Life over the waves in Sabah

In Sabah, habitable space does not always end where the waves begin. The state's coastal shallows have traditionally been the building ground for the seafaring communities whose free movement across national borders had long been tolerated. But following a few violent skirmishes on Sabah's shores, the government now plans to resettle these water villages. This is the eighth instalment of a nine-part series that brings to life the places and people of Malaysia many of us know little about.

A 10-minute boat ride and it was another world. Children scampered along narrow wooden planks between village houses built on stilts just offshore from a small, forested island.

Women sat on benches outside their homes chatting or cooking meals for sale. Below, fishing boats rocked slowly on the waves in a gentle rhythm that seemed to match the peaceful pace of life.

Across the water lay the modern city of Kota Kinabalu. The contrast couldn't be starker with life in the water village off the island, known locally as Pulau Gaya.

A building boom has transformed the capital of Malaysia's Sabah state where smart new shopping malls, office and condominium towers are rapidly changing the skyline.

An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people live in four water villages off the southern coast of Gaya island. They live in a world where borders matter little, with centuries of tradition of free movement around the region. The coastal shallows have traditionally been home to the seafaring communities of the Sulu Sea, including those from the many islands of the southern Philippines.

For decades, the free movement of these people who share ancient kinship and cultural ties had been tolerated, if somewhat reluctantly, by Sabah.

But things may soon change.

There are plans to relocate the villagers, putting an end to a unique way of life.

The villages came under scrutiny after Filipino gunmen landed on Sabah's eastern shores last year to reclaim the state for the now-defunct Sulu Sultanate. The gunmen were routed by a military onslaught that killed dozens.

A year later, the situation is still tense, particularly after a spate of kidnappings and a shootout on the diving island of Mabul last year and earlier this year.

The water villages are regarded as havens for the illegal migrants criss-crossing the marine borders.

Although sited far from the danger zone, Pulau Gaya's villagers have also been subjected to scrutiny, including a nightly curfew. A new police station has been set up, with more frequent checks to nab those without papers.

But the people insist they are a peaceful settlement who only want to continue their traditional way of life. Many of them hold legitimate papers for Malaysian citizenship or residency. According to the local people of Pulau Gaya, they were originally from the southern Philippine region from which they derive their ethnicity of Bajau Ubian, a sub-group of the sea-faring Bajau.

The crisis has ignited an intense debate on Sabah's historic links that remain deeper than its ties to peninsular Malaysia, to which it was joined in nationhood in 1963. Sabahans are now being forced to grapple in a very real way with what their fluid borders mean in modern times, and how they should relate to each other.

Sabahans have lived with these fluid borders all their lives. But the security crisis sparked by the Suluk militants has badly shaken this view, particularly in the eyes of the authorities. That weighs heavily on many living in the water villages off Pulau Gaya.

The first settlers began arriving on the island from the northern part of Sabah in the 1960s, when they came to work in Kota Kinabalu.

"No one could build on the island because it is owned by a businessman," said Mrs Aida Ban, who was among the first people to settle down.

But the people were adept at building on water.

There were just a handful of houses when she arrived. But the next few decades brought more and more people. The settlement now extends several hundred metres beyond the shoreline, and a couple of kilometres along it.

The villages are like any other kampung, other than the fact that everything is built on stilts. Its main roads are a web of plank walkways resembling a maze.

Sure-footed children run around. Having learnt to swim from a young age, they are unafraid of leaping into the water, or playing with makeshift boats.

Children who are Malaysian go to schools provided by the government. For others, it's more complicated.

Many are Malaysian citizens or permanent residents but some do not have papers that allow them to live in Malaysia legally.

Some are stateless. Even those with Malaysian identity cards are viewed with suspicion after a government inquiry last year heard how thousands of ICs were issued in the 1980s and 1990s without due process to foreigners allegedly to bolster support for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.

It's not a topic locals want to talk about. They say the population is "campur-campur" or mixed, meaning some have Malaysian ICs or right of residence, some are illegals and some stateless.

The men are mostly fishermen and little bothered by their legal status. Most try to earn enough to feed their families and to build their homes.

Though basic, some of the houses are skilfully built, with well-finished wooden walls and even decorative ceilings.

"We build them ourselves," said Mr Amadin Abu Bakar, 37, from Kampung Lok Kurai, the biggest village with about 800 houses. He was relaxing on a floating deck outside the mosque. It was just after Friday prayers.

He lamented the increasing price of wood. "See how expensive it is to build a house. The stilts alone will cost more than RM2,000 (S$800)." The pillars are driven into the mud by hand, as "deep as you like".

"If you feel it's okay already, then it's okay," he said.

Public infrastructure, though, needs more coordination. Water supply, in particular, is difficult. The people have cooperated to channel a small river on the island for water supply, while some enterprising individuals ferry water from the city to sell to the locals.

The government does provide some assistance in the biggest villages, such as building materials for walkways, mosques, kindergartens, and a primary and secondary school for Malaysian children.

A few months ago, electricity arrived via submarine cables from Kota Kinabalu. This prompted the enterprising Mrs Aminah Matali, 51, to install a freezer to offer cold drinks for sale in the front of her house, which she converted into a small shop in 1985.

She buys goods from Kota Kinabalu, and repacks them into small packets for sale to the locals whose incomes do not stretch to buying a whole bottle of detergent or cooking oil at one time. Her plastic tubes of detergent, cooking oil and soya sauce are sold at RM1 each, while a cup of fizzy drink with ice costs 50 sen.

But in the wake of the violent skirmishes, the government has indicated plans to resettle the water villages. The people have heard they could be moved to a site an hour away from Kota Kinabalu.

It won't be easy for them to move into another community. After the Suluk incursion, many of them face open hostility from local Sabahans.

Further, the government has not said how it will deal with those without any papers.

The people have mixed feelings about being resettled far from the sea. Mr Amadin feared resettlement will take them away from their life on the sea, and that it would cost them too much money to live in town. "Who will guard our boats, if we are not here?"

Mr Iduin Idris, 34, a boatman and fisherman, said he would find it hard to live in a place where he could not see or smell the sea. "Being on land, it won't be right for us. We are used to the sea, we live on the sea," he said.

NEXT WEEK: Sustainable fishing in Sabah

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