Lahad Datu: Between a Fluid Region and a Hard State

February 5, 2013

Lahad Datu: Between a Fluid Region and a Hard State

by Farish A. Noor (03-04-13)@

COMMENT: Allow me to begin by stating categorically that I am a committed South-East Asian-ist and a committed ASEAN-ist.

ASEANistsIn my work as a lecturer I have constantly reminded my students of the constructed nature of South-East Asia today, the relative newness of our political borders, and the newness of our nation-states. I have also emphasised the shared overlapping histories of the many diasporas that populate this complex and sometimes confounding archipelago of ours.

I long for the day when the people of South-East Asia can see themselves ASEAN citizens, but despite the fact that the ASEAN Community is almost upon us (by 2015), many of us in the region are still driven by primordial attachments to place, identity, language and culture.

It can be summed up thus: We, South-East Asians, are caught between a fluid region and a hard state.

No matter how hard some of the hyper-nationalists among us may try, they cannot deny the fact that we share a common, interconnected history/histories.

These histories often overlap, make contesting demands and claims, and contradict each other. But that is the nature of history as a discourse, for it is a narrative without a full-stop and is a discursive terrain that has to be looked at from a multiplicity of angles.

There can never be a final history to any area or subject, for as soon as we put the pen down, time marches on and we are forced to return and revise our settled assumptions.

For those who seek a happy panacea to their existential angst, history is not the remedy because every single historical claim can and will be contested by another.

That makes history a soft and unstable foundation for any political-economic claim, but thankfully it is also the reason why historians like me won’t be unemployed any time soon.

So much for fluidity and shifting historical parameters. Now comes the hard part: We, South-East Asians, also happen to be living in the present-day post-colonial world of ASEAN, made up of nation-states that do what nation-states do: Compartmentalise, categorise, delimit and demarcate, fix boundaries and police them.

I have to state here that I am not a big fan of the post-colonial nation-state for the simple reason that in my opinion the post-colonial nation-state is simply the inheritor of the proclivities, bias, myopia and solipsism of the colonial state of the past.

Look around us in South-East Asia today and what do we see, but post-colonial nation-states that continue to police their people, their borders, their identities and the very epistemology and vocabulary that frames our understanding of ourselves and the Other. Categories like ‘citizen’ and ‘foreigner’ are modern labels that we, South-East Asians, have inherited from our colonial past along with dubious concepts like racial difference.


What, then, are we today? It would appear to me at least that we South-East Asians are a hybrid, mongrel lot of communities and peoples with a complicated past.

On the one hand we still retain the residual traces of our primordial roots to land and sea that tell us that this region is our shared home. But we also happen to be modern citizen-subjects living under the modern regime of the racial census, the identity card, the passport and the national flag.

We cannot escape this contradiction because this is what our common history has bequeathed us today. We are modern South-East Asian citizen-subjects who live in a region with a complex history that predates modernity, colonialism and the nation-state, and we cannot escape our past any more than we can escape our present.

sulu lahad datu soldiers

But this contradiction is now manifest in what is happening in Sabah. In the midst of the chest-thumping, saber-rattling jingoism and hyper-nationalism we see rising in both the Philippines and Malaysia today, we ought to take a step back and look at ourselves honestly in the face.

It seems that what is confronting us now is a clash between the modern state, driven as it is by its modernist logic of governmentality; and the primordial attachment of some people to land and space that exceeds the confines of temporality and space.

That has happened is that a group of non-state actors, namely those who claim to be the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, have unilaterally and without the consent of the government of the Philippines, entered into the territory of another state – Malaysia – bearing arms and demanding their right to settle there.


Both the Malaysian and Philippine states are at a loss as to what to do, for both are now forced to deal with a non-state actor that does not play by the rules of the modern state.

Such a situation can be extended hypothetically in a million directions: What if a bunch of Malaysian citizens unilaterally entered Singapore and claimed it on the grounds that it was formerly a part of the Malay kingdom of Johor? What if a bunch of Thais entered northern Malaysia and claimed the state of Kelantan on the grounds that it was formerly part of the Siamese kingdom?

