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Sabah quake: Superstition and statesmanship

Published in Malay Mail Online

The national discourse following the deadly earthquake in Sabah last week has been very painful.

The biggest tragedy should have been the death of 19 climbers on Mount Kinabalu from the quake, six of them schoolkids. Instead, we have to deal with foreign strippers and angry spirits.

Rationalists had a field day as several Sabahans turned to superstition as a way to cope with the tragedy.

Sabah deputy chief minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan got the ball rolling by claiming that a group of European tourists who stripped naked at the peak of Kinabalu was directly responsible for causing the quake which happened roughly a week after their “sacrilegious” act.

Pairin also claimed to have had a bad premonition after seeing a flight of swallows circling outside his house during breakfast the day of the quake.

A particular atrocious piece was carried a few days after by a local English news portal, claiming that a post-quake formation on the mountain resembled the face of Gunting Lagadan, the first Dusun man to climb it.

Another local English portal followed with a story of allegedly disembodied hands appearing on two photos taken at the mountain shortly after the quake.

But the ease and carelessness with which some mocked their beliefs upset some Sabahans, who felt real pain over the so-called desecration of the mountain, and the disaster that struck after.

For some Sabahans, the rage over their feelings being dismissed lightly was particularly coloured by the way the state and its people have been allegedly unfairly treated by their West Malaysian counterparts.

In addition, the relationship between Sabahans and fellow Peninsular Malaysians is perhaps at an all-time low, with the secessionist movement finding more support day by day, unfettered by the government’s attempt to clamp down on them, especially with the new amendment in the Sedition Act.

The strain will only get worse when even the deadly quake failed to get the undivided attention of the prime minister, who despite all the talk about Sabah being a “fixed deposit” when it came to votes during the general elections, chose instead to attend a wedding ceremony in Saudi Arabia… where the real money is.

Worse still, the mockery of their brethren played straight into the hands of foreigners who readily pounced on Malaysia’s already battered reputation of a wacky Muslim-majority country, as evidenced by the many salacious headlines in UK tabloids.

With all this happening, it is not hard to see how Sabahans would feel betrayed as they are being portrayed almost as caricatures, and as the two narratives collide, most of us are keen to forget that essentially there are two separate events at hand.

The first event on May 30 of course involved the European strippers who ignored warnings by their local guide.

It is very clear they have disrespected the customs and culture of the locals, regardless of whether they are perceived as stupid or not. The act was nowhere near the “harmless fun” it was made out to be.

But then again, this is not a unique occurrence. White tourists have stripped in many places sacred to Asian cultures which they deem inferior and not worthy of their respect.

Was it then the fault of our tourism industry for failing to impose stricter guidelines, or a more effective education for our tourists?

Or would that even be moot when faced with privileged foreigners who feel that they are free to rampage in Third World countries because we accord them too much respect and deference?

Then, there is the second event: the deadly earthquake on June 5. One which we did not even think was possible in Malaysia, and thus have zero preparation dealing with the aftermath.

I believe the big clash of image and narratives that we are in right now was the result of people who trying to cope with event number two by punishing those involved in event number one.

And in this, Sabah tourism minister Masidi Manjun was the most unlucky chap who got stuck in the middle, earning him endless mockery from many, including nudist Emil Kaminski who took to YouTube to rain expletives against him.

In the days since, Masidi has tried to make it clear that the tourists were being hauled up for disrespecting the state’s customs and ancestral beliefs, and not so much as a scapegoat for the quake.

But admittedly, his job was made all the more difficult by Pairin’s previous remark, which was perhaps made in the latter’s capacity as the Huguan Siou, or the paramount leader of the Kadazandusun. Therein lies the problem.

By allowing Pairin to wear two such hats at the same time, the state has inevitably endorsed a superstitious remark — that was likely made to score political brownie points from the locals — as part of its official response to a tragedy.

Religious and tribal customs have their place… but not in government.

All of the “sogit”, or the cooling down ceremony to appease the spirits, will not stop any more deaths when such quakes recur in the future. What will is our preparedness to deal with natural disaster.

To draw a parallel, we were quick to lambast the Kelantan PAS government for blaming less-than-pious victims and the refusal to accept hudud for last year’s flood, when obviously it was dealt with so incompetently up until now. This is not much different.

So what is the real reason behind charging the foreigners in native courts when they are already charged under the Penal Code?

Are we just using them to please the angry Sabahan mob? Are we just flexing our legal muscles after the humiliation and pain Sabahans felt when their sacred mountain was defiled? And to show the rest of the world, especially thoughtless white people, that Sabah and Malaysia shall not be trifled with?

Whatever the reason is, we need to decouple superstition from our administration, just like we need to decouple the strippers from the Sabah quake.

May the dead rest in peace.

– See more at: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/opinion/zurairi-ar/article/sabah-quake-superstition-and-statesmanship#sthash.Xxb9Ugv0.dpuf

Published inMMO column
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