Notes from Elopura

DECEMBER 16 — It was an incongruous view on a beautiful day.

There we were with our toes in white sands, facing a clear bay teeming with corals and docile fishes, the shade of the coconut tree on our faces... and a few metres to our left, slightly hidden by some trees, was a shack covered with a camouflage net.

Erected in front of the shack was a long-range binoculars on top of a stand.

Men clad in black tees and dark olive pants take turns sitting on guard, sometimes with a bulletproof vest over their chest and carrying assault rifles.

We were on vacation at Selingan Island, one of the three Turtle Islands on the side of Malaysia, around 40 kilometres off the coast of Sandakan, Sabah.

And the men were from the 15th Battalion of the General Operations Force (PGA), the Royal Malaysian Police’s light infantry arm.

It was only during my second time roaming the beach that I struck up a chat with one of them. He was sitting on a portable camp chair, his eyes on the horizon, when I approached him.

He told me he is from Pontian, and we bonded over our Johorean origins. He was one of the around 20-strong team of policemen stationed on the island on a one-month rotation period under the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom).

Their duty? Solely to protect tourists and Sabah Parks staff on the island which serves as a turtle conservatory and hatchery, and situated less than 10 kilometres away from Philippines waters.

“What was the most exciting thing to have happened to you lot?” I asked. Nothing much, he said. “They know we are here,” he laughed, before relating how one night a boat was detected heading towards them. They pulsed their flashlight, the boat turned away.

Of course, I could not resist looking through the cool binoculars. The jetty on the foreign island opposite could be seen crystal clear.

The PGA officers were not the only ones stationed at the border. At Bakkungan Kecil Island, which is nearer to the border, there were even armed soldiers stationed.

Spending time on the island with no phone signal was a welcome respite, especially when back home in Kuala Lumpur, Islamists were protesting in support of racial discrimination.

When faced with issues of regional consequence like maritime borders between two countries, thousands of Islamists and their zealous demands seem minor.

A family of proboscis monkeys feeding in Labuk Bay Sanctuary, Sandakan. — Picture by Zurairi AR
A family of proboscis monkeys feeding in Labuk Bay Sanctuary, Sandakan. — Picture by Zurairi AR

As if to prove me right, I returned to Malaysia and Singapore in a border row days later — with the latter arguing for a maritime border that has not been settled on, and an airspace that never belonged to it.

But amid these squabbles over borders between humans, we sometimes forget that humankind has long trespassed and encroached into the borders of Nature.

In November, UK supermarket chain Iceland tried to put out a Christmas advertisement with anti-palm oil messages. It was then banned from being shown on TV because of its political message.

Make no mistake, Iceland and the European anti-palm oil campaign reeks of white saviour crusade — with little consideration for the benefit of palm oil over other sources, or for the common men who would inevitably be affected by such a backlash.

But that does not mean that the oil palm plantations have little adverse affect on the environment.

Over the few days I was in Sandakan, oil palm plantations dominated the scenery every time we drove out of town. You could be forgiven for thinking you are in Johor, rather than a nature sanctuary in Sabah.

Almost all of the nature conservation tourist attractions just sit at the fringe or edge of such plantations.

Perhaps the most dismayed I felt was when visiting the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, which is frequently cited as a must-visit destination while in Sabah.

To get into the sanctuary, one has to literally first enter an oil palm plantation. I asked myself if I was in the right place — or if Google Maps had directed me to a random estate.

Getting into the sanctuary proper, one would have to drive over unpaved plantation roads — with all their bumps, puddles, and roaming buffalos.

It would have been an adventure in itself, if only we had driven a four-wheel-drive vehicle like most Sabahans do.

Just a day prior, I had the opportunity of seeing in the wild the proboscis monkeys, along with orang utans, hornbills, and a very rare glimpse of a clouded leopard as it was hunting a stray proboscis monkey at dusk — during a river cruise down the Kinabatangan River.

I counted myself lucky for such a wonderful birthday gift, but I worry that my daughter would not have the same chance when she grows up.

She seemed to enjoy the breeze during the cruise, and was the most enthusiastic when seeing the wildlife.

Just like the Singaporean tussle, it is hard to argue about borders when there is no such official line. This is even more so with us humans versus Nature.

When we were at Selingan observing a turtle landing to lay her eggs, I felt the utmost respect for her in the pitch black night, with scattered stars above our heads and the waves lapping the beach. We were almost in reverence.

But as long as short-tem greed controls the discourse over a more long-term eco-centric worldview and value system, this border may not even exist, or the lines redrawn over and over until one day we no longer have anything left.

 *This is the personal opinion of the columnist.