Who are the real natives in Sabah?

It is time the state government restudy the definition and interpretation of the Sabah Native Ordinance 1952.

Raymond Tombung, Free Malaysia Today 

The recent disclosure at the Sabah State Legislative Assembly that Sri Tanjung assemblyman Jimmy Wong was stripped of his native certificate is interesting in more ways than one. Some who are against Wong may argue that as a matter of principle, he as a leader should uphold the truth and the law, hence admit and correct an error where it is due.

Sulaman assemblyman Hajiji Mohd Noor told the House that Wong did not have “even a single drop of Kadazan blood inside his body as both his parents are Chinese, as stated in his birth certificate.

“With that the [special] Board [appointed by the Head of state through the Government Gazette in 2010 after a thorough investigation into the issue] found that Jimmy Wong does not fulfil Section 2 (I) Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance.”

As such Wong cannot declare himself a Sino-Kadazan.

The case against Wong is pending the decision of the Kota Kinabalu Native Court (KKNC) which will deliberate on what to do next. It will also decide on how to handle the matter of native lands which, Sekong assemblyman Samsuddin Yahya put it, were acquired by Wong by “faking his status.”

Wong’s experience is a double-edged sword. While the opposition leaders can condemn this as another case of selective persecution by the BN,  they should also be glad that with the rights of genuine natives have been protected with the legal precedence, albiet a  belated one.

We need to admit also that a few decades ago, we made the serious mistake of opening a huge loophole in the law by allowing the loose certification of natives.

This gave rise to a new breed of  ‘natives’ who openly admitted (among friends) they were not natives but were “certified natives.”

With native certificates in hand, acquired through ‘good relationships’ with Ketuas Kampung and Native Chiefs, these adoptive natives were more powerful than real natives because of their financial superiority.

What about the others?

They also commanded respect and following among villagers who went out of their way to accommodate them into their communities as “towkay,” or “tuan,” which in today’s lingo would be “boss.”

The ever hospitable KadazanDusunMurut (KDM), until this very day still calls all well-to-do or long-nosed and bearded foreigners, including Pakistani cloth traders, “tuan” which to me is difficult to morally accept!

It never seems to occur to us that we, as the hosts, are the ones who should be called “tuan”

But the assembly sitting on March 27, also went into some argument about the definition of natives.

Balung assemblyman Syed Abbas Syed Ali wanted  the Indians, Bugis and Arabs classifed as natives.

He said: “I brought this to the House because in the past, the Indians and my grandfather, who is an Arab, were appointed as native chiefs. My question is, if they were recognized as natives, why were their grandchildren denied the status?”

The answer is simple. The past recognition of non-natives as natives were errors, and their descendants have no right to enjoy the privilege.

Even Melalap assemblyman Raden Malleh mused, rather sarcastically, if he was a native in Sabah.

Perhaps he is aware that the Sabah Muruts, his ethnic group, are immigrants from Indonesia’s Kalimantan, where they are more Muruts than anywhere else in the region.

Said Syed Abbas: “There are Muruts in Indonesia but they are called Indonesians. If they are Muruts in Sabah, then we are called Murut Sabah….

“We, the Arabs, are considered as Malaysians but when you mention the word Malay, we are not recognized as Bumiputera… In short, I do not know what my race is.”

Ordinance untouched

Abbas was confused between the matter of ethnic origin and nationality, and between nationality and native or Bumiputera status.

I believe he is an Arab Malaysian who is a Bumiputera and Malay because by the definition of the Federal Constitution, he is a Malay.

But whether he is a native in the context of Sabah is subject to discussion and deliberation. This is because the definitions of “Native” in the Ordinance does not cover Arabs.

We think of Constitutions, Acts and Ordinances as laws that are sanctified by legal processes and traditions.

But the fact is that laws are not so sanctimonious as to be untouchable because they are not perfect – that is why they are subject to amendments.

The idea that the Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance 1952 needs to be amended to give a more accurate definition of “native” is nothing new.

It’s just that the successive State Governments had never got down to doing it.

I think this is because of the various technical difficulties of redefining the term, and not the least is the fear of extending the definition of native beyond what is acceptable to true natives, which I define as the original peoples of the land.

As it is the definition of “native” under Section 2(c) of the Ordinance is already very discomforting.