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We Can’t Talk About the Terrorists:
An Ethnography of Silence in the East Coast of Sabah


by Vilashini Somiah
20 December 2017

 

As an anthropologist, I see my work as necessary in gaining deeper and more insightful perspectives of how communities work and find meaning in their own existence which includes its inherent tensions and contradictions. It is an employment that requires thorough, objective observation, and simultaneously expects the ethical preservation of agency of those you study. And although I’ve always acknowledged the importance of studying Sabah’s suppressed narratives, it was only as an anthropologist that I found the intellectual fulfilment I so desired. It is a field that I’ve been in keen apprenticeship of for over seven years. This article highlights one of those narratives from my most recent time spent in the field.

My good friend Indah* and I were lounging on the veranda of her beautiful colonial home in Sandakan one hot April afternoon in 2016 when the conversation of alien danger began; the idea that foreigners are themselves the biggest cause of danger and malice in their host country. Although both of us were mostly unconvinced by this premise, our talk was solely inspired by the recent Abu Sayyaf sightings in Sabah waters, linked to the presence of hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants in Sabah.

Indah tells me her frustration on the matter boils down to how badly the matter is handled, which is due to the lack of trust authorities have for locals in the East coast of Sabah. “Vils” as she often calls me, “decent people live here. Real people just trying to survive. This town isn’t the danger zone but it’s been labelled one. Politicians think they’re protecting us, but we just get brushed aside. We should be involved too, you know.” I have always appreciated how Indah speaks so passionately about Sandakan. She, like many other residents I’ve met, feels deeply for the town, one that is rich in natural resources and history. I am empathetic and ask “Why can’t something be done about agency and leadership here?” Indah clicks her tongue in irritation.” No one wants to listen to the east coasters, Vils. They just think we’re sleeping with the enemy.”

Something in her tone made me believe her. In retrospect, I must have heard it on repeat from a variety of voices. My time spent conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the town had introduced me to many other participants that had in one way or the other highlighted the frustration of being politically invisible despite the active roles they take in combating possible extremism in their home. The conversations that follow were not easy to capture; not for the participants lack of eloquence, but simply due to their inability to openly trust, and thus, such frank exchanges about terrorism in Sabah are rare. It is my sincerest hope that this article is able to capture just an essence of the honesty and pride of the participants I’ve met.

 

Teaching for Safety

Teacher Mir*, a 31-year-old Sabahan of Orang Sungai descent, has dedicated almost a decade of his life to the education of undocumented children in Sandakan. Every morning before sun break, Mir has his breakfast at the church mess hall and bids his family goodbye before heading off 15 kilometres by van into the palm oil estates within the district. The journey takes much longer than it should as roads are potholed by lorries and hardly ever fixed.

Similar in vein to hundreds of learning centres throughout the east coast of Sabah, Mir’s learning centre aims to provide the most basic of elementary education for children otherwise rejected from our local schooling system. This particular learning centre hosts over 200 children and, together with Mir, are taught by 11 other teachers from the Sandakan and Kinabatangan district. One Tuesday morning sometime February this year, he invited me for an after-school tea session at the canteen. Conversations with Mir were always so engaging because he never self-censored and I appreciated that. As the discipline master, Mir has a reputation of never mincing his words and a stern demeanour. On his way over to the canteen, he waves his rotan (cane) at the children to behave but because school was over, the children run away from him, giggling.

We talked mostly about his students; sustaining children through the six years of education requires plenty of effort on the parent’s part but job losses, village raids or deportation can hinder them from ever returning the following year. Before gulping the last mouthful of cold tea, I ask how he finds the motivation to continue teaching in such unpredictable conditions. He tells me, “I teach here to fight off terrorism for Sabah”. I found his dramatic answer surprising but altogether humbling. How does teaching counter the violence from the sea, I ask. By now our jovial chatter has given way to a strange heaviness and Mir continues:

