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Mahathir's remarks on citizenship draw flak
Dr Mahathir (wearing grey, in vehicle) visiting Permatang Pauh, Penang, last Saturday. Amid an alleged citizenship-for-votes plot in Sabah, Malaysian minority communities slammed the former prime minister for his remarks suggesting the citizenship granted to their forefathers was also done without legal basis. (PHOTO: THE STAR)
Publication Date : 22-01-2013
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is courting controversy again for his defence of an alleged citizenship- for-votes plot in Sabah as being no different from how ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities secured a place in Malaysia at independence.
Malaysian minority communities slammed Tun Dr Mahathir, who retired in 2003, for his remarks last Saturday that suggested the citizenship granted to their forefathers was also done without legal basis.
He was defending a 1990s policy to grant thousands of Filipinos and Indonesians citizenship in Sabah, allegedly to boost the Muslim voter population to shore up support for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).
This policy came to light during testimony last week to an independent panel set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak to look into the matter after Sabah native communities demanded an investigation.
Veteran opposition MP Lim Kit Siang from the Democratic Action Party accused Dr Mahathir of trying to divert attention from the plot that had "reduced genuine Sabahans into a minority".
"Sabahans and Malaysians must not allow Mahathir to divert attention from the central problem," he said.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) last week heard testimony from former Sabah registration department officials, who said they had issued thousands of identity cards to foreigners before the 1994 election.
But Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister at the time, said this was done legally because these foreigners had been in the state for more than 20 years, spoke Malay and had assimilated local culture.
In contrast, he said, the citizenships granted to one million Chinese and Indians in Malaya at independence was not provided in the law.
"This situation came about because the Malays are generous and prepared to dilute their power, and this is very different from what happened in Sabah because they had the right to have citizenship," he said in a forum last Saturday.
S. Vell Paari, strategic director for the Malaysian Indian Congress, a key member of the BN, lambasted Dr Mahathir for suggesting that the Indians and Chinese were illegal migrants.
"Our forefathers worked and many gave their lives to the building of Malaysia. Our forefathers fought along with the Malays to gain independence. Unlike in Sabah, where the immigrants were given citizenship for your political agenda," he said.
Dr Lim Teck Ghee, who heads the independent think-tank Centre for Policy Initiatives, called it a "shallow attempt to divert attention away from his role in this unconstitutional operation by playing up to the chauvinistic feelings of the Malay audience".
He said the pre-independence deal was transparent and agreed to by major political stakeholders, while the Sabah plot was underhanded and objectionable to Sabahans and the rest of the country.
"For anyone to suggest that this recent (and other similar) political gifting of citizenship is equivalent to that which was carefully negotiated to secure our independence is to scale new heights of political expediency, if not idiocy," he said.
Despite the heat generated by the hearings, the BN leaders in Sabah are striving to give a positive spin to the matter.
"The people can see that the BN government has the courage to establish the RCI and that it is sincere," said Wilfred Madius Tangau, secretary-general of the United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation, a senior party in the Sabah BN representing the non-Muslim native communities.
He said he was confident that the revelations would not affect the BN's chances of holding on to the state which, together with neighbouring Sarawak, contributed one-third of the coalition's parliamentary seats in the 2008 general election.
The next general election must be called by April 28.
The impact on voter sentiment is uncertain because Sabah has a large rural population which lacks access to news on the Internet.
Yong Teck Lee, who heads the opposition Sabah Progressive Party, also noted that voters with dubious documents may not come out to vote this time because of the wide publicity generated by the inquiry.
But he believed that the issue has damaged the BN. "There is definitely a drop in support for BN in spite of their leaders putting on a brave face."