There is a widespread perception, not only in Sabah, but also in Peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak, that Sabah is increasingly falling under the control (in terms of land ownership and licences for small businesses) of Muslim Sulus, the economic and political refugees from the Philippines, and the Muslim Bugis, economic refugees from Indonesia.
It is hard to distinguish the locals from these Muslim foreigners, and thus, they can easily assimilate into the state's population by purchasing forged Malaysian passports and identity cards (MyKad), manufactured by indigenous syndicates, most likely controlled by indigenous politicians of the ruling party.
Since these Muslim foreigners are not easy to trace, one cannot be sure if their numbers are effectively strong enough to take control of the state through mass membership of the ruling Umno. But it is a fact that their numbers have swelled over the last 25 years, particularly when Harris Salleh was chief minister.
Harris has repeatedly denied that he allowed Muslim foreigners to enter Sabah illegally to boost the state's Muslim voter population, and insists that all Muslim foreigners who settled in Sabah during his chief ministership, and married native women or men, had obtained Malaysian citizenship by legal means.
There are some from the non-Muslim dominated PBS - Umno's coalition partner headed by Joseph Pairin Kitingan - who claim that Sabah was a Christian-majority state prior to the arrival of these Muslim foreigners.
Before becoming chief minister, Kitingan argued strongly that Sabahans were fast becoming 'strangers in their own land' because of the Muslim foreigners, who allegedly entered the state illegally, aided by syndicates linked to Harris, to boost the Muslim voter population.
Kitingan linked the issue of illegal foreign Muslim migration to Sabah, to a greater political agenda his party advocated, namely to 'restore' an indigenous Christian Dusun-dominated Sabah, with the Muslim indigenous peoples in a slightly subordinate position. Kitingan persistently complained that Harris wanted to create a Muslim majority state and upset the 'original' demography of Sabah where 'indigenous Christian Dusuns prevailed'.
It is, however, questionable if Sabah was indeed an indigenous Christian majority state prior to the Harris era (1976-1985). At the time of independence (and this is still the case today) Dusuns formed 45 per cent of the state, and they comprised 12 per cent Muslim Dusuns and 33 per cent Christian Dusuns.
The second largest indigenous tribe, the fully Muslim Bajaus, formed 18 per cent of the state. Of the 18 per cent, 12 were indigenous Bajaus of Sabah, while six percent were Sulus, the Bajau peoples who hailed from the Sulu Islands of the present-day Philippines. The third largest indigenous tribe, the fully Muslim Kedayans (or Bruneians) formed 10 percent of the state.
The fourth largest indigenous tribe, the Muruts, formed seven percent of the state. Of the seven percent, five percent were Christian Muruts from the interior while two percent were Muslim Tidong Muruts who lived on both sides of the Malaysia-Indonesia (Sabah-Kalimantan) divide in Tawau. The remaining 20 percent of Sabah's population are Chinese, the main non-indigenous community.
In PBS' vocabulary, prior to Kitingan's chief ministership, it only considered the Dusuns, non- Tidong Muruts and non-Sulu Bajaus as Sabah's indigenous tribes, and lumped the Sulu Islander Bajaus, the Tidongs and the Kedayans (Bruneians) as non-indigenous Filipinos, Indonesians and Bruneians respectively. Thus, in the vocabulary of Kitingan's PBS, Sabah's indigenous Christians outnumbered its indigenous Muslims by 2 to 1.
Harris' and his party Umno's stand on indigenous Sabahans was different. Unlike Kitingan, Harris and Umno considered the Sulu Islanders, Tidongs and Kedayans (Bruneians) as indigenous peoples, because of historical factors. The Sulu Islanders originated from Sabah's Bajaus, just like their offspring in the Mindanao, Visayas and Luzon island groups which make up the Philippines.
The Tidongs, while Muslim and partly living in Indonesian Kalimantan, are of indigenous Murut origin. The Kedayans (Bruneians), while associated with Brunei, have lived in Sabah from time immemorial. In fact, Sabah was originally part of the Brunei empire. Thus, in Harris' and Umno's vocabulary, indigenous Muslims and indigenous Christians are equal in number, with the former slightly outnumbering the latter.
It is an irrefutable fact, however, that Harris' chief ministership saw a gradual move away from his predecessor ( Kitingan's mentor) Tun Mohamad Fuad (Donald) Stephens' policy of allocating land and opportunities to Muslim and non-Muslim natives on a 50:50 basis. And this, no doubt, angered many non-Muslim natives especially Kitingan, who succeeded Stephens as the paramount chief of the Dusuns.
Kitingan obviously exaggerated the 'threat' of Muslim domination prior to becoming chief minister, in order to get elected by his mainly Christian majority tribe. He fed his supporters with the myth of Sabah originally having an indigenous Christian majority, when in actual fact, Muslim and Christian natives each had an equal chance of getting elected as chief minister.
When he became chief minister (1985-1994), he actually maintained a balance (50:50) between Muslims and non-Muslims in terms of land and job allocation. In other words, he stuck to the policy of his mentor Stephens. Kitingan also spent more of the taxpayers' money on Islamic places of worship and schools, rather than on Christian places of worship and schools, contrary to popular belief in West Malaysia and Sarawak.
During Kitingan's chief ministership, both Harris' Umno and hardline members of PBS criticised Kitingan for 'sidelining' Muslims (Umno's accusation) and Christians (PBS' hardliners' accusation).
It was, thus, Harris' turn to whip up fears of Christian domination. He succeeded and Kitingan lost the chief ministerial election to a Muslim Dusun-Bajau, Salleh Said Keruak, a protege of Harris. Kitingan, nevertheless, managed to hold on to the chief ministership for a good nine years. He obtained strong support from the Muslims and only lost his job when both his Muslim and Christian cabinet members defected to Harris' and Umno's side.
Thus, despite the presence of Muslim foreigners and the fear of Muslim foreigners wresting the state from the natives, Kitingan managed to win every chief ministerial election until his cabinet left him for Umno in 1994. Since 2001, the now battle-weary PBS and Kitingan have recognised Umno's 'right' to the chief ministership of Sabah, and have been rewarded with the deputy chief ministership.
Kitingan himself took up the post in 2004, encouraged by his old friend, current prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Nevertheless, PBS members still raise occasional fears of a rise in illegal Muslim migrants robbing the natives of land and jobs from time to time. They also raise fears of illegal Muslim migrants registering as voters in chief ministerial elections.
Only an independent parliamentary commission without politicians sitting on it, can determine if Sabahans are truly in danger of being outnumbered and marginalised in their own land by the Muslim foreigners. Firm but humane police and army operations to root out illegals must be persistently carried out.
Until then, it is wisest for the Umno and PBS to keep their peace and distribute resources to Muslims and non-Muslims on a 50:50 basis.