Umwelten and the Sabah crisis

The mind, neuroscientists say, operates in a very small subset of the world that its eyes are able to see. This subset forms a restrictive cognitive environment that makes it extremely difficult for the mind to understand the wider world; in other words, a set of biases that makes the mind myopic. This subset is called the Umwelt.

Professor Randy David once wrote that those who live in an Umwelt are, in a way, color-blind– and usually unaware of it.

There is no doubt that the biggest security issue facing both Malaysia and the Philippines, even eclipsing the South China Sea disputes, is the escalating situation in the disputed region of Sabah. And perhaps the biggest bar to a proper resolution of this conflict is the inability of all the actors involved to think beyond their respective umwelten.

There is, for instance, a nationalist Umwelt: a world where advancing the interest of the nation-state, no matter how costly and destabilizing, is the ultimate value. We see this in Malaysians who think that their government’s response to the crisis has been weak and in Filipinos who think that their government’s failure to support the invasion is an act of treason. There is also the historical Umwelt, which insists that events of the past should still be the arbiter of present disputes, despite the fact that realities on the ground have changed. We see this in those who still cling to old titles to claim territories, oblivious to concepts like sovereignty and values like the right to self-determination. Still, there are those who live in an academic Umwelt that sees little value in the modern international system based on nation-states, emphasizing identities that precede modern national boundaries instead.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Benigno S. Aquino III seem to live in a restrictive Umwelt, too– one that does not compromise the concept of sovereignty or state authority. Prime Minister Najib, for instance, doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the political realities that compel Manila, a government friendly to his, to request access to Sabah on humanitarian grounds. For him, the crisis is strictly a police issue for Malaysia. Similarly, President Aquino doesn’t see the importance of giving the so-called sultan an opportunity to save face. He only sees the Muslim leader’s insubordination.

Resolving the Sabah crisis requires understanding all these umwelten– that is, understanding where the different actors are coming from. We should take note of all the cultural issues involved, and understand and appreciate the history behind the dispute. But, as columnist John Nery said, history can only go so far. At the end of the day, we will have to act in accordance with present realities.

We can of course argue how arbitrary the current national boundaries are, and how older identities are more enduring than modern nationalities. But realistically, these current boundaries and nationalities are here to stay, and the only way to resolve international disputes is through the framework of the current international system, which recognizes these geo-bodies and nationalities, not old kingdoms and identities.

We can also argue all day about the merits of the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah, but the following realities will not change:

Firstly, that despite its long history and the Philippine government’s recognition of its importance to the Moro people’s cultural identity, the Sultanate of Sulu is not a juridical entity, much less a sovereign one. It cannot maintain an army, since militias are prohibited under Philippine laws, and it cannot defy the Philippine government and press an international claim by itself.

Secondly, that Sabah is not merely a piece of private property but a territory whose people have been granted the right to self-determination. While the United Nations-sponsored commission that found that the Sabahans desired to federate with Malaysia in 1963 may have been questionable to the Philippine and Indonesian governments then, the fact remains that Sabah has chosen to be part of the Malaya-Singapore-Sarawak federation and that the people of Sabah see themselves today either as Sabahans or Malaysians and not as Filipinos or Sulu subjects.

Thirdly, that historical titles usually mean next to nothing in international law– otherwise, Spain and Portugal should own the world– and that, finally, there is a clear distinction between sovereignty and ownership: the former trumps the latter. And while the Philippines has legislated its sovereignty over Sabah, Malaysia exercises actual sovereignty.

However, despite the inherent weakness of its claim to Sabah, domestic considerations make it extremely difficult, if not in fact impossible, for the Philippines to drop the claim. This is a practical reality that Malaysia should understand, just as Manila understands that Kuala Lumpur will never cede its sovereignty over Sabah.

