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KUALA LUMPUR: For years, charges have swirled that a secret Malaysian scheme gave citizenship to huge numbers of illegal migrants in a politically important state in exchange for votes for the ruling coalition.
Now, an inquiry is finally airing detailed allegations that have the government on the defensive ahead of elections that pose the greatest threat yet faced by the ruling bloc that has controlled Malaysia for 56 years. A Royal Commission of Inquiry opened last week with ex-officials admitting they gave citizenship to Filipinos and Indonesians in resource-rich Sabah, one of two Malaysian states on jungly Borneo island. One former official said some 100,000 identity cards (ICs) were handed out in 1993 ahead of a crucial state election, Malaysian news reports said. Another admitted signing hundreds of thousands of ICs in the 1990s.
The testimony has revived accusations of treason against former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is alleged to have masterminded the scheme to shore up support for his government.
As head of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, Mahathir dominated Malaysia for 22 years with his famously hardball political tactics until he resigned in 2003. Current prime minister Najib Razak is now battling to rally support for the BN ahead of polls he is expected to call within months, in an era when the coalition’s power grip has slipped.
But outrage over “Project IC”, as the alleged scheme is widely known, is undercutting his claims that the national electoral roll is free of fraud. The opposition and election-reform advocates allege massive fraud in voter rolls nationwide and have seized on the testimony as proof of government vote-tampering.
“What we are concerned about is that this is still going on. That’s what we want to stop,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, head of the clean-elections activist coalition known as “Bersih”, or “Clean”, told a press conference on Tuesday.
The outlines of “Project IC” have been whispered about for three decades and have bolstered the view of Sabah as a reliable “fixed deposit” of votes for the BN to help it weather challenges elsewhere. The government allegedly targeted Muslims from neighbouring Indonesia and the predominantly Muslim southern Philippines. More than half of Malaysia’s 29 million people are Muslim ethnic Malays, but indigenous tribes, many of them Christian, predominate in Sabah. They have bridled at the foreigners, blaming them for crime, drug abuse and economic competition.
Najib last June gave in to calls for an inquiry, but the move could backfire, said Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent polling firm Merdeka Centre, calling the revelations “explosive”. AFP