WHAT is it with a name, or rather a label, or even just reputation? When we hear names like Romeo or Valentino, our mind perhaps instantaneously darts to another more romantic time and place (most likely in Europe), singing amorous songs and uttering enchanting phrases. When human names are replaced by place names such as Rome or Venice, images of splendid ruins or swaying gondolas enter our minds, if not our hearts, and we yearn for instant teletransportation to such far-flung cities to experience their sights and sounds.
And such invocation of faraway gems, perhaps with all the attendant historical and cultural nuances, does attract millions of tourists to these world-famous tourist spots, raking in billions of dollars for their economies. That is why names matter, or at least labels and reputations do. My home state, Sabah, is getting more and more famous internationally for its natural attractions, or what the touristic brochures fondly call “flora and fauna” (although I am not sure most tourists are so well versed in Latin to understand what basically are plants and animals). Tourists came from far-flung corners of the world to dive in the colorful waterworld of Sabah, and some climb the highest mountain in Southeast Asia too.
Alas, in recent years, Sabah is also getting some “bad rap” internationally, not so much of its own making, but due to those intermittent piratic kidnappings (for ransom) on and off its east coast. When I do travel overseas nowadays, and when my home state comes up in conversations with my foreign friends, I am often elated to hear them exclaim excitedly, “O that’s such a lovely place, I heard so much about the waters!” But often this is almost immediately followed by a dismal rejoinder, “Oh! but is it safe to go there now?” I won’t say I am often rendered speechless, but the answer (an honest and responsible one) would have to be slightly elaborated and therefore often a killjoy, “Oh, it’s fine if you confine your tour activities to the west coast, but the east coast facing the Philippines is slightly problematic, you may want to avoid going there for the moment.”
By answering as above, I of course do not have the slightest malicious intention of unnecessarily dragging the Philippines into this less than glamorous portion of an otherwise pleasant conversation. Nor am I trying to pin the blame on any party in particular. But the plain fact remains that these marauding pirates (often masqueraded as terrorists) ply the waters between Sabah and southern Philippines back and forth, snatching innocent hostages as they please and as their purse strings get tighter. It is more than a nuisance; it has become a clear and present danger to both the security and the economic development of this peculiar part of both our otherwise enchanted countries.
And of course this piratic menace requires not only that Malaysia or the Philippines, but at least both countries, join hand to resolve it once and for all, with a combination of heavy-handed military tactics as well as more sustainable economic opportunities for all. In my humble opinion, there is no more pressing security concern within the greater Asean region than the rampant piracy on the Sulu Sea. I am frankly slightly disappointed that the issue did not become the main discussion topic during the recent Asean Regional Forum in Manila. Like terrorism and associated horrors, piracy is a major security concern of the host country and quite a few other Asean members too.
Words of condemnation and solidarity expressed by Asean member states and other partners during such forums, like in many others, are nice and necessary, but they will ring louder if backed up with real “teeth”, such as formation of multinational joint patrols as a show of collective force and resolve, as well as provision of advanced weapons, boats and other military technologies and training to enable the armed forces of the affected countries to go about their anti-piracy rounds more effectively. Alternative ways of economic livelihood must also be nurtured so that those intending on embarking upon a piratic way of life have less hazardous alternatives to choose from. At the very least, as I previously mentioned, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia must temporarily set aside their often amorphous concerns on territorial sovereignty and be willing to “open” their seabound borders for “hot pursuits” of such evasive pirates (for they do know the waters of the region like the back of their hand) by the military vessels of neighboring countries and if feasible join in the pursuit as well. Unimpeded channels of communications at both the decision-making and the operational levels between these countries must be maintained at all costs, such that coordinated anti-piracy efforts are plausible.
Names are admittedly just symbols, but they can connote positive or negative perceptions. I can only hope that very soon all our names in the region will once again shine on the world stage, and we will be able to welcome everybody from around the world to visit our matchless beauties with open hands and hearts.