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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Lahad Datu — How might Malaysians vote in the GE?


THE Malaysian security forces finally launched a military offensive against Filipino militants who landed on Sabah’s shores on 9 February 2013 to reclaim it for the Sulu Sultanate. Deaths have mounted, with more than 50 Sulu militants and eight Malaysian police personnel killed. (Update: an unidentified teenager was shot by Malaysian forces on 10 March.) But the Barisan Nasional (BN) government initially appeared more interested in negotiating with the armed intruders and downplaying their hostile intentions.

The Nut Graph asks political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat what to make of the government’s response and what impact it may have on the coming general election.

TNG: What are your comments on the BN government’s initial response to the invasion?

The government seemed to initially adopt an appeasement policy towards the foreign combatants who invaded our land and openly claimed ownership of it. The invaders landed on 9 February and on 18 February, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein actually claimed they were neither terrorist nor militant.

It took 25 days for the Malaysian security forces to take action on 5 March. By then, two police commandos had been killed on 1 March in Lahad Datu and another six the following day in Semporna. Hishammuddin had tweeted on 28 February that our security forces had not fired any shots but were shot at that morning.

It does seem that our government was initially bending over backwards to downplay the threat from the invaders. Especially when compared with their contrasting attitude when they detained Australian Senator Nick Xenophon at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal and then deported him.


What do you think are the reasons for the government’s slow response?

There are three possible answers to our government’s initial appeasement policy.

First, our authorities could be pacifist to the core. They might beat up unarmed Malaysian demonstrators to maintain public order but they will not mess with foreign combatants. In that sense, Xenophon’s problem was not that he interfered in Malaysian internal affairs, but that he didn’t do so backed up by over 100 militants. In Hishammuddin’s words, “Since they had guns, it is important our action does not lead to bloodshed.”

Mahathir (© Syrenn | public domain)

Mahathir (© Syrenn | public domain)

Second, there are the conspiracy theories. Against the background of Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s Project IC, some theorise that the Sulu militants are part of the BN government’s plot to enfranchise more foreigners. The talk of the militants coming to claim land offered to them, claimed by Filipino sources, fuelled this line. Another variant pursues the possibility that the crisis was manufactured to either frighten the Sabahans to vote BN or to generate patriotic sentiments which BN may ride on. Alternatively, this could be used to justify an emergency in Sabah. The traditional media accusing the opposition leaders of triggering the crisis adds credibility to this variant of conspiracy theory.

The third possibility is of course that the authorities have acted flawlessly. The appeasement in the first three weeks was part of the game plan to make the Sulu invaders look unreasonable, hence paving the way for their annihilation later. In other words, the delay and seeming indecisiveness were all part of the master plan.

Which possibility is the most likely?

It is difficult to say. It is unlikely that the claim about land being offered can be validated. Even if this is true, the Kiram clan may not press this as they may be busy negotiating to avoid criminal charges by both the Philippines and Malaysia.

It is also subjective whether the three-week delay and appeasement manifested by Hishammuddin emboldened the Sulu militants’ aggressiveness and contributed to avoidable loss of Malaysian lives. A critical assessment that truly puts national interests before partisan interests may not be possible for now as the nation is seemingly engulfed in a mood of unconditional patriotism.

What effect could this invasion and the BN government’s response have on the election results in Sabah and in Malaysia as a whole?

Thatcher (© Jay Galvin | Flickr)

Thatcher (© Jay Galvin | Flickr)

It really depends on whether Sabahan and Malaysian voters will accept a Johnny-come-lately Margaret Thatcher in Datuk Seri Najib Razak. When the Falkland Islands were invaded by the Argentineans on 2 April 1982 in an undeclared war, an emergency Parliament meeting was convened. Thatcher rallied her Parliament and the nation to start a campaign which saw the British triumph in 74 days. Looking like another determined and brave war leader after Winston Churchill, Mrs Thatcher won the nickname “Iron Lady”.

In contrast, Najib let his ministers handle the crisis while he went on his election campaigns, showing little sense of urgency. No emergency Parliament sitting has been convened despite calls from the opposition and the public to do so to enable national deliberation and resolution. Instead, the home minister made unimaginably appeasing remarks, as described earlier.

Should Najib be rewarded now that Malaysia appears to have won the battle but only after the loss of eight Malaysian police officers? Should Sabahan voters instead punish the BN for the failure of coastline control for decades and the treacherous project of enfranchising foreigners which led to this incident?

