KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – An official Malaysian inquiry on Wednesday cleared the country’s long-ruling regime of involvement in a huge scheme to grant citizenship to illegal aliens in exchange for votes, drawing opposition accusations of a whitewash.
Explosive allegations that aired in 2012 hearings detailed a systematic clandestine campaign begun in the state of Sabah in the 1980s to fast-track citizenship for possibly hundreds of thousands of Muslim illegal migrants from the southern Philippines and Indonesia.
The regime dominated by the Muslim ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is accused of seeking to alter the demographics of the politically important, multi-faith state to make it more Muslim and thus more UMNO-friendly.
UMNO was battling at the time to wrest Sabah from opposition control, which it did in 1994 and has held onto ever since.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry’s final report into the scandal said vaguely that the scheme probably existed, adding that “nefarious activities … precipitated and accelerated the influx of illegal immigrants into the state.”
But it blamed criminal “syndicates” and unnamed “corrupt officials”, and avoided implicating UMNO or former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled from 1981-2003 and is suspected of masterminding the scheme.
Mahathir, still an influential political figure in retirement, denies the charge.
“I am disappointed by the findings. Blaming criminal syndicates? Thousands of identity cards (ICs) were given out, how can the government not detect this?” said Wilfred Bumburing, a veteran Sabah politician now with the opposition.
Malaysia is Muslim-majority, but Sabah – located on Borneo island – has large numbers of Christians and other faiths. Distrust of the Muslim-led central government, based on mainland Malaysia, runs deep.
Sabah is a vital prize in Malaysian politics and has helped keep UMNO’s coalition in power as it steadily loses support nationwide over corruption, its hardball political tactics, and racially divisive policies that favour Muslim ethnic Malays, the country’s majority group.
UMNO also is widely accused of electoral fraud and gerrymandering to retain power.
Critics say “Project IC”, as the alleged Sabah scheme is popularly known, helped fuel a surge in the state’s official population from some 600,000 citizens in 1970 to more than three million now – more than double the national growth rate.
Sabah residents bridle at the influx, blaming foreign migrants for crime, drug abuse and economic competition.
The machinations in Sabah also have fuelled allegations that they undermined national security.
Those fears gained credence last year when more than 200 Philippine-based Muslim militants staged a short-lived incursion to press a bizarre historical claim to the state.
It is widely believed the invaders had support from sympathetic communities of earlier migrants already in Sabah.
The commission’s findings are not legally binding.
UMNO has a history of using its firm control over state institutions to sweep its frequent scandals under the rug.