MANGSEE ISLAND, Balabac, Palawan—It will take just about the time to smoke a stick of cigarette to get into Malaysian waters on a twin-engine speed boat.

Given less than a pack, and it will get you to Kudat City in Sabah.Here in Mangsee, the locals live on oodles of smuggled Malaysian food and supplies which are openly traded in village stores or shipped to Zamboanga City. Getting these from across the maritime border is easier than obtaining them elsewhere.There is something about isolation that accounts for the way its inhabitants live—a sort of controlled chaos amid a sea of uncertainty and opportunity—in the least accessible and arguably most ungoverned of Philippine remote islands.Mangsee is a 23-hectare islet in the middle of the Sulu Sea, closer to Sabah, Malaysia, than to the southernmost Palawan town of Balabac where it belongs administratively.

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