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I am Sabahan- and that is that
Publication Date : 19-04-2014
As much as we value our individual heritage and history, the barriers built by colour, race and ethnicity are immaterial.
Though I was born in Kota Kinabalu, most of my formative years were spent living away from Malaysia. Life and circumstance brought me back to my hometown some eight years ago, and the differences in lifestyle, culture and pace were a shock to my system. Seriously, there wasn’t even a Starbucks in town at the time.
But I digress. Despite the changes, I very quickly fell back in love with Kota Kinabalu, and with Sabah itself.
Time passed and I began to learn about the things I didn’t love so much. Some may call it treason, but I discovered how little I cared for Malaysian food, and as a consummate nerd and career computer geek, the beautiful environment, balmy weather and wealth of outdoor activities were thoroughly wasted on me.
Still I lived on in Sabah, and my friends wondered why I bothered staying so long. The answer is simple. I stayed out of an unexpected fondness for Sabah’s people. I stayed to reconnect with my family, and for the basic reality that a man is nothing if he doesn’t understand or acknowledge his roots.
The people of Sabah are generally hospitable and friendly, but it’s really everyone’s attitude about race that stands out. Nobody cares about the colour of your skin. Racial harmony comes as naturally as the inexplicable tendency to finish sentences with the expression “bah”.
We have the standard mix of Indians, Chinese and Malays, of course, but the staple Malaysian races are just specks compared to the various peoples and cultures found in Sabah. There are well over 30 ethnicities in the state alone, several of which are indigenous, such as the Kadazandusun, the state’s most populous ethnic group.
That still doesn’t count the rich variety of foreigners who migrated to Sabah to make it their second home. The list of acquaintances and colleagues I’ve met in Sabah alone have hailed from various parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, the Americas – pretty much the entire world, really.
And for all the havoc that this tremendous mix of ethnicities might have caused, Sabah remains one of the most racially tolerant places I’ve had the pleasure to call home.
It boils down to how people are not judged for where they’re from, the food they eat, or the customs they keep.
Call it good fortune, but I never experienced or observed racial bigotry or discrimination in Sabah, which is especially unusual given my own ethnic mix.
My father is Chinese, Dusun and Banjarese, and my mother is Chinese, Filipino and American German. I look more Chinese than anything else, but everyone in my family is Muslim. I also speak with a very obvious Filipino accent. It’s a complicated combination, to say the least.
It’s great fun to tell people that I’m a sort of multicultural mongrel, or an international buffet gone totally wrong. I’ve met friends who are not as keen to explain themselves to people who might be unfamiliar with or confused by Sabah’s spectrum of ethnicities. To these friends, and to all people who live in Sabah, there is a more simplistic response: “I am Sabahan.”
It’s a phrase that has been adopted by both natives and foreigners who have since gone local, a way for us to express how proud we are to live on our own little slice of Borneo. The statement doubles as an accidental motto for tolerance.
As much as we value our individual heritage and history, the barriers built by colour, race and ethnicity are immaterial. A Sabahan is a Sabahan, and that is that.
I met many interesting characters in Sabah, and each new encounter gave me more insight on how easy it was to integrate into the community.
There were West Malaysians who flew in for work and ended up wanting to stay and retire. I knew Caucasian Brits and New Zealanders who could order pisang goreng or haggle at the tamu using Sabah’s unique brand of Bahasa Malaysia.
One friend was a Chinese-Indian who looked Malay and used her command of four different languages to great personal and professional advantage.
Then there was the Australian couple who migrated when they noticed that Sabahans had no shortage of smiles to give to both friends and strangers. There’s also my personal favourite, a Chinese family who served halal dishes to their Muslim friends at Lunar New Year feasts.
This isn’t to say that Sabah is a magical rainbow-filled utopia completely free of racism. Discrimination, whether racial, religious or sexual, still exists in Sabah, as it does everywhere else in the world.
These isolated incidents are the exceptions and not the norm, and certainly aren’t enough to ruin the social tranquillity of Sabah, where the vast majority go about their lives in peaceful coexistence.
I like to think that Sabahans have had plenty of practice living in quiet acceptance of each other’s quirks and customs, and it’s a point of pride that the state is constantly praised as a model for racial harmony.
Life and circumstance have once again plucked me from my homeland, and my time in Sabah has ended. All those years have taught me that I will never learn to love Malay food, and that I definitely won’t be missing Sabah’s brutal sun.
I will, however, remember its people with fondness.
It doesn’t matter if my lineage makes me Bajau, Murut or Banjarese, or if my complexion is ruddy, dark or pale. The colour of our skin doesn’t matter because the same red blood runs underneath.
A part of me will always remain rooted in the proud and ancient earth of the Land Below the Wind, for regardless of my ethnicity, or that of my three million brothers and sisters, above all things else, we are Sabahans.