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SORTING OUT INQUIRY'S TERMS OF REFERENCE: No truth to opposition allegations that government is dragging its feet
THE boat Ombak Rindu, named after a popular local Malay movie, pulled away from a jetty in Kota Kinabalu, speeding off towards Pulau Gaya, long known to be home to foreign settlers, legal or otherwise.
There was indeed a peculiar feeling of being in a foreign land as the skilled boatman manoeuvred through houses and tiny huts on stilts; several of these abodes in Kampung Pondo, one of the four settlements on Pulau Gaya, were under construction, a few others were empty and abandoned.
A foreign flag flying at a hut and a man talking in a foreign language to his young children were tell-tale signs that a sizeable number of settlers there had roots elsewhere.
They have settled down, become part of Sabah's population and are often blamed for the social, economic and security problems suffered by the locals.
Sabah has long faced an influx of illegal immigrants and its severity has often diminished the hope and confidence of the state's people in the government.
It is not that the Federal Government has not been addressing the issue. Massive operations to weed out the illegals have been carried out regularly. A cabinet committee was set up in 2008 to find a solution.
Several government officers have been arrested under the Internal Security Act for allegedly issuing MyKad to foreigners. Recently, Tawau police detained a 52-year-old National Registration Department (NRD) officer from Putrajaya and 18 others in connection with a MyKad applications scam.
Although a royal commission of inquiry (RCI) on Sabah's illegal immigrants issue is already in the making, locals still have doubts over its effectiveness in dealing with a problem that has been around for the last four decades.
The Federal Government, however, is committed to dealing with this No. 1 concern of many Sabahans. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak said the RCI manifested the government's determination to uphold the Constitution and rule of law.
There is no truth to opposition allegations that the government is dragging its feet, since cabinet approval had been obtained as early as Feb 8.
The main reason for the RCI's delay was in the sorting out of its details, such as its exact brief and membership.
It was announced this month when the attorney-general had started working on the commission's terms of reference (TOR).
Last week, Parliament was told that the TOR were in the final stages of drafting. Deputy Home Minister Datuk Lee Chee Leong explained that the TOR could not be drawn up in haste as they had to be comprehensive, covering also the claims of citizenship being given to illegal immigrants.
The government also needed time to empanel the commission with members with experience and an understanding of the illegal immigrant issue in Sabah.
This is to ensure that the inquiry is exhaustive and the recommendations can be properly implemented so that, in the eyes of Sabahans, it can be seen that their rights are protected, laws are properly enforced and remedial measures taken.
The call for an RCI became a popular topic in 1999 when the High Court, hearing an election petition, nullified the results of the state election for the constituency of Likas based on the existence of dubious names on the electoral roll.
The large number of illegal immigrants -- they outnumber the local population in some districts -- has returned to the fore as the country prepares for another general election.
Concern is mounting over the unusual growth of Sabah's population over the last 20 years, particularly between 1990 and 2005. It was reported that Sabah's 1960 population was 454,561, rising to 1.7 million in 1991 and crossing the 3 million mark in 2005.
However, replies in Parliament last year stated that Sabah's population was 651,304 in 1970 and 929,299 a decade later. In the two decades since 1980, the state's population rose significantly by 1.5 million, reaching 2,468,246 by 2000.
It was also reported that the population had grown to 3.12 million in 2010, of which foreigners made up 889,799 or 27 per cent.
Locals like Lawrence Dunsu, a 48-year-old Kadazan farmer, welcome the RCI and feel that only such an august body could convince Sabahans of the Federal Government's sincerity. The state's elected representatives from both sides of the political divide, as well as non-governmental organisations, have submitted memorandums containing "proof" of foreigners and illegal immigrants being issued with MyKad.
Datuk Henrynus Amin, secretary-general of Parti Bersatu Sabah, thinks the RCI will help BN component parties retain support, especially in Kadazan-Dusun-Murut (KDM) constituencies.
A survey conducted by pollster Merdeka Centre on voters in Kota Kinabalu and Penampang a few months ago showed 88 per cent wanted a royal panel to investigate the influx of illegal immigrants. It was cited as the most important concern for 27 per cent of the 411 registered voters polled, far ahead of cost of living and infrastructure at eight per cent each.
The Federal Government has been listening closely to Sabahans over the illegal immigrant issue and wants a bit more time to allow the RCI to carry out its tasks.