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Past fraud, new risks in Malaysia

Asia Times - February 1, 2013

Anil Netto, Penang Suspicions over the integrity of a Malaysian government program popularly known as "Project M" that fast-tracked citizenship and voting rights for immigrants in the eastern state of Sabah threaten to complicate upcoming general elections.

Witness testimony to a royal commission of inquiry into the program suggests that large-scale fraud took place in Sabah in the 1990s. The revelations have raised new questions about the accuracy of the country's voter rolls, an issue opposition politicians and civil society activists have highlighted at street rallies calling for electoral reforms.

The inquiry, which was set up last August, has heard witnesses testify that government officials loyal to the ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) engaged in undercover operations to topple the then ruling party in Sabah, the multi-ethnic Parti Bersatu Sabah (Sabah United Party), which at the time was in opposition at the federal level.

The party was apparently perceived by some UMNO loyalists to be "Christian-led" and the covert objective was to replace it with a state-level coalition that would be more "friendly to Islam" under the umbrella of the federal-level ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

The modus operandi was to fast-track citizenship rights to foreigners or issue them papers to allow them to vote in state elections in 1994. In the end, the Parti Bersatu Sabah won by a slim majority but collapsed after mass defections of its Sabah state assembly members soon after.

The royal inquiry was called after Prime Minister Najib Razak realized Project M and its associated influx of immigrants was one of the sore points in the pivotal swing state that could cost the ruling coalition voter support at the upcoming polls.

Some analysts believe the inquiry was established to stem a possible tide of defections after a couple of BN coalition politicians defected to the People's Alliance opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim.

Others believe that the inquiry was aimed at pulling the rug out from under the feet of the still influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who was prime minister of an UMNO-led government at the time the clandestine registration of immigrants was carried out.

The inquiry has been hampered by its limited terms of reference, which do not specifically grant the commission the mandate to identify the masterminds behind the alleged fraud. Observers have also complained that key questions were not being addressed, including why foreigners had to pay such a small amount for temporary identification papers meant for Malaysians who had lost their identification cards that effectively allowed them to vote?

Moreover, the outcome of the inquiry is only likely to be known after the general election, which must be held by the end of June at the latest. That means any inquiry recommendations may not be issued in time to allow for a review of the national electoral rolls.

One operation that emerged from the inquiry involved Sabah state-level national registration department officers issuing 40,000-100,000 Malaysian identity cards to foreigners. Testimony implicated an aide of Mahathir, whose residence in Kuala Lumpur was used as a center to process the cards.

Another witness testified that in another Sabah-based operation some 200,000 birth certificates were issued to foreigners which later allowed them to apply for Malaysian identity cards.

Implicated officers were later detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for up to two years, a move observers believe was done to put a lid on the clandestine operations.

Rotten rolls

In yet another secret operation, aptly dubbed Ops Durian Buruk (Rotten Durians Operation), state-level national registration department officers allegedly conspired with the Sabah Election Commission to issue temporary identification receipts that allowed immigrants to vote.

The chief of operations said the project was undertaken after a meeting with the then deputy home minister in Mahathir's cabinet, Megat Junid, who is now deceased. Testimony from immigrants who revealed they had received such papers indicated that they had voted in elections soon after that.

The officers that headed these two operations were reported to be previously attached to the National Security Department in Kuala Lumpur before being transferred to head the Sabah National Registration Department. Although the inquiry focused on events in the 1990s, it is believed that the registration of foreigners as citizens began in the 1980s.

The damaging testimony forced a response from former premier Mahathir, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1981 to 2003. He claimed that the immigrants who had been registered had been in Sabah for over 20 years and had assimilated to the local culture and spoke Malay. They were thus eligible for citizenship, he said.

Mahathir also attempted to divert attention from Sabah by suggesting, half tongue-in-cheek, that a similar inquiry should be held to investigate the granting of citizenship to one million foreign immigrants mainly Chinese and Indians in the Federation of Malaya before the country gained independence.

The suggestion prompted an uproar, with retorts pointing out that independence-era registration was part of a transparent pact leading to Independence from British colonial rule and was hardly clandestine.

The revelations of the Sabah inquiry have led to calls for key federal and state leaders who were in office at the time Mahathir included to be subpoenaed to the inquiry, though due to its circumscribed terms of reference this seems unlikely.

The inquiry has underscored concerns among opposition politicians and civil society groups about the integrity of the electoral rolls ahead of the general election, which is expected to be hotly contested. Those concerns center on recent significant increases in the number of registered voters in a string of federal parliamentary constituencies in states like Selangor, which is currently under opposition rule.

In some 20 of parliament's 222 constituencies, registered voters have risen by between 20%-32% since the last election held in 2008, where the opposition made historic gains by winning five of 13 federal states. Prime Minister Najib's Pekan constituency itself has seen a 31% rise in voters since the last polls. Independent analysts have also pointed out widespread cases of multiple registrations, where scores of voters have been registered at the same address.

The revelations of the Sabah inquiry have supported the civil society-led Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections' (Bersih) claim that the present electoral rolls are badly tainted and skewed in favor of UMNO. Indeed, some activists are starting to question the legitimacy of all elections won by UMNO and BN since 1994.

With so many questions hanging over the integrity of the electoral rolls, the stage is set for a crisis of legitimacy if UMNO and its associated BN parties win again at the upcoming polls in constituencies that have recently seen large and unexplained increases in voter registrations.

[Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.]

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