The Suluks in Sabah face unwelcome attention and discrimination, no thanks to history, politics and the Lahad Datu armed intrusion.
YOU mean to say they were not all Suluks?” said a top security officer from peninsular Malaysia.
We were in Lahad Datu town in the east coast of Sabah and we were discussing, among others, last year’s Sulu armed intrusion in Kampung Tanduo, which is about an hour’s drive from where we were having teh tarik.
The officer was surprised when The Star told him that the 200-odd intruders were mostly Bajaus from islands in the southern Philippines.
“The intrusion was led by Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram (the younger brother of self-styled Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III) who is a Tausug (known in Sabah as Suluks). But most of his men were Bajaus,” I said.
“His third wife is a Bajau who is related to communities living around Tanduo and nearby islands in the Philippines.”
“That’s news for me. I always thought the intruders were Suluks,” said the security officer who is based in Lahad Datu.
The next day, I had lunch with Ali Andu Enjil, a 53-year-old Suluk community leader in Lahad Datu, and Chin Khi Ming, a 60-year-old born and bred in Lahad Datu.
“Asal ada curi, asal ada bunuh, orang cakap Suluk yang buat (When there is a theft or a murder, people will say that it was a Suluk who did it),” said Ali Andu.
“Almost everyone blamed the armed intrusion on the Suluks,” said Chin, who proudly calls himself a Lahad Datu boy. “When the Tanduo incident happened last year, many labelled the Suluks as bad guys.”
“Despite that, I still tell people that I am Sino-Suluk. I am mixed and nobody can change that. My dad is Chinese and my mother is Suluk mixed with Chinese,” said the rugged Chinese-looking Chin.
During the 1850s, Chin’s great, great grandmother was a Dayang Dayang (Tausug princess) whose father was the Sultan of Parang in Jolo.
“In those days, there was not only one Sultan in Jolo but many. The strongest among them was the Sultan of Sulu,” said Chin.
The Sultan of Sulu wanted to marry the Dayang Dayang who was in her teens. The princess did not want to marry the powerful Sultan, who was her cousin, as he had many concubines already.
“After a long discussion with her father, she was allowed to flee Jolo in a flotilla and they sailed to North Borneo (that’s what Sabah was called before the formation of Malaysia in 1963),” he said.
The princess’ entourage landed in Sungai Atas, Kunak, and they hid in the jungle for months as the jilted sultan had sent his men to find her.
“Her escorts were not allowed to call her Dayang Dayang as they were worried that her identity would be exposed. She had to relinquish her royal title,” he said.
Chin’s Dayang Dayang story spurns the general perception that the Suluks are pendatang tanpa izin (illegal immigrants) as the community had lived in North Borneo before the formation of Malaysia.
In fact, Lahad Datu in the Suluk language means “the Land of the Datus”. At the end of the 17th century, the Sultan of Sulu controlled the area. Sabah’s Head of State Tun Juhar Mahiruddin is a Suluk.
Ali Andu’s family migrated to North Borneo from Siasi island in Sulu province in the 1950s to cari makan (to make a living).
“My family is Tausug. But when they applied for the North Borneo passport, my parents wrote ‘Bajau’ in the race column,” he said.
“The British (which colonised North Borneo) will tell you to go back if you were a Tausug. They saw the Tausug as troublemakers. The Tausug was a race that the British could not subjugate as they were fighters.”
Ali Andu’s family officially changed their race from Bajau back to Suluk when they applied for the Malaysian identity card in 1963.
However, there are some Sabah politicians who are officially a Bajau but the Suluk blood runs in their vein. They hide their ethnicity for political reasons.
The height of the Suluk political power in Sabah was from 1967 to 1974 during the era of the Usno government led by Tun Mustapha Harun, a Suluk. However, as the Suluks lost political prominence during the era of Berjaya (1976 to 1985) and PBS (1985 to 1994), some politicians did not want to be identified as Suluk.
In Sabah, a Sungai, Bajau or other ethnicity can actually be a Suluk. Some migrant Suluks hide their ethnicity to avoid discrimination.
The Moro war against Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos in Jolo island resulted in thousands of Tausugs fleeing their homeland to take refuge in Sabah.
Sabahans began to associate the Suluks with pelarian (refugees) who were seen as troublemakers. Sabahans also view the Suluks negatively as they are seen as pengundi hantu (phantom voters) who changed the state’s political demographic in the 1990s.
“But non-Suluk Sabahans don’t understand that there is a difference between the Suluks who lived in the state before Malaysia was formed and those who came after 1970s,” Ali Andu said.
“For example, the Tausugs call us (the pre-1963 Suluks) cowards as we are peace-loving people whereas they came from a culture of war,” he said. “In general, Suluks who are illegal immigrants are more vocal and aggressive as they come from an environment which is difficult to survive.”
After the Tanduo armed intrusion last year, the Suluks faced even more discrimination.
“When there is a roadblock and you say you are a Suluk, the police will check you thoroughly, but this does not happen to a Bajau,” Ali Andu said. “When a Suluk applies for a job, it is more difficult for him to get that job.”
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