There are fears that if the community is accorded such recognition, others too would make a similar demand.
Joe Fernandez, FMT
The Bugis call in Sabah in recent days for members of the community to be recognised as Bumiputera just as in Peninsular Malaysia has opened a new debate about an old problem, that is, how to extend the Bumiputera (son of the soil) umbrella term to as many Malaysians as possible in Sabah and elsewhere who are not Orang Asal (native).
Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has been cited by wannabe Bumiputera among the Bugis in Sabah as the most famous member of their community who can still trace his roots to Sulawesi in Indonesia.
Persatuan Bugis Rumpun Malaysia (PBRM) president Samsul Alang claims to have already signed up 14,000 members throughout the country including Peninsular Malaysia. Najib is yet to sign up.
While all Orang Asal are Bumiputera, not all Bumiputera are Orang Asal.
The Orang Asal – Dusun including Kadazan or urban Dusun and Murut – are the first people to settle down in the emptiness of the geographical expanse called Sabah and hundreds, if thousands of years, before any other settlers. In Sarawak, the Dayak including the Malay are the Orang Asal while in Peninsular Malaysia, only the Orang Asli fall within the category.
Non-Orang Asal Bumiputera in Sabah are generally considered those born in Sabah who are citizens by operation of law.
However, Bumiputera status for non-Orang Asal in Sabah are at present confined generally to the Bajau and Suluk communities in the state, but excludes members of these communities who are immigrants or first and second generation descendants of these immigrants.
The Bugis have a point in their favour when they argue that there’s no reason why members of the community in Sabah who are eligible should be denied recognition as Bumiputera. However, PBRM opines, and erroneously, that Bumiputera status will enable the community to own NCR (native customary rights) land. The question of Bumiputera owning native land does not arise as long as they are not Orang Asal.
Still, many Bugis in Sabah already own NCR land, according to the Bumiputera Bajau Semporna Association (Perbubas). “Many from the Bugis community in Sabah had obtained their identification documents only in the 80s and 90s,” said Perbubas president Mansur Santiri. “However, they own native land which should be awarded to Orang Asal.”
Mansur wants native land held by Bugis to be taken back and the state government to conduct a proper study on whether the Bugis should be granted Bumiputera status.
Lot of problems
The Sabah Native Cultural and Welfare Organisation (Sano) president, Samson Quintin, echoes Perbubas on non-Orang Asal owning native land.
He also reckons that “it would invite a lot of problems” if the Bugis in the state are granted Bumiputera status. “There would be others also who would want to be given Bumiputera status,” says Samson. “These include the Chinese, Timorese, Taturs, Javanese and others.”
It’s likened to opening the proverbial “Pandora’s Box”.
There is also a small community of Indian sub-continentals in Sabah, only a minority from Peninsular Malaysia. The divide is governed by the Sabah Indian Association, on the one hand, to represent Indian sub-continentals and the MIC, on the other, for others.
Patently, the term Bumiputera does not exist in the Federal Constitution, the state constitutions or in legislation like the Native Interpretation Ordinance in Sabah.
Even so, there’s no reason why the government cannot issue a policy circular, Administrative Law, whereby all Malaysian citizens by operation of law born in the country can be recognised as Bumiputera.
The precedent was created by the Tunku Abdul Rahman administration which first created the term Bumiputera to cover the Malay-speaking communities, including the Bugis in Peninsular Malaysia and the Siamese along with the Orang Asal.
Before that, the government had to wrestle with the terms Orang Asli in Peninsular Malaysia and Dayak including Malay in Sarawak, and the Dusun, Kadazan and Murut in Sabah. All these ethnics came under the Orang Asal umbrella term which excluded the Malay-speaking communities in Peninsular Malaysia and others in Sabah and Sarawak.
It was fourth Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad who decided by policy that Bumiputera would henceforth include the Portuguese community as well. It was a dramatic turnaround by the man after he had for years railed that “Portuguese meant from Portugal and not someone local”.