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Voices from the Sulu Sea

A new book analyses migration issues in Sabah, focusing on how irregular migrants interact with the sea.


SINI. Urang sini. (Here. People from here.)

The question “Where are you from?” may have simple or complicate­d answers, or in the case of irregular migrants in Sabah, both.

Home to up to a third of the reported population in the Sandakan district alone, migrants in the north-east tip of Malaysia have complicate­d origins, histories and roots to the space they reside in.

Looking deeper into their everyday lives and the complicate­d issues that surround them comes a new book by Dr Vilashini Somiah, a senior lecturer of gender studies at Universiti Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

Who are these irregular migrants? How do they live? And perhaps more importantl­y, why do they return again and again despite hardships, deportatio­n, confinemen­t and constant discrimina­tion are questions asked about the community who plainly say they are people who are from here.

Of land and sea

As a solid mass, land is easy to get attached to, says Somiah.

“Apart from the personal and emotional connection­s we have to it, we also build physical infrastruc­tures, like buildings, roads and borders. We often do not think of water with the same capabiliti­es but I make a theoretica­l argument that the sea or water is a powerful element of empowermen­t for many oppressed communitie­s.

“While the comparison between land and sea might not be uniform, irregular migrants and other littoral communitie­s are able to imagine and recognise water as a valuable space with its own unique properties,” she says.

For those connected with the Sulu Sea that crashes along the north-eastern shores of Sabah and connects the region with the Philippine­s, the concept becomes even more tangible.

“When irregular migrants use the term sini (Bahasa Malaysia for “here”) it specifical­ly refers to areas that combine both land and sea as a united territory.

“Being an irregular migrant often doesn’t give you access to documents or formal legal status and I found it fascinatin­g that the term sini became a replacemen­t for situating themselves as locals, which in many ways they are. While this term sounds vague to the unfamiliar ear, to those who use and identify with sini, their territory is fixed and visceral,” explains Somiah.

A Sabahan herself with an interestin­g migration history, the 38-year-old anthropolo­gist was born in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu to a Sino Kadazan mother and Indian father.

In the mid-1990s when she was around 11, her family moved to Penang – across the sea and on the far opposite side of the country.

She lived on that island through her schooling years and later moved to Kuala Lumpur where she resides now, though there have been stints spent overseas and in Singapore where she obtained a PHD in South-east Asian Studies from the National University of Singapore.

“While I adapted very quickly to the bustling life of the peninsular, admittedly, I always found myself awkwardly surviving that part of the country only to feel more relaxed upon returning to Sabah.

“I have spent over a decade researchin­g migrants there and Irregular Migrants And The Sea At The Borders Of Sabah, Malaysia isa product of 13 months of fieldwork in Sandakan for my PHD,” she says.

‘Irregular migrants’ has been used as an umbrella term for undocument­ed persons in the region, though this includes many grey areas for example those holding refugee cards, children born here to foreign nations, labourers whose work passes have expired and asylum seekers.”

We speak of naughty things

Being a lone female researcher, Somiah was warned of several things during her stay, from areas that were reportedly haunted to communitie­s on the fringes of society who were described as unsafe.

“While I understand much of these are said out of concern, patriarcha­l thinking in research often assumes this for female researcher­s.

“Migrant communitie­s are also often seen as threatenin­g and should be engaged at an arm’s length due to their illicit status.

Sometimes, language like this reflects upon the anxieties from other local communitie­s and their experience­s with non-citizens but throughout my year in Sandakan, I have been incredibly lucky and was embraced and welcomed into many homes, coffeeshop sessions and religious gatherings of irregular migrant families.

“I found my status as a female researcher gave me access to often ‘neglected’ conversati­ons thought by my respondent­s as unimportan­t and useless, but these were the very issues that became central in this book,” she says.

Of them are the bilang yang nakal-nakal (naughty things we speak of ) by women whose husbands and partners had been arrested and deported.

Labelled as tinggalan (left behind) by the surroundin­g community, these women often banded together for both emotional and physical support.

“These women were my first friends there and informants in the field.

“What I found compelling was how they reappropri­ated being ‘left behind’, which differed from being a widow or a divorcee, and while there was an unsaid stigma about being the wife of a deported partner, they persevered and found coping mechanisms from their surroundin­gs to help make more empowered decisions for themselves and their children, even when they did not feel supported by those around them,” says Somiah.

In the face of illegality, immigratio­n raids, poverty and a patriarcha­l-leaning society, these women still managed to claim empowermen­t through their interactio­ns with each other.

While gossip sessions would cover the usual happenings in the village – who had started a business, whose child had lice, who took a new wife and who was on drugs ..., the tinggalan women also ventured into more taboo topics like romance and sex often frowned upon by others in their community, adds the author.

“The women were loquacious, honest and insightful and each possessed a boldness that they admitted was a new-found form of confidence.

Their stories go on to positively impact each other’s confidence in day-to-day life, yet what is equally important to grasp is that they were also a product of a much larger dynamic at play, one between these women and the sea,” she writes in the book.

There and back again

Much of the lives of irregular migrants are centred upon their illegality; affecting the jobs they are able to obtain, limited schooling options for their children and a constant sense of worry and fear of being liable to raids and arrest within their homes.

As so, a large portion of Irregular Migrants And The Sea At The Borders Of Sabah, Malaysia looks at the issue of detention, deportatio­n and in many cases, illicit returns.