Similarly, both Malaysia and the Philippines should understand that the Tausugs, the former subjects of the old Sultanate of Sulu, will always see Sabah as part of their homeland. No amount of Philippine admonition or Malaysian crackdown would change this. In this regard, therefore, the nation-state configuration must be flexible enough to accommodate extra-political nuances that are cultural and historical in nature; for given the fact that the Tausugs have historically been a warrior people, any attempt by both states to force their orientation on them will only result in sustained violence. This is why the current crackdown by Malaysia on the Tausugs in Sabah, assuming it is true, is dangerous for Kuala Lumpur– if Prime Minister Najib is not careful, this might become for him what the Jabidah Massacre was to Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos in the 1970s.

It will be best for both the Philippine and Malaysian governments to break out of their respective umwelten and understand the nuances of the current realities. Good faith between the two Southeast Asian powers is important, as this would create wiggle room for both to end violence in the immediate term and to solve the dispute in the long term. This, not nationalism, is what patriots on both sides should be fanning.

The situation in Sabah is obviously a Malaysian police issue, and there is nothing the Philippines could do but to call on Kuala Lumpur to respond to the Sulu intrusion in a proportionate manner, and to treat Filipinos in Sabah humanely. President Aquino is paying a steep political price domestically for recognizing this. But while he should remain stern towards the self-proclaimed sultan for provoking this crisis, he should also be flexible enough to allow his group a face-saving way to withdraw from Sabah.

On the other hand, while it is understandable for Prime Minister Najib to show his resolve in defending Malaysian sovereignty against the self-styled sultan’s followers, he should also appreciate President Aquino’s political will and help the President minimize the flak he’s getting from Filipino nationalists. For starters, perhaps he should exercise restraint in deploying the armed forces at his disposal, and grant Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s request to send a Philippine humanitarian team to assist the Tausugs in Sabah.

It would be unfortunate if the Prime Minister would exploit the situation to strengthen the Barisan Nasional’s position ahead of the coming general elections in June at the expense of the Philippines. That would be a myopic path that could lead to long-term instability in the Sabah-Sulu corridor, something that would not be in the interest not only of Malaysia and the Philippines but also of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in general.

Finally, once the fighting has subsided, the Philippines and Malaysia should pro-actively seek ways to prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. Perhaps Secretary del Rosario and Foreign Minister Anifah Aman should meet and issue a joint communique expressing their intention to, once and for all, put a closure to the Sabah dispute. Perhaps a joint exploratory committee should be formed to determine a framework on how both countries can address all issues concerned, leading to a final treaty on the Sabah dispute that would address the grievances of the heirs of the Sultanate without violating the Sabahans’ right to self-determination.

I’m sure there are sober, creative minds among Filipinos, Malaysians, and Sabahans that can come up with a win-win solution. I myself have some vague ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself for now.


32 thoughts on “Umwelten and the Sabah crisis”

  1. Positively brilliant. I struggle with defining these conflicting “righteousnesses” that make even discussion of Sabah impossible, much less resolution, and you lay out in crystal clear terms what is going on, and even suggest a path toward peaceful resolution. Kindly send this paper to the Mr. Del Rosario and the Malaysian Secretary fo State, whose name escapes me for the moment.

  2. Historical thinking as well as contemporary one will just say that the situation, still, is an impasse.

    “Someone’s gotta give” lest “a lotta people gonna die”.

  3. Your analysis of the situation is, in my opinion, a saving grace to the stakeholders. I am Filipino and i will try to share this article to our authorities and hopefully it will reach them and aid them in their decision-making.

  4. PNoy had a rare opportunity to handle this crisis from Day One. Success would have meant the following results –

    1. avoid tensions with Malaysia
    2. avoid abdicating our claims to Sabah
    3. avoid any loss of life

    Instead, he cried conspiracy; foolishly urged a sultan to surrender; called the Sabah claim a hopeless cause and finally removed all incentives for the Kirams to come home by threatening to file charges against them when they come back. I did not know you could use humiliation as an effective tool to diffuse tension.

    Bottomline is whether or not you voted for this jerk of a Philippine president, it remains his job to exhibit the highest quality of leadership in handling any crisis that comes our way.

    This one, like the Quirino Grandstand hostage incident, was a gross case of mishandling and a deficiency in leadership.

