The forgotten problem of Sabah's halaw

MANILA, Philippines – Below is a reprint of a 2002 Newsbreak interview by Glenda M. Gloria with former Navy chief Alexander Pama, who in October 2002 was the skipper of the government ship Sultan Kudarat, which rescued fleeing Filipinos from Sabah July that year. Malaysia would every now and then conduct forced deportations, and one of the most massive happened in 2002.

Former Navy chief Alexander Pama. Newsbreak file photo.

Here's what he had to say in the Newsbreak interview first published on Oct 24, 2002:

When I was assigned as commanding officer of the warship BRP Sultan Kudarat last June, one of the things that caught my attention was the plight of returning Filipinos from Sabah, known as halaw. We were receiving reports that more of them would be deported.

During one of my patrols, I visited the island of Mapun (Cagayan de Tawi Tawi), and there I came face to face with the problem. The mayor told me that he was having a hard time accommodating the increasing number of halaw arriving on his island. He brought me to a school that had been converted into a refugee site, and I saw a sizeable number of halaw. I told myself, this is no longer a joke.

That fateful night of July 31 [2002], I decided to leave Mapun and go on patrol, reaching as far as the Turtle Islands. It was about 1 am. when our radar spotted a fishing boat, which we initially suspected to belong to smugglers or pirates. We gave chase. But I saw through my binoculars that it wasn’t a smugglers’ boat. It was packed with passengers—a fishing boat designed for a maximum capacity of 30 people but with about 170 on board. I told the boat’s captain that he should be apprehended for overloading. He explained that he had no choice but to load all these people in Sandakan since they wanted to beat the deadline for all illegals to leave the area. They were planning to go to Mapun. I asked him to transfer his passengers to the Sultan Kudarat, which could take them to Mapun safely.

The face of fear

At that point, whatever impression I had about the halaw was given a face. It was fear personified. There must be some reason why they risked that journey. Whatever it was they were fleeing from must be terrible. Hearing their horror stories, I knew then that they had made a rational decision—to take that risky sea journey rather than face the dire consequences in Sabah.

They had offered to pay the boat owner P300 each for their travel. That’s why, initially, the boat owner didn’t want to release them to me because they hadn’t paid him yet. I told him they should just settle this when we reach Mapun.

The mayor of Mapun was already having problems feeding the returnees on the island. He was running out of food.

The next day, Commodore Ernesto de Leon, the Naval Forces South Commander, arrived in Mapun and saw for himself the situation of the halaw and immediately directed me to ferry some of the deportees to Zamboanga City. I took around 150 halaws with me back to Zamboanga City.

One of them suffered a nervous breakdown along the way. He attempted to jump overboard. He was in his late 40s, and it turned out that his family was left behind in Sabah.

Fishers’ kind act

But there were uplifting moments as well. On our way to Zamboanga, we had to stop at sea to help another Navy ship refuel. While doing this, a fishing boat came alongside us and offered three huge basins filled with assorted fish. The fishermen told me, that’s for the halaw that my ship was carrying. I was reluctant to accept at first, but the fishermen insisted. Tulong na lang daw nila sa kapwa Pilipino (It’s their help for their compatriots).

It was a big help for I only had noodles to feed them that day. The deportees helped in cooking and washing the dishes. The spirit was there and they were served three fish dishes. It was a nice feeling.

After reaching Zamboanga, Commodore De Leon, with the approval of Admiral Victorino Hingco, decided to dispatch ships to fetch the remaining halaw in Mapun and the other Filipinos from Sabah. We were faced with budgetary constraints because sending two ships would eat up our fuel allocation. But we went for it. Other government agencies assisted in the effort.

It was on the Sultan Kudarat where the first TV footage of the sorry plight of the halaw was taken. This stirred public sympathy. It was up to the government to do something about it, but as skipper of the ship I feel I was able to do my share.

Bottom line

At times, we are asked “why the effort? Aren’t we here to fight?” Well, we are here not just to kill, we are here to save as well. That’s the bottom line. If we have to kill for the good of the majority we will do it. If we have to save for the sake of one or two, we will do it, too. When I came face to face with the halaw, I pitied our country. They, after all, represent the majority who are poor. I feel privileged to have been able to help. It’s not a common privilege given to a soldier. When I pray at night, I thank God for making me an instrument of His mercy.

These unfortunate people, either those who were able to leave Sabah or those who were left behind, share a common sentiment. And that’s a deep-seated resentment and anger resulting from a sense of hopelessness about the future. This will have far-reaching implications.

An alarming scenario looms on the horizon. Their thirst for justice could take various forms and may be exploited by radicals and other groups with vested interests willing and able to organize a critical mass. This scenario should not be allowed to take its course. The governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia should pay serious attention and find lasting solutions.

Otherwise, the costs would simply be too high. -

(Reprinted from the Oct. 24, 2002 issue of Newsbreak)

Glenda M. Gloria

Glenda Gloria is the managing editor of Rappler and one of its co-founders. A journalist for three decades now, Glenda has been a reporter for newspapers, magazines, and wire agencies, and has run print, online, and TV newsrooms. She is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Class 2018 .