Kuala Lumpur - Sabah's population surged from 650,000 people in 1970 to 3.1 milllion today despite being one of the poorest states in Malaysia with little development.
Most Sabahans believe that the huge influx was caused by a not-so-secret government initiative in the 1980s called Project IC, when hundreds of thousands of Muslim Filipinos, Indonesians and others were allegedly given ICs to boost votes for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).
Some call it Project M or Project Mahathir.
Over the years, these foreigners competed with local residents for jobs, land, housing and public amenities; this made the issue campaign fodder in Sabah during the general election in May.
On Wednesday, the man long accused of being behind the illegal initiative, former premier Mahathir Mohamad, told an independent panel probing the issue that he had no knowledge of it.
"My name has been used everywhere. I'm called a racist, an ultra, but I have never been bothered," he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Wednesday in Sabah's capital of Kota Kinabalu.
Dr Mahathir, 88, who was premier for 22 years from 1981, said his government acted within the law in issuing ICs, and that he should not be blamed if lower-ranking officials acted on their own to issue the documents.
A consulting officer at the inquiry, Mr Manoj Kurup, said the initiative was also known as "Project M" to stand for Mahathir, to which the former prime minister quipped, "Thank you very much", to laughter from the packed courtroom.
Mr Manoj said that a former Sandakan district chief officer had told the RCI that former deputy home minister Megat Junid Megat Ayub said the ICs were issued to alter Sabah's demographics.
Dr Mahathir's response: "I never gave the late Tan Sri Megat Junid any instruction on the issuance of identity cards to illegal immigrants." Mr Megat Junid died in 2008.
Dr Mahathir's appearance was the most anticipated of the RCI, which has seen 208 people testifying since January. They included former government officials and foreigners who had been given Malaysian ICs during the 1980s.
According to the law, foreigners who have lived in the country for 10 to 12 years can apply for citizenship. But Pakistani and Indian witnesses testified in the inquiry that soon after arriving in Sabah, they were approached and given ICs showing a false place of birth.
Former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim is expected to give his testimony next Thursday.
The RCI, which does not have prosecution powers, was set up by Prime Minister Najib Razak to assuage residents, including leaders of his own BN coalition representing the non-Muslim native communities.
The RCI is expected to end its work by the end of this month and pass its recommendations to the government for action.
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