Those who became Malaysian citizens under Project IC will be the most affected.
MANILA: The majority, if not all, of the 800,000 Filipinos based in Sabah may be sent back to the Philippines on the premise that they had acquired their Malaysian citizenship illegally over the past 20 years under a controversial systematic granting of citizenship to foreigners dubbed Project IC (identity cards).
Project IC, which is blamed on former Malaysian prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad, was said to be among the factors that led followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to “invade” Sabah in February.
Most of the Filipinos who benefited from the project in the past are Tausugs from the nearby islands of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
The Manila Times reports that unknown to many, the Malaysian government has begun an investigation into the “phantom” project, which Mahathir denied ever existed.
On Jan 14, or just two weeks prior to the sultanate army’s incursion of Sabah, the Royal Commission of Inquiry began its hearings on Project IC.
Amid the offensives against the followers of Kiram, the royal commission was supposed to conduct another hearing on March 5.
Overshadowed by the skirmishes was the fact that in June 2012, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and the federal government formed the royal commission to investigate problems related to illegal immigration in Sabah, mostly targeting Filipinos and Indonesians who comprise the bulk of non-Malaysian natives on the island.
Malaysian news reports quoted former Dewan Rakyat senator and state assemblyman Chong Eng Leong as saying that in 2012, there were 700,000 “Project IC citizens” and that 200,000 of them are on the state electoral list.
There are about 1.7 million foreigners, mostly Filipinos and Indonesians, in Sabah whose population is only three million. Based on a 2010 survey, foreigners comprised over a quarter of Sabah’s population.
Sabah has 926,638 voters, according to a June report by The Star.
It was alleged that Mahathir, who headed Malaysia for over two decades from 1981 to 2003, devised the scheme to alter the demographic pattern of Sabah to make it more favourable to the ruling government and certain political parties.
Under the project, Mahathir allegedly granted citizenship to immigrants (including those who are illegal) by giving them identity documents known as the identity card and subsequently, MyKad. Another term used is Project M, where “M” stood for Mahathir.
It has been said that Project IC was a secret policy of the Barisan Nasional coalition and its affiliate, Umno, to attain political domination in the state using the votes of immigrants.
Mahathir admitted that Filipino immigrants were granted citizenship in Sabah, but insisted that everything was done legally.
The project was said to have begun in the early 1990s after the entry of Umno into Sabah politics. However, there were also allegations of mass immigration and naturalisation of migrants in the 1970s under the United Sabah National Organization government, and in the early 1980s under Berjaya government. The two parties eventually merged to form Umno.
Prior to last year’s formation of the RCI, there had been several government operations to deport illegal immigrants. These operations serve to deport immigrants without proper documentations such as ICs or a valid work permit.
The RCI, headed by former Sabah and Sarawak chief judge Steve Shim, is investigating the reasons behind Sabah’s population growth which can be attributed largely to the influx of Filipinos.
Among others, the RCI aims to investigate the number of “stateless” foreigners in Sabah given identity cards or citizenships.
According to some observers, the skirmishes between Malaysian security forces and followers of Kiram may result in two possible scenarios: it could hamper the ongoing RCI investigation and save hundreds of thousands of “illegal” identity card holders from early deportation; or it may speed up the process, especially since Sabah-based Filipinos are now returning to Tawi-Tawi and Sulu provinces by the hundreds daily.
“These refugees could be those who were still waiting for their ICs but decided to just leave out of fear,” one observer said.
The Kiram family and Philippine government officials reserved comment on the matter.
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