Oct 15, 2012

Malaysia - Filipino pact 'will resolve problems in Sabah'

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A watershed peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will help resolve the long-standing problem of illegal immigrants in Malaysia's Sabah state, said Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Datuk Seri Najib, who is in Manila to witness the signing of the deal at the Malacanang Palace today, said Sabah will have fewer refugees from Mindanao as the peace process calms the troubled Muslim-majority region.

"We have played a role as peace facilitator and if we help in the development of Mindanao, it will have a positive impact on the region and Sabah," he was quoted as saying in The Star newspaper yesterday.

The Malaysia-brokered peace agreement, announced on October 7, begins the work of establishing a new autonomous region to be administered by the Muslims in southern Philippines, where a four-decade conflict has killed an estimated 120,000 and displaced more than two million people.

However, analysts cautioned that more needs to be done to fix Sabah's problem with illegal immigrants, who have been blamed for crime and for taking jobs from the state's three million people.

The Malaysian government has also been accused of granting citizenship to illegals in exchange for votes to stay in power. It has denied this.

The peace agreement will not in itself improve the economic woes that drove refugees to Sabah in the first place, said Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

"As long as the economic situation in the southern Philippines does not improve, there are very few incentives for them to go back," he said.

Nor will the Filipino peace deal help fix the problem of illegal Indonesians in Sabah, he said.

Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) government won 24 of 25 parliamentary seats and 59 of 60 state seats in Sabah in 2008.

But people are increasingly disgruntled with the influx of illegal immigrants and allegations of corruption against Sabah Umno chairman and state chief minister Musa Aman.

In June, Najib announced the setting up of a high-level panel to investigate reasons for the high influx of illegals. The panel is under pressure to produce results by March next year.

In 2008, a whistleblower website, Sarawak Report, accused Datuk Seri Musa and others of accepting bribes in exchange for timber contracts. Last week, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission cleared Mr Musa of graft amounting to 40 million ringgit (US$13 million), stating that the money was made up of political donations to Sabah Umno.

A survey by the widely followed Merdeka Centre found that Musa's approval rating fell from 60per cent in November 2009 to 45 per cent in September this year. Fifty-seven per cent of more than 800 voters surveyed also expressed dissatisfaction with Sabah's economic growth.

Analysts said the results signalled a shift in voter sentiment in Sabah, which had long been dubbed the BN's "fixed deposit".

Dr Oh said the peace deal is unlikely to help BN's chances in the next elections, due to be called by April 28 next year.

"It is unlikely in the short run-up to GE13 that this will bring an immediate impact to the perennial illegal immigrant issue," he said.

Lester Kong
The Straits Times

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