Looking beyond the turtle islands


NATURAL JEWELS: These islands are ours. — Photo from Sarawak Forestry Corporation

IT’S amazing what a good rest can do for the body and the mind. A short swim followed by a drink of fresh coconut water is a bonus. Life without the company of computers and TV is still liveable. You are not exactly incommunicado, your mobile fully charged and alive.

During the much-needed retreat last week at Sematan, I thought of many things – among them, the fate of the thousands of turtle hatchlings around the Talang Talang islands as they begin their new lives in a hostile environment. Most of them will die, experts say.

American and Russian scientists have spent billions of dollars making rockets to explore outer space, looking for signs of water and hoping to bump into extraterrestrials. Once a man was catapulted in a rocket to the moon; while walking there he collected a few rocks and brought them back to earth. I saw a piece of Moon Rock inside a case in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington in 1971. What’s the big deal, I wondered? Not many years ago, Malaysia sent out our own astronaut into outer space hoping to impress on everybody down here that what the Americans can do, we can do better.

Malaysian experts should be able to be more creative or innovative than that. On earth, they haven’t yet invented anything simple to reduce the number of casualties to the young turtles. For example, an underwater fence could be built for a few miles around Talang Talang, or a series of ‘ponds’ protected against predators by nylon netting. Into these ‘lakes’ are put the young ones and guarded until they are big and strong and can fend for themselves. Then release them into the wider ocean.


I was also thinking about the fate of the oysters in Lewis Carrol’s poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’. The wicked heroes of that poem lulled the oysters into a sense of false security by talking about shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages, kings, and pigs with wings. The hidden agenda was, of course, to gobble up the oyster population.

Not fiction

I think we needn’t worry about pigs with wings at this stage, but the stand off between fishermen from China and the Philippines over a submerged rock bank is real. China calls it Huangyan Island, while marine maps call it Scarborough Shoal. The tension is growing.

I was thinking of all possibilities beyond our own islands; though they are still far off from the potential area of conflict yet they are part of the vast body of water called the South China Sea.

Two countries, one huge and the other not, are quarrelling over the ownership of a shoal dangerous to shipping. A few buoys would solve that problem, if that was what they all worried about. What lies beneath the bank is the problem. The area is believed to contain a considerable amount of gas and oil. Whoever owns that shoal owns a piece of territory, and whoever owns that territory owns what lies under it as well as the space above it.

A quarrel over a piece of territory can lead to war. This possibility worries many people. We are not far away from the area of a potential military clash. Our country is also claiming a disputed territory. China, being the biggest if not at all the nearest of all claimants, aspires to many other parts of that ocean. Here lies the potential flashpoint. It would be a disaster if the stand off between the two countries should accelerate into a big fight.

For us, it’s better to be prepared for any eventuality. It is said by the hawks that if you want peace prepare for war. The doves say if you want peace prepare for peace.

What’s our stance?

The recent Philippines-China stand off over the shoal has attracted the attention of the Sheriff of the Pacific, the USA. He has pitched his little tent at Darwin in Australia from where he can scour over the Pacific Rim including the trade routes of the South China Sea. He has a baton in hand and a few bows and arrows stored away somewhere, just in case…

China’s defence budget increased greatly these past few years; is she preparing for war or for peace? That question has vexed those littoral countries, the nearest being Vietnam. Other countries which have staked claims to the shoals and islets are also apprehensive. They may not show their fear openly but they are not at ease in private. They contact each other via various channels, the Asean way being one. They are polite to China in public and so is China to them. But the tension is there all right.

Recently, when the US made out China as a rival in this part of the world, that greatly irritated China. That itself is enough cause for concern for the countries around. If two elephants fight, we ants will suffer. No one will be the winner, but the damage will be done.

Both big boys should behave, being careful with their parangs. Both have vast assets and collateral interests over this part of Asia to protect. Perhaps, a lot depends on China; she has a choice: peace or war. And she must assure the littoral countries of her real intention. The recent statement by its ruling Communist Party that the country would go to war if necessary to defend its sovereignty may be political rhetoric as the country prepares for a reshuffle of top leadership every 10 years.

But the countries bordered by the South China Sea need more than verbal assurance from Beijing before and after the changing of the guards at Beijing. They need a written treaty.

We should not be so gullible like the oysters in the poem.

My thoughts wandered far and wide, to other parts of the troubled world where wars are a daily routine – the unnecessary deaths of innocent children, women and young men in the prime of life. Who is the winner in a war?

What can happen sooner or later on the high seas over which nations claim rights of ownership? The very thought is frightening.

Touch wood.