JUST 50km outside Lahad Datu, one has to pass through Silabukan, which has a picturesque coastline. On a clear day, one can see a mass of land which is part of the Tawi-Tawi islands off the Philippines.
Bongao Island, the capital, is clearly visible. Originally a backwater village, Bongao, where the majority of the population is Muslim, is rapidly developing.
It takes only 20 minutes by speedboat for the Filipinos to reach our shores. That's how close we are physically.
But there is also another dimension to our close proximity.
The locals are fond of telling outsiders that it is normal for their Filipino relatives to come to Malaysia for a game of football or volleyball, and then return to the Philippines on the same day.
Obviously we are not even talking about clearing Immigration.
The Filipino influence on our side is so strong that some of the grocery shops are referred to as “sari-sari”.
At the Danggan Tungku fishing village, one can look across and see Sibutu, which is also part of the Tawi-Tawi islands.
From where I stood, the villagers were talking excitedly about the fighter jets bombing Kg Tanduo.
I arrived in this east coast Sabah town yesterday as the Malaysian police and army continued their mop-up operations after a massive attack on Tuesday.
The waters of the Sulu Sea and Sulawesi Sea have always been a dangerous area, well-known for piracy.
The pirates not only prey on fishermen but also huge container ships. They are reportedly well-armed and use high-speed motorboats.
But there are also more dangerous elements the host of Muslim radicals fighting for an independent Mindanao Islamic state being one of them. Their long history includes kidnapping of tourists and attacks on Sabahan towns.
In 1996, Semporna was attacked twice, which included an assault on its police station by 10 to 20 pirates armed with M-16 rifles.
In 2000, Abu Sayyaf militants arrived on the Sipadan resort island and kidnapped 21 people comprising tourists and resort workers, for ransom.
Lahad Datu is located in the Tawau division. It's an hour's flight from Kota Kinabalu, some 400km away.
Many orang semenanjung, as the locals call Malaysians from the peninsular, may have heard of this place but would have trouble pinpointing its location.
On Feb 11, heavily armed militants arrived in Lahad Datu and took over the village of Kg Tanduo. Inevitably, the whole world then came to know about this place.
The Sabah attacks have also provided history and geographical lessons for Malaysians. Most of us are learning, for the first time, about the lesser-known ethnic groups that exist in Malaysia, like Bajau, Bisaya, Kadazan Dusun, Murut, Dumpas, Illanun, Kwijau, Maragang, Orang Cocos, Orang Sungai, Rungus and of course, Tausug or the Suluks.
It would even surprise many Malaysians, who have only read about the controversial Project IC to naturalise the foreigners in the 1980s, that many Filipinos who settled in Sabah came from as far back as the Chinese from the southern seas.
In fact, in the 1970s, when the late Tun Mustapha was chief minister, he allowed more Filipinos, fleeing the fighting in the Philippines, to settle in Sabah.
But it is also this familiarity and even possible ties with their local kin that might have given the intruders the advantage.
According to military intelligence sources, they knew the terrain around the village well.
The conclusion is that they had visited the area before and were well acquainted with the heavy undergrowth and foliage in the hilly terrain.
The team of six Malaysian policemen which walked into a group of 30 intruders, which had used a white flag as a ruse, were surrounded and shot at by two snipers. Two of the Malaysians died.
About 130km away, where the Semporna water village is located, there are at least 300 homes on stilts and some have been suspected to provide support for these terrorists, who killed six other Malaysian security personnel in another encounter.
These Filipinos showed no mercy, beheading two of our men, and carrying out extremely cruel, gruesome acts on our men before killing them. They also gouged out the eyes of one of their victims.
It is the fanaticism in these intruders, with their readiness to die for their cause, which has startled our authorities.
But there is an expensive, if not, painful lesson, to learn from here. The Sabah coastal line is porous but the reality is that we have exposed our lax security along our coast. This is not the first time, but unfortunately this is also the worst security crisis in years.
The authorities' mantra of assuring Malaysians that “all is well and under control” will only be greeted with cynicism unless we take a really concerted and serious effort to beef up our maritime security along the coast.
We need to invest well to guard our 4,675km of coastline and our waters (including the Exclusive Economic Zones claimed) of 574,000sq km.
The fact is that the waters that Malaysia has to maintain security and sovereignty over are nearly twice the size of peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak combined. That's not all, the distance between the peninsula and the two states is about 1,200km.
The intrusions have shown how vulnerable we are when facing external threats. This time, the intruders were a rag-tag but well-trained team of rebels. A full-fledged conventional military attack would be more worrisome.
We cannot take for granted that Malaysia is free from any external threat. We have been blessed with peace and stability but the wake-up call has been sounded. In fact, the alarm bells are ringing out loud.
Let's clean up our act we owe it to our fallen heroes who have sacrificed their lives for the nation. Don't let their deaths be in vain.