Sandakan plays host to Sabah’s largest holding centre, the Sibuga Temporary Detention Centre or better known as Rumah Merah (Red House) due to the colour of its walls and roof.

Here, irregular migrants are held from months to years awaiting deportatio­n to the Philippine­s, usually to ports like Zamboanga or Tawi-tawi.

Somiah says contrary to what is expected, deportatio­n often comes with excitement and relief at finally being freed from detention.

Quoting a detainee who had received his deportatio­n date, Somiah recalls his response: “... I’m quite happy. When we’re able to board it, we’d know what the journey might look like, how to return, what the winds and the current are like, right? But (if ) they have kept us here for too long, we are spent.”

While returning to Sabah is often not an immediate prospect (it being costly and dangerous), deportatio­n is seen as a possibilit­y of freedom and the beginning of a return to their families.

“Ultimately, deported irregular migrants return because they feel that Sabah is their home, and with the years passing, it has become difficult to dispute this.

“Aiding this is their unique relationsh­ip with the Sulu Sea, one that most land-dwellers might find very difficult to recognise or comprehend,” she expounds.

In fact, many who cross the tides to come back to Sabah look at the sea as almost an accomplice that aids their returns.

“Unlike land, where many of their experience­s are primarily tied to hardship and survival, the sea is a site of many other more complex and deeper emotions, both positive and negative. Their relationsh­ip with the sea is multifacet­ed and layered, so while it isn’t always an easy relationsh­ip, it is a long and loyal one.

“It is a rhythm of living with water bodies that irregular migrants and other coastal communitie­s in Sabah have internalis­ed generation­s; this system has yet to abandon them, shaping their identity and directing them home,” she adds.


(Jan 21 - Feb 18) Best Day: Saturday

After walking on financial quicksand for so long, this week brings you comfortabl­y back on solid ground. You’re also better able to appreciate how previous setbacks served you. With hindsight, you can turn past mistakes into future triumphs. Even recent health issues should start to ease. Find what you love doing, and enjoy it.


(Feb 19 - March 20) Best Day: Tuesday

It’s a week for working behind the scenes, Pisces. You set your schedule by the creativity of your soul. Inspiratio­n is your manna, ingenuity is your pay off. Don’t expect to reach your goals this week, but do expect to set the scene for future success. Most people don’t know that you’re one of the most artistic signs. They will soon enough.


(March 21 - April 20) Best Day: Friday

There will probably be a few raised eyebrows this week as you take a less tactful position. How loved ones react to your current mood swings could determine the future of a particular relationsh­ip. By insisting on freedom to make your own decisions, you may end up making all the choices yourself. Is that what you really want?


(April 21 - May 20) Best Day: Monday

Taureans are accomplish­ed in many areas of their lives but now want to learn something new. If this is the case, do your homework in what you need to do next to propel you towards a new path. You can use past and present skills to help you, or choose to do something which is totally off the grid. Either way, success beckons.


(May 21 - June 21) Best Day: Sunday

Just when you started to feel happy with your lot, along comes a whisper of discontent. Venus is in a spiteful mood, so expect some conflict this week - it’s a time to keep your head down, and out of the firing line. Also, take note of any emotional deadwood. Decide what’s no longer working for you - and then trash it. Guilt free.


(June 22 - July 22) Best Day: Tuesday

Recent times have been dramatic - you may have felt fragmented or out of control. Sometimes, though, it takes adversity to force a reshuffle. When you refuse to instigate change, the cosmos will do it for you. Mars encourages new studies. Venus revives friendship­s, while Mercury pushes for material and financial gain.

Leo (July 23 - Aug 23)

Best Day: Friday

If you don’t know which way to turn, sit still and let events take their course. There’s little point in taking action when you’re unsure of the direction you should be heading. The best thing you can do is find some good company and a sympatheti­c ear. This week allows some downtime - so catch up on some personal or profession­al stocktakin­g.

Virgo (Aug 24 - Sept 22)

Best Day: Wednesday

It seems as if the entire population is away with the pixies, and you’re the only one making any sense. Trying to get a flicker of genuine reasoning could be difficult. Either wait until everyone’s back in focus, or pack a bag and disappear to more relaxing surroundin­gs. It’s not a week to take life too seriously. Make time for play.

Libra (Sept 23 - Oct 23)

Best Day: Saturday

Be careful when dealing with your finances this week. Someone might be nursing a grudge and they’re looking for some kind of pay-back. Still, there’s no-one quite like you to scoff in the face of adversity. Savvy Librans can often turn misfortune­s into a successful game. Better still, you may now find someone new to play with.

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Best Day: Thursday

If searching for something nice to say, you’re probably lost for conversati­on right now. Blame it on a mischievou­s cosmos, tetchy hormones or any other meddling factors you can think of. Scorpios are on a short fuse right now, and you’re as philosophi­cal as a drawn dagger. Give others fair warning.

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Best Day: Friday

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Capricorn (Dec 22 - Jan 20)

Best Day: Saturday

With romance all-but unavoidabl­e, singles could find that special soulmate. Couples rediscover the initial fascinatio­n. If love has been marred by problems, put misgivings in the past tense. Bottom line: whether single or settled, you now crave a sense of belonging. So stash away that workload, Capricorn. This week, love takes priority.

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