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Our Operating Environment

Sabah was originally part of the Sultanate of Sulu for many hundreds of years. After the Sultan of Sulu ceded Sabah, Labuan and some islets to the British, it was administered by the British North Borneo Chartered Company from 1881 onwards. Malaysia as a unified, independent state which included the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak came into existence in 1963.

Immigrants in Sabah

The Filipinos in Sabah are predominantly Muslims from the southern islands of the Philippines. Many came in droves from the late 1960s to the 1970s during the Marcos era due to persecution, poverty and unemployment.

Sabah’s third Chief Minister (1967-1975), an ethnic Suluk with family ties in the Philippines, gave these Filipinos asylum. Many subsequently obtained permanent residence, and the massive influx of foreigners caused the state’s population to explode five-fold, from 0.65 million in 1970 to 3 million in 2004. Out of the 3 million population, two-thirds are estimated to be Muslim immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia.

The official statistics gave the number of Filipino stateless people in Sabah at around 100,000. Actual figures vary and some estimates put the number as high as 700,000 or one million. Foreign workers with valid documents are often mistaken as stateless and counted as well. What is true is this: the majority of them came to Sabah not to make trouble, but to escape abject poverty, make a decent living and support their families.

Typically, a Filipino enters Sabah via the ‘back door’, a sea route by boat from one of the southern islands of the Philippines. He finds a job quickly, usually in the logging industry as lumber is currently the state’s biggest export. He sends for his wife and children when he makes enough money, and they settle in one of the kampungs or slums on the outskirts of towns and cities.

If the family had arrived via the ‘back door’, they would have no papers and no identification to prove that their presence in Sabah was legitimate. Others had arrived legally but had overstayed their visas, their passports have expired. They, their wives and their children effectively become stateless.

Stateless Children – A Bleak Future

The fathers are away from home for weeks at a time, labouring in the logging industry.

The mothers keep themselves occupied with the usual housewifey tasks.

The children loiter around the kampung most of the day, unable to get an education, unable to make themselves useful.

Frustrated, aimless, left to their own devices, they will grow up to be troublemakers.

The worse case scenario – the girls become prostitutes; the boys grow up to be drug pushers and gang members.