Sabah’s local youths should emulate Bidayuh
Published on: Sunday, September 12, 2021
By: Joe Fernandez
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Illegals in Sabah: In Sarawak the Bidayuh have taken over the jobs done by foreigners in many areas. So much so you won’t find them living under bridges and flyovers in Kuala Lumpur unlike Sabahan youths.
MANY PTI (Pendatang Tanpa Izin or illegal immigrants) in Sabah are deported from time to time throughout the year. It’s a campaign that goes on relentlessly, driven by local politics, only slowed down by the movement control order restrictions and lockdown imposed by the pandemic. 

Many other PTI probably cannot be deported, unless their home countries take them back, having been in the Territory for years and become “stateless” in the process. They live in a legal twilight zone. Local sentiments and politics prevent Parliament from granting them Amnesty on humanitarian grounds and international law on human rights. 

The Orang Asal (indigenous people) are fiercely opposed to the PTI presence and want them gone. It’s an open secret that outsiders who were not perceived as “threats” may gain acceptance.

The Orang Asal fear that the rule of law, the basis of the Constitution, would be eroded if secularism is compromised when outsiders can’t fit in.

Twilight zone . . .

Those living in a legal twilight zone can obtain a Special Pass valid for a maximum one year, from Immigration, but not many apply for this facility. They probably fear arrest and detention, if not deportation as well. Special Pass would enable the holders to apply for green MyKad (temporary residence) valid for a year and renewable.

We can safely assume that the PTI earmarked for deportation are mostly those from the Philippines and Indonesia who got off the boat yesterday. Others were probably picked up in local waters as they made for remote and isolated illegal “landing” spots and numerous known “rat trails” in the swampy stretches along the long 1, 743 km Sabah coastline and Kalimantan border. The media has these stories.

The deportations are literally a drop in the ocean, considering the large number of PTI in Sabah.

Detaining and deporting the PTI remains an exercise in futility. Those deported by the front door in the morning, it’s said, return by the backdoor in the evening. The deportees are not dropped off in Manila and Jakarta and detained there, as popularly assumed in Sabah, but on Philippine and Indonesian islands a stone’s throw away. Many islands in neighbouring countries are just a hop, skip and jump away from Sabah.

Jus sanguinis . . .

Sebatik island in southeast Sabah, for example, is divided almost equally between M’sia and Indonesia. Many women in the Indonesian half come over to the M’sian half to give birth. However, citizenship in M’sia under operation of law is by jus sanguinis (descent), not jus soli (birthplace).

Numerous Sabah islands in the three seas — South China Sea, Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea — have neither been properly named nor inhabited. These could probably be leased to rich locals and foreigners for their private hideaway but, unfortunately, pirates and “terrorists” in the region lurk the waters in these areas.

If Sabah wants to emerge as an industrial powerhouse in the region, it may need rethink on the PTI, especially those who cannot be deported for various reasons.

If the estimated 1.7m foreign workers and PTI in Sabah can be brought into the big economic picture on industrialisation as well, it may provide rich dividends. The onus remains on the illegal immigrants to use the vaccination cert as proof of identity in law, but it’s not a valid travel paper. If they have lost the citizenship of the home country by probably being away too long, they can apply for an Emergency Certificate of Identity from Immigration in Msia to travel. Like in the case of permanent residents (red MyKad), they need a re-entry permit to return to M’sia.

Pandemic, or no pandemic, if the Sabah gov’t wants to create jobs on a large scale in the Territory, it can choose two or three global industrial sectors, train the manpower required including PTI, and plug into the global supply chain and international logistics.

There’s a lack of industrial skills in Sabah to help drive digitisation, digitalisation, and digital transformation, the mantra in e-commerce, e-economy and the digital economy. The future cannot be avoided for much longer especially in the post-pandemic world.

For example, Sabah as a regional airhub recognised by budget airline AirAsia in particular can manufacture one or two components for electrical vehicles. The electrical vehicle, inspired by climate change and depleting fossil fuels, has only 20 moving parts compared with the 3K used by the internal combustion engine.

