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.”
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?
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.
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.