Hornbill Unleashed

March 25, 2010

Malaysia’s invisible identity crisis

the antidote article sarawak natives life in interior sarawak  050509 01By Keruah Usit

One of Philip’s happiest days last year was when he finally received his identity card (IC). He had applied three times over the space of nine years, and had received a reply only to his last attempt. Altogether, he made six long, and expensive, trips from his remote home village to the nearest district office.

The Sarawak Gazette records that Philip’s Orang Ulu ancestors had settled in a valley in Sarawak for over a century. His parents showed me their marriage certificate provided by local village elders, dated before the formation of Malaysia. But they could not obtain a birth certificate when Philip was born.

Philip’s concern is not for himself, given that he is already 43, and a life-long farmer. He is not likely to follow the growing exodus of young people from his village seeking work in the towns, in factories in Johor or Kuala Lumpur, or on offshore oil rigs in Sarawak and further afield.

He appears most comfortable in his faded overalls, astride his old motorcycle on his way on the narrow dusty track to his rice farm, or perched in his longboat, casting his net for ikan batu and semah in the river flowing behind his home.

But he needs the IC to allow his sons, – one in Form Two and one in Form Five – to sit for their school exams. His two sons have birth certificates, but had been unable to apply for their ICs because Philip and his wife had ‘temporary resident’ ICs.

Made to jump through hoops

Despite his pleas to counter staff at the Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara (JPN) or National Registration Department in the nearest district office, Philip never received any feedback on the status of his three applications.

the antidote article sarawak natives life in interior sarawak  050509 02Each grueling journey down to the district office was met with the standard bureaucratic mantra: “you wait first”. He only discovered that his application had been deemed successful after several telephone calls to the JPN headquarters in Kuching.

“They never told me that my previous applications had been rejected, and they never explained why,” Philip recalled. “They said their letters must have gone missing.”

Philip had been made to jump through hoops. At first, he had to prove he had been born in Sarawak. Only after applying for Malaysian citizenship, could he apply for an IC.

Philip’s village chief had refused to support the genuine citizenship and IC applications of his fellow villagers. According to villagers, the headman even demanded money from the villagers to write letters in support of their JPN applications, but he never delivered the letters.
When challenged by the villagers, the headman was unable to defend his failures. He claimed applicants in the village might be “Indonesians”. This feeble excuse was angrily refuted by families who could trace their genealogy in the area back for generations.

Villagers pointed out the headman had crippling gambling debts in the nearest town, and had also embezzled money from the village committee fund. The villagers lodged reports with the authorities. But they said a middle-ranking mandarin in the bureaucracy, related to the headman, had protected him.

One day, by serendipity, a mobile team from the High Court visited Philip’s village. The magistrate sat the hapless headman and villagers down in public. In front of the assembled village, the headman admitted that the applicants were bona fide Sarawakians.

The headman signed declarations to this effect, witnessed by the judicial team. Two years later, Philip’s application saw the light of day.

The mobile court has since been disbanded. A senior lawyer says the project in Sarawak was shelved over procedural concerns, regarding the legal technicalities of documenting citizenship in these remote villages.

Stateless in Sarawak

As in neighbouring Sabah, many rural Sarawakians are deprived of birth certificates and ICs. Without these documents, they are unable to complete their education, or find secure employment in towns. If they are employed as contract labourers or coffee-shop waitresses, they are subject to abuse by their employers and have no social security or insurance.

the antidote article sarawak natives stories 120509 03These indigenous Sarawakians are treated as illegal immigrants by the government machinery. They are turned away from clinics or charged rates for ‘foreigners’- hundreds of times the usual cost for Malaysians. Many doctors deny these poor ‘foreigners’ routine, but costly, investigations and treatment.

Undocumented Sarawakians and Sabahans cannot obtain driving licences. Marriages, births and deaths are burdened with complications. They are forbidden from obtaining passports, and from traveling outside their home state.

They are also unable to vote. Mafrel, an NGO pressing for free and fair elections, says 473,000 eligible Sarawakian voters have not registered themselves with the Election Commission (EC). Tens of thousands more potential Sarawakian voters are also unable to get on the EC’s electoral roll, because they have no ICs.

The Sabah party SAPP has blasted the federal government forbehaving like British colonialists. One common, and legitimate, complaint has been the denial of ICs to locals, and the free distribution of ICs to immigrants perceived as being more likely to vote for the incumbent governing party.

The JPN response

Civil society and politicians continue to agitate for the urgent registration of all Sabahans and Sarawakians, emphasising that citizenship is a right and not a privilege.

Last month, Malaysian election observer members visited the JPN Putrajaya headquarters and held a dialogue with deputy director-general (operations) Zulkifli Rahmat.