The possibilities are endless, and dizzying to boot – but the problem would remain the same: How should a state or states deal with non-state actors?

Reviewing history

Two historical details ought to be brought into play at this point:

The first is that the history of Sabah itself ought to be foregrounded at thisSultan Jamalul Kiram III stage, as Philippine and Malaysian nationalists have failed to ask what do the people of Sabah think about this.

Let us note that Sabah was never an empty space that was passed on from one power to another. In the past, Sabah came under the domination of the Kingdom of Brunei, and it was Brunei that then gifted parts of Sabah to the Kingdom of Sulu, and it was both the kingdoms of Brunei and Sulu that then passed it on to the British North Borneo Company. But Sabah has its own past, its own history and its own people – who seem to have been left out of the discussion altogether.

The indigenous people of Sabah happen to be the Kadazandusuns and the Muruts, who consist of the Bonggis (Banggi island, Kudat), the Idaan/Tindals (Tempasuk, Kota Belud), the Dumpaas Kadazans (Orang Sungai, Kinabatangan), the Bagahaks (Orang Sungai, also Kinabatangan), the Tombinuo and Buludupis Kadazans (Orang Sungai, also Kinabatangan), the Kimaragang Kadazans (Tandek and Kota Marudu), the Liwans (Ranau and Tambunan), the Tangaah Kadazans (Panampat and Papar), the Rungus (Matunggong and Kudat), the Tatanah Kadazans (Kuala Penyu), the Lotuds (Tuaran), the Bisayas (Beaufort), the Tidongs (Tawau) and the Kedayans (Sipitang). Then there are the Muruts who consist of the Nabais, Piluans, Bokans, Taguls, Timoguns, Lundayehs, Tangaras, Semambus, Kolors and Melikops.

These are the indigenous communities of Sabah, and if anyone has a right to the land of Sabah it ought to be them. Nobody denies that Bruneians, Suluks, Ilanuns, Bugis, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs and other communities have resided in Sabah too in the past, but the latter came from other kingdoms and polities, and in the case of the Bruneians and Suluks of Sulu, they also happened to be outsiders who imposed their dominance over the indigenous people of Sabah.

This brings me to the second point I want to make: It has to be remembered that both Brunei and Sulu held sway over Sabah as a territory under their dominion, in a manner that seems more akin to the way the British North Borneo company held sway over Sabah from the 1880s to 1940s.

When the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu claim to ‘own’ Sabah today, what exactly does this deed of ownership entail and mean? Does it signify Sulu’s former political dominance over a territory that was gifted to it by another domineering power?

If so, then how is this any different from making a colonial claim over a land whose people may not even recognise Sulu’s right to govern over them?

It is ironic that while the self-proclaimed sultan of Sulu bemoans his loss of dominance, nobody (not even the Sultan) has asked if the Kadazandusuns, Muruts and other indigenous people of Sabah want to live under his dominion.

Furthermore, it seems to only underscore the fact that Sulu’s claim (like Brunei’s and Britain’s) was that of an external polity claiming a territory that was not part of their homeland proper.

Cosmopolitan Sabah

Sabah-Land Below The Wind

None of this alters the fact that Sabah has always been, and remains, an extraordinarily cosmopolitan space where cultures and peoples overlap and share common lives and interests. In comparison to other parts of Malaysia, for instance, Sabahan society retains its fluid and dynamic identity until today.

In Sabah it is not uncommon to come across indigenous families where the siblings happen to be Muslim and Christian, all living under the same roof and celebrating Muslim and Christian festivals together.

Sabah society also seems more decentred compared to other communities in the region: The Kadazandusuns do not have a concept of Kingship, and instead govern themselves along the lines of communal leaders (Orang Kaya Kaya) and their symbolic grand leader called the ‘Huguan Siou’.

