Calm returns to the Land Below the Wind

But recent militant crisis throws Sabah's complex dynamics into sharp focus

KUALA LUMPUR - At one time, the only transport in and out of Long Pasia in the Sabah mountains was a 19-seater plane. Otherwise, villagers walked six days to the nearest town.

These days, it still takes five bone-rattling hours by car on the gravel road to the nearest town of Sipitang. In its isolation, Long Pasia, with its 500 residents, has remained culturally unique with a staunch Christian tradition blended with its old beliefs.

"There's something special about this place, it calms your mind," said Mr Andrew Laban, a former Malaysian footballer who was born in the village and still lives there.

Long Pasia may be special but it is not uncommon in its isolation. Even today, some villages in Sabah can be reached only by a jungle footpath, the most famous of which is the 34km Salt Trail which links about 10 villages. It was used by the interior people to reach the tamu (markets) to trade. They brought jungle produce for sale, and bought items like salt, hence the name Salt Trail.

Sabah's mountainous backbone has encouraged amazing cultural diversity to flourish in isolated settlements. The state, also known as the Land Below the Wind because it is just below Asia's typhoon belt, has over 30 ethnic groups such as the Kadazandusun, Murut and Bajau. Ethnically, it is far richer than Peninsular Malaysia with its triumvirate of Malays, Chinese and Indians.

Although Sabah and neighbouring Sarawak joined Malaya in 1963 to form Malaysia, they remain culturally distinct and geographically distant. It is only in the past few years that cheap flights have made travel easier, bringing three million tourists to this Borneo state's magnificent islands and mountains every year.

Last month, though, it all suddenly seemed much closer.

About 200 armed men landed on its eastern shores from the southern Philippines to "reclaim" Sabah for the Sulu Sultanate that ruled parts of north Borneo several centuries ago. They took over a remote village for over a month before the Malaysian security forces moved in. The fighting has now subsided, after more than 60 gunmen were killed and over 100 arrested.

Life is now returning to normal. Along with its isolation, porous borders are a fact of life in Sabah,whether at the seafront or in the mountains. For many, clan and blood ties are more important than national borders.

The people of Long Pasia, for example, have relatives in villages across the border in Kalimantan and east Sarawak. They criss-cross the boundaries to take part in festivities to mark Malaysian and Indonesian holidays, or to help in the annual rice harvest.

Borders seem to matter even less in eastern Sabah. The long coastline has allowed for free movement among the Suluks - including militants - between Sabah and the southern Philippines. Eastern Sabah is where Sipadan and Mabul islands lie, and where the famous sea-faring people live.

But the isolation is disappearing. The villages along the Salt Trail are now being linked by road. One of the 10 villages, Buayan, saw cars for the first time last November, when the earth track reached it.

A scenic road now makes it a two-hour trip from the capital Kota Kinabalu to the mountainous Kundasang region, where climbers gather to begin their conquest of Malaysia's highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, a Unesco world heritage site.

Sabah's cultural diversity, high level of intermarriage and tolerance of different faiths have often been held out as a model for Prime Minister Najib Razak's 1Malaysia unity slogan.

In a recent documentary, writer Karim Raslan featured a Catholic priest whose sister is a Muslim ustazah, or religious teacher. The family is from Keningau, about 150km from Kota Kinabalu. They are from the Dusun ethnic group.

"Their mutual respect for each other is refreshing and instructive, especially when our political discussions are marred by hatred and mistrust," the writer said.

Since the mid-1990s though, Sabah has pulled politically closer to West Malaysia with the entry of the dominant Umno into the state. Some Sabahans are irked by the dominance of a Peninsular Malaysia party, which they think has brought little benefit to the state, one of the country's poorest. They are outraged over what they see as political exploitation of its porous borders to encourage the immigration of Muslim Filipinos allegedly to boost support for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN).

Partly because of these migrants, and partly because the opposition is disorganised, Sabah became seen as a "fixed deposit" for BN, led by Umno. Sabah and Sarawak contributed 40 per cent of BN's parliamentary seats in the 2008 election.

But the Sulu crisis has made things less predictable.

In 2008, when Malaysia's opposition made record gains, denying BN its customary two-thirds parliamentary majority, Sabah was spared the winds of change. But its urban areas are expected to swing to the opposition this time, just as Sarawak's urban seats fell to the opposition in its 2011 state election.

"Sabah has become more important than ever, but the sentiment is very mixed there. The dynamics of the state have always been very complex," said political analyst Faisal Syam Abdol Hazis from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

What happens next in remote Sabah could hit close to home - in Putrajaya.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 19, 2013

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