Malaysia: The story of a famous, yet invisible Bajau man

The myriad islands off the east coast of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo are renowned for their outstanding natural beauty, described in tourism literature as ‘pretty as a picture-postcard’ and ‘a chance to escape from reality’ (Tierney and Tierney, 2009: 129). After an invigorating speedboat ride from the mainland town of Semporna, visitors to Mabul island are greeted by dozens of young children playing on the white sandy beach and in the shallows of the turquoise water. Mabul is famed for its world-class diving and international standard tourist resorts, several of which are built in a water-village style. However, Mabul is also becoming known for other reasons, in particular the Bajau Laut (or Sea Bajau - an indigenous ethnic group) people, who regard the island and surrounding reefs as their home.

Approximately 3,000 people live on this small island in two distinct villages, one comprised of Suluk people and the other of Bajau people, yet nearly the entire population are undocumented or stateless. Traditionally, the Bajau Laut lived their lives as migratory boat-dwellers who navigated the islands and waters of the Sulu Sea, an area now overlaid by the current nation-states of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. They rarely touched land, except to collect fresh water, trade their catch and bury their dead. In recent times, escaping the armed conflict in the southern Philippines, large numbers of Bajau Laut have settled on islands, unable to maintain the upkeep of a houseboat.

Behind the fences of the ‘eco-resorts’, many Bajau Laut families live in one-room wooden houses on stilts, beneath which children play in the sand, adults mend their fishing gears and gamble, and animals scratch in the dirt. All this might resemble other rural Malaysian villages, were it not for the open defecation, lines of jerry cans used to carry well-water for cooking and bathing, and the fact that none of the village children go to school. Nowhere is the juxtaposition of sun and scuba diving holidays, with destitution and desperation more acute than these islands off the east coast of Sabah.

Sulbin, a Bajau Laut man in his thirties, arrived in Mabul about 25 years ago with his siblings and parents who were fleeing fighting in the southern Philippines. He makes a living in Sabah as a fisherman, although in the past he worked in a palm oil plantation spraying crops with chemicals until he developed respiratory problems. But Sulbin has a talent that has brought him worldwide acclaim. He didn’t go to school and he spent his childhood in the water. As a result he is able to free-dive to depths of 20 metres and hunt underwater for more than two minutes on a single breath. He appeared in the BBC series Human Planet in 2011 and now features in a YouTube video clip that has been watched 2.5 million times and generated thousands of comments.

Despite his ‘celebrity’ status in the media, Sulbin and his wife are both stateless, ‘not considered as nationals by any state under the operation of its law’ (UNHCR Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, 1954 Article 1 (1)). They have had seven children, all born in Malaysia, but only two survived infancy. Their children are buried along with hundreds of other Bajau Laut children in a graveyard in the centre of Mabul island, a patch of land covered with tiny wooden grave markers and children’s toys – a view of the island you don’t find in Malaysia Tourism brochures.
Sulbin’s youngest son Chris died in March 2011. Like most children born on the island (as well as many tens of thousands more throughout the state), his birth was not registered. Sulbin’s wife gave birth at home as there are no medical facilities on the island, and neither Sulbin nor his wife are able to prove their own identity. Chris was not immunized against childhood diseases, and when he was about three months old he became very ill. His parents were worried as he had been suffering from diarrhoea for several days and they could not afford the fuel needed to bring him by boat to the hospital in the mainland, a journey that would take over three hours.

One day I received a telephone call. It was Sulbin asking if I could lend him some money so he could bring his son to a doctor. They had decided it was the best thing, despite the risk of arrest by Malaysian authorities due to their lack of identification documents. Via a friend working on the island, I got the cash to him and urged him to bring his son to the hospital as soon as possible. After three days on an IV drip, baby Chris died. The doctors said he was severely dehydrated. The family were not issued with a death certificate, but instead with a bill for the medication and treatment their son had received. This child was born, lived and died, yet there remains no record of his existence. Another ‘invisible child’. His parents described being treated with contempt at the hospital because they were unable to produce any valid identification documents for registration purposes. After the death of their fourth child, they were anxious to return to the island and bury him immediately in accordance with their Muslim faith.

Under-nutrition underlies the cause of death for most children under five years old, with the biggest killers being acute respiratory infections (pneumonia) and diarrhoea. These are preventable diseases against which most children in Malaysia are protected. The afflictions of inequality and poverty are clear to see in a place where fresh water is scarce, sanitation is poor and an awareness of health risks is low, as well as the very real barriers accessing affordable healthcare. The stateless Bajau Laut are vulnerable because they are bereft of their rights, as individuals and as a minority group.

The last time I visited Sulbin and his family, I noticed a young girl sitting in a dark corner of their house. She was lying listlessly on the wooden floor, covered in sores, possibly scabies. As the rain dripped through the holes in the zinc roof, I realized that while I had shed many angry tears of indignation at the unnecessary death of baby Chris, his death is representative of the wider discrimination and injustice faced by undocumented and stateless peoples throughout the world, including the Bajau Laut in Malaysia.

Helen Brunt is an anthropologist who was based in Sabah, Malaysia for 8 years. She has recently completed a Masters degree in Anthropology of Development and Social Transformation at the University of Sussex and is an advocate for the rights of stateless people.



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Mabul water supply. Credit: Helen Brunt.
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Sulbin and his family. Credit: Helen Brunt.
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Sulbin's wife with their son Chris. Credit: Helen Brunt.
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Mabul island, off the eastern coast of Malaysia. Credit: Scubazoo.
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Date: 29/10/2013





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