Sabah’s east coast is safe, but there is a 0.0001% chance that something bad might happen ... again and again.
IF you ask our security forces whether Sabah’s east coast is safe from armed intrusion or cross-border kidnapping, they will confidently tell you that it is safe.
And when you ask them whether they are 100% confident, they will tell you the state is 99.9999% safe.
Our security forces were right. On Wednesday, the 0.0001% happened.
At 10.30pm, in a five-minute raid, Filipino gunmen grabbed Filipina resort worker Marcy Dayawan, 40, from her room before seizing Gao Huayun, a 29-year-old tourist from China.
When news of the kidnapping in Singamata Reef Resort, off Semporna town, broke out, the first thing in most Malaysians’ mind was “again?”.
About four months ago in November, Filipino gunmen murdered a Taiwanese man and kidnapped his wife while they were holidaying in Pom Pom island. The woman was released from captivity on Jolo island in southern Philippines after ransom was paid.
Many Malaysians are angry that a cross-border kidnapping happened again. Their fingers are pointed at our security forces who have failed to prevent it again.
Their finger-pointing is justified as better intelligence gathering and tighter security measures could have prevented the incident.
Sabahans are also pointing their fingers at their state’s illegal immigrant problem. Rightly so as 15 Singamata Reef Resort workers did not possess valid travel documents. The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) on Sabah’s illegal immigrants revealed that many of these non-Malaysians had MyKad.
Nevertheless, angry Malaysians must also understand that the other reason why cross-border kidnappings happen in Sabah and not Sarawak or Peninsular Malaysia is geography. The state is close to Jolo island, the kidnap capital of the Philippines.
“That is Mataking island which belongs to Malaysia and further there is Philippines,” a boatman of Filipino origin told me in November when I visited Pom Pom island after the murder and kidnapping of the Taiwanese couple.
“That night (of the kidnapping) in a few minutes they would have been in Philippine waters,” he said in Bahasa Malaysia.
About 300km from Pom Pom island is Jolo island. I’m familiar with the notorious Jolo as I had covered the kidnapping of 21 people in Sipadan off Semporna town on Easter Sunday in 2000.
The hostages – nine Sabahans, two Filipinos and 10 tourists from Europe and the Middle East – were held in Jolo.
I was also in Jolo to cover the Pandanan kidnapping in 2000. Three Malaysians were abducted in Pandanan island off Semporna town and held in Jolo.
My memory of Jolo might be 13 years old but the island has not changed in terms of law and order.
I was on Twitter with a Filipino journalist based in Zamboanga City to find out how to arrange for security if I were to visit Jolo.
“Have you gone back to Jolo? When you went there, did you arrange for security escort? The last I was there was in 2001,” I tweeted to her via direct message.
“I am forbidden to go there,” she said.
“Who forbid you?” I asked.
“My editors. Am supposed to be with Ces Drilon when they were kidnapped. I was not able to join the group then due to my son,” she said.
“Lucky you,” I said.
Famous Filipino news anchor Drilon and two cameramen were kidnapped when they tried to interview an Abu Sayyaf commander on June 8, 2008. They were held for nine days.
The Filipino journalist said arranging for security escort was a must for journalists who plan to visit Jolo island.
My conversation with her brought back memories of Jolo.
In 2000, Jolo town looked like it was still in the 1970s. Not surprising if you know the country’s history – the Armed Forces of the Philippines razed Jolo town in 1974. Hundreds were killed and thousands fled the island, many to Sabah.
Jolo, which is in Sulu province, never recovered from the attack. Until now, it is still at “war” with Manila.
Violence is a way of life for many in the province that is the poorest in the Philippines. The population – mostly Tausugs (who are known in Sabah as Suluks) – live on fishing and farming.
If you want to be rich, you go into the kidnapping business.
The typical modus operandi is: kidnap-for-ransom group will abduct rich individuals in southern Philippines and they then sell the human commodity to bandits (some using the name of Abu Sayyaf) in Jolo. The island is so lawless that it is a “holding pen” for hostages.
Here’s how lawless Jolo is. When I was there in 2000, I was quite amused to see how the Sulu governor drove to work. He was escorted by a “mini tank” and several pick-up trucks with security personnel armed to the teeth when he travelled from his house to the administrative centre a few kilometres away.
Even the Armed Forces of the Philippines is wary of travelling inland of the tadpole-shaped island. Certain parts of the island are controlled by armed groups under the name of Abu Sayyaf, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) or lost command.
At any time, these armed men – like some Sabah politicians who can tukar baju (change clothes) in the blink of an eye – can be Abu Sayyaf, MNLF or lost command.
These are the criminal elements that can make the 0.0001% happen. For them, Sabah’s diving resorts are like a tempting candy store.
By the way, it might happen again.