How Sandakan became Little Philippines

Sandakan’s former MP speaks of the town’s rich past and laments the present. 

Cyril Lim, FMT

The presence of a huge number of Filipino illegal immigrants in Sandakan has inspired opposition leaders to give the nickname “Little Philippines” to Sabah’s second largest city.

According to statistics obtained from the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) hearings on illegal immigrants in Sabah, there are 172,000 illegal immigrants in Sandakan. This figure represents 38% of the Sandakan population.

Sandakan was the first capital of Sabah, when the state was known as North Borneo. In its heydey as a timber producing centre, it was reputed to have the highest concentration of millionaires in the world. It had another nickname then. Because of its population was predominantly Chinese, it was popularly known as Little Hong Kong.

However, the influx of Filipino illegal immigrants has changed demography of Sandakan and many other areas in Sabah, perhaps forever. In the last three decades, the state’s population has jumped 285% to become 2,450,000. Most of the increase has been attributed to illegal immigration, mostly from the Philippines, but also from Indonesia.

Former three-term Sandakan MP Fung Ket Wing of DAP recently shared his views on changes that have taken place over the last three decades in his town as well as the rest of Sabah.

FMT : Opposition leaders in Sabah are saying that Sandakan, once known as Little Hong Kong, now looks more like Little Philippines. Do you agree?

FUNG : The Chinese came to Sandakan in the early part of the 19th century, before William Pryer founded the town in 1882.

In the early days, there were mass recruitments of labourers from China for developing the Sandakan area. They came in by tongkang through Hong Kong, the shortest route to Sandakan in those days. Some went back to China also through the same route. Thus Sandakan was well known to the people of Hong Kong in the old days. They were the ones who started calling Sandakan “Little Hong Kong”.

After Sabah had joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, the government’s policy was to allow the free flow of Filipinos into Sabah. The close proximity between Sandakan and islands in the Southern Philippines and good job opportunities caused an influx of illegal immigrants into the state, particularly into Sandakan. The government gave them citizenship legally and illegally, and this encouraged more of them to come.

The governments policy of increasing the Muslim presence in Sandakan and Sabah ironically coincided with increased birth control and increased emigration among the Chinese.

With the ever increasing Filipino population and the diminishing of the Chinese, Sandakan of course looks more like a Filipino town today.

However the Chinese in Sandakan still make up the largest single majority. It is thus rather improper to call Sandakan “Little Philippines”. Some people are wary of using that name because of the recent incident in Lahad Datu and the Philippines’ claim on Sabah.