PERCHED away from the flaming sun, I observed in a nearby field that looks more like the mud had consumed virtually all the turf away; a Caucasian child mingling with Japanese, Korean, Kadazan, Bajao and Cocos children. They were playing soccer together, braving the blasting hot tropical sun, contentedly gabbing away in the localised tongue – barefooted.
“This unity can be spotted playing out across and around Sabah, where people of various races and beliefs can be seen lounging together, enjoying talks and laughing away at the local coffee stands, where inter-marriage among the people are common and where the distinction of bumiputra (natives or “people of the land”) and non-bumi (non-natives) are becoming somewhat of a blur.” Explained Joanna Datuk Kitingan, the Director of Sabah Museum.
Separated by just a thin invisible line in the form of the South China Sea – Borneo, also known as Sabah, Sarawak, makes up part of Malaysia. Known to be the third largest island in the world which is the size of Ireland. Borneo’s magnificent rainforest recognised today as the most biodiversed habitat on earth – the land of bizarre creatures and fearsome headhunters – with larger land mass and notably more natural resources as compared to the Malay Peninsular, chiefly in oil and gas, it lies to the West of Peninsular Malaysia.
Sabah is the 13th state that makes up Malaysia. Contrary to being part of Malaysia, Sabah is a very different place to Peninsular Malaysia. “In fact, when asked, the majority of the people in Sabah are insistent that they are, “urang Sabah bah” and not just Malaysians. Even the Peninsular Malaysian refers to us as Malaysians from Sabah.” Joanna clarified.
So what makes Sabah so different from Peninsular Malaysia? “Well, the fact that Sabah is known to be home to some 40 different ethnic tribes, each with their own unique languages, dialects, religions and cultures – makes it unique in comparison to the Peninsular.” Joanna pointed out.
“For one, a significant number of Sabahans are not Malay. The Malay people who call Sabah home originated from Peninsular Malaysia. The native of Borneo such as Kadazans, Dusuns, Muruts, Bruneians, Bajaos, Sino, and the “Orang Sungei” – which literally means river people, a generalised collection made out of numerous sub-groups including Kadazan, Dusan, Sinabu, Sinarupa, Kalabuan, Makian, Kumanau and others – who are found residing in the Kinabatangan River area – makes the majority.” Persisted Joanna.
“Plus a substantial number of people of Indian, Chinese, the Philippines, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean origin, as well as expatriates from the United Kingdom, USA, Australia and many other countries have over the decades migrated to Sabah, settling in – living with no animosity among one another – who simply want to be known as Sabahans, makes up the other part,” Joanna concluded.
Thus, when it comes to describing the people of Sabah, the first thing that comes to mind is diversely colorful. The multi integration of race and culture plainly stands out here. Sabahans understand one another. They share a common connection; they communicate in one language, the language of Sabah, this unity makes it challenging to single out a specific race among them.
Sabahans inhabit a land surrounded by eco-treasures such as various natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes known as the “Land below the Wind,” and although she has culturally been affected by powerful external, continental influences from mainland Asia, the heterogeneous inhabitants still succeeded to significantly expose its well-preserved splendid customs and practices. Although the country continuously goes through modernisation, leaving her people stumbling to keep up, Sabah’s abundant tapestry of customs in the local population’s day-to-day life as well as their distinctive local festivals all in their very own unique Sabahan way can still be experienced and felt to this day.
This is the thin fabric that sets Sabahans apart from the rest of Malaysia. Sabahans truly are a rare breed, we live in harmony among all types, colours and creeds while at the same time retaining our unique culture, traditions, festivals and customs because of our understanding towards the spectrum of cultures that surrounds us.