“Aku bilang sama anak-anak, jangan durang jadi pangganas. Berabis kami cikgu-cikgu mengajar di skolah, ada pulak dia mau main timbak-timbak? Bardosa bah. Pangganas jadi bagitu krana teda durang dikasi pendidikan atau paluang dalam hidup. Walaupun sikit sja pemberian kami, biar ikhlas mau kasi anak-anak ini masa depan. Tapi Puji Tuhan, segala keringat kami ada juga untungnya. Teda budak-budak kami pernah terjebak dengan racun sabagitu.” (I told the children, don’t become terrorists. The teachers here give their all to educate them and they want to go around shooting people? That’s a sin. People become terrorists because they weren’t provided education or opportunities. We can’t offer much, but at least these children now have a future. Praise God, our hard work has paid off. None of our students have ever joined such a poisonous act.)
Several of the teachers feel the same way. They see their work as an effort in countering terrorist activities in Sabah that have grown significantly present with the years. I acknowledge the importance of this view and suggest the teachers spread the word to other willing Sabahans, but they are hesitant. Mir’s 25-year-old colleague, Yasmin*, shares with me her thoughts:
“Di Sabah, paling sensitip punya isu ini lah- Abu Sayap atau ISIS. Pasal urang takut kalau-kalau durang sudah disini kah? Anak- anak di skolah mimang ndak salah, tapi mana tau kalau kawan atau kaluarga durang yang pendatang mungkin terjebak? Lagipun, kalau cakap kuat-kuat pun, nanti ditangkap krajaan bah. Jadi, diam-diam sajalah kami.” (In Sabah, the most sensitive topic is that of the Abu Sayyaf or ISIS. Perhaps people are afraid if they’re already here. The children here are innocent, but who knows if family or friends who are also irregular migrants might be involved? And if we talked about it publicly, the government might arrest us. It’s better to just keep quiet.)
Learning centres for undocumented children are constantly under the monitor of the state and will receive regular visits for an update on local problems and information on parents. This is to be expected and the teachers have always complied and given their fullest cooperation where it is ethical. Yet, Mir and his colleagues feel that no matter how they may contribute to the safety of Sabah, no one else, including himself, is brave enough to discuss the terrorist problem openly. “I want to talk about the kidnappings or Abu Sayyaf, but I don’t dare. Because we teach these children, we might be accused of knowing inside information, but I don’t. I’m frustrated because we feel we cannot discuss this openly in our own state.”
 

One Town, Two Worlds

I encountered a similar stance from Sakinul*, a 42-year-old Suluk businessman, and one of the first friends I made when I began work in Sandakan. For over 26 years, he has made a living from buying cheap fish and shellfish from the market and reselling them in estates and slums on the outer periphery of town. Communities that he frequents are that of irregular migrants, many of whom would not dare venture into town for fear of getting arrested.On a daily basis, he is assisted by his second wife, an irregular migrant from Zamboanga and although he himself is Malaysian, their four children were given foreign birth certificates and told to return to the Philippines if they ever wanted to be documented. Sakinul tells me he worked very hard to make it happen but the costs (and risks) were too high. Thus, the children continue to live with the same irregular status as their mother. Due to this predicament, they are teased by their documented neighbours for being potential terrorists and this never fails to break their father’s heart.

Sakinul is in no way an isolated case. In fact, my time in the field has introduced me to a large number of Malaysian Sabahans who have or are currently cohabiting and leading domestic lives with irregular migrants or undocumented persons. On a cultural level (despite religious practice), a town like Sandakan is able to accept such union despite knowing the repercussions. However, the legal implications have not escaped them and I find many marriages between citizens and irregular migrants often living low-key lives, in hopes of avoiding the prying eyes and directed questions of the authority. However large these numbers may be, these family units remain vulnerable to accusations of threats and state security. Yet fascinatingly, it is these very same Sabahans who seem most invested in ridding Sabah of its terrorist problems. Similar to that of teachers at learning centres, their effort to combat extremist activists is a result of their close relationships with members of the irregular migrant community.

As such, Sakinul, one of my more trusted informants, would tell me via text of activities in town that I might be interested in. In the most recent of news, an Abu Sayyaf leader and his members were captured in Kuala Lumpur and never one to hide his disgust towards terrorism, Sakinul is frank about the lack of elucidation in the news. “I personally believe the reports are not complete,” he says, “people have so many questions about them. Can you believe they were from Sandakan? I’m suspicious of this! But we have to be careful with what we say around the market, or we might look suspicious too.” “But you could open a good discussion about this.” I mentioned over the phone. Exasperatedly, he tells me:

“Apa bulih bawak barbincang oh? Kau pikir pulis mau kami bising-bisingkah? Ini Sabah style bah, kalau barang ndak bagus, jangan bukak mulut kau. Duduk diam-diam, tapuk-tapuk sampai round two. Kalau kau Suluk, berbini pandatang macam aku, kau cakap-cakap, di tangkap lagi kamu. Tapi, bila datang lagi pangganas mau putung kapala, start lagi lah – “Sabah bahayalah, kami bangsa abu sayap lah”. Urang pikir kami ni mau kah macam ni?” (What can we ever discuss? Do you think the police want us making noise? This is the Sabah style, if things aren’t good, don’t open your mouth. Sit quietly and hide till round two starts. If you are Suluk, and married to a migrant like me, and you talk openly, you will be arrested. But when the terrorists come to behead people, then the labels start again: “Sabah is dangerous, we share the same race as the Abu Sayyaf”. Do people think we like this?)
 