      1. Truth is, unless I was actually the president, I would not know how much influence I would have over the Sultan, or over other more unpleasant personalities like Misuari.

        But if it is true as the sultanate claims that they submitted formal petitions to the Aquino administration on Sabah, then that’s a good place as any to look for at least some amount of political capital in a dialogue aimed at reassuring Sultan Kiram. There is some implied trust here on the part of the sultan for Aquino. Malaysia’s part in this effort would have been to extend their attack deadline on a request by the Philippine government for some time to resolve the standoff without shedding any blood or firing any shots. The assumption here is that the Malaysians would accede to such a request on the back of our government’s own commitment to exhaust all means to resolve this peacefully. The sultan and his men are still Filipinos after all, and therefore how they behave in a foreign land remains the responsibility of our government.

        I have to ask if it is beneath a Philippine president to directly seek dialogue with a sultan.

        I would actually try harder than the President has. Not for the Sabah claim, not for the sultan, not for political points, but for my implicit oath to safeguard human life in whatever means necessary, and to safeguard the dignity and respect of other countries for ours. Our collective embarrassment here is a looming prospect, after all.

        Maybe I’m being too harsh on Aquino, but while the players are different this time out, the underlying tendencies here are very similar to the Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis.

        I am very disturbed in that while Aquino professes to clean up our government and to lead the effort to change our broken culture, it seems in both cases that where the preservation of human life is concerned, he could not be bothered to go the extra mile.

        His tendency to lay blame betrays his leadership style as well – that he is not an inclusive leader but a combative one. No one should have monopoly over the straight-and-narrow, should there?

        One cannot help but pose this question in the light of his “tuwid na daan” pronouncements to clean up government and society – “if he’s not building a Camelot for all Filipinos, good and bad, honest and corrupt, who’s he doing it for and for what?”

    1. I must agree with this one. Noynoy has repeatedly showed a lack of appropriate action in crises that demand proper analysis and judgement.

  5. I am Sabahan and find discussion of Philippine’s claim to Sabah bewildering and unphantomable in today’s modern age. I have no attachment to the Philippines although i visit sometimes. I Do not regard myself as Filipino. Time has passed. The wheel has turned . The people of the land are now Sabahans.

    1. Yes, this is a reality on the ground. Many Sabahans see themselves as Sabahans. Conversely, though, I wonder how strong is the Sabahan’s attachment to Malaysia. Just curious, because I know there are some there who seek independence.

      1. Whether or not Sabahans are happy being in Malaysia, is completely different and mutually exclusive of wanting to be part of the Philippines. Sabahans may identify themselves as Sabahans before identifying themselves as Malaysians, but they certainly do NOT identify themselves as Filipinos, or wish to be. And most importantly, a point that a lot of people actually missed, we don’t and will never identify ourselves as the subjects of the so-called Sultan of Sulu. I hope that satisfies your curiosity.

        1. I already know that most Sabahans don’t identify themselves with the Philippines or the old Sultanate. What I was asking is the extent of their attachment to Malaysia.

          1. Are Sabahans closer to :
            …..i guess not.

            A lot of Sabahans have mixed parentage such as chinese, bruneian, dusun or dusun , filipino, indonesian or indonesian, filipino.

            Such is the level of integration found in Sabah only.

            To expand on the Sabah issue, dont you think that the issue is also linked to the Manila-Mindanao peace treaty . Wouldnt some parties feel “left out” from eeeerrrr who holds the authority after the agreement.

  6. not many know that there are one sultan of sulu that was recognized by the phi law who is Muedzul-Lail Tan Kiram, 35th Sultan of Sulu, eldest son and Crown Prince of Mahakuttah Kiram (last recognised Sultan of Sulu by Philippine government under Presidential Memorandum Order 427 issued in 1974 by President of the Philippines), 34th Sultan of Sulu, grandson of Esmail Kiram I, 33rd Sultan of Sulu.

    malaysia government under BN also should take half of the blame to let this matter go to this point. if they sincere of this issues, they start with better protect their border security and be clean on the back door malaysian.