Who will bell the cat? The Sabah Institute of Development Studies (Sabah IDS), a gov’t think tank, did a study before the pandemic on the Electrical Vehicle (EV) Industry. The gov’t waited for investors who never came, who were probably never there in the first place.

Instead of waiting for investors, virtually black cats which are not there in a darkened room, the Sabah gov’t should take the lead and initiate the EV industry in the Territory to feed the global market, India and China in particular. The electronics industry in S’pore provides a template on globalisation and industrialisation. However, there may be a lack of leadership and managers on this in Sabah, as in so many other areas, especially on Borneo rights. Sarawak may be no better.

There’s a need for Sabah to reach out and plug anew into the Indian and Chinese economies. Apparently, these economic giants are the future of the automobile industry in the world. Tesla from South Africa via America may have gone to China for all the right reasons. Soon, the Company may also go to India and Indonesia as well, as labour in a greying China gradually becomes more expensive.

For economies of scale, internal and external, studies show that at least 1m units per component should be manufactured annually, mostly for export.

Toyota, the largest automobile manufacturer in the world, is a case in point. The Company  manufactures one million vehicles a year. It’s not only the largest manufacturer of its kind in Japan but also the biggest exporter in the world for its category.

One unique feature of Toyota vehicles is that they are virtually “indestructible”. Toyota vehicles manufactured 40 years ago are still on the road. Spare parts continue to be available in plentiful supply and they are inter-changeable, no matter the Toyota model or how old the vehicle.

Industrialisation proposed aside, the existence of a large illegal immigrant population in Sabah shows that there are many jobs and business opportunities in the Territory, gov’t or no gov’t. The people, especially foreigners and Malaysians from S’wak and from the other side of the South China Sea, mostly create these jobs and opportunities. 

Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians have also jumped on the bandwagon in Sabah as retailers, textile and carpet merchants, door-to-door cloth peddlers, vegetable wholesalers and halal (kosher) restaurant keepers serving from fusion menus, Indian and other local, and running a variety of other businesses, mostly small trades. Under the Constitution, Article 29, citizens of the Commonwealth and the Irish Republic are not considered foreigners in M’sia.

The Filipinos in the towns run mini buses, reflexology salons and work in massage parlours and karaoke joints. Indonesians run taxi services and eating stalls.

Both provide island-hopping boat services and are in the construction industry, if not on plantations and the timber industry which has seen better days. Sabahans and S’wakians have signed up with e-hailing rides as drivers and do food deliveries booked online. The Gig economy has arrived.

The South Koreans form a small community mostly in Kota Kinabalu. The capital has gone from cosmopolitican to international city status. The South Koreans run ethnic Korean restaurants, grocery stores, reflexology salons for Korean tourists, and do inbound tours from South Korea. They even have their own churches. 

Historically, Sabah was better known worldwide when it was North Borneo. Very few people in the outside world beyond east Asia know Sabah. So much historical value was lost when North Borneo became Sabah because of Donald (later Fuad) Stephens who unsisted on the name change in 1963 . 

Borneo, the Land of the Head Hunters, has been known worldwide for centuries. That’s the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs in the tourism and hospitality industry. 

The creation of jobs and business opportunities in a Territory like Sabah may be more organic than systematically driven by gov’t. The law of inertia is at work. 

The PTI sectors may not be exactly what most local youths are looking for, after having finished High School or even higher, and leaving the kampung (villages) probably for good except for occasional home visits. Local youth lack training for the job market and skills in demand. The lack of English speaking skills prevent them entering the private sector.

The employers tell the real “horror” stories in the job market.

Local youth need to get off their “high horses”, for want of a better term, and be willing to do virtually anything, perhaps even start right at the bottom. That does not mean remaining at the bottom forever. The youth should forget about wearing neckties and suits and working in air-conditioned comfort. They can’t continue to live in fear of the sun.

