By : JOE FERNANDEZ
Hoteliers in Sabah are grumbling increasingly loudly that tourists are canceling too many bookings in the wake of the Lahad Datu Standoff and the on-going mopping up operations by security forces. They worry that things may become a whole lot worse for the hospitality industry in the state 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 RM 5.2 billion last year from nearly three million visitors. The forecast revenue for 2015, according to Sabah Tourism Board chairman Tengku Zainal Adlin, is RM 15 billion on the high side. That amounts to a quarter of the RM 60 billion per annum that Malaysia presently collects from tourism receipts.
Clearly, the travel industry is high income lifeblood for the Sabah economy which already suffers the drain of most of its resources and revenues to Putrajaya. 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, travellers 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.
Visiting Peninsular Malaysians uneasy in Kota Kinabalu
The Abu Sayaff, a breakaway 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 also foreign Governments, met the ransom demands of the kidnappers.
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 RM 500,000 Recovery Fund to revitalize the travel sector in the wake of Lahad Datu. This sum amounts to peanuts if kidnappings for ransom resume along the east coast.
In Kota Kinabalu, no one will get the impression that one is in 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?”
Government must stick together in security, sovereignty, integrity
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 not considered by Putrajaya as a security threat, a point which will be disputed by Sabahans.
One reason for the otherwise excellent security in Sabah was the very fact 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, “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. 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 cannot be Manila’s sole partner for peace in southern Philippines
Putrajaya must not also belabour under the delusion that interfering in 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 the Abu Sayyaf who are likely to act in concert with the so-called Royal Sulu Army (RSA). Only the MNLF can restraint both 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 concern of Sabahans
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 rag-tag forces into Sabah in recent weeks apparently followed failed negotiations with Putrajaya to squeeze more money from Malaysia for Sabah. At present the descendents of the nine heirs jointly share a measly RM 5,300 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 admitted 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 longterm 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”.