Deserving A Say

With Indah, Sakinul, Mir and Yasmin in mind, I must stress a respect for the counter narrative to this claim; that militant terrorism has had very little impact on the state of Sabah and will only succeed if we live in fear of the foreign ‘other’. In fact, despite recent headliners, towns throughout the east coast have done better than expected in its efforts to continue in normalcy. During my fieldwork from 2016- mid 2017, there were approximately five incidents involving terrorists in Sandakan and even with that, the chances of a local or tourist becoming a victim of terrorism was still rather slim. With its thriving ecotourism and maritime industry, Sandakan has attracted many from other districts to eke out a decent livelihood despite ongoing militant activities in the water borders. And on top of everything else, the state has repeatedly reminded Sabahans in the east coast that their safety against terrorism will continue to be a priority of the Malaysian government.

Regardless of political affiliation, many Sabahans tell me they sincerely appreciate the Malaysian government’s initiation of the ESSCOM (the Eastern Sabah Security Command) which protects the most vulnerable of areas from Kudat to Tawau. Yet, residents particularly in the east coast tend to suspend trust till the next major incident occurs, in silence. Throughout the years of researching irregular migrants in the east coast of Sabah, I’ve observed how discussing terrorism with poorer, working class local Malaysian residents reveals an array of unsaid insecurities that come across more powerless than most.

As it seems, the bigger issue to this is not why Sabah is a hotbed for terrorism but more so why there isn’t a greater collective ability to do more about it? Despite many state structures in place, and some grassroot attempts at eliminating future terrorists from emerging in Sabah, the already poor and sidelined Sabahans in the east coast lack the belief that there is an avenue to voice their concerns and anxieties openly and safely. Further exacerbating this is of course the social closeness between legitimate residents and their irregular ones, raising even more suspicion and distrust amongst security forces monitoring the ESSZONE.

From my conversations with Sabahans’ in the east coast, they see the state as dismissive and even punitive in addressing any criticism (constructive or otherwise). Even with the various state endorsed security apparatus in place, these communities still feel most at risk in the event of an attack or kidnapping. This is further exacerbated by the fact that these Sabah communities, both irregular and legitimate are never in isolation. Notwithstanding the mainstream narrative, Malaysian Sabahans particularly in the east coast have not and cannot lead a life separate nor distinctively different from that of their migrant neighbours, which makes vocalising these concerns and insecurities even harder and more dangerous.

Sabah shares with the Philippines one of the more volatile corners of the Malay Archipelago and coupled with the taboo subject of hosting approximately two million of Sabah’s irregular residents has not made solving the impending terrorist problem any easier. When public conversations are held on desires and intent for safety and security, they are usually held amongst the more privileged of us. But for thousands of non-urban, working class Sabahans living simpler lives, this freedom is imaginary and their agency is in needing to say more about their insecurities whenever and however necessary.

The first and most necessary step to figuring out the considerable human problem in Sabah is for the promotion of grassroot discussion. As long as we privilege more powerful and louder views than theirs, we dismiss ideas, knowledges and experiences from Sabahans like Mir and Sakinul that can and will assist in combating a slew of other neglected social issues including that of violent extremism.
*Names have been altered as per requested by participants.

 

Vilashini Somiah is a scholar, writer and filmmaker. Born in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, she has always had a keen interest for underrepresented narratives in Borneo and has focused a great amount of time understanding the different perspectives of these voices and their motivations.

Her Phd research is centred on issues of deportation, irregular migration and socio-political mobility surrounding the Sulu Sea.


Chief Minister Musa Aman, also holding the finance portfolio, presented the annual Sabah State Budget for 2015 at an estimated revenue collection of RM 3.862 billion, a revenue surplus of RM 49 million. For the first time since 2008, the Sabah State Government has projected a surplus.

Presenting the annual budget in the State Legislative Assembly yesterday, for a record 12th time as Chief Minister, Musa said that for 2015 the state government proposed to spend RM3.813 billion and the budget rolls out its growth and human development trajectory focusing on poverty eradication, enhancing quality of life and development of youth and women.

This budget has provided considerable emphasis on infrastructure development and investment without losing sight of welfare and social protection. In other words, his attempt is to put economic growth on an even keel with human development.

The budget also has hyperboles and ambitious targets; however they are reasonably well matched by appropriate allocations and policy thrusts.That Musa wants to benchmark the state against the best in Asia, although a bit hyperbolic, is vivid in the budget document. Therefore, substantial focus is on sustainable development. Some RM234.6 million will be channelled to various agencies in developing human capital involving the youth.

