There are several possible consequences that I fear from the ongoing armed conflict in Sabah. One of them is a public wide urge to expel Sulu and Filipino immigrants out of the state.

There is already considerable negative sentiment against the Sulu and Filipino people in Sabah even before the armed men landed to bring trouble in Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu. I do sometimes feel the sentiment borders on racism. Rightly or wrongly, they are blamed for many things in the state, ranging from high crime rate and job stealing to the grab of land from the indigenous people. Apart from that, the now postponed Royal Commission of Inquiry on Illegal Immigrants in Sabah highlights how illegal immigrants were granted Malaysian citizenship for political expediency.  For many Sabahans who suspect that that has been the case for a very long time now, the inquiry only confirms their suspicion.

At the same time, there is a clear security threat arising from the armed conflict. There is a question regarding the immigrants’ sympathy since many of them do share the same ethnicity as those who are or were part of the armed group. Add in the Sulu and Philippine claims of Sabah, the consternation among some Malaysians of the immigrants’ loyalty will be easy to understand.

The worst case scenario has the immigrants rebelling against the Malaysian authority in support of the claims.

The two factors — the negative perception and the possible security threat — provide for a possible recipe for the expulsion of the immigrants from Sabah.

I am unsure how widespread the support for such expulsion is and I am happy to read in the mainstream media that there have been calls not to stereotype all immigrants in Sabah, especially those with Sulu ethnicity. Nevertheless, some Malaysians do talk casually about the matter.

Given the number of immigrants in Sabah, and some of them are now legal residents of Sabah now, the policy of mass expulsion is unrealistic and inhumane. It is impractical because it will be a logistical nightmare to expel so many persons.

Besides, mass deportation has been done in the past in Sabah and in other parts of Malaysia but it does not appear to be working. And if it does work contrary to past experience, the mass deportation or expulsion will likely affect the economy of Sabah adversely.

If thousands of individuals are suddenly taken out of the economic equations, something bad ought to happen. The economic growth of the state will surely take a hit. And there is more than economic cost to the policy of expulsion.

There is arguably the more important human cost to it.

Expulsion is inhumane because for better or for worse, these immigrants have been living in Sabah for decades now.

They have built their new lives in Sabah. Their families are here. Their children were born and brought up in Malaysia. These children know Malaysia as home, and not the Philippines.

Expulsion or deportation — call it however you like — would uproot the immigrants from their lives. It would force them to begin anew when there was really no need for that. After all, they migrated to Sabah in search of a better life. They escaped the instability of southern Philippines.

Any person with a hint of humanity in them will think twice about turning those immigrants away or forcing them to return to the very place they ran away from.

In fact, I am of the opinion that expulsion would contribute to the worst case scenario more than the case where the authority would leave the immigrants alone to their lives.

In an environment where immigrants may already suffer from discrimination, the policy of expulsion would create even further discrimination against them as the authority actively tried to catch all illegal immigrants.

Naturalized immigrants would also come under the unwanted spotlight. Really, the only thing that separates legal residents from illegal aliens is identification papers. Imagine having to go through security checkpoints: profiling is inevitable in that case. More often than not, profiling creates anger. It is a pointing finger that always points accusingly and nobody likes to be accused of something, especially if they have nothing to do with the things they are accused of.

So, expulsion — regardless whether they would actually be expelled — could create anger among the immigrant communities against everything Malaysian.

That anger might translate into something more sinister.

The only humane way to address the security fear is to take that high and tough road. That demands that we integrate the immigrants into our society.

With integration, they can feel that they do have ownership of Malaysia, rather than seeing the country as a foreign land that they have no stake in. This may mean the expansion of government services like education, health and security to immigrant communities in Sabah.

Once they feel fully Malaysian, the question of loyalty will be irrelevant.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in the Selangor Times on March 15 2013.

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