While the latest development now seems to be that Malaysia will denounce completely the self-styled Sulu Sultanate’s claim on Sabah’s sovereignty, the Lahad Datu incident was a case of Malaysia’s hand getting bitten by those we fed.

It’s an open secret that Malaysia had assisted the Moro fighters especially the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). This is akin to the Americans arming the Taliban which eventually came back to haunt them. MNLF backed the Sulu invaders right from the start and reportedly had their fighters amongst the Sultan’s followers.

How Sabahans and Malaysian voters’ respond to this invasion and the government’s response will have an impact on the quality of our politics and defence in the future. After all, people get the government they deserve. So, in two months’ time, we should know what we want for our future.

Is Sabah at risk from the invaders, such as to justify the calling of an emergency in Sabah? What implications would this have on the general election?

Should the situation worsen again to necessitate an emergency proclamation, it may even lead to a constitutional crisis. If an emergency is proclaimed in Sabah before national elections are called and if it is not lifted before nomination day, Sabah’s 25 parliamentary seats will have to be excluded. There is however no constitutional provision for the partial re-election of the Parliament. Hence, this would necessitate either emergency rule for the entire nation which would hurt the economy and delegitimise the BN, or a constitutional amendment — which requires the Pakatan Rakyat’s consent — to allow for a deferment of elections beyond 60 days after its dissolution.

However, it does not appear for now that emergency rule in Sabah will be warranted. Politically, it does not seem necessary. Najib is now looking very determined to end this standoff, especially after Dr Mahathir gave the green light for military action. The Nut Graph

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and was a journalism lecturer prior to joining the Penang Institute, a Penang government think tank. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.

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20 Responses to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Lahad Datu — How might Malaysians vote in the GE?”

  1. wizView says:

    It appears that the Lahad Datu misadventure is tragically an odd combination of all of the above mis-tactics of the Najib Government.

    The Government is wishy washy & lost. The so called “leader” is not leading. The Home Minister is better off staying at home

  2. Better My says:

    Pat 1 of 2

    It will take a lot more than the Lahad Datu [incident] for the rakyat to listen again.

    Any government of the day is expected to do what has been done in Lahad Datu PLUS more, just as any government would have accomplished on outward appearance of the nation’s progress similar to what Mahathir had done over the 22 years but without the accompanying bad governance that had had led us to the edge of financial ruin from mismanagement, seemingly unchecked open corruption e.g highly suspicious non-tendered mega deals […], destruction of many aspects of ethics, decency and fair play re sodomy, sex tapes etc, the many false accusations that are purely for the Malay kampungs, via controlled mouthpieces to win Malay [Malaysian] votes in the smallest electorates, dotted all over country, that has the highest number of seats.

    As it is, the country is backward if you look at the country with the Indian [Malaysians] in dilapidated estate conditions re recent Anwar speech, published in Sydney, when he is denied a legitimate voice in Malaysia, the many Chinese [Malaysians living] in a twilight zone, suspended in time at the Chinese villages for decades, all over too. The many Malay kampungs often seen are not far off from the dilapidated twilight zones either, only made more comfortable with the abundance of fruit trees and the cool shades they provide. The many city folk are zombies in disguise with ties, office shirts/suits, and leader shoes, with their daily hard slog struggle to survive, running on empty, except the corrupt rich, and the ones that feed off these corrupt and the many that work really hard and got lucky to achieve just rewards.

  3. Better My says:

    Part 2 of 2

    No, Lahad Datu is not on the minds of most rakyat who have stopped listening. It is never going to have huge a galvanizing impact as past middle east wars or world wars had done for American presidents, British PM Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The mostly united non-discriminated citizens of both countries stood behind their presidents and prime minister fully to face off enemies and lent their strongest support in terms of votes as well.

    We all support the current government’s steps, despite some perceived belated response which indicate lack of leadership structure, to confront the issue, sadly with loss of army lives, and despite the treasons like migrants intake for political manipulation in Sabah […] and elsewhere, partly in the name of religion, bringing Islam and the nation into disrepute as a consequence [it has impacted in part] the current Lahad Datu situation.

    The new Pakatan government is expected to continue to strengthen Malaysia security in Sabah, working with the neutral non-political army and argue for closure to the claims that Sabah belong to these Philippine renegades whose arguments for their claims are not easy to brush off either in the medium to long term.