The government’s aspiration and pledge is to continue with the development and to provide a solid foundation for the people’s well-being and State’s prosperity for the benefit of future generations. And to ensure continued development for the State, the 2015 budget objectives are dedicated to upgrading basic infrastructures and public utilities, developing youth ‎and human capital, eradication of poverty and enhancement of the people’s quality life, as well as balancing regional development.

To achieve these objectives, Musa stressed the State government would implement:

‎ (i) Strengthening of revenue collection and broadening of revenue sources;

(ii) Planning expenditure in an optimal way (that is spending with the greatest impact);

(iii) Focusing on sectoral and sustainable development, and

(iv) Improving delivery systems towards achieving targets.

‎Musa even said that in previous years, Sabah’s resources and expenditures were managed in a prudent, effective and efficient manner in accordance with the financial regulations. And for the year 2013, 20 ministries, departments, statutory bodies and state agencies have managed to achieve a 4-star rating. This has made Sabah being recognised as having the best record of financial management in Malaysia for two consecutive years.

Although RM98.63 million has been allocated to Department of Irrigation and Drainage for flood mitigation programmes its hardly enough after seeing the floods this last October and the losses and inconvenience suffered by the residents in the affected areas. As a geologist, I know Sabah is, geologically speaking, very young, causing huge soil movements in which landslides and flooding becomes the norm after much rain. Highly dynamic physical processes dominate the mountainous terrain and therefore, implementing infrastructure development projects is a challenge and the cost to built and maintain is more costlier than other states.

In fact, the Federal Government should take note of this and should provide Special Funds to the Sabah State Government. Although a total of RM1.250 billion has been allocated for the provision of public infrastructure and utilities in this budget, of this RM180 million is allocated for the construction and maintenance programmes of urban and rural roads; slope repair, construction and replacement of old bridges, but this is hardly enough.

On information and communication technology (ICT) development, Musa has allocated RM71.36 million. Musa knows that our generation is the generation of “digital natives”, very much dependent on ICT and technology is a necessity in daily life. This allocation will be used to fully support the development of ICT in the state. Again this is an attempt to mobilize the youth in Sabah for a stronger future generation.

For tourism, Musa has allocated RM143.13 million which will be provided to promote and enhance the tourism sector in Sabah as the State Government has set a target of 3.7 million tourist arrivals with an expected tourism receipts amounting to RM 7.382 billion. Eventhough the tourism industry is getting a beating due to the kidnappings by Abu Sayaff and the MH370 mysterious disappearance, Sabah still recorded 1,889,301 tourist as at July 2014, an increase of 2.8% compared to the same period last year.

Lastly, agriculture, the main source of Sabah’s socio economic stability, was allocated a total of RM336.50 million. And for cultivating a better reading habit Musa has given RM39.28 million to the Sabah State Library.

All people-oriented schemes started during the 12-year tenure of Musa Aman would continue, many of them receiving higher allocations and grants. This was the best budget Musa could present in the present turbulent times.Sitting at his desk in the Chief Minister’s Office, Musa said that when he first took charge of the state’s economy, he thought that the sky was the limit. A similar ambition today after 12-year tenure would most definitely serve Sabah well.


South China Morning Post

When the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels signed a framework peace agreement at the Philippine presidential palace last October, one man in the jam-packed Heroes Hall did not join in the jubilation.

That man was 75-year-old Jamalul Kiram III, who was invited to represent the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines. He comes from a once-wealthy ruling clan that traces its lineage back to the 15th century and what is now Malaysia’s Sabah state.

Kiram was offended that neither Philippine President Benigno Aquino nor Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had acknowledged his presence.

That royal snub, along with persistent reports of Kiram’s supporters being flogged and deported once again from Sabah, was what drove dozens of his followers to sail from their remote Philippine islands last month to press his claim.

It wasn’t an invasion, Kiram insisted, but a coming home.

“Sabah is ours,” he said, referring to the oil-rich state.

The group representing itself as a royal militia in the service of Kiram arrived by boat on February 12 to re-establish its long-dormant claim to the North Borneo area. The ensuing stand-off with Malaysian authorities erupted into violence on Friday, leaving 14 people dead.

Little of the fabled wealth Karim’s family once owned is evident in the modest two-storey house in Maharlika Village that he calls home. The village is full of refugees from the decades-long Muslim rebel conflict in Mindanao.

