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.

Another score for Najib?

Just as the international community was beginning to buy the packaging of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as a reformer, and the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in his second sodomy case as a sign that Malaysia is indeed reforming, authorities violently dispersed the third Bersih rally for electoral reforms in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. This resulted in a quick condemnation of the Malaysian government by international observers and the world press.

But while Prime Minister Najib, his United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO), and its friends in the Barisan Nasional coalition may have lost some brownie points internationally, it appears that they have gained some political capital domestically. Indeed, analysts are now pointing out that the protesters may have walked into an UMNO trap.

Prior to the planned march, the government’s body language had already betrayed its desire to crack down on the protest given the slightest excuse. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, for instance, had said that the police would take all necessary measures should protesters insist on marching into the iconic Dataran Merdeka. The government had previously banned the Bersih groups from holding their rally at the Dataran, which ironically translates to ‘Freedom Park’ in English. Bersih leader and Malaysian Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan had pledged to respect the ban, but insisted on bringing the rally as near to the Dataran as possible.

The police did allow the protesters to come near the barricade to the historic square, where the two-hour sit-in protest had been largely peaceful. But just minutes after both Ambiga and opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim declared the rally a success and urged the crowd to peacefully disperse, some protesters tried to break into the barricade. This resulted in the violent dispersal by the police, and the ensuing ruckus that rocked Kuala Lumpur.

As expected, the largely pro-UMNO, government-owned mainstream media highlighted in their reports that the melee was instigated from the line of the protesters. They conveniently ignore the fact that, as international observers point out, the response from the authorities had been largely disproportionate. The UMNO, for its part, lost no time in saying that the ugly turn of events prove that the Bersih rally was less about electoral reforms and more about wrestling control of Putrajaya. These have put the Bersih groups, along with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition that backed them, on the defensive.

In effect, the violence that characterized the protest actions last Saturday deflected the nation’s attention away from the issue of skewed election regulations that favors the ruling coalition. It has also given the UMNO renewed political ammunition to discredit Bersih’s legitimate grievances, as well as to demonize the PR by accusing it of hi-jacking the Bersih movement and blaming it for the embarrassing rumpus.

It might be too early to say, but it seems that this has been another score for Prime Minister Najib. As I have written three months ago, the Prime Minister clearly knows how to play his game.

Victory for Anwar?

More like victory for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.

The acquittal of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of his second sodomy charge may have been a legal victory for the opposition leader, but politically it was, to a considerable extent, a set-back. Indeed, the acquittal is another proof of the remarkable– and surprising– political acumen of Prime Minister Najib, who had previously been regarded more as a grey technocrat than a cunning politician.

First of all, Anwar’s acquittal puts his assertion that the sodomy charge were politically-motivated in serious doubt. Throughout the trial, the opposition has been asserting that the government is bent on co-opting the judiciary in order to derail Anwar, who engineered the opposition’s impressive run during the 2008 general election. This rhetoric resonates well with the Malaysian public and the international community, who had seen how then autocratic Prime Minister Mahatir bin Mohammad used trumped-up sodomy charges to throw Anwar, then widely seen as his natural successor, to prison in 1998. But now that the court has exonerated him, Anwar’s allegations of judicial dependence has been, in effect, proven wrong. And Mahatir himself is now trying to earn some brownie points for the ruling coalition by pointing this out.

The thing is, unlike the first sodomy trial where the clear objective is to vanish Anwar from politics, it appears that the goal this time around is not to incarcerate the opposition leader but to merely buy time for Prime Minister Najib. Unlike the ruling United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition partners, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition is not as well-organized; it relies largely on Anwar’s personal support-base. Therefore, when Anwar became pre-occupied with his two-year sodomy trial, the PR coalition suffered from a leadership vacuum of sorts and lost the ability to effectively maintain the momentum it gained in 2008. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Najib vigorously addressed the many institutional challenges within the UMNO and subsequently raised the party’s morale. In other words, the sodomy trial made Anwar and the opposition busy while the UMNO took the time to recover from its 2008 losses and strengthen its machinery.

Secondly, Anwar’s acquittal cemented Prime Minister Najib’s new-found reputation as a serious reformer. In effect, he has sent a message that under his regime, there will be greater judicial independence and the government will refrain from engaging in character assassination of political opponents. Already, some in the international community are impressed. Australia’s former Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, for instance, commended the Prime Minister, saying that the acquittal is just the latest in the series of impressive and significant reforms that the Malaysian leader has been implementing,  which include the overhaul of election laws, the easing of media censorship and restriction on freedom of expression and assembly, and the move to abolish the draconian Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance– laws that had long been used by previous autocratic governments to stifle political dissent.

Ever since last year’s massive pro-democracy protests in Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Najib has been trying to differentiate himself from his predecessors– the autocratic Mahatir and the politically weak and largely ineffective Abdullah Ahmad Badawi– by packaging himself as a progressive reformer with steady and able hands, and Malaysia and the world are taking notice. This has deprived the opposition, who has long championed civil rights and reformasi, of an important rallying cry against the ruling regime. By making reformasi not mutually exclusive to the opposition, the government has framed the political debate solely on the question of which among the two coalitions is more capable of leading the country. In effect, Prime Minister Najib is telling Malaysians to stick with the devil they know rather than the devil they are not familiar with.

The burden is now on the Pakatan Rakat coalition to prove that, in terms of governance, they are more capable than the long-entrenched UMNO-led Barisan Nasional. It would be a very heavy burden, indeed. Clearly, Anwar’s persecution complex and personality-based politics will no longer be enough for him and his hodgepodge opposition coalition to wrest control of Putrajaya.

At the end of the day, it’s a score for Prime Minister Najib. The ball is now in Anwar’s court.

Update, Jan. 21: The prosecution has appealed Anwar’s acquittal, according to a report by New Strait Times.