    In the new Malaysia, Pakatan is advised to include all these […] political migrants with the natives, Indian, Chinese and the Malay masses. Everyone and every town is given every real opportunity to succeed with real support structure, network and amenities. Once these migrants enjoy the fruits of real sustainable developments, their hearts and minds will be truly for Malaysia.

    Then Malaysian would stand as one, truly and would feel the same way as [the] American and British [did] in times of war or adversities – real patriotism will ring in the air.

  4. TakeiIsTheOnlyGoodSulu says:

    [I think] we need to start developing a nuclear weapons program. These border disputes have gone on too long.

  5. JW Tan says:

    There’s a fourth possibility, that our Malaysian armed forces and security forces are simply inadequate. They may not be able to properly patrol the Sabah coastline, and they may not have had the intelligence resources to plan and execute a swift response. Maybe we needed the 25 days to find out what was happening and come up with a workable plan.

    Sadly, three of these four reasons are not mutually exclusive. There’s a possibility that we could be incompetent, cowardly and repressive all at the same time.

  6. JW Tan says:

    Hishamuddin’s comments are unforgivable. It was an attack, effectively an invasion, by non-state actors, with weapons. That much was clear at the very beginning. When did the definition of militant or terrorist change to exclude people with guns and bombs?

  7. ellese says:

    What utter nonsense. Can Nut Graph provide credible, reputable commentators? Please lah adopt US SPJ standards and not quote any tom dick and harry who just parrots his political [bosses].

    Chin Huat seems to think that the only response we should have is to gun the Sulus down first. Utter stupidity. It’s short term and does not solve anything. I dare say that this will only aggravate the situation. We will not obtain Filipino support as we had recently. If PR think its the only way to do this, PR will never get my vote for shortsightedness.

    Our border is long and porous. It is almost impossible to maintain effective control for a long period of time. We have limited naval capacity. (PR will object to buying more navy vessels). The border is just 30 minutes away. Thus Military solution within our boundary cannot and is not the sufficient solution to this. They are based in the Philippines and out of our reach.

    So far, we have shown we were humane in resolving this diplomatically and thus garnered support of Aquino. They were cordoned and thus we had leverage then. We started to retaliate when we were ambushed and killed.

    The way our police were killed was so brutal. We are entitled to react with a much lethal force. We need to bring to justice all those not only in Malaysia but in the Philippines as well and stop the future build up of this terrorist threat. We need to get state actors to pursue this to finish this off. Manila must assist us in bringing to book the terrorists. And finally we need to use our political capital to get those staying there to isolate themselves from this terrorist cause. It’s not the time to politicize this like Chin Huat in parroting his political [bosses].

    • JW Tan says:

      These are all excuses, with some sophistry mixed in. For example, I don’t think the bone of contention with PR on buying more naval vessels is the purchases. It’s the opaque tender process, the kickbacks, the violent crimes that were linked to the submarine purchases that PR (and myself and many others) want to see stopped.

      I don’t dispute that some excuses are valid ones. But now we could be fighting a guerrilla war in Sabah for some time to come. That is a bad outcome, no matter what excuses you bring to bear. Can BN fix it? Not with their track record.

      • spaceman says:

        Just because Singapore and Indo buy submarines, we also want to buy one. We have to pay someone millions as coffee money. Result, we have a warship that will sink and not refloat. Also we pay millions for a passenger in a spaceship. Instead all these money can be put to better use.

  8. Stormtrooper says:

    The political scientist of the Penang Govt failed or didn’t touch on the possibility of Nur Misuari wanting to be heard in the MILF Philippine govt peace process, on the possibility of Kiram wanting more money or to grab the attention of Philippine’s president and also on the possibility of an Anwar-Misuari meeting leading to the Lahad Datu intrusion.

    An analyst would discuss ALL possibilities and theories and not just selected ones. After all its just theories in the absence of proper investigations by both Malaysian and the Philippines authorities. Let them do the investigation first ..

    • neptunian says:

      Really? Some tabloid say Anwar is involved – Police must investigate.

      Tian Chua insinuated UMNO involved – Charged with sedition, but no investigation?

      What the heck do you call this?

  9. Flag of Truth says:

    The Malaysian Arm Forces have displayed a very coordinated and disciplined operation (through the MAF Joint HQ). In real time operation and also in certain battlefields this is quite hard to achieve. Our men in uniforms have done what they are required to do.

    JW Tan, I am not sure why you are saying that the arm forces are not [equipped] to handle this issue. Even the US with its military might cannot prevent their borders from migrants from Mexico and Cuba.