So tolerant and open is Sabah society that inter-ethnic marriages are common, with Kadazandusuns and Muruts marrying Malays, Chinese, Arabs as well as Suluks, Bugis, Bajaos, Bruneians. It has been like this for hundreds of years; and I hasten to add that I actually grew up in Sabah between the years 1981-1984, and recall how open, eclectic and mobile Sabah society was then.

Sabahans have never had a problem with other communities settling there, and that is why we still see large numbers of Suluks, Bajaos, Malays and Chinese across the state, settling into mixed families or into smaller settlements.

Furthermore Sabahans are attuned to the reality of living in a fluid archipelago, which is why its coastal settlements have always been transit points where people from abroad come in and out with ease.

Just before the Lahad Datu incident I was informed that a large number of Suluks had arrived for a wedding, and they came in without passports and visas, and left peacefully afterwards.

It has been like that in Sabah since my childhood. But my fear is that culture Sulu armyof openness and fluidity came to an untimely and graceless end when some of the followers of the sultan of Sulu landed with guns and rocket-launchers.

Fluid borders only exist under one assumption: that the visitor is a friend, and not an aggressor. The moment guns come into the picture, the fluid border dries up and becomes hard.

Hardened borders, hardened hearts

I hate nationalism. I said at the beginning that I am a committed South-East Asian-ist and Asean-ist, and this debacle in Sabah has not weakened my resolve, as both an academic and an activist, to work towards closer ASEAN integration.

Here in my institute in NTU, I see the faces of ASEAN every single day: My students come from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, in fact all of ASEAN. Being childless myself, I regard them as my wards and responsibility and like all teachers I want them to succeed in the future. I also want them to succeed in an Asean region where every Asean citizen feels that the entire region is his or her home, a place he/she belongs to, a place where he/she would not feel like a foreigner.

But as I said at the beginning, we, ASEAN citizens, also live in the age of the modern nation-state, and there is no escaping the fact that we are modern citizen-subjects as well. Being caught between a fluid region and a hard modern state is not an existential crisis that we cannot resolve, for we can bring to the modern nation-state our subjective longings to see greater integration on a people-to-people level that takes the nation-state one step further.

Already we see that the modern nation-state is beginning to transcend itself in ASEAN: The communicative infrastructure that we have built – through roads, rail and cheap airline communications – means that more Southeast Asians are travelling, studying, working and living in different parts of the region than ever before.

Gone are the days when a Malaysian, Filipino or Singaporean would be born in his country, study in the same country, work and die in the same country. In the near future, we may well live to see the birth of the first Asean generation who are born in one country, study in another, work in another and die in another, all the while feeling that he or she is still at home, in Southeast Asia.

But for this to happen, we cannot bypass the nation-state entirely; for we need the nation-state in order to transcend the nation-state. We need the nation-state to evolve where it may one day accept the reality that its citizens have multiple origins, multiple destinies, multiple and combined loyalties.

We need to work towards an ASEAN future where our governments may come to accept our complex, confounding hyphenated identities as something normal, and not an anomaly; when someone who is Javanese-Dutch-Indian-Arab like me can claim to come from Indonesia, be born in Malaysia, work in Singapore and love the Philippines.

Ironically, this is the impasse we are at today: To revive our collective memory of a shared South-East Asian past, we need to work with and through the nation-state as the dominant paradigm that governs international relations.

What we cannot and should not do is selectively appropriate history to make map-sabah-intrudersoutlandish claims that further only our own limited ends, the way China has been doing by turning to its own China-centric history books in order to claim the South China Sea as theirs.

Such selectivity, be it in the case of China’s or the Sultan of Sulu’s, denies the fact that history will always remain contested by others. Unless we are prepared to accept that whatever view we have of the ASEAN region is only one of many views, and that we need to accept that multi-perspectivism is the only way to navigate ourselves on the choppy waters of history, we will remain forever trapped in our own myopic delusions.

At present, the Sabah impasse has stirred violent emotions among nationalists in Malaysia and the Philippines, with armchair tacticians talking of more violence.

