Place Making Series

This is “Place-Making” Made Simple in Malaysian Borneo

See how three cultures created three unique places on the insanely small scuba diving island of Pulau Mabul.

Alan Lew
Tourism Geographic
Published in
8 min readNov 1, 2021


A scuba dive dock and dive boat, a Bajau Laut family boat, and Bajau children on Mabul Island. Borneo is in the far distance. Photo by Alan Lew (cc-by).

by Alan A. Lew


Islands are fascinating places. At least that is what we think when we do not live on an island. It does not matter where they are, how small or big they are, or even how much water surrounds them. The very idea of an “island” ignites our imagination. That is because we see an island as something separate from our taken-for-granted world of experience.

We feel that an island place is almost always guaranteed to be different and unique. In actual experience, it might not be. But in our imagination, it is. And our imagination has a lot of influence over how we experience a place.

Islands present an interesting microcosm of larger and more complex territories. It is often easier to see social and ecological patterns on islands because they are less diverse than larger land areas. That simplicity might also contribute to the image that tourists have of an idyllic island life.

Place-Making on Pulau Mabul

Place-making is how humans create unique places through the daily actions and decisions they make in relation to a place.

For this article, I am using the small island of Pulau Mabul (“Mabul Island”, in Malay) to introduce place-making in a simple way. I will present more complex ideas on place-making in one or two future articles.

Pulau Mabul is a small coral island off the east coast of Borneo. It is part of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which is the northern tip of Borneo. Indonesia is south of Mabul, and the Philippines is northeast of it.

Figure 1. Pulau Mabul from 2 Sides. (click photo to enlarge)

Figure 1 shows two views of Pulau Mabul. The Malaysian tourism authorities use the photo on the left to promote dive tourism. It appears that there are only attractive dive resorts on the island.

The photo on the right is from the opposite side of the island and shows the “real” Pulau Mabul. There is a large floating village extending from the shoreline. That is the Suluk village, which is the larger of two villages on the island. Illegal migrants live in both villages. Between them are the major dive resorts.

The two villages and the dive resorts are three distinct places that co-exist on this small island.

(1) Scuba Diving Resorts

Mabul is a tourism destination because it is the gateway to Pulau Sipadan. Sipadan is one of the top scuba diving places in the world. It is often at the top of world rankings as the best place to go scuba diving. Both Sipadan and Mabul are within the Coral Triangle, which has, by far, the most diverse underwater biological diversity in the world.

A high-end Dive Resort on Pulau Mabul. Photo by Alan Lew, (cc-by)

Indonesia and Malaysia both claimed ownership of Sipadan. In 2002, the International Court of Justice granted it to Malaysia based on its occupation by the British in the colonial period. The same court rejected Philippine claims to Sipadan (and all Sabah) in 2001. In 2004, Malaysia moved the 6 dive operators on Sipadan at that time to Mabul Island.

A school of bumphead parrotfish at Sipadan Island. By Alan Lew (cc-by)

Today, Sipadan is an unoccupied protected area. It is the main dive destination for Mabul divers, although there are a few other places, including Mabul itself, for diving. There are about 18 dive operators on Mabul. Three cater to high-end dive tourists with 4- to 5-star resorts (two are overwater, one is on land). Five others offer 3-star level accommodations. The remaining operators are small homestays in the Suluk floating village, catering to backpacker tourists.

Dive tourists enjoy visiting the two ethnic communities on the island, but that is secondary to the primary purpose of their stay.

(2) Kampung Musa — a Bajau Laut Village

The dive resorts surround Kampung Musa, a small village of Bajau Laut (also known as Sea Gypsies). Bajau Laut live throughout the seas of insular Southeast Asia (Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia). They are the last nomadic seafarers in the world. They live a subsistence fishing lifestyle. Interestingly, they have evolved a large spleen which enables them to stay underwater for long periods to gather food.

Kampung Musa, the Bajau Laut village on Pulau Mabul. Photo by Alan Lew (cc-by)

As nomadic people, they do not hold citizenship in any country, although the largest population is in Indonesia. Their houses are on stilts from whatever material they can find. They are temporary structures until the family decides to move to a new location. Bajau often build their houses on shallow coral reefs and sand bars, sometimes with no land in sight. But this small village is on land where they are squatting without ownership rights.