Zulkifli said only 10,000 of 15,000 Penan, the poorest among all ethnic groups in Sarawak, were registered with JPN.

the antidote article sarawak native people 270509 05He explained there was a two-year deadline to issue documents to all 66,000 Sarawakians yet to be registered with the JPN. However, progress has been so slow that the target appears unattainable.

The JPN director-general had previously announced that only 5,126 new Sarawakian registrations had been achieved in the past two years.

According to Zulkifli, the JPN has requested extra funding for mobile registration units, but has not been successful.

He promised to look into simplifying the JPN application forms. He agreed the JPN must specify which supporting documents are mandatory, among the 16 documents it asks for upon application.

He reiterated that JPN had difficulties with people “crossing borders”. The JPN could not determine whether those living near international borders were “true citizens”. JPN public relations officer Jainisah Mohd Noor told NGO members that the burden of proof of citizenship rests with the applicants.

If the kinks with the mobile court can be ironed out, and the service expanded, this could dovetail with the JPN efforts, and speed up registrations.

Meanwhile, back at the farm, at least Philip can work on getting ICs for his sons and his wife. If all goes well, his sons may be able to go on to Form Six and perhaps, one day, a tertiary education.


  1. have been told that recently JPN held a registration exercise in long san, baram ONLY for the students of the schools , turning away those from the villages who had turned up to make thier applications because they were only dealing with students this time…save costs no?

    Comment by gaharu — March 31, 2010 @ 12:26 AM | Reply

  2. It would be good if as many orang ulu or bumis get a university education. Right now Colleges are like mushrooms in Malaysia and we get nowhere but give half way houses for other nationals. Most of our graduates come out and learn how not to be seditious. We turn them out not in small numbers! Like Proton cars there getting more and more!

    If we don’t have a broken system, people will learn all the time at work, at play, at rest! Some may even solve problems while sleeping.

    Decent hardworking people learn from discipline at work, to become better persons. But what do Malaysians learn at work? Good values, governance? Not all but not a few Malaysians learn how to steal all the time and get kantow without batting an eye!

    At the end of the day, they could get a Datuk or a Tan Sri! And of all the reason, for not learning or working!

    Can any other country beat that? “1Malaysia” Boleh! 😉

    Comment by Watcha — March 29, 2010 @ 10:23 PM | Reply

  3. That was a very helpful article! Would you be interested in republishing it on The Malaysian Insider? I find it really frustrating that mainstream Malaysian news sites don’t have enough East Malaysian content and West Malaysians certainly need to be informed of the plight of East Malaysians.

    Thanks again for sharing. ]:)

    Comment by feistgeist — March 29, 2010 @ 10:26 AM | Reply

  4. These people are uneducated and don’t know and dare not fight for their rights. The lawyers from Pakatan should take up their case.

    Comment by alwaysfair — March 26, 2010 @ 1:33 PM | Reply

    • Alwaysfair—- Uneducated, maybe. Dumb, most often no. I’ve got a Ph.D. and can *I* win an argument with a Malay bureaucrat? Not once. Power always trumps knowledge and wisdom is nowhere.

      Comment by 'Nother Fellow — March 28, 2010 @ 11:01 PM | Reply

  5. I hate the excuse that letters got lost??!!! Hello? Doesn’t that show the dis-organisation of that department/ministry!

    Comment by dee — March 25, 2010 @ 10:29 PM | Reply

  6. He explained there was a two-year deadline to issue documents to all 66,000 Sarawakians

    This is the ultimate Malaysia Berokrasi! Your services are inadequate, there are fake ICs floating around and you give a 24-month deadline.

    He’s just pronounced the sentence and issued the Death Certicate!

    Why not employ people twice a year on special operations? It might spike our GDP and make it gila to perk at 7!? 😦

    Comment by Watcha — March 25, 2010 @ 6:21 PM | Reply

  7. Kudos to Mafrel and Malaysian election observer members for taking initiatives to meet with JPN and the authorities to speed up the identity card (IC) processing for the natives in Sabah and Sarawak.

    It is ironic that the government has lost billions to corruption yet no fund for more mobile court to process IC for the Penan in Sarawak.

    Yes, citizenship is the right of the Penan and not a privilege.

    Comment by PH Chin — March 25, 2010 @ 11:25 AM | Reply

  8. Sorry, forgot to post the link earlier.


    Comment by Phua Kai Lit — March 25, 2010 @ 10:18 AM | Reply

  9. And here is an interesting article on
    the symbols used by the indigenous peoples of
    Equador, Peru and Bolivia.

    Comment by Phua Kai Lit — March 25, 2010 @ 10:18 AM | Reply

  10. Dear Mr Sim

    Thank you for continuing to post articles
    on the plight of the indigenous peoples of Malaysia.

    Comment by Phua Kai Lit — March 25, 2010 @ 9:12 AM | Reply

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