Sabah crisis should not derail ASEAN peace process: expert

Associate Professor Dr Farish Ahmad Noor (right), speaking at a seminar on the broader implications of the Sabah crisis, with director of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Nicholas Fang (left) watching on (Yahoo! photo)

An associate professor at a Singapore think-tank hopes the recent Sabah crisis will not derail the ASEAN peace process and also hopes it teaches governments how to better handle citizens with multiple loyalties.

Speaking on Tuesday evening at a roundtable interview after a seminar organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, Dr Farish Ahmad Noor said, “The issue is a unilateral action on the part of one person who used armed aggression to make a claim on Malaysian territory. All ASEAN governments are now going to be wary of people-to-people ASEAN integration. That is sad because I want to see the people of ASEAN come closer together.”

The associate professor’s comments come after forces from the Royal Sulu Army invaded Sabah last month in an effort to reclaim their ancestral land at the behest of self-appointed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III. Malaysian forces have fired back and Sabah citizens as well as Filipinos there have suffered from the incursion, with deaths and disruption of livelihoods.

While he agreed that ASEAN integration was “already happening”, Dr Farish also urged governments not to leave out people whose ethnicities differ from the country’s main ethnic beliefs.

“The reason why Kiram did this was that he felt he was not benefiting from the peace process. If you leave one ethic community out, then they become spoilers. I don’t think Manila did this on purpose. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front is the biggest and most important group, but some of the lesser groups felt that they were not represented and I think, this is their reaction to it,” said 46-year-old Dr Farish, who is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University.

“It’s terribly unfortunate, but it’s a learning lesson for us. If this is resolved, I think Malaysia-Philippines relations will be even stronger. Both governments have not accused each other and that tells us our political elites understand that they have to behave responsibly.”

Sabah crisis should not turn political

Timing-wise, the incident could also not have come at a worse time with both nations gearing up for elections, he added.

“The timing is bad, but you have to allow the security forces to do its work. When you have a security incursion, parties should come together. If this happens in Singapore, I think the PAP and WP will come together because you deal with the problem first, then we can go back and fight in Parliament,” said Dr Farish.

He warned that the issue not be used as a “political football” as “fundamentally, this is a security problem”.

“I expect Malaysian politicians on both sides to behave in a mature manner. Talk about what your future foreign policy will be like and present something concrete instead of speculation and blame. It’s bad for the morale of the security forces.”

Peace for Mindanao

Dr Farish hoped for the Malaysian and Philippines governments to work towards the ultimate goal: peace in the Southern Philippines island of Mindanao.

“From the ‘70s, (Mindanao) has been a war zone; most of ASEAN has developed but Mindanao has not benefited. It is imperative that these people are given the chance to live in peace. What we’ve done so far is good and should continue – this cannot derail the peace process. Both governments must be resolute,” said Dr Farish.

He said Indonesia is smarter in handling something similar to sultanate disagreements. Dr Farish said that the country respects the sultanates on its land by funding their palaces via a token allowance.

Singapore as neutral ground?

Responding to a recent exclusive interview by Yahoo! Southeast Asia that saw the Sulu Sultan push for talks with the Malaysian government in a neutral country such as Singapore, Dr Farish this was not even possible.

“The Sultanate of Sulu is not a separate political entity”, he told Yahoo! Singapore. “Jamalul Kiram III is a private Philippine citizen. He is not a king,” he added.

“On what grounds would you give him a platform? He stands legally, whether he likes it or not, as a Philippine citizen. When he is asking for a platform in Singapore, he is asking to be recognised a state. The problem is (that) your own state doesn’t recognise you as a state,” he added.

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