Slow days for Bongao traders as Sabah crisis uproots Filipino workers

BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi (MindaNews / 18 March) – With still enough supplies of basic food commodities that saw some now commanding higher prices, businessmen here are reeling from slower sales with people’s buying capability diminished as a result of the loss of jobs of their relatives who went back home from Sabah, Malaysia.


Alvin Tan, owner of Midway Mall, one of the big department stores in this town, said that fewer people here have been buying grocery items from his store due to lack of money.


“Many are depending on their family or relatives in Sabah for support, and with them out of jobs, they could no longer send money here,” he told MindaNews.


As of Sunday, records of the Department of Social Welfare and Development showed that the number of Filipinos who went back home from Sabah for fear of Malaysian backlash reached 2,416, including women and children, both from the island provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and Region 9 or Western Mindanao.


Malaysia has not called off its operation to go after the armed followers of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu who landed in Lahad Datu town last month supposedly to assert the sultanate’s claim over Sabah.


Tan, who is also a member of the board of the Tawi-Tawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry Foundation, Inc., sells mostly Philippine made commodities but also carries products from Malaysia like noodles and coffee “out of necessity” to serve this town’s and neighboring island-municipalities’ largely Muslim population.


He said that prices of basic consumer goods sold in his store “have not been adjusted and assured that it would remain like that.”


Price increases were mostly effected by the small grocery store owners selling mostly Malaysian products, Tawi-Tawi Assemblywoman Dayang Carlsum Sangkula-Jumaide said.


Days after the Sabah standoff ended violently on March 1, prices particularly of rice, cooking oil, noodles, gasoline and 11-kilogram liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) sourced from Malaysia went up, according to small store owners, motorcycle drivers and ordinary individuals MindaNews interviewed since Friday.


In a March 15 price monitoring report, the provincial Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) said that there was insufficient supplies already of cooking oil, white sugar and LPG from Sabah. The report added there was still sufficient supply of rice from Sabah although it has no remarks for gasoline and diesel products from the Malaysian state.


But there has been no panic buying of consumer goods in this town since then, Tan said.


Jumaide said the situation triggered by the Sabah crisis opens the opportunity for the government to push the promotion of halal accreditation among Philippine made products being sold in the province.


“Aside from historical ties between Sabah and Tawi-Tawi, the thought that products coming from Malaysia are halal have been embedded in the minds of residents in Tawi-Tawi,” she noted.


Eighty percent of goods traded in this province for generations come from Malaysia, Jumaide noted.


As far as the rising prices of goods coming from Sabah, the lawmaker said “it cannot be avoided that there are businessmen who really takes advantage of the situation and that is up to their conscience.”


Jumaide said that if the situation in Sabah spirals out of control and would lead to massive deportations, local government units can declare a state of calamity if the need arises.


On the other hand, Rolando Lim, immediate past president of the Tawi-Tawi business chamber, said that if the situation eases in Sabah, the government should be lenient on traders buying goods from Sabah.


He recalled there were times when it was difficult to bring in goods from Sabah because of the anti-smuggling drive of the government.


“The trading with Sabah makes our economy vibrant…. A year of smuggling in this province is equivalent to just a day of smuggling in Luzon,” Lim said, citing the seized smuggled luxury cars there.


Lim said that products from Malaysia are cheap and of good quality.


Hamad Abubakar, a provincial DTI senior trade and industry development specialist, believed that Malaysia would not drastically resort to massive deportations of Filipinos in Sabah in the long-term for economic reasons.


“Most of the workers in Sabah are Filipinos and their businesses their would greatly suffer if they would resort to mass deportations,” he told MindaNews.


Abubakar said that majority of the workers in Sabah’s factories and construction and oil palm industries are Filipinos.


Lim noted that “Malaysians cannot be seen in the coffee shops and oil palm plantations as workers but Filipinos.”


He, however, conceded that an undetermined number of Filipino workers in Sabah have already been dislocated by what the armed followers of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu did.


Sixty-three people mostly followers of the sultanate were allegedly killed by Malaysian security forces, which also suffered fatalities, when clashes erupted last March 1 in Lahad Datu.


Malaysian authorities later launched a manhunt against the armed followers of Sulu believed still holed up in Sabah that reportedly continues to date. The crackdown prompted undocumented Filipinos to flee Sabah bringing with them stories of alleged human rights abuses by Malaysian security forces.


Tawi-Tawi Gov. Sadikul Sahali told reporters Sunday that the situation in terms of the evacuees and basic consumer goods remain manageable so far.


He said the situation does not warrant placing the province under a state of calamity or emergency. (Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)