Sabah's water villages: Living on the fringe

Visitors to Kota Kinabalu are usually warned not to venture to the water villages off Pulau Gaya.

The four or five villages are home to several thousand people, some of whom do not hold proper documentation to stay legally in Malaysia.

Many of them are Malaysians or have documentation but some are citizens elsewhere. In the worst case, they are stateless.

Their homes are, thus, regarded as a bit dodgy, and a bit of a water slum. But I had always wondered about their homes which I can see from Kota Kinabalu’s swish waterfront bars, and it turned out that a friend knows a resident there.

Being with a local helps assuage the villagers’ suspicion of outsiders.

The villages are not idyllic, mostly because of the vast amount of garbage that washes in every day. It’s amazing what people throw away into the sea. I saw large suitcases and office chairs washed up on the beach, along with tonnes of plastic and disposable items such as hotel bedroom slippers.

It’s no point cleaning them up, the people say, because more will simply wash in with the next tide.

The houses range from sizeable well-built abodes to small shacks, all crammed close together. In Kampung Pondo, in particular, some houses are so makeshift that people called them “box houses”. This apparently refers to a time when these were made of cardboard boxes although I’m not sure if there’s any truth to this.

Getting around the village can be confusing as the walkways branch off here and there, ending up as a maze for outsiders. Some of the walkways are mere single slippery planks that are tied together.

People tend to hang around outside to avoid the over-heated interior of their zinc-roofed homes. Some of them, especially in Kampong Pondo, are wary of outsiders.

But in the bigger villages with a mostly Malaysian population, the people were friendly enough to tell stories about their daily lives, stories about how they came to live here, and their hopes for the future. Some have fairly comfortable lives while others struggle with poverty so deep that they can’t afford to buy daily goods like soy sauce in packs that cost more than 50 sen.

These water villages stand in stark contrast to the rest of Kota Kinabalu. In fact, they stand in stark contrast to the other side of Gaya island itself where luxury resorts peddle rooms that cost a night more than what the villagers earned in a month.

Sometimes, the locals cynically joke that the water villages are the staff quarters of the resorts. There is a nugget of truth in this as some of the people provide services such as cargo transport for the resorts.

And this neatly tells their story. These people provide services and labour for the city’s industries, yet they live on its fringes. They are often blamed for crime and other social problems that afflict any big city.

Sabahans hold mixed feelings about them. They acknowledge that their vital role in the economy, yet do not want them in their neighbourhood.

The spate of security incursions in Sabah has made their lives a bit more difficult. The people feel insecure about their future, naturally. They have heard that they will be relocated but they do not know where. It could be far from the sea.

It might take a long time, though. This is not the first time the government had planned relocation, and besides, there’s still the headache of dealing with those without legitimate papers.

But as Sabah continues to be plagued by security issues, it’s harder to let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.