Article 153 of the Federal Constitution provides for the natives of Sabah the special position and privileges as that of the Malays. Sabah joined Sarawak, independent Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963. A 20-point agreement was made as part of the condition to join the Federation, and among the points are:
1. There should be no state religion and the provisions relating to Islam in Federal Constitution should not apply.
2. English should be an official language for all purposes without limitation of time.
3. The natives should enjoy special rights analogous to those enjoyed by Malays.
4. The power to amend the Constitution of Sabah belongs exclusively to the people of Sabah.
In the 1985 elections, the then opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), led by Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, form the state government. PBS ruled Sabah until 1994 when an internal agitation made way for UMNO to enter Sabah politics. Datuk Seri Musa Aman from UMNO was the Chief Minister from 2003 when the two-year rotation system was abolished.
In 2002, PBS’ joining the Barisan Nasional coalition rendered Sabah a state with no competitive opposition. Regardless, there have been palpable tensions and occasional calls for withdrawal from the Federation.
An added impetus is the token 5% royalties for oil and gas. The Federal Government takes 95% of the profits, contributing very little to the state in return. Sabahans feel that the federal policies have generally been unfair and unfavourable to the state development. There have been calls for the review of these federal policies. Many believe that the NEP has not benefitted the Sabahan bumiputeras.
Despite the rich natural resources and the Prime Minister’s assurance that “no community is left behind in the mainstream of development” (The Star, 7/11/07), Sabah falls greatly behind the mainstream in economic development.
Sabah, together with Sarawak, contributed to BN’s simple majority in Parliament at the 2008 general elections in March. The recent political realities have prompted the various opposition parties to form a coalition called Pakatan Rakyat Sabah (The Star, 7/7/08).
Before 1963, Sabah and Sarawak were guided by their native customs and British laws. The influence of Islam was minimal. In 1967, the new state government under Chief Minister Mustapha Datu Harun embarked on vigorous religious activities. Mustapha strongly believed that the Malay language and Islam should be used to unite the people.
There have been reported mass conversions, particularly in the rural areas.
The most devastating blow came when Mustapha used his emergency powers to expel expatriate Christian missionaries with the reason that imperialist mentality and outlook should not be allowed to continue after independence, whether in relation to politics or religion (Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, 1977, p. 266).
The Project IC or Project M, a political scandal relating to systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants, was reported to have begun when UMNO entered Sabah politics in the 1990s. The immigration policy favouring Muslims had resulted in an influx of immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia, both legal and illegal. It is widely believed that this exercise was implemented to weaken the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun Christians and to enhance UMNO powerbase.
At a seminar in June 2007, the Chief Minister claimed that Malays formed more than 50% of the population, although the state’s statistics showed only 11.5%.
Supporting the claim, his counterpart, the Chief Minister of Melaka, said, “Even if that person is Chinese or Indian or Kadazan, if they are Muslim or have converted, converse in Malay and follow the Malay tradition, then they are Malays” (Daily Express, 10/6/07).
In April 2007, a businesswoman complained to the then Minister of International Trade and Industry, Dato’ Seri Rafidah Aziz, that her loan application was rejected because her unisex styling business was in conflict with Islam (Daily Express).
The Sabah Fatwa Council issued a decree banning all activities related to Rufaqa Corporation (The Star, 15/12/06). The Mufti said the movement had gone against Islamic teaching and caused confusion among the Muslim community. In May 2007, 11 people were arrested under the ISA for alleged involvement in an Islamist group known as Darul Islam Sabah.
There is no provision on conversion out of Islam. Muslims who wish to renounce Islam may face either punishment or mandatory detention at rehabilitation centres.
According to the 1995 Sabah Syariah Criminal Offences Enactment, “A Muslim who intends to or attempts to convert out of Islam is subject to be detained in the Islamic rehabilitation centre for a term not more than 36 months for ‘rehabilitation’ purpose.” Further, a Muslim declaring himself to be a non-Muslim is guilty of ridiculing the religion and thus subjects himself to punishment.
Bahasa Malaysia is the medium of communication among the natives in the state and the Alkitab is the principal Scripture used by Christians.
The term “Allah” in reference to God has been used for generations; it has become part of the cultural heritage. Despite this fact, churches, from time to time, face harassment from the local authorities for using Christian literature containing the word “Allah”.
Last 15 Aug, three boxes of Christian educational publications containing the word “Allah” and belonging to SIB Sabah were detained at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) in Sepang by the Customs. The Internal Security Ministry subsequently took over the matter. After several unsuccessful appeals, the SIB church turned to legal redress at the civil court. The lawsuit against the Federal Government is ongoing.
Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the Sabah Chief Minister concerning a stop-work order on the Mazu (Goddess of the Sea) statue in Kudat. The project was said to have been approved in Dec 2005 but a stop-work order came after the state mufti in July 2006 issued a fatwa saying that the construction was contrary to Islamic teaching.
Administrative error on Sabahans’ MyKad in relation to religious status has caused hardship to the people in recent years. The state registration department has presumptuously entered Islam to the MyKad of non-Muslim applicants simply because their names had the word “bin” or “binti”. It has refused to make correction when mistakes were highlighted. Applicants have been asked to fly to Putrajaya in Kuala Lumpur for any amendment to their MyKad.
The entry of “Islam” on the MyKad has grave effects on, among others, the non-Muslims’ marriage, children’s registration, burial and inheritance.
Sabah’s migrant population has been estimated to be anywhere from 600,000 to 1.7 million (Nov 2007). Political expediency and the state’s historical ties have created longstanding illegal immigrant problem.
Without proper documentation and no access to educational opportunity, the stateless children of the migrants are facing bleak futures. Many of them were born locally and become street children once their parents are deported.
Statistics show that Sabah has the highest number of poor households in the country, especially in the interiors. Groups say that Sabahan non-Malay bumiputeras are marginalised and have not benefitted from the NEP. The Federal Government has recently introduced measures to improve their lives.
Some NGOs have chided the Sabah authorities for their apathy when issuing identity cards (IC) to indigenous people. It is an irony that many bumiputeras do not have ICs while foreign workers receive PR status soon after they enter the state.
Today, some of the indigenous children in the most remote areas do not go school. Many rural schools are small and do not even have basic facilities. The Federation of Chinese Sabah has claimed that some 250,000 Chinese are living along poverty margin (Daily Express, 9/2/08). (By courtesy of Berita NECF/ MySinchew)