Personal reflections of Future Law intern Karen Christine Markus


My internship with Future Law and Forever Sabah reminded me why I chose law in the first place. During my university’s orientation day for freshmen law students, our lecturer asked us about our personal ambitions and why we wanted to pursue law. My answer was to “fight for the rights of my people”.

Easier said than done. The first challenge that I encountered in law school in Peninsular Malaysia was the absence of a syllabus that taught us about state-specific law. As every law student in Malaysia knows, Peninsular Malaysia and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak all have their own laws for land, natural resources and environmental issues. Even as a Sabahan law student who intends to practice in Sabah, I had to learn the National Land Code instead of the Sabah Land Ordinance. For me this was very unfortunate because the differences between the two laws are significant. Thus, I am glad that I was given the opportunity to go through this internship as it really helped me to understand how some of Sabah’s laws really work.


Another reason why I was keen to do this internship in solidarity with Forever Sabah was because of their mission, i.e., to support Sabah’s transition to a diversified equitable, circular economy. Forever Sabah is rooted in local aspirations in making Sabah a better state by utilising Sabahans’ knowledge and experiences and this includes in the context of law and policy making. For example, Forever Sabah and Future Law have been working closely together to develop legal briefs that are accessible and can be easily understood without all the legal jargon.

In 2015, the State of Sabah committed to certifying by 2025 all palm oil produced in Sabah under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. This ambitious initiative – referred to as the jurisdictional certification of palm oil – is one of the first of its kind in the world. Due to its complex and cross-sectoral nature, the jurisdictional certification initiative involves a range of rights-holders and stakeholders, including Indigenous peoples and local communities, civil society organisations, several government agencies, industry and academia. Forever Sabah is one of the technical advisors to the initiative and policy and legal issues are a necessary part of the puzzle to address.


The first couple of weeks of my internship focused on understanding some of the laws related to this initiative, including the Sabah Land Ordinance and Forest Enactment. I also had the opportunity to join Forever Sabah’s Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) team for a one-week roadshow in the districts of Telupid, Tongod, Beluran and Kinabatangan to talk about the palm oil industry with smallholders and their communities in rural areas. Land issues became a hot topic whenever they were mentioned throughout the roadshow, and the challenging realities of securing land rights finally sank in for me.

Most of the oil palm smallholders we met on the roadshow who are from Indigenous communities have tried to apply for their native titles under the Sabah Land Ordinance. In some cases, they have been waiting for many years or even decades for their applications to be processed. One of the most valuable experiences for me was watching Mr. Galus Ahtoi, the Facilitated Land Application Process (FLAP) Technical Coordinator for the CSPO team, tackling the questions asked by the smallholders regarding land legality issues and helping Mr. Galus draft the FLAP Model. As he has many years of experience working on these issues, I considered this to be a crash course and hands-on opportunity to learn more about Sabah’s land law under the Sabah Land Ordinance and the Forest Enactment.


In early August together with Ms. Holly Jonas (Founder and Director at Future Law), we travelled to Bau, Sarawak, to participate in a workshop in conjunction with the 2018 Perayaan Hari Orang Asal Sedunia (World Indigenous Peoples Day) celebrations organised by Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (Network of Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia, JOAS) and Partners of Community Organisations Sabah (PACOS Trust).

The workshop focused on the topic of territories and areas conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities (abbreviated as ICCAs or Territories of Life). ICCAs or Territories of Life are where Indigenous peoples have close associations with a specific territory and natural resources and contribute to their conservation and wellbeing through their customary laws and practices. Part of the workshop focused on recognition of ICCAs in international law and Malaysian policy and law.


It felt like home, surrounded by Indigenous communities from three different regions of Malaysia. I had the opportunity to speak with some of the youth from Sarawak about life in their hometowns and villages. I learned that many Indigenous communities have been displaced from their customary lands for the sake of ‘development’ projects. Some have managed to resist these changes but not all.

This event was an eye-opening and humbling experience for me. As someone who basically grew up in the city, it is important for me to go back to my roots and get a grasp of what is really happening among Indigenous communities in different parts of Malaysia.


I realise that all these things I learned during my internship are just the surface of all the issues happening in Sabah and even in Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia. To be honest, it was a little overwhelming for me. I can’t help but wonder what can I really do for my people, but perhaps that is the least of my concerns. I know Indigenous peoples in Malaysia are making an effort not only with help from supporters and experts nationwide but also driven by their own passion and eagerness to learn something new for the benefit of their respective communities.

I have now seen with my own eyes how those aman and inan with hearts full of hope participated in all the seminars and workshops to gain more knowledge and possible solutions to the problems in their communities. As an Indigenous Dusun myself, this internship experience was something I will always hold dear to my heart.

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Karen Christine Markus did a joint internship with Future Law (www.futurelaw.org) and Forever Sabah’s Legal Innovation Programme (www.foreversabah.org) from June-August 2018 and continues to be in contact with us. Born in 1994 and raised in Kota Kinabalu, Karen graduated with a law degree from the University of Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA) in May 2018. She aspires to be involved in environmental law and has a great interest in Indigenous peoples’ issues. She began her pupillage in September 2018 as part of the Sabah Law Society’s formal requirement to become a practicing lawyer in Sabah.