THE sun rises early in Semporna. It was only 8am but the sunlight was blinding and the main street was buzzing with life.
Everything seemed a bit strange and unfamiliar and, after a while, you realise it is because every other person looked and sounded rather foreign. It was like walking down a street in the Philippines or Indonesia.
But this coastal town is famed for its tourist and diving industry. The islands here are among the most stunning in the world. The scenery here is like watching high definition TV because the air here is so pure.
Journalists who covered the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion often say that this is a land of beauty and danger.
A poster of “Wanted Men” near the entrance of the local Maybank showed a total of 22 men, all of whom looked more dangerous than any of those gangsters with Datuk titles who have been making the news of late. They are wanted for kidnapping and piracy committed in the waters off Lahad Datu which is about two hours by road from Semporna.
The goldsmith shop whose owner’s son was kidnapped several years is now closed up.
This town probably has more than its share of recent arrivals who do back-breaking jobs that locals are not keen on. They work hard for a living although, as the joke goes, not all the work is necessarily of the legal sort.
Issues like 1MDB or even corruption go right over the heads of the folks. Here, it is about staying alive, putting food on the table, the cost of living, jobs and, for the older generation, religion.
The social fabric in these parts is unique and quite fluid. For instance, the road from Lahad Datu passes a village known as Kampung Paris which, of course, is anything like Paris.
It is a Bugis kampung and Paris used to be the acronym for “Pendatang Anak Rakyat Indonesia dan Sabah” (immigrants from Indonesia and Sabah). Then, about 20 years ago, the villagers redefined Paris as “Pertubuhan Anak Rakyat Islam Sabah” (association of Muslim citizens of Sabah).
It was a revision of history, a sign of the times and the politics of religion.
When we stopped for coffee at Restoran Loung Loung, a warung along the cross-country road that goes from the west to the east coast, my two colleagues were upset to find a wooden fence erected between the Muslim and non-Muslim stalls. They said things did not use to be like that, the patrons at Loung Loung used to mingle freely.
Reports of kidnappings and piracy do not seem to have deterred the deluge of tourists especially from China.
The China tourists are coming in such big numbers that there is a seafood restaurant run by a China national which serves dishes the way they like it.
The surrounding seas are patrolled day and night by security forces who have become part of the tourist features.
New hotels have mushroomed and there is a sense that Semporna is on the threshold of better times.
The family home of Tun Sakaran Dandai is in a choice part of town, with the glittering blue sea on one side and the silver-domed town mosque on the other.
The house has seen better days although it must have been the grandest building around when it was built. It is only used when family members are in town.
Grander houses have come up since and the most impressive is a mansion not far from the home of Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal’s late mother.
The owner is apparently one of the top 10 richest men in Sabah and the house looks like a palace when lit up at night. An identical building stands back-to-back with the main house and local lore is that the front house is for the first wife and the back one is for the second wife.
Semporna is about an hour from Tawau and four hours from Sandakan. Sadly so, Semporna looks like the poor cousin of the other two towns.
Sandakan is a well-planned town overlooking the Sulu Sea. It has a modern-looking airport, gated residential communities, highways and roundabouts with beautiful sculptures that you would want to take selfies with.
The pace of development here also has to do with the fact that the Chief Minister’s Sungai Sibuga seat lies within the administration area of Sandakan. The town is a testimony of what Datuk Seri Musa Aman is about – a man who can make things happen.
Musa is able to visualise how a town functions, what the people need as well as the aesthetics. He also has a villa on the outskirts, a simple but tasteful building with manicured lawns.
The old town centre of Sandakan was once known as “mini Hong Kong” although it used to be full of Filipinos and the locals did not dare come out at night. Things have changed and there are even night markets now.
Shafie’s supporters claim that Semporna is a victim of the political rivalry between Shafie and Datuk Seri Musa Aman.
They claimed that street lamps that light up the highway from Tawau stop 20km from Semporna where the trunk road remains dark and lonely at night.
They are still angry that an allocation of RM100mil for a bridge linking the mainland and Pulau Bum-Bum (pronounced boom-boom) was diverted to another constituency on the grounds that it was not urgent.
Shafie’s critics say he should stop blaming others for his lack of effort. They say he could easily have done more for his constituency when he was Rural and Regional Development Minister.
But the thing is that Sandakan and Tawau had a headstart over sleepy hollows like Semporna.
Sandakan was the capital of colonial Borneo while Tawau was a sea port. They are the second and third largest towns in Sabah. They also benefitted from the injection of Chinese capital thanks to timber and then palm oil.
But Semporna’s glass-like seas and dive sites are unique and cannot be found elsewhere. What it needs now is administration planning and political commitment to bring on its full potential as the paradise of the east.
Billboards went up in the town area about a month ago, welcoming Musa to Semporna – the smiling tiger had ventured into the lion’s den.
Musa climbed atop a bulldozer for the ground-breaking of a new market. It was a signal of what the powers-that-be could bring to Semporna if it comes along with Barisan.
The future of this coastal belt of beauty and danger rests on the outcome of the next general election. — By JOCELINE TAN
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