Such idle talk is unbecoming of us, a people who share a complex history whose richness we ought to be celebrating instead.

And my final appeal is this: End this incursion into Sabah for the sake of the Sabahans as well as Filipinos and Malaysians; for what this has done is engendered feelings of deep fear and distrust among the Sabahans who have for centuries been among the most open communities in the region.

The thousands of Suluks, Bugis, Bajaos and others who have settled in Sabah for decades have done so with relative ease, but no longer. The Sulu gunmen who landed in Sabah did not only bring their M-16s and rocket-launchers with them, but also the divisive dichotomy of ‘Self’ and ‘Other/Foreigner’, and the last thing this academic wants to see is yet another wall being built to divide South-East Asians all over again.

DR FARISH A NOOR is Associate Professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU University Singapore. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent his institution.

9 thoughts on “Lahad Datu: Between a Fluid Region and a Hard State

  1. “I long for the day when the people of South-East Asia can see themselves ASEAN citizens, but despite the fact that the ASEAN Community is almost upon us (by 2015), many of us in the region are still driven by primordial attachments to place, identity, language and culture.” — Farish

    Such a disconnect to reaility happens to the best of us especially those in the world of academia. An ASEAN identity?? Dream on ! We can’t see ourselves as Malaysians after some 50 years even if we try — only as Malays, Chinese and Indians etc. We speak of patriotism as being the monopoly of not just Malays but UMNO Malays. Good luck to that.

  2. Farish, it is time you and people like you come down from the ivory tower and view the landscape from the ground; smell the air and the coffee and scratch your cojones like real natives.

  3. If Kedah is a business corporation, I want to file a derivative action against the corporation for injuring the corporation with the lease (and later forced secession) of Pulau Pinang to trader-adventurer Capt. Francis Light who later ceded it to his employer in India.

    Today the Sultan of Kedah (and Agong) is being paid the miserly sum of RM 18,000 (approx) for the lease. Sultan Mukharam Shah ( who incidentally is my direct ancestor) was conned into leasing the island in return for protection against Tean-Rean’s ancestors (among others which includes the Burmese) which never came. He reneged on his promise.

    UMNO-BN may want to look into this and claim on behalf of the Kedah government (assuming BN takes Kedah in the coming elections) the state of Penang. It is easier this way then to oust the opposition politically there. It involves issues of sovereignty within the federation. It used to be referred to the Privy Council. Not anymore since ’78.

  4. Good, Johore can stake claim to Singapore, lets all re-visit history and write onwership titles. Ketuanan Melayus will disappear from from the lanndscape. I love that .

  5. An idealist and a wet-dreamer.

    In international forums, Malaysian leaders talked about cooperation, moderation blah blah blah. At home, they divide and rule.

    It is the DNA of politicians to seek influence and power. So whether they are Malaysians, Filipinos, Thais, Indonesians or what ever; they want to rule over their little kingdoms. ASEAN is just a club for them to bottoms up.

  6. “Good, Johore can stake claim to Singapore, lets all re-visit history and write onwership titles….” – anakrakyat March 5, 2013 at 9:46 pm

    Why stop there? Kedah can reclaim Penang, Thailand can re-annex Kedah and Kelantan and I may also reclaim the governorship of Malacca as I am a direct descent of Princess Hang Li Poh! 🙂 But seriously, where do we draw the line with all these ridiculous claims? Is this not the point Farish is trying to put across?

    Before any one starts to shoot down ASEAN, maybe it is good to bear in mind that despite all the criticisms leveled against it, ASEAN had been effective in keeping the peace in the region for a good 50 years because unlike now, there were then, capable men like King Ghaz, Adam Malik, Rajaratnam, et. al, to provide strong leadership and direction in the group.

    These were men of wisdom, courage who were fully committed to the use of soft power to resolve differences through dialogue rather than by armed conflict, for they were from the generation that had first hand experiences of how the ravages of war and conflict could destroy nations.

