Monday, March 17, 2014

Malaysia: The story of a famous, yet invisible Bajau man

The myriad islands off the east coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo are renowned for their outstanding natural beauty, described in tourism literature as ‘pretty as a picture-postcard’ and ‘a chance to escape from reality’ (Tierney and Tierney, 2009: 129).

After an invigorating speedboat ride from the mainland town of Semporna, visitors to Mabul island are greeted by dozens of young children playing on the white sandy beach and in the shallows of the turquoise water.

Mabul is famed for its world-class diving and international standard tourist resorts, several of which are built in a water-village style. However, Mabul is also becoming known for other reasons, in particular the Bajau Laut (or Sea Bajau – an indigenous ethnic group) people, who regard the island and surrounding reefs as their home.

Approximately 3,000 people live on this small island in two distinct villages, one comprised of Suluk people and the other of Bajau people, yet nearly the entire population are undocumented or stateless.

Traditionally, the Bajau Laut lived their lives as migratory boat-dwellers who navigated the islands and waters of the Sulu Sea, an area now overlaid by the current nation-states of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

They rarely touched land, except to collect fresh water, trade their catch and bury their dead. In recent times, escaping the armed conflict in the southern Philippines, large numbers of Bajau Laut have settled on islands, unable to maintain the upkeep of a houseboat.

Behind the fences of the ‘eco-resorts’, many Bajau Laut families live in one-room wooden houses on stilts, beneath which children play in the sand, adults mend their fishing gears and gamble, and animals scratch in the dirt.

All this might resemble other rural Malaysian villages, were it not for the open defecation, lines of jerry cans used to carry well-water for cooking and bathing, and the fact that none of the village children go to school.

Nowhere is the juxtaposition of sun and scuba diving holidays, with destitution and desperation more acute than these islands off the east coast of Sabah.

Sulbin, a Bajau Laut man in his thirties, arrived in Mabul about 25 years ago with his siblings and parents who were fleeing fighting in the southern Philippines. He makes a living in Sabah as a fisherman, although in the past he worked in a palm oil plantation spraying crops with chemicals until he developed respiratory problems.