Sabah will be plagued forever by the PTI, and chasing the tail on poverty eradication as the World Bank puts it, unless local youth emulate these foreigners, pace them every step of the way and compete. It’s not rocket science. 

The World Bank has diplomatically cautioned for many years that the Philippines in particular, and Indonesia not far behind, may be looking the other way as their poor move to Sabah illegally without M’sia even realising it. The jury may still be out on this.

History shows that the economy, throughout thousands of years worldwide, avoid getting caught up in the debate on outsiders and locals. The employers are also fuelling the influx of immigrants, legal and illegal, in Sabah. The perennial push-pull factors are at work in the countryside and neighbouring countries.

In Sarawak, for example, the local Bidayuh in the southern part of the Territory have ventured into many areas previously monopolised by immigrants. These include skilled trades and small business areas. 

The Bidayuh can also be found on offshore oil and gas platforms all over the world and in certain states and sultanates in Malaya where they are invariably mistaken as Filipino, Myanmarese or even Mongolian “who just came to M’sia”. M’sia means Malaya to the people there even after 58 years since Malaysia Day on 16 Sept 1963 which saw Sabah, S’wak and S’pore enter the picture with Malaya. S’pore was given independence by M’sia in 1965.

Locals in Sabah, coming from rural backgrounds, are not willing to venture into smalltime agricultural pursuits as, again, it means working in the sun “after having gone to school”. In fact, most of the Sabah interior is hilly and mountainous, breezy, the climate mild and cool.

The AirAsia Farm Application, for example, provides an excellent platform. It’s an innovative opportunity to market agricultural produce beyond Sabah. These bring in higher incomes even for small farms.

Instead, Sabah youth are mostly flocking to Malaya in search of work in air-conditioned comfort. If they don’t find any, the popular narrative is that they end up sleeping beneath bridges after having run out of money, and apparently “too ashamed” to call home for help, or return to the kampung, hang their head in the face of “I told you so” as they run the gauntlet, and admit defeat. The media explores this phenomenon from time to time but mostly only on dry days.

Interestingly, many PTI from Sabah have been picked up by local authorities beneath the bridges, but not for sleeping there. It’s for posing as Sabahans. It’s not known what happens to them. No one is telling their stories. They are probably in detention or under remand in prison, if not set free.

Obviously, these PTI can’t be sent “back” to Sabah. It would not be possible to deport them either if they have been in Sabah for a few generations, no doubt as undocumented people or holding “dubious” documents. It’s a serious breach of security when they can pass through Immigration in Sabah and get to Malaya without anyone being any wiser. There’s no Immigration in Malaya for Sabahans and S’wakians. M’sia remains one country, three Immigration systems.

The 2010 National Census showed that there were 3.2m people in Sabah as follows: 1.5m Malaysians and permanent residents including several thousand stateless locals mostly Orang Asal, people from Sarawak and Malaya; 700K foreigners with work permits, 600K foreigners with “dubious documents” and 400K undocumented foreigners. The 2020 National Census, it’s estimated, may read 3.9m in Sabah. It has been delayed by the pandemic.

We can take the cue on “dubious documents” from Malaysian Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin declaring on the phenomenon before the snap 26 Sept election last year. Hamzah warned that the Home Ministry would station NRD (National Registration Dept) officers at polling stations “to prevent illegal immigrants voting”.

The reading is that there are many PTI “voters” in Sabah with blue MyKads, held by citizens, listed in the electoral rolls but not in the NRD data bank. Locals risk losing their sovereignty if foreigners vote.

The 2013 Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Illegal Immigrants in Sabah explored this phenomenon. It also discovered the existence of a large number of people born overseas but holding late registration local birth certificates in the Territory. 

Some were taken to court but released on the grounds that “citizenship once given cannot be taken back”. The National Registration Act 1959 shows that nothing could be further from the truth, the letter of the law not being the sum total of the rule of law. 

- Joe Fernandez is a Sabah watcher, former Editor and blogger. He says he is not to be mistaken for another person with similar name who was the Editor in De.


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