Some of them interact with tourists on Mabul through small shops selling trinkets. One person in the Bajau village offers reflexology, massage, and laundry services (as seen in the photo). Bajau children do not mix with the other children on Pulau Mabul.

(3) Kampung Mabul — a Suluk Filipino Village

Suluk Filipinos live in the large floating village called Kampung Mabul (“kampung” means village in Malay). They are from the Sulu Sea area of the southern Philippines, which borders Sabah, and are nominally Muslim. Approximately 25% of the 4 million people in Sabah are illegal immigrants from the Philippines, like those in the Suluk village. Because they cannot own land in Malaysia, most Suluk immigrants in Sabah have created “floating villages” with houses extend over the water on stilts.

Downtown Kampung Mabult, the Suluk village on Pulau Mabul. Photo by Alan Lew(cc-by)

Small-scale commercial fishing is the main livelihood. The village has a commercial area with several small shops and places to eat, plus a small mosque. Most of the service staff of the dive resorts are from the Suluk village. The backpacker dive accommodations and services are all in the Suluk village. Malaysian citizens own and operate these businesses, though they seldom live on Mabul. That is because only legal citizens can be certified as scuba dive guides and instructors.

Backpacker scuba homestay in Kampung Suluk. Photo by Alan Lew (cc-by)

Pulau Mabul’s population is about 2,500, of which at least 2000 are in the Suluk village. About 15% are Malaysian citizens, and there is a small school for their children.

There is an NGO-supported school for the Suluk children called the “School of Hope”. It meets in the evening only and is part of a wider effort to provide schooling for the many non-citizen children in Sabah. Divers often volunteer to teach a lesson in the school. Bajau children do not attend this school because they are bullied by the Suluk children.

There is no medical care on the island. Residents must go to nearby cities on Borneo for their medical needs. But even then, the cost is often more than they can afford. Sanitation, water, and garbage collection are also challenges for this small island.

Place-Making on Mabul

Place-making is creating places through the daily actions and decisions of the inhabitants.

The people of Pulau Mabul have created three distinct places: an International Dive Resort area, a Nomadic Village, and a more permanent Floating Village. They have done this by following their personal cultural and economic interests. The table below summarizes the place-making factors for each of these places.

Table 1. Factors in Place Making on Pulau Mabul, by Alan Lew (cc-by). Click table to enlarge.

Seeing these three distinct places side-by-side gives us a clearer understanding of how place-making works. Each reflects the collective history, culture, interests, needs, opportunities, and resources of its residents and investors.

Each person acts from that base to create the best reality that they can envision for themselves. Those individual acts of place-making collectively result in the diversity of places that exist across our globe today. Everyone in a place contributes to its place-making. Understanding this is one of the long-standing traditions in cultural geography.

But place-making is also of interest to anthropologists, sociologists, urban planners, and architects. As mentioned above, islands are a microcosm where it is easier to see and understand processes like place-making than in more complex places.

The geographer, Doreen Massey, referred to places like Mabul as exhibiting a “throwntogetherness” where the unrelated is related and offers new and exciting possibilities. We can see this in Mabul, but in truth, throwntogetherness exists everywhere. Place-making is a common, everyday activity that we all do. It is time we started thinking about how we do it so we can make the best places possible.

Kampung Musa (Bajau) with an overwater resort behind. The long boats are characteristic of Bajau Laut culture. Photo by Alan Lew (cc-by). Click to enlarge.


  • This article is based on:
    — Alan A. Lew (2017) Tourism planning and place making: place-making or placemaking?, Tourism Geographies, 19:3, 448–466, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2017.1282007


<< The story of Mabul Island is what I open with in this presentation that I gave over Zoom in October 2021. The whole presentation is 1hr 13min and covers a lot of details on Place Making.

About the Author

Alan A. Lew is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at Hiroshima University, Japan, and Professor Emeritus (retired) in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University, USA.

For more on Travel & Tourism Futures, see this collection of articles by Alan Lew:

Travel & Tourism Futures

13 stories

Note that the articles in that collection are behind the Medium paywall. For paywall-free access to Alan’s articles, go to, linked below.

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