Is there no salve Sarawak can apply to Sabah’s scars?

The Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building, taken from across the Sarawak River in Chinatown

The above mentioned title is taken from my second piece for the Borneo Post, an ongoing column that I will be writing, which will cover economic and regional relations involving the State of Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, located on the island of Borneo.

As I type away, the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly Building (pictured left) stands stoically outside my hotel window, across the Sarawak River with The Astana also in plain view, the official residence of the  Yang di-Pertua Negeri (governor) of Sarawak. From this side of the riverbank, souvenir and trinket storefronts dot the covered sidewalks; a back alley reveals a Chinatown bursting with red banners and lanterns that indefatigably shout of Chinese New Year — no matter the season.

It is evident that tourism is at the heart of this state, part of majestic Borneo, a name that seems to have become a byword for exoticism and far-flung nature of an alluringly alien kind. As in Sarawak, so does its sister state Sabah rely on tourism receipts to generate jobs, a fact all the more worrisome ever since a band of rag-tag intruders from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines took up camp in Lahad Datu, Sabah, instigating a deadly conflict for territorial rights just north of Tawau, a popular diving site in the region.

The incident has brought light to a darker side of ASEAN, a dimension absorbed more by protean politics that much-heralded economic stability. For in a region that has become a major growth engine juxtaposed to a world in the throes of economic uncertainty, basket-case politics and sporadic conflict are still a mainstay.

Sarawak, as Sabah’s sister state and a key player in Malaysian politics, has the ability to curb nationalistic sentiment on the peninsula and Sabah, reminding its fellow Malaysians that the ASEAN dream can still progress through what it is best known for: economic vitality.

Below is a reproduction of my latest piece wit the Borneo Post, part of my weekly column published through Inside Investor:

The Sabah incident has instigated an unfortu­nate wave of ground-up acrimony in two prominent Asean nations – unfortunately because it whittles down at the foundation of an already intrinsically disparate group that is a central clog in global growth; evidently acrimonious because of the parading caskets of the fallen and scores of other preventable deaths.

The claims exhumed by self-styled Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III over Sabah serve as a vivid reminder that the 10-nation Asean bloc has dis­turbingly potent skeletons in the closet that can ebb away at the economic credibility of the US$2.3 trillion powerhouse.

For all its economic prowess, the factious nature of Southeast Asian politics – both visible through infighting and interna­tional conflicts – has the ability to offset intra-trade, bilateral communication and tourism, ultimately fraying the fabric of the Asean dream.

Directly in Sarawak’s back­yard of eastern Borneo, ten­sions are at times equally as palpable as if the incident had occurred within the state, namely because of the show­ering attention the bloodiest of the conflict had gotten in national and local media.

As an observer, Sarawak can act as a third-party to salve the rising tensions, but in order to do this Sarawakians must not succumb to the kind of myopic tendencies that have now geared the Philippines to take a more defined stance.

It is important for Sarawak to act as a mediator in this sense, kneading the bruises of the situa­tion through clear-headed discus­sions that inform people of just how crucial maintaining healthy bilateral sentiment is.

Resulting bias against Filipino visitors, both on the tourism and business level, would bring back hopes of sound integration a notch. Treating the incident as isolated while maintaining a business outlook that promotes trade in the face of ongoing politi­cal dialogue is how Sarawak can act as a leader on Borneo.

There are doubtless challenges to mount in achieving this goal. Despite the incident being far-flung from Kuala Lumpur and Manila, ground-up parochialism has engendered jingoist senti­ment, prodding governments to make political gestures to appeal to their respective electorates – especially crucial during the precarious election year in both Malaysia and the Philippines.

Stepping into a cab in Manila one week ago, my Catholic taxi driver, who was born in the capi­tal told me, “Sabah belongs to the Philippines. It is ours.”

While this is a sentiment not carried by the upper-middle class in Makati, Manila’s finan­cial district, it is apparently an interpretation of some Filipinos that has caused enough noise to give the central government headaches.

Acting on cue, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs recently called on all government agencies of the nation to no longer refer to Sabah as part of Malaysia due to the Royal Sultan of Sulu’s pre-existing claims.

Pointing to a 2008 memoran­dum, Foreign Affairs Spokesman Raul Hernandez said that the re­quest was an ‘existing regulation’ and must be complied with by all government departments, agen­cies, and instrumentalities.

On an insidious note, uncon­firmed rumours – and specifically just that – abound that Aquino’s opposition armed the Sulu rebels with the intent of spurring chaos in the lead up to mid-term elec­tions on May 13.

In response to the ongoing events, President Benigno Aqui­no III announced that he would spend his Holy Week vacation to “draw up a peaceful (solution) to Sabah claim” instead of on retreat in Baguio City now that his administration had taken its new position.

Indeed, any gestures made to mitigate further damage are not to be overlooked, whilst the region find itself in an every deepening schism. Observers need only look to other examples of deteriorating bilateral relations in Asean to see the damage at the cross hair – as well as the solutions that have been found.

Thailand and Cambodia have had a rollercoaster history, underscored by their on-again, off-again bickering claims over a clutch of temples on Cambo­dia’s northern border.

Yet the two nations have witnessed increased bilat­eral trade and investment, with Thailand business associations promoting investment deals in their eastern neighbour as a destination where manu­facturing is cost-effective and cultural norms similar – all this in spite of the festering temple incident.

Here is how Sarawak can guide Sabah forward by ex­ample. If Malaysian states continue to promote trade with the Philippines through their respective associations, then Asean will stick to what it does best while leaving the politics to those locked away on weekends.

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