From the statements of Kiram, his relatives and Philippine government documents, there emerges the colourful history of how his family has tried to reassert ownership over Sabah. To this day, the Malaysian embassy in Manila delivers a yearly payment – the equivalent of 5,300 ringgit (HK$13,300).

An exasperated Kiram told Aquino: “Mr President, what more proof do you want us to show that Sabah is ours? By the mere fact that Malaysia is paying us annually in the amount of 5,300 Malaysia ringgit, is it not enough?”

Ten years ago, Malaysia’s ambassador to Manila, Mohamed Taufik, confirmed this arrangement when he told the Sunday Morning Post: “I recently paid 5,000 ringgit to the Kiram family. It’s rather miniscule – around 70,000 pesos.” He said “the rent is still being paid but it doesn’t mean we recognise” the family’s ownership.

Neither Malaysia nor Britain disputes that Sabah was a gift to Kiram’s ancestors in the 17th century for helping put down a rebellion against their wealthy cousin, Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei.

In 1878, Kiram’s great grandfather, Jamalul Ahlam, leased Sabah to Alfred Dent and Gustavus Baron de Overbeck, Austria’s former consul in Hong Kong. Both then formed the British North Borneo Company in Hong Kong and applied for a Royal Charter.

The original contract – in Malay but written in Arabic script – used the word padjak or lease, Kiram said. But the British later chose to translate it as “cession”.

This was even though British foreign secretary Lord Granville wrote in 1882 that the contract gave Dent and Overbeck merely “the powers of government made and delegated by the Sultan in whom the sovereignty remains vested”.

By the time Kiram was born in 1938, the family’s hold on Sabah had become precarious. Two years before that, his great-uncle Jamalul Kiram II had died childless. Family lore says he was poisoned.

Kiram, in a letter to President Aquino on October 15, told how the family lost Sabah: Overbeck’s “company ceded North Borneo to the British Crown on June 26, 1946.

Soon after, effective July 15 of the same year, the Crown issued the North Borneo Cession Order in Council that annexed North Borneo and Labuan as part of the British dominions”.

“This unilateral action violated the spirit of the original lease agreement,” he said.

With the death of Jamalul II, his brother Mawalil succeeded him but died suddenly six months later – again allegedly from poisoning. Mawalil’s son Esmail became sultan.

In 1962, he ceded “full sovereignty, title and dominion” over Sabah to the Philippine government.

According to then Philippine foreign secretary and vice-president Emmanuel Pelaez, Sabah was to be made part of the Federation of Malaysia in order to be “a counterpoise to the Chinese elements in Singapore” and “to ‘sterilise’ Singapore as a centre of communist infection” within the Malaysian federation.

Asserting the Philippines’ claim, Pelaez met his Malayan and Indonesian counterparts in 1963. They issued a joint communique stating that the formation of the federation “would not prejudice either the Philippine claim or any right thereunder”.

A statement known as the Manila Accord and confirming the same was issued a month later by Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal, Indonesian president Sukarno and Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, documents showed.

While all this was going on, Kiram was trying to live a normal life – finishing a law degree and falling in love at 28 with 14-year-old Carolyn Tulawie. He waited until she turned 16 to marry her, according to their daughter Nashzra.

Many years later the couple later divorced amicably, and Kiram married a Christian woman named Celia. He has nine children – six with Carolyn and three with Celia.

At one point, Kiram danced with the Bayanihan, an acclaimed national folk dance company that toured the world.

He also worked briefly as a radio announcer.

Kiram’s father, Punjungan, was officially named successor and crown prince by Punjungan’s older brother Sultan Esmail.

When Punjungan fled to Sabah in 1974 during the Muslim Mindanao conflict at the time of then president Ferdinand Marcos, Kiram said he became the “interim Sultan”. But Marcos designated Esmail’s first-born son, Mahakuttah, as sultan.

Kiram once ran for Philippine senator in 2007 under the banner of then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He lost but gathered two million votes.

Because Marcos meddled in the succession, confusion has reigned over the identity of the real sultan. At one point, as many as 32 claimants emerged.

In a separate interview, claimant Fuad Kiram – younger brother of the deceased Mahakuttah and Kiram’s first cousin – said there were “many fake sultans” because they think Malaysia would pay them off.

Officially, the money that Malaysia gives is divided among nine relatives and their descendants.

Because of their numbers, each family ends up receiving only 560 pesos. In contrast, Fuad complained that “Sabah contributes US$100 billion GDP to the Malaysian economy annually”.

(This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition on Mar 03, 2013 as Sidelined sultan seeks to reclaim Sabah heritage).

http://www.scmp.com/news/asia/article/1170481/sultan-sulu-jamalul-kiram-iii-continues-fight-sabah