Return to Sabah — Kota Kinabalu, Part 3: The Plight of the Stateless

In our previous trip to Sabah, we visited a stateless village in Semporna. There are many stateless living in Sabah. Some of them come from the Philippines or Indonesia. Some have always lived here, but never registered themselves as citizens of Malaysia. As a result, they, their children, and the generations that follow do not have any identification documents. They may not know when they were born, or even who are their children.

As stateless, they have no country to belong to. Deporting them to Indonesia or the Philippines doesn’t solve the problem, as they still remain stateless. They are people with no country to call home, and many manage to find their way to Sabah anyway.

Being non-citizens means they are unable to qualify for citizen benefits such as free education, and healthcare. They are also unable to seek employment legally, as most businesses prefer not to hire them… unless they want to pay someone lower than market rate. No one knows how many stateless there are in Sabah. Estimates range widely, from as low as 5% of the population to as high as 30%. The fact is that no one knows, because they are simply not documented. And that’s the problem.

There are many articles available online about the stateless in Sabah, which you can read if you’re interested. We will focus instead on our short encounter.


In Kota Kinabalu, the stateless live in floating villages, which are houses built on stilts over water. There are 3 such villages that we know of in the Sabah capital.

The first is Kampung Sembulan, which is an oddity among the floating villages that we have seen. First, although it is located on water, it is a strange body of water. We cannot figure out if it’s a pond or a river, or what. The water looks stagnant, and out of place. Second, it is surrounded by 3-star and 4-star hotels. In fact, Serrene’s own Stanton City Hotel, which we stayed one night in, overlooks Kampung Sembulan.

The plight of the stateless intrigues us. While there are stateless people in almost every country, they are very visible here, whereas you would be hard pressed to find any of the 1,000 stateless people in Singapore. When Serrene was driving us to her home for a visit, we asked her if we could visit one of these villages.

She was a bit apprehensive, because locals tend to consider stateless villages to be dangerous places for people who don’t belong there. But as it was broad daylight, she agreed to our request and drove us, in her Tesla, to Kampung Sembulan.

Contrast the floating village’s shacks with the surrounding buildings.

Not all floating villages are slums filled with stateless people. But those that are often have a lot of litter.

Housing in Kampung Sembulan is built on stilts over a water body.

You have to watch where you walk.

What immediately struck us about the area, widely considered by the locals to be a slum where poor people stayed, was the presence of cars. We were puzzled as to why supposedly poor residents of this floating village, could still afford to buy cars. Furthermore, it wasn’t just 1-2 cars, but plenty of them. We were also curious how they got the cars since they had no identification documents. Serrene later told us that these residents would simply use another person’s name.

A Perodua car at Kampung Sembulan.

We spent about 10 minutes at Kampung Sembulan before we were approached by locals. While those who approached us did so with a friendly smile, we could see others lurking in the shadows watching us as we walked around. Feeling unsafe, even in broad daylight, we decided to leave.

A quick group photo at Kampung Sembulan.

Besides Kampung Sembulan, there is another larger village to the north, close to University Malaysia Sabah. It’s called Kampung Numbak. Easily visible in satellite view on Google Maps, it is estimated to be 2-3x the size of Kampung Sembulan. We didn’t visit this place as it would be a few days later before we ventured out of Kota Kinabalu.

The third stateless village in Kota Kinabalu is actually off the coast. It is located on the eastern side of Pulau Gaya, one of the 5 offshore islands you can visit when you are in Kota Kinabalu.

Gaya Island was actually where the British North Borneo Chartered Company first set up a trading settlement in 1882. However, in 1897, a local folk hero Mat Salleh burned down the settlement. After that, in 1899, the British set up a new settlement in Jesselton, which is today’s Kota Kinabalu.

Kampung Pulau Gaya looks massive, more than 10x the size of Kampung Sembulan. We initially thought we could visit this place when we went island-hopping, but we later found that it is considered a dangerous, high crime, or “no-go” area by the police and Kota Kinabalu locals.

There are actually 5 villages here. Besides Kampung Pulau Gaya, there’s Kampung Lok Urai, Kampung Kesuapan, Kampung Pondo, and Kampung Gaya Asli. In total, it’s estimated that there are 6,000 stateless persons living here. The people here provide Kota Kinabalu with a source of cheap labour and boat-driving services.

It is highly recommended that if you are to visit a stateless village, you should know someone living there. That will make things safer. Under no circumstances should you give anything or any money to any of the children living there. If you do, you will find yourself swarmed by the children.

In our next post, we will share with you what one Sabahan is doing to help some of the stateless people.

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