The missing piece in the puzzle of Sabahan security
By Karisma Putera Abd Rahman, Research & Advocacy Analyst at Bait Al Amanah
Ten years ago, on a Monday afternoon, I was in a math class at school in Kota Kinabalu. Just before the final bell rang, our Principal made a surprise announcement that sent a shiver down our spines: Sabah was being invaded. What ensued was the most violent threat from a non-state actor against Malaysia – the Lahad Datu Incursion of 2013. This event single-handedly shaped the regional security situation for the coming decade.
About ten years later, on the 3rd of February 2023, the curfew imposed on the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZone) that was scheduled to end on February 4th was extended by two weeks to February 19th, stating that information suggested that the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and those seeking to commit Kidnapping-for-Ransom (KFR) are still trying to invade the area.
This is, of course, a genuine cause for an extension. However, this happened two weeks prior, a further two weeks back, and has been the case since it was first imposed on July 16, 2014. To date, there have been 204 consecutive extensions to the ESSZone curfew.
How can the people of Eastern Sabah be expected to constantly live in a state of caution and fear year in, year out?
Cases of cross-border KFR and armed robberies are not new to Sabah. It has been a consistent problem since at least the year 2000. Following this, the government introduced Ops Pasir in September 2000 which sought to eliminate further cross-border crimes at a cost of RM300 million annually. Although it was generally effective, Ops Pasir was not enough to prevent events such as the 2013 incursion – an incident that remains fresh in the minds of many Sabahans today.
If RM300 million is insufficient to ensure the security of Sabah’s borders through a ‘hard’ policy, it should necessitate Putrajaya to diversify away from its heavy reliance on a militaristic approach to the region’s security challenges.
In Sabah, the situation on the ground is unique. There is a strong element of kinship that enables criminals to commit crimes in Eastern Sabah. Before the advent of modern borders, some of the earliest immigrants to have set foot in Sabah were the Bajau and Sulu from the Mindanao region of today’s Philippines, a fact that forms the basis of the Philippines’ historic claim over Sabah. Following the Moro conflict in the late twentieth century, many crossed illegally into Sabah, capitalizing on kinship and family ties to integrate. Relatives or friends provide illegal immigrants withshelter and nourishment, perpetuating cross-border crime. The issue of kinship is not something that can be resolved through a hard approach. No amount of military might would suffice to overcome blood ties, especially for those assisting their clan members to attain a better life.
Many Sabahans feel that Putrajaya has sidelined the needs of their state and treated them as a vote bank – creating displeasure, spurring separatist sentiments, and most importantly, weakening nationalism. Collectively, these outcomes reduce the loyalty of villagers living in ESSZone toward Malaysia, and therefore empower kinship.
Thus, the missing piece to the puzzle of Sabahan security is 'soft' social programs for Eastern Sabah citizens. The lack of nationalism is mirrored in the lack of trust in authorities. Therefore, the government must take steps to rebuild that trust via education to ensure a more secure border.
For example, the constant maritime curfews hurt their livelihood as many depend on seaweed farming and fishing. By holding reskilling classes for them, a win-win situation is developed. The villagers get to diversify their income and improve their social mobility while the authorities benefit from closer ties to the villages, allowing for greater intelligence to be gathered.
Education plays an essential role in national security as a soft policy, as it helps to develop informed and engaged citizens who are more likely to make decisions that are in the best interests of their nation. Through education, citizens can develop the knowledge and skills required to understand the security environment, identify potential threats and vulnerabilities, and become active stakeholders in national security. Furthermore, increasing the level of education among citizens shuns parochial sentiments such as tribalism and kinship – a key stepping stone for Sabahan security.
To conclude, this piece does not advocate for a removal of a hard approach – far from it. Instead, it urges the government to supplement current hard policy with an equal amount of soft policy to create a more holistic solution. The current strategy that prioritises hard policies is not effective enough as it is reflected in the consecutive curfews. Instead, there must be a multi-pronged approach. This begins with the government employing soft policy to build closer ties to obtain more actionable intelligence, which in turn, better ensures the success of military operations. Soft policies cultivate a sense of patriotism and national identity, which is essential for a unified country – ensuring that Sabahans no longer have to live from curfew to curfew.