The fluid borders of Sabah

KUALA LUMPUR: Sabah's villages don't always end where land gives way to the waves. In many parts of this state, especially on its east coast, water villages have made it possible for people to live right over the sea.

The houses built on stilts driven into the soft seabed are linked by a maze of boardwalks, with new houses built further and further out into sea.

Visitors to Sabah's coastal towns are often curious about these villages. I was, too, but have only had the chance to visit one of the better-organised water villages off Pulau Gaya near Kota Kinabalu in January. It was well organised with amenities like mosques, community halls and a government school. Many of the residents appear to be

But a part of the village looks derelict and cramped, and is avoided by locals. We skirted around these ramshackle huts in the sea before arriving at the water house of boatman Idrus. His house is about the fourth house from the shore, and reached by a rickety boardwalk.

Idrus's father's family had settled in Sabah a long time ago while his mother comes from a Philippine island.

"We just got back from visiting our relatives there," he said.

I didn't ask if they used passports. As we talked, it became apparent that international boundaries aren't as important to them as to their government. The identities of these people remain very much tied to the ancestral linkages that go beyond boundaries.

This is not something easily understood by the city-born West Malaysian whose identities are firmly welded to the territory demarcated by national boundaries, and whose cultural and family links beyond the borders are weak.

But these deep and old linkages, which still exist today, are a part of the complex history behind the current conflict arising from the Sulu sultanate's refusal to accept the outcome of modern events.

As this crisis has shown, dusty history can flare up unexpectedly into real-life events.

More than 100 Philippine gunmen, calling themselves the army of the Royal Sulu Sultanate, landed in Sabah three weeks ago to reclaim what they say is their ancestral land. Clashes broke out over the weekend, killing more than a dozen gunmen and eight Malaysian policemen. An all-out military operation was launched on Tuesday to flush them out.

The crisis has ignited a rush of interest into the history of Sabah and its links to the region that remain deeper than its ties to Peninsular Malaysia to which it was joined in nationhood in 1963. And what these fluid borders have come to mean for Sabah.

Its fluid borders cannot be denied. At some point of its history, this had caused the demographics of Sabah to change.

Under 'Project IC', an alleged plot in the 1990s to give citizenship to immigrants for their vote, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Filipinos became Malaysians. That's according to the testimony given to an on-going Royal Commission of Inquiry into this.

Some Malaysian analysts think that this may now exarcebate the current crisis, as a good one-quarter of Sabah's population are migrants. A Bloomberg report has quoted Ms Fatima Kiram, the wife of the self-styled Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram, as urging these Filipinos living in Sabah to join the gunmen.

"The ongoing security crisis reveals yet another dark and unexpected aspect of covert operations (Project IC) to give citizenship to foreign aliens," regional columnist Karim Raslan was quoted as saying by a news website.

But while most Sabahans had been tolerant, or even nonchalant, about these fluid borders for a long time, they reject the notion that Sulu has any claim to their homeland.

Historian Farish Noor dismissed the Sulu claim as having any basis in history, pointing out that the Sulu sultanate was merely one of various rulers of Sabah at different points in time. Sabah's indigenous peoples may well have regarded Sulu as a colonial ruler at
that time, and certainly do not accept its claim now.

As Sabahans and other Malaysians try to make sense of the many facets of the on-going crisis, Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann noted that the fluidity of its borders can only last if the visitor is a friend. Not when he comes with a gun.

"In many ways our history has been denied by the nation states we now belong to and we suffer from constructed notions of border. However the actions of a few have threatened this close relationship between Sabah and Sulu," she wrote on social media.

"We must know our past but we cannot be beholden to it."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.