It is important that the general public waits until the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) completes its work and announces its findings before it draws conclusions about the motives behind the issuance of Malaysian identity documents to foreigners in the past. Only then would people in both Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia have a clear picture of what really happened, and why.
If statements by individual witnesses are viewed as the entire truth, we may fall into the trap of subscribing to partial accounts of a complex reality. After all, the statements issued by some witnesses on the third day of the Inquiry were contradicted by subsequent testimonies on the fourth and fifth days. This is what one should expect in an open and honest investigation.
Establishing a Royal Commission on such a contentious and controversial issue which has been at the core of Sabah politics for more than three decades was an act of tremendous courage on the part of the Najib Government. It demonstrates a readiness to embrace the truth however painful it may be. It is only when the whole truth is known that the multireligious and multi-cultural people of Sabah will be rid of misgivings, doubts and suspicions which have sullied their hitherto harmonious inter-ethnic ties.
To enable the truth to set the people free, they should not overlook a critical dimension in the issuance of Malaysian identity documents and indeed, the conferment of citizenship upon foreigners. A significant portion of those who sought refuge in Sabah from the seventies onwards comprised the tragic victims of a protracted war in Mindanao which has just ended. This is the humanitarian aspect of citizenship which a civilised state must uphold if it is genuinely committed to compassion and justice.
There are other angles to citizenship which were among the principal considerations in the accommodation of recently domiciled Chinese and Indian communities in Malaya (Peninsular Malaysia) on the eve of Merdeka in 1957. Their role in the crucial tin and rubber sectors of the economy, the threat posed by the largely Chinese communist insurgency, and the need for inter-ethnic cooperation in the drive towards Merdeka were some of the principal reasons why a million Chinese and Indians were conferred citizenship in the twinkling of an eye. As Dr. Mahathir Mohamad has correctly observed, the UMNO elite was even prepared to set aside conventional citizenship norms in order to bring the new Malayans abroad. This was in stark contrast to the approach adopted by leaders in other similarly divided societies --- societies in which an indigenous-non-indigenous dichotomy had developed as a result of colonial rule such as Indonesia and Burma (Myanmar) --- where the rules of citizenship were stringently applied so as to ensure the assimilation of the foreign component.
In Malaysia, on the other hand, accommodation of the other changed the landscape drastically. The people who had given the land its identity through Malay Sultanates that have existed for hundreds of years were now relegated to a community among communities. In other words, by extending citizenship to the Chinese and Indians on such generous terms, the very character of the nascent nation had changed. Adjusting Malay rights arising from this consciousness of a Malay land with the interests of the non-Malays through integration via common citizenship in a larger Malaysian nation has remained themost fundamental challenge of the last 55 years.
In a sense, Sabah, by conferring citizenship upon the migrants from its neighbourhood, in the eighties and nineties, has also experienced a parallel, though different, transformation. The non-Muslim Bumiputra component of the population which was the largest segment of a multi-religious society at the time of the state’s incorporation into Malaysia in 1963, lost its lead position to the Muslim Bumiputra component. The angst and anxiety this has created in various circles is understandable and should be addressed with much empathy.
Harmonising the interests of these two segments with the non-Muslim, non-Bumiputra elements, calls for astute statesmanship and dexterity. In this regard, Sabah is fortunate to have as one of its foremost leaders a person like Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kittingan whose political maturity and wisdom have helped to sustain an appreciable degree of interreligious and inter-cultural peace.