SARAWAK has prided itself as a state that has kept away illegal immigrants, but in its own backyard it finds itself in a bind with a host of problems related to its own people.
Many indigenous people remain stateless, especially the Penan who have been waiting for decades to be accorded Malaysian citizenship and to be recognised as citizens of Malaysia.
Long delays and excessive bureaucracy on the part of the National Registration Department (NRD) have left many applicants in the lurch and their citizenship woes run into three generations.
The issue has been made difficult by their nomadic culture, and compounded by rural poverty and illiteracy as most Penans cannot read nor write in Bahasa Malaysia. Almost all of them cannot afford the luxury of travel.
The Penan is the last nomadic indigenous group residing mostly in Baram, Belaga and Ulu Limbang.
The State Planning Unit in 2010 estimated 77% of Penans have settled permanently, while 20% are semi-nomadic. The remaining 3% are still living nomads.
Those living in the heartlands of Sarawak do not possess birth certificates, any identification papers or MyKad.
According to Penan Affairs Department officer at the Sarawak Planning Unit Ezra Uda, the Penan population stood at 21,367 as of 2019.
But most of them do not have any form of identification papers to denote they are citizens, let alone enjoy the benefits of being classified as bumiputra.
Their cultures, practices and lifestyles have been mentioned in passing in travel and tourism-related articles but their trials and tribulations to getting recognition as citizens paint a totally different picture.
Peng Magut lives in Long Tevanga, a village at the border between Limbang and Baram districts. The terrain is beautiful, punctuated by the cool mountain air. But the village has no electricity, no running water, much less an internet connection.
Travel is expensive as there are no buses or taxis. It costs RM1,800 to charter a private four-wheel vehicle for the drive from Miri to the Baram interiors.
It was Godsend when a roving task force from the Miri Special Mobile Unit (UKBM) and the NRD came to the village to help Peng register his own birth for the first time more than 10 years ago.
Peng, who is in his 40s, has made that application four times and after the first, the next three applications took a walk of three hours to other villages in Baram where such exercises were carried out.
The last time he made a late birth registration application was in 2019 but to date, he has yet to be informed of the status of his application.
His wife, June Along and their two sons Rudy and David are also waiting for news on their applications too.
While Peng and his entire family do not read or write in Bahasa Malaysia, Peng understands the importance of obtaining their MyKad.
Especially if that means being able to claim rights over ancestral land, besides a right to vote, access to education, healthcare, travel and basic necessities.
His awareness is in part because of the Penan Empowerment Network led by chairman Elia Bit, and their work to educate the Penan community on these issues.
In Lawas, Basar Arun, now 80, has been waiting more than half a century for the government to approve his citizenship application.
Although he was born in Indonesia, Basar had entered Sarawak through the Ba’kelalan border in the early 1950s for a better life.
Soon after, he volunteered to become a border scout and served during the Indonesian Confrontation in 1963.
For his contribution during the Confrontation, Basar was awarded with a General Service Medal with Borneo Clasp conferred by Queen Elizabeth II.
Basar previously held a temporary resident card (MyKas) before he was given the permanent resident (MyPR) status in 2013.
And it is not just Basar who has been waiting for over five decades to be recognised as a Malaysian citizen.
Six other former border scouts, Basar Paru, Tabed Raru, Baranabas Palong @ Branabas, Joseph Pengiran, Kedimus Liling and Sia Lupang – who served during the Confrontation – are also waiting government approval of their citizenship applications.
All seven served as border scouts and assisted the armed forces in fighting insurgents in the border area until 1974. They have been waiting for over 30 years for their applications to be approved.
There are more than 120 Penan settlements scattered across the Baram constituency alone.
In the villages of Long Menging, Long Saliang and Long Balau villages, there are at least 20 confirmed stateless Penans. But Long Menging headman Kala Konet estimates there are at least 100 more within the wider Ba’ Magoh area.
Bit said her organisation has established that about 200 Penans in Baram are either stateless or their citizenship status still undetermined.
The chairman of Sarawak Dayak Iban Association Rajang Bill Jugah said he collected about 200 applications for registration of birth from Balai Ringin, Sri Aman and Mongkos areas since 2016.
“Most of these cases have had their applications successful. However, I do not have the exact figures because they did not inform me of their status of applications,” he said.
Jugah has been collecting data on stateless individuals around the Sibu area as well.
These are individuals excluded from the “official government distribution list” when he was distributing aid, when Covid-19 hit the area last year. Another 180 (stateless persons) had met with Jugah last October.
“I believe a thorough study (on the number of stateless persons) or an Inquiry Committee ought to be set up to study this issue,” said Lawyer Kamek for Change (LK4C) director Simon Siah.
LK4C is a Kuching-based non-profit organisation led by lawyers fighting for marginalised voices, including work to bring public interest litigation to the fore.
The issue of statelessness in Sarawak is compounded by rural poverty, access, and stigma that treat indigenous groups as
Jugah said the majority of those that are stateless also include the Ibans, Kenyahs and Kayans.
Even as people like headman Kala and Peng Magut are able to live comfortably through hunting and gathering, they deserve, at the very least, recognition from the state.
“We began to come out of the jungle and tried to lead a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the early 1980s. Some of us have adapted to the new living outside the jungle, but some still prefer the old way of living,” said Kala.
And when they do attempt to settle down in one area, they are threatened by people who claim to own the land they are on.
The NRD through its UKBM unit had previously reached out to the Penan community, in particular in Baram to get them registered.
Besides, a Special Task Force under the local Welfare, Community Well-being, Women, Family and Childhood Development Ministry was set up in 2016 to assist in the citizenship application process for those below 21 years old.
The task force was under the purview of Sarawak Welfare, Community Well-being, Women, Family and Childhood Development Minister Datuk Seri Fatimah Abdullah.
A source said that meetings were held every month between officials from the NRD office in Kuching and the special committee when it was still in force. They vetted applications but the results were nothing to shout about.
Over three years until July 2019, only 717 citizenship applications were submitted through the task force and it is not known how many were approved.
When the Pakatan Harapan took over the government in 2018, there was a rethink on the policies. In July 2019, the then home minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced there would be a federal-level committee to handle citizenship applications, including those from Sarawak.
After another change in government in March 2020, it was reported that Fatimah would seek the assistance of the Home Ministry to revive the committee but nothing has changed.
Her office declined comment on the records being kept on the number of applications and their status.
All that was said was that the final and sole decision still rests with NRD “headquarters” in Putrajaya.
Two months ago, Fatimah was quoted in the press as saying that the special task force has been revived and will have its first meeting in late April to continue its previous role in solving citizenship woes. However, nothing materialised.
It would be impossible to put an end to the issue of statelessness in the country if there are no statistics although there were many prior news reports in the last few years quoting various sources on the number of stateless persons in the country.
In October 2016, Malaysiakini quoted the then deputy prime minister and home minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying that there were 290,437 stateless children in Malaysia who are below the age of 18.
However, he did give a state-by-state breakdown.
Bit said: “Due to remoteness, financial and logistical issues many of them chose not to register birth. Some do not even know the importance of registering their marriage especially the older generation, hence leaving their children undocumented or born stateless.”
This article was written as part of the Kiniacademy Investigative Journalism programme.