Insecurity in Eastern Sabah raises questions

Hoteliers in Sabah are grumbling loudly that tourists are canceling too many bookings in the wake of the standoff and ongoing mopping up operations of the remnants of a force that attempted to install the Philippines-based Sultanate of Sulu in the East Malaysian state.

They worry that things may become a whole lot worse for the hospitality industry before turning for the better, if at all, in the near future. The state has some 25,000 hotel rooms to help the hospitality industry rake in some RM5.2 billion last year from nearly three million visitors.

The forecast revenue for 2015, according to Sabah Tourism Board chairman Tengku Zainal Adlin, is RM15 billion on the high side. That amounts to a full quarter of the annual RM60 billion Malaysia presently collects from tourism receipts.

Clearly, the travel industry is a high-income lifeblood for the Sabah economy, which already suffers the drain of most of its resources and revenues to the national administrative capital Putrajaya in Peninsular Malaysia. Palm oil and the oil and gas sectors are other bright spots. Timber is a sunset industry.

Foreign missions in Malaysia, erring on the side of caution, have reportedly either extended previous travel advisories or issued new ones urging caution if travelling to eastern Sabah.

However, travelers may not make any distinction between the Sabah east and west coasts. They may not make any distinction either between Sabah and the rest of Borneo. They fear being the target of kidnappings.

Peninsular Visitors Uneasy in Kota Kinabalu

The Abu Sayaff, a breakaway jihadi group from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), has engaged in kidnappings along the east coast in the past. The victims were only freed after Malaysia and foreign governments met the ransom demands.

Kidnapping is the method used by Abu Sayyaf to force the Malaysian government, its sponsor, to pay up when its funding for operations was delayed. It's sheer blackmail.

The state and federal governments are fighting back with a joint RM500,000 Recovery Fund to revitalize the travel sector in the wake of Lahad Datu, the coastal village where the Sultan's forces landed weeks ago. This sum amounts to peanuts if kidnappings for ransom resume along the east coast.

In Kota Kinabalu, no one gets the impression of imminent danger of any kind. Life, limb and properties are safe. Still, most visiting Peninsular Malaysians have long expressed their fears when visiting the Sabah capital, warily noting the presence of illegal immigrants all around them. Their perennial question: "How can you people allow this (illegal immigration) to go on?"

Governments must stick together

It can be said candidly that the security situation in Sabah, except for the continuing influx of illegal immigrants, has always been under control. The confidence of the authorities can be gauged from the fact that there was no reason to declare any special security zone or command until the decision was made in the wake of Lahad Datu to set up the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom). Illegal immigrants were previously not considered by Putrajaya as a security threat, a point disputed by Sabahans.

One reason for the otherwise excellent security in Sabah was that the nearest trouble spots were all in the southern Philippines, quite some distance away from the Sabah mainland. Also, the known involvement of Malaysia directly as a facilitator in the peace process in southern Philippines, and indirectly as the prime backer of the rebel forces, is said to have "kept Sabah safe".

Putrajaya has to rethink its foreign policy and security initiatives with particular reference to the Manila government if the troubles in the southern Philippines are not to swamp and sweep away Sabah in troubles sweeping both sides of the Sulu Sea.

It was naïve on the part of Putrajaya to defy the United Nations Charter and engage in acts as alleged, whether overtly or covertly, to compromise the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a fellow member state of the United Nations and fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian States. In the 1970s, during the time of the Suluk strongman Mustapha Harun who headed the Sabah government as Chief Minister, Libya and Malaysia coordinated efforts through rogue elements under the guise of the Muslim Brotherhood to hack away the southern Philippines from the Manila Government. These efforts have not since completely ground to a halt although Libya, having seen the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, is no longer in the picture.

How the Manila government deals with its Muslim citizens in the country's south is no concern of Malaysia. Governments must stick together even if they are allegedly mistreating their own citizens.

MNLF can't be Manila's sole partner for peace

Putrajaya must not also labor under the delusion that interfering in the southern Philippines is the way to prevent the so-called Sabah claim being raised or to prevent the secession of Sabah from the Malaysian Federation. Nur Misuari, the leader of the MNLF, has already made it clear in recent days that Malaysia is a stumbling block to lasting peace in the southern Philippines.

The heirs of the defunct Sulu Sultanate don't have a leg to stand on in Sabah. Neither does Malaysia, points out Nur Misuari.

For the immediate future, the security threat in Sabah is the resumption of kidnappings along the east coast by Abu Sayyaf, who are likely to act in concert with the so-called Royal Sulu Army (RSA). Only the MNLF can restraint both of these groups although its troops were also involved, privately Nur Misuari claims, in the Lahad Datu standoff.

In return, Nur Misuari would want Malaysia for starters out of the southern Philippines. He also wants Malaysia out of Sabah and Sarawak but that's another matter and one for the people of the territories concerned to decide. Misuari's claim that Sarawak used to belong to his great-great grandfather and that he wants it back does not hold water. Here, Malaysia will have to rely on the Manila Government to restrain Nur Misuari.

However, there's no way that Manila can restrain Nur Misuari if Malaysia continues to root for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another MNLF breakaway, as the Philippines government's sole partner for peace in southern Philippines.

Disproportionate Flow to Putrajaya

Matters have been compounded by Manila declaring in recent days that it will pursue the so-called Sabah claim. It's known that a Power of Attorney, the sole instrument by which a previous Sultan of Sulu transferred his "sovereignty" over Sabah to the Philippines, has since expired.

The decision by Jamalul Kiram III, the so-called Sultan of Sulu, to send his ragtag forces into Sabah in recent weeks apparently followed failed negotiations with Putrajaya to squeeze more money from Malaysia for Sabah. At present the descendants of the nine Sulu heirs share a measly RM5,300 per annum from the Malaysian government in accordance with a 1939 High Court of Borneo declaration.

Nur Misuari may not be engaged in the struggle in the southern Philippines and eastern Sabah for money, unlike Abu Sayyaf and the heirs of the defunct Sulu Sultanate, although he has acknowledged being trained, armed and financed in the past by Malaysia. His covetous reference to the fabulous wealth, resources and revenue of Sabah must not be taken too seriously. The issue of the disproportionate flow to Putrajaya is one for Sabahans to resolve.

However, the money factor involving foreigners must also be removed to ensure long-term peace, stability and security in Sabah.

The oil and gas platforms out at sea, the plantations and timber camps, besides the tourist traffic, all need to be protected from any even low-key guerrilla warfare which may be waged in eastern Sabah by the terrorists to exact more money from Malaysia "for Sabah".

(Joe Fernandez is a semi-retired journalist living in East Malaysia. He can be contacted at