    The first sign of the crack appeared when the Philippines chose to break tradition from the ASEAN way of resolving issues by adopting a confrontational approach to settle her territorial dispute with China, thereby involving an outside party, the U.S., in the conflict.

    But forget about ASEAN for now. Let’s get back to the issue. Will the Lahad Datu incident had taken place if King Ghaz is the FM?

    The bad news is that the proverbial dung, which we could have avoided, has already hit the fan. The good news is that efforts, though debatable, has been employed to clean up the mess. How effective the clean up is, will of course depend on the type of detergent used as well as on efficiency and dexterity of the cleaners.

    The main thing to remember is that the primary determinant of all actions is the might of right. Our security forces had given the militias the chance to withdraw peacefully but they chose to stand their ground which gave us no choice but to use force to remove them.

    Our security forces have to increase the pressure to lock down on the whole area to step up its operation to flush the enemy out and to secure the perimeter as soon as possible to avoid dragging on the confrontation. War and strife is costly in terms of both lives and resources. And if we decide to negotiate a settlement, we will then be able do so from an advantaged position.

    This is only the beginning of the bigger war which includes stepping up our surveillance of enemy activity and the gathering of military intelligence to cripple their logistical supplies, organisation,reformation and most importantly to cut off their source of funding and this is where the ASEAN network comes in. Singapore with her strong soft power connections, can be considered the most advanced and sophisticated ASEAN member when it comes to intelligence gathering and it will be to her collective interest to contribute to a peaceful and stable ASEAN.

  7. All the arguments about legal and principles don’t really make up for the fact that Sabah DO NOT want to be ruled by the Sulu Sultanate nor do they want to be part of the Philippines. They have not wanted it so LONG BEFORE Malaysia was a state. Like it or not the question of proper soverignty cannot ignore the reality that has already been quite long.

    The only issue really is was the Sulu Sultanate and the Philippines unjustly treated and if so, should they be compensated, by who and how. The one that original mistreated them were the colonial powers and the failure were the colonial powers. Its not Malaysia that owe, at least no solely and likely not mostly, the justice. Its Malaysia that developed Sabah, what it is now is the credit of Malaysia, not their debt. Malaysia conducted a referendum in Sabah, they chose to be part of Malaysia, If there is a Sulu Sultanate and Philippine claim is with Malaysia, its with Sabahan first. Malaysia did not just sign an agreement with the British and took over the state. It is Sabahan that signed the Malaysia Agreement on their own.

    Failure to act as a soverign, to protect, to defend, to look after the interest of their people, is a LOSS of soverignty. Its not absolute. Yes its been many years since countries and borders give up soverignty but it still happens. Look at what is happening in Europe – they are considering and giving it up at the same time.

    Some said that Tunku Abdul Rahman acted unconstitutionally when he booted Singapore from Malaysia. Can the ultra-Malays argue Singapore should now have to go back to Malaysia because of that? Yeah, right..

  8. Please give Dr Farish some understanding in his perspective when he describes the Magnitude of the Socio-politico complexities that beset the historical antecedents and background in the formative period of Malaysia, when Sabah was included….
    i don’t think Dr Farish is talking about the right of ‘ reclaiming ‘ anything from anybody, far less the so-called right of the Sultan of Sulu over his some irrelevant ancestral ‘heritage ‘ at this juncture of history..
    As i see it in his Topic – A Fluid Region versus a Hard State – he is highlighting the socio-politico intercracies involved across its borders inhabited by people of similar backgrounds and blood relationship or common bondage, that , with greater awareness of the desirability of ” The ASEAN CONSCIOUSNESS ” , it might help to reduce all kinds of Conflicts ! And indulge more on Dialogue or Engagement for better understanding

  9. history is not the remedy because every single historical claim can and will be contested by another. – Farish A. Noor

    History is our mirrors and facts. Rootless, no substance if you forgot your history.
    The imperialism and colonialists claim thru conquers, ignore history.

    Are you capable of conquering? Typical rote learning.

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