  7. Great article! Would you believe it took me days to fully understand how this all started? While our side of history is pretty clear, the opinions, tweets, statuses are biased and misleading. I’ve been scanning on different news sites (specifically outside Asia) just to get a straight answer to my “how did this turn into chaos?” question.

    These days, most issues can be resolved peacefully. You’ll know when things got out of hand when innocent people die and others feel left out.

  8. I am agreeable to everything here but the only conundrum would be to let the Sultanate of Sulu get off the hook in a dignified manner after their people mutilated our police. Decapitation, skull breaking, eye gouging and gutting policemen – these things happened before the air bombing. It’s only now that this critical information of the mutilation is being released into mainstream media but still not in detail because it’s so horrible that it could only make things worse.

    Whether these are acts of war or acts of terrorism, they are without a doubt, criminal acts that should be punishable within Malaysian law if the perpetrators are found. The Philippines should consider bringing these people forward if they want peace with us or to ever stand a chance in tabling the Sultanate’s alleged claim.

    Firstly, the people of Sabah don’t consider the Sultanate to be our royalty. They are intruders on Malaysian soil, wielding guns, causing fear, injury and loss of income to the Sabahan people. The Sultan should be held accountable whether or not he thinks Sabah’s his to rule over anyway. Historical claims are all well and good for us to consider but this is unprovoked violence. We can’t just slap him on the wrist.

    That’s why Malaysia has begun to label these intruders as ‘terrorists’. I have an inkling that Malaysia bombed around the Sulu army as opposed to directly on them as a show of force. I could be wrong but I don’t think Malaysia would dare deliberately kill these people. Since the standoff began they’ve been very careful (some have argued too careful) so as not to start a war with the Philippines.

  9. This is a very good and enlightening article. No doubt both nations have to shoulder some part of the blame in their methods in tackling this issue. It is good to see this matter, however, from an outsider’s point of view. Perhaps then we will be able to analyze this situation and the crude claims of the ‘sulu royalty’ albeit I do not find any strong grounds to their rantings. Just my two – piece on this… Thank you

  10. I agree with baycas, it will still be an impasse if our historical and contemporary view will not change. Instead of myopic path towards a political confrontation on national boundaries, both govt should be creative in recognizing that this is a human rights issue involving social and economic injustice done to a tribal generation whose claims to piece of land transcend both national boundaries and historical antecedents.

  11. You start by saying (or citing a scientific view) that the mind is myopic. Then you say that there are those who live in their own Umwelten, which is a polite way of saying they are narrow-minded.

    Then you make a sweeping conclusion about “the inability of all the actors involved [in the Sabah conflict] to think beyond their respective umwelten,” which is to make a very presumptuous conclusion about all the actors.

    Methinks you are guilty of living in your own Umwelt, especially when you say that “the following realities will not change [mentioning three points].”

    I would, on the other hand, presume that some of the actors at least are able to go beyond their respective “Umwelten,” to give weight to the many sides of this conflict, to think out the implications of their options, and to go into action precisely to change some realities that your own Umwelt thinks “will not change.”

    1. An Umwelt is supposed to be restrictive. For instance, nationalism only sees the value of advancing nation-states without regard to other values like the stability of the world system. In the same way, the CBCP, for the most part, can’t understand the value of secularism, for they live in its religious Umwelt. I can say that the views expressed here are not really restrictive. While it points out that resolving the crisis must be done with current realities in mind, it does not dismiss the possibility of accommodating the other umwelten.

      The three realities I pointed out are objective facts that are above the umwelten of different actors. They are not my Umwelt; they are the world’s. The three facts are based on the currently acceptable framework of the conduct of states and international relations. This is not something that came into being overnight, but a result of civilization’s long historical process. Perhaps these realities can be changed, but why should we? The reasons must compelling enough, for what’s at stake is the stability of the world order.

      I presented an explanation of why I think the actors are unable to go beyond their umwelten. I understand that you disagree, but can you please explain why?

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