For the most part of the early journey from the Tawau Airport to Semporna, the view is mostly oil palms and coconut trees, bushes, and occasionally, houses. Well, the road definitely has greatly improved as there are no more dangerous potholes. Ah, still the familiar trip nonetheless!

It has been over two years since any of the management team members visited Semporna and boy, did the town changed! As the distance to Semporna town closes, the first obvious change is the lack of rubbish on the roadside where previously it was almost unmissable. Well done, Sempornians!

As the major eyesore issue is now finally taken care of, there was really nothing major we thought Semporna really need, but boy oh boy, the town has upgraded! The second you passed the archway that welcomes you to Semporna, a 5-6 storey high new hotel greets you. Then, there is a McDonald’s! If previously you needed to make a trip to Tawau (the next nearest town) for the fast food, now you do not need to! New concept lodging facilities mushroomed all across the town and you can hardly miss it because it is just so-out-of-place (in a good way, perhaps?). Restaurants and fancy cafes are also spotted as you approach the centre of the town.

When you approach the most happening side of the town, well, apparently, it is no longer the most happening side anymore because a Seafest Mall with Starbucks and Tealive has been constructed on reclaimed land on the northeast side of the town. Wow.

We wonder if Omadal Island has changed too?

The road heading to Jeti Umum Semporna situated near Giant mall Semporna remains very much the same – crowded and wet as catches of the day are being traded. The journey to Omadal begins by getting on a 12-15 person passenger boat to Balimbang for a fare of RM1 per person. Once the boat is occupied with its maximum passenger, it will take about 10 minutes to reach Jeti Balimbang. After exiting the long Jeti Balimbang, you have to find a local van to get to the other side of the island. It will cost about RM15-RM20 per car if you charter it to take you directly to Gurung Melanta. Alternatively, it will be RM3 per person if you let the van drive around filling up the passenger seats inside and it will take twice the time to reach. It usually takes about 30 minutes without stop from Jeti Balimbang to Gusung Melanta. From Gusung Melanta, you will have to wait for a charter boat to take you to Omadal Island. Similarly, it cost RM15 if you charter the whole boat or RM3 per person if you are willing to wait. It takes about 10-15 minutes to reach Omadal Island. Nothing has really changed in this part of the journey, apparently.

Upon arriving Omadal Island, find your way to the resident of the Ketua Kampung to make your presence known and then register yourself at the General Operations Force (Malay: Pasukan Gerakan Am; PGA) centre for security check and protection.

All in all, Omadal Island has not changed much. The goats are still roaming around, grazing on any plantations they can find, the turtle hatchery and the football court. Well, there is now a beautifully re-constructed Balai Raya (Community Hall) and a fully functionally mosque.

After making our obligated rounds, we finally visited Pondok Iskul! Since the completion of its construction, the management team has not made any official (physical) visit and this time, we will be putting up in the Pondok for the next 10 days! As we toured the space, we were overwhelmed by gratitude that this dream of a conducive learning space is a reality!

The trip was a packed one as we arrived just in time to celebrate Malaysia Day on 16 September. Following that, visits to the homes of our Iskul students were also arranged in an effort to register them officially and to gather basic family background. Our group interviews with 3-4 students in one session were also conducted to evaluate the current understanding of our new batch of students and find out if our previous batch students still remember the lessons they took.

Whilst Omadal Island remains peaceful and calm, it has recently been receiving more visits from groups of loud foreign tourists carrying professional cameras. Children from the stateless community gathers upon receiving news of incoming visitors and soon gathered around these visitors. One young girl instinctively began “modelling” in the signature pose of flipping their long hair, and younger kids with their wooden boats are asked to flip over into the water as these visitors start snapping away. Once, we observed that the group of tourists intentionally bought coloured powder packets and with the help of a local tourist guide, they have “orchestrated” so that the children are on gathered on the boat and on their count, to release the powder for photograph effects.

The scene was very difficult to observe, however, we are in no position to stop them because we are not a resident of the Omadal Island and for all we know, these visitors have sought permission from the Ketua Kampung.

Nonetheless, we have a few burning questions we are dying to ask:

To a tourist guide:

  • Why would you bring tourists to go watch stateless children and allow them to request these children to make a circus out of themselves i.e., flip hair, jump off the boat, etc?
  • Why is it that it is not okay with Malaysian children but okay with stateless children? They are children all the same, isn’t it?
  • Why would you allow tourists to take thousand dollars photo of stateless partially/fully-clothed children and in return, they only received small packets of sweets, snacks and maybe few ringgits as compensation for their “modelling effort” and their unique skin colour and background

To the residents of the neighbourhood village:

  • Why would you allow such exploitation in the backyard of your own house and to the community that have stayed your neighbour for many years?

To the visiting tourists:

  • Why did you think it would be helpful to compensate them with snacks and few ringgits for the effort these kids take in “modelling” under your instruction?
  • Why would you think your photos could make any difference to the state of these communities?
  • Why would you be trespassing on the privacy of these children for your own selfish needs of photography portfolio or travel memories? At some point, where is your photography etiquette to ask these kids to either remove their shirt or put on their shirt or change their shirt to fit your photography needs?
  • Do you really think that the amount you pay the guide to take you to these communities benefits the communities at all?

As the sun sets on Omadal Island on the day before we leave, we realised that while the Semporna town has changed exponentially for the past 2 years, none of these developments has positively impacted the stateless community on Omadal Island.