Staff Testimony – Wen Suog

Deuteronomy 10:18-19

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

When I read Deuteronomy 10:18-19, I wondered who these foreigners could be among us. I saw a documentary about the Bajau Sea Nomads, the people who live by the sea of Sabah without a national identity. From here,  I started to look into the statelessness issue in Sabah.

From my research, I got to understand that due to the situation of statelessness, the Bajaus do not have access to resources and opportunities. The basic matters such as access to education, opening a bank account, to be legally hired and medical care are all denied.

“They have no identity, therefore no hope!”

I sighed… Jesus Christ has the solution, for the lack of identity and hope among them. Romans 5:10 says that “For if when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” By receiving the reconciliation with God through Jesus, Christians gain perseverance and hope to face tomorrow. The Bajaus need to hear the Good News.

I reached out to the Mission Department of Sarawak Chinese Annual Conference, Methodist Church and Rev. Grace introduced El-Shaddai to me. I met up with Andrew Ng and the team and informed them of my interest to have a short-term mission trip to Sabah in order to have a better understanding of the mission field. I was informed that the Sabah team is mainly serving the Suluks instead of the Bajaus, the community whom I would like to explore. However, after much prayers, I decided to go on the mission trip.

The Suluk people originated from the Sulu archipelago located at the southern part of the Philippines. They are mainly Muslims and the main language is Tausug. I was told by a Suluk that she left Sulu because there was not enough job opportunity to earn a living there and they suffered persecutions from other religious practices due to their Muslim identity (discrimination from Christians or Muslims of other factions). They hope that Sabah could bring them a brighter future – at least to find a job and earn a living. A majority of these people are poor and illiterate, so once they come to Sabah, there is no way back.

In Kota Kinabalu, the Suluk communities usually settle by the river, at construction sites or around the mangrove area. The village size ranges from a few a hundred to more than one thousand. Some Bajau families could be found there but they might not live in harmony due to some cultural and historical differences. They can speak Malay. They are a community-based people and tend to live closely with relatives and friends. A new family could only live in the village via connections whilst outsiders are not welcomed.

Interestingly, a few village heads claim that each of them has a greater authority to speak on behalf of the whole village. Suluk men are breadwinners in the family and are not at home most of the time. Many of them work as laborers at construction sites or in the oil palm plantations. They are generally underpaid with no insurance coverage, but they are able to sustain the family. Meanwhile the women are the caretakers of the family who look after the children. It is common to find 5-10 children in each family. The older sisters help their mothers to take care of the younger siblings and the boys will need to try and earn a living at an age as young as 15 years old.

In the living condition, hygiene and healthcare are the critical day to day issues while education is a long-term matter to tackle.

The communities are aware that clean water is crucial for them, but they have to pay a higher price for clean water, either illegally or at a store. They don’t have access to clean toilets and they dispose rubbish all over the place, adding on the risk of illness and infections that can be transmitted via water or insects. When they get sick, they do not have access to public healthcare system and cannot afford private medical services.

The education issue isn’t just about the access to school but the willingness of the parents to send their children to school. In the long run, uneducated children will lead to a less competitive generation.  At the same time, the root cause of their issues is due to the lack of official documents needed as identifications for enrolment in schools. Stories of stateless people getting caught and being put into detention centres by the authorities are common in the community. Some of the officials ask for money in return for the release.

Their stateless identity makes their lives tough in many ways. With that in their mind, they are taught to marry someone possessing proper documents so that their children can be legalized. However, this does not resolve the statelessness and other poverty related issues.

The statelessness is always a hot topic during the state elections. Every party will promise to resolve this issue in some ways, either by deporting them or to legalize them. The voters have different reactions towards the solutions mooted and it seems none of the solutions are satisfactory. Until now, this issue remains unresolved. Many NGOs came to help, but the outcome has not been effective. This issue gets more complex as the day goes by as it is impossible to have a perfect solution. It is more like a wound that needs to be healed, and through it all, love, care and efforts are necessary to ease the pain.

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