The Sabah issue has become for me a barometer to measure our own understanding of ourselves and who we are, writes Farish Noor.
‘Crisis’ has been defined by some as a state where the sphere of ‘undecidability’ expands while decidability contracts. In such a situation, it becomes literally impossible to predict what may happen next, as the range of radical variables grow faster by the minute.
I feel that this definition of crisis is an apt one to describe what has happened now in the state of Sabah in East Malaysia, in the wake of the armed incursion by a band of militiamen who claim loyalty to the one who calls himself the Sultan of Sulu.
The facts as they have presented themselves to us are murky at best: For a start, this was a unilateral incursion by a band of Filipinos who have been declared illegal by the Philippine state; for the Philippine constitution prohibits the formation of private armies and the use of guns without licence.
Secondly, it poses a problem for both the governments of Malaysia and Philippines as both states are now compelled to deal with non-state actors who are not bound by the norms of international state-to-state conduct.
Thirdly, it poses a huge political dilemma for both countries as in times of crisis such as these there has to be a fine line that is drawn between the need for accurate reporting and the need to prevent access to information to the insurgents.
Fourthly, the situation is further complicated by the fact that both Malaysia and Philippines are heading to elections soon, and in both countries the issue has become a political pawn in a wider contest for political power.
‘Crisis’ is the moment when our conscience is held up to scrutiny and our mettle is tested. Yet over the past few week,s I have heard and read conspiracy theories, and Malaysians baying for blood and talking of war. I have to confess that I was shocked and deeply offended when some of our fellow Malaysians suggested that this was part of some political plot, and after the initial assault by Malaysian security forces demanded to see ‘proof’ of the killings of the militiamen – as if nothing was real unless photos of slain bodies were posted on Facebook. How much gore has to be presented to us on a silver platter before we realise this is not a computer game; and that real lives are at stake?
I write this as a political analyst who has studied political violence in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia; and frankly I have had enough of photos and videos of dead people and mutilated bodies, and I am sick of violence and bloodshed. To goad for war is easy for those who have never been and worked in war zones as I have. I am saddened to see how low we have sunk, and we need to ask ourselves: Where is our conscience? Have we lost all sense of the sacred in our lives, and our grasp of reason as well?
Though the crisis lingers still, and may continue for months after this, an early diagnosis can be made of the ills that affect us:
What the Sabah incursion has shown is that there is a deep credibility deficit in our own media, and this in turn compounds, and is compounded by, our culture of rumour-mongering and conspiracy theories. If there is one lesson that can be learned and taught even at this early stage of the crisis, it is this: That this is why the media (both mainstream and alternative) have to abide by the rules of professional conduct and accurate reporting all the time. The fact that so many Malaysians have fallen for a host of conspiracy theories sold on the virtual market of ideas and fantasy seems to suggest that we no longer know who and what to believe in anymore. It takes the voice of reason among us to remind us of the obvious, and this was said best of all by Prof Azmi Sharom who wrote in one of his columns thus:
Neither Barisan (Nasional) nor Pakatan (Rakyat) can gain from this crisis. Depending on who you talk to, both sides are accused of having a hand in the incitement of this invasion. Seriously, I know they are politicians, but even they can’t be that stupid. If Pakatan did this and they were found out, they will be traitors and their future will be ashes. The same goes for the Barisan. And what good would a situation like this gain them? There is talk about the elections being put on hold if this goes on because the government will declare an emergency. Would an emergency really help them (BN) gain popularity and legitimacy? I don’t think so. Once this is all over, we can have a proper impartial investigation to find out the full story of this sad chapter in our lives. But until then, I hope that all this tasteless politicking can be put aside and that peace will be restored as soon as humanly possible
(The only qualification I would add to the quote above is that some politicians can indeed be stunningly stupid, and say the wrong thing at the wrong time just to grab some headline space.)
The second thing we have learned from this crisis is that our own understanding of who and what we are –Malaysians – has been put to the test. To date, I have done 27 interviews and written 17 columns on the Sabah crisis. I have been stunned, appalled and offended by some of the questions that I have been asked by journalists and ordinary Malaysians, who continue to talk about Sabah as if it was a foreign entity so far away from Malaysia.
So I state again: Sabah does not ‘belong’ to Malaysia, Sabah IS Malaysia. The Federation of Malaysia came about when the Federation of Malaya, the independent state of Sarawak and the independent state of Sabah came to form a Federation, together. To suggest that Sabah ‘belongs’ to Malaysia is as odd as suggesting that Kelantan, or Selangor, or Pahang, ‘belongs’ to Malaysia.
This is really an epistemological problem for West Malaysians who perhaps still see Malaysia through the lens of the Peninsula, and who have forgotten that we are a federation of states. That such misunderstandings persist in the 21st century baffles me, and I think the time has come for all of us to examine our own conscience.
The third thing we have learned from this crisis is that we don’t really know what is happening in our neighbouring countries, despite the fact that for hundreds and thousands of years we in Southeast Asia have shared a common, overlapping and inter-connected history/histories.
I for one feel that this intrusion into Malaysian territory has more to do with the convoluted internal politics of the Philippines, that is also heading to elections soon, in May. There is, I believe, reason to suspect that President Aquino is correct to state that this crisis may have been intentionally sparked off now, as the country heads to the elections; and that this may be an attempt to discredit his administration. Yet how many Malaysians know anything about the internal politics of the Philippines? How many Malaysians know that Indonesia too will be heading to elections next year? And how many Malaysians even care about what goes on in our neighbouring countries? And how many times have I had to repeat to the reporters who interviewed me: “this is NOT an incursion by the Philippines. This was an incursion by a band of Filipinos. The Philippines government is not responsible for this”?
This leaves me in a state of despair for I consider myself an Asean-ist and wish to see greater people-to-people contact and co-operation in the years to come. But is Asean even relevant in our lives, and have our media and our politicians even debated or discussed the merits of Asean integration by 2015?
In summing up, the Sabah issue has become for me a barometer to measure our own understanding of ourselves and who we are. It has shown that our nation is one that is unsure of itself, unable to discern between reality and fiction; prone to rumours and conspiracies; and ignorant of our place in the world.
The crisis in Sabah will, hopefully, be resolved sooner than later – but even in its wake we are now left with the prospect of having to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror, and assessing our capability to deal with crisis, which always strikes when we are least ready.