MANILA, Philippines - Migrant Filipinos are synonymous with the word trouble in Malaysia's Sabah state, according to a confidential cable from the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur that was released by WikiLeaks on Wednesday.
Masidi Manjun, Sabah's Minister of Youth and Sports, told US diplomats in Malaysia that his state was "flooded with foreigners" and "singled out Filipino Muslims from Mindanao as 'especially troublesome.'"
Manjun claimed that the Filipinos were "using our [Malaysia's] social services and not integrating into society," and that "vagrancy and violence" were rampant within Sabah's Filipino community, according to the diplomatic cable dated October 10, 2006 that was deemed classified by US embassy political section chief Mark D. Clark.
The Sabah official, who headed government-funded think tank Institute of Development Studies, said the state's maritime and land borders are "very porous" and expressed concern that Sabah's foreign residents were starting to become politically active.
"He acknowledged, however, the economic importance of Sabah's foreign population," the US embassy cable said. "With regard to Sabah's large number of illegal foreign workers, estimated to total over 750,000, Manjun said, 'We need them here, or our economy would collapse."
Sabah's then Acting Police Commissioner, Mohd Bakri Zinin, also told American officials that "illegal migrants and other foreigners" account for about three-fourths of violent crimes committed in the state.
The embassy cable also quoted a state assemblyman, Samson Chin Chee Tsu, who said Filipinos and Indonesians outnumber Malaysians 3 to 1 along Sabah's east coast.
"He (Samson) and his wife recently refused to attend an event that gathered public and private sector leaders on the resort island of Mabul, off the east coast of Sabah, as he feared an attack on the gathering by Mindanao-based Muslim extremists," it added.
Simon Sipaun,then vice-chairman and state head of the Malaysian human rights commission Sukaham, also told US officials that the large number of Filipinos on the state's east coast represented a potential security threat "if they decide to become more politically active, or if parts of Mindanao become more autonomous."
Samson and another PBS state assemblyman, Ching Eng Leong, told US officials that the large number of native Filipinos in Sabah can be attributed to a program hatched by dominant political party UMNO.
Under the scheme implented in the 1990s, UMNO gave Malaysian citizenship and voting rights to over 600,000 foreigners, predominantly Muslims from Mindanao and Indonesia, in return for their votes in Sabah's state assembly elections.
"UMNO's control was further solidified during the 1999 state election, as UMNO granted more foreigners citizenship and voting rights under what came to be known as 'Project Mahathir,'" the US embassy cable revealed, in apparent reference to then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
According to a probe made by Suhakam on Project Mahathir, Sabah's legal resident population increased 362% to 2.6 million from 1970 to 2000.
"This substantial increase in Sabah's legal residents excludes an influx of over 750,000 foreigners holding invalid identity cards and visas - or no documents at all - according to Suhakam," the cable added.
"Filipinos and Indonesians move easily -- and often illegally -- between Sabah and their respective home countries," it said.
In its analysis of Sabah's problems with Filipinos, the US embassy said a significant reduction in Sabah's foreign-born population could only be reversed through an UMNO-led effort to round up and deport the foreigners, whom Sabah's economy ironically relies upon.
"While Malaysia periodically launches campaigns to expel illegal workers, even PBS' leaders concede this is highly unlikely to be carried out to the point of seriously harming the state's economy," it said. "The US Border Control Assessment Initiative (BCAI) focused on the Sulu and Sulawesi sea areas of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines will enhance our understanding of the security challenges facing Sabah and ways we can assist."
The Philippines has a dormant claim on Sabah that was not resolved by the Manila Accord, or the United Nations Treaty No. 8029 between the Philippines the Federation of Malaya, and Indonesia, that was signed in July 31, 1963 and the succeeding exchange of notes between Manila and Kuala Lumpur in February 7, 1966.
Former Presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos pursued the Philippines' claim on the territory but those who succeeded them did not do so.
The dispute resulted in the 1968 Jabidah Massacre that was exposed by the late Sen. Ninoy Aquino, father of President Benigno Aquino III, according to Malacañang.
ARMM on undocumented Filipinos in Sabah
Officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) said they are trying to address the "cycle of arrest and detention" of undocumented Filipinos through talks with Malaysian authorities.
ARMM Executive Secretary Atty. Naguib Sinarimbo led an 8-member team in a visit to Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu last July to discuss the problem with Malaysian Parliament House Speaker Seri Utama Pandikar Amin Bin Haji Mulia.
Sinarimbo "proposed a 'non-political' solution to the Sabah proprietary dispute vis-a-vis its effects on the unabated detention and arrests of undocumented Filipinos in Malaysia," according to the ARMM website.
The ARMM has admitted that hundreds of Filipinos continue to go Sabah and later end up getting arrested and deported.
Most of those who go to Sabah are allegedly recruited to work as domestic helpers or bar girls.
"Those coming from ARMM areas, especially from Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were found to be stubbornly returning to Sabah after deportation on the belief that the Sulu Sultanate owns the state," according to the ARMM.
Sinarimbo and Mulia have allegedly approved of a plan to set up a center in Tawi-Tawi province that will provide passports and other official documents for Filipinos heading to to Sabah or other parts of Malaysia.
"Other ARMM officials had earlier thought of putting up even a 'desk' in Sabah to facilitate the documentation of Filipinos working or staying in Malaysia without documents or permits. But legal luminaries opposed the concept, saying that such facility would mean an official structure of the Philippines and, thus, signify a waiver of Filipinos' claim over Sabah," the ARMM website said.