    The Malaysian Arm Forces could not intervene at the very first stage because it’s not their turf. Now I can see that psychologically, we have shown not just these Sulu terrorists but also military analysts from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore what we are capable of doing.

    • JW Tan says:

      I’d expect the TLDM to be able to prevent terrorists landing on Sabah’s shores, or at least detect the landings quickly without having to be told by civilians on the ground. If they can’t do that, then they are inadequate.

      Your comment on comparison with the US is telling. It’s a very Malaysian way of thinking. You are saying “Other people don’t do it very well, so we have cover if we screw it up too”. That’s settling for mediocrity. It’s something we take comfort from… until we are left behind by others who didn’t rest on their laurels.

      • neptunian says:

        Should get used to it;

        In the 1980s;

        1. We go to Singapore to buy cheap stuff and pirate music cassettes

        2. When we go to Taiwan, the Taiwanese look up to us and say “wah! how good” good salaries, big money!

        3. China?! don’t even have to say it. Unknown people claiming to be relatives of Malaysian Chinese, hoping for some financial help. We can visit China and behave like royalty for a couple of thousand ringgits.

        Fast forward to year 2K+… we are way behind the three aforementioned countries. Never mind Korea, Japan etc.

        • JW Tan says:

          Exactly! Today, we import labour from the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh, because our level of national income is so far above theirs that their talented people find it more lucrative to do unskilled work in Malaysia. It’s not unlikely that in 30 years, we Malaysians could be so far behind that it is our turn to export our skilled labour to do unskilled jobs in those countries. Even worse, by then what passes for our skilled labour may not even be fit to do more than unskilled jobs there.

      • Flag of Truth says:

        JW Tan.. I am sure you have never been to the border between sabah and Tawi-Tawi.. let alone being an expert on security. I just want to stress that Malaysian Armed Forces have shown their capability in ejecting the so called ‘intrusion’ but I do admit that our armed forces do need to be increased in numbers and also assets so that it can effectively patrol the vast EEZ (from straits of Malacca, south china sea and the celebes sea. I will refrain myself from saying too much about security here.

        whats wrong with comparing with the US?.. It definitely has the money and resource but honestly considering the size of its border, it is really difficult to prevent any smuggling activities (people or goods) across the border. Even Israel has a hard time protecting their borders. so whats wrong with my earlier statement?

        • JW Tan says:

          Actually, I have been to the islands off the coast of Semporna and Lahad Datu a few times, so I’m at least familiar with the geography and know something of the people who live there. I am no expert on security, but I know that our armed forces exist to enforce it on our borders. Off the coast of Sabah, they clearly don’t. Therefore you can make lots of excuses (as I said in an earlier comment, the geography is a good excuse), but they don’t hide the fact that they failed.

          Re: your comment on the US – their enforcement of their southern border and their policy on Cuban immigrants have more to do with politics than capability. If they wanted to build a more secure border they could. But my point is that whatever the US, Israel or whatever country you care to name do, it is irrelevant. What matters is that Malaysia failed to enforce its own border security. There are no excuses that can paper over that crack.

          My concern is that too many Malaysians find comfort in the apparent failures of other countries. It’s as if their failures somehow makes our failure more bearable. This is a fallacy. The question you should ask is not ‘who else is equally incompetent?’. It is ‘what can we do to fix a gross failure in our armed forces’ ability to guarantee our border integrity?’

  10. […]

    Offshore Sabah and Sarawak lie some of the world’s largest and proven deposits of oil and gas. China has its eyes on the resource. BHP and Cheveron first encountered the monster [deposit] during test drilling in the early 1990’s after which they moved further up north to drill Dai Hung.

    We now know that Dai Hung was a red herring to take the heat off their discoveries in the shallow waters off Sabah and Sarawak.

    Anwar has been courting the Chinese locally who wish to re create what they once called the Hakka Republic in the two states. […]

    Won’t happen.

    • neptunian says:

      Very rich imagination..with slanderous intent.. should have no place in a discussion here.

    • JW Tan says:

      Do you actually have any evidence for this?

      Recent history suggests that China prefers to get its natural resources by projecting its economic power rather than political or military power. In other words they could just muscle in and ‘offer’ to develop the gas fields, like what they do in Africa, for cheap, removing most of the output. Malaysia’s advantage in this case is that it can drive a hard bargain to retain most of the profits.

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