Malaya, 1931
*Unfederated Malay States (UMS) and Federated Malay States (FMS)