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Sunday September 16, 2012

What’s that about East Malaysia again?

As West Malaysians know so little about their countrymen who live across the sea, we ask some Sabahans and Sarawakians to give us the lowdown.

CABBIE Dony Junis knows when he has an Orang Malaya as a passenger. The first giveaway is, of course, their accent when they speak Bahasa Malaysia.

Orang Semenanjung or Orang Malaya is how many Sabahans refer to folk from the peninsular, and Dony, who has driven many of them around the international offshore financial centre of Labuan, rues the fact that many seem to have such scant knowledge of his home state.

‘Sabahans have been living and breathing 1Malaysia long before the concept was even coined,’ remarks Jaafar Wahid Jaw. ‘Sabahans have been living and breathing 1Malaysia long before the concept was even coined,’ remarks Jaafar Wahid Jaw.

“Most associate Mount Kinabalu with the state and think it’s possible to drive from Labuan island to Sabah,” he says with a chuckle.

On a more serious note, he says many West Malaysians do not seem to realise the ethnic diversity of Sabahans. Some presume that Sabah is not much different from the Peninsula where the major communities comprise the Malays, Chinese and Indians.

“That’s why whenever I have the opportunity, I would ask them to experience our festivals such as Kaamatan,” says Dony, a 38-year-old Kadazandusun from the southwestern Kuala Penyu district.

Kuala Penyu is home to the Tatana community, one of the 40 sub-ethnic groups within the Kadazandusun community.

Dony wonders whether West Malaysians realise that there are many other ethnic groups in Sabah, such as the Bajau, Bisaya, Iranun, Sungei and Suluk, just to name a few.

‘There is no polarisation of races in
Sarawak, and the people here are more
tolerant,’ says Pemanca Tony Kulleh. ‘There is no polarisation of races in Sarawak, and the people here are more tolerant,’ says Pemanca Tony Kulleh.

“Attending our festivals will be an eye-opener because these showcase the traditional dances of our various groups. This is a good introduction to our diversity,” says Dony.

A month-long festival, Kaamatan marks the end of the harvesting season. In Sarawak, Gawai Dayak is a comparably colourful festival that reflects the traditions of the ethnic communities.

Miri Melanau Association president Datuk Alexander Maiyor says one of the most surprising things that West Malaysians don’t seem to know about his home state is “that Sarawak is part of Malaysia”.

“Every time I meet someone there (the Peninsula), from the taxi drivers onwards, they will greet me with, ‘Dari mana? Sarawak? Selamat datang ke Malaysia’. (Where are you from? Sarawak? Welcome to Malaysia).”

This is such a common experience amongst Sarawakians that it has become something of a joke for them. Many will tell you about being asked: “How is Malaysia? Or how’s the weather in Sarawak compared with that in Malaysia?”

“The standard reply is that we have snow in Sarawak, we live in tree houses and we drive our Proton Saga on the branches of trees!” Alexander says.

He adds that the usage of “bin” and “binti” is not the exclusive rights of the Malays and Muslims; the Melanau use it too, but that does not neccessarily mean that they are Muslim or Malay.

Meanwhile, former educationist Pemanca Tony Kulleh, of Bakun Resettlement at Sungai Asap, says one of the things that bug him is that West Malaysians tend to think of the term Orang Ulu as a racial category, when in fact the term refers to the various ethnic groups living upriver in Sarawak, including the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Saban, Penan, Punan, Kajang, Berawan, Lun Bawang and more.

Another thing about Sarawak is that one cannot identify a person by their looks because someone who looks Chinese may not, in fact, be Chinese.

Datuk Alexander Maiyor is surprised that West Malaysians don’t seem to know that Sarawak is pa rt of Malaysia. Datuk Alexander Maiyor is surprised that West Malaysians don’t seem to know that Sarawak is pa rt of Malaysia.

“One has to understand that the people of Sarawak belong to a larger group of people living on Borneo Island,” he says.

According to Tony, the concept of “1Malaysia” is nothing new.

“There is no polarisation of races in Sarawak, and the people here are more tolerant,” he says.

Tony’s view is shared by Jaafar Wahid Jaw, a writer in Sabah,who notes that many Malaysians from the Peninsula have no idea of the level of acceptance among the various communities in Sabah and Sarawak. Nowhere is this camaraderie more obvious, he says, than in the coffeeshops.

“In Sabah, people from different communities can sit at a table and have a drink or a meal regardless of whether it is a coffee shop operated by a Chinese, Bajau or anyone else,” explains Jaafar, 47, an ethnic Bisaya from the southwest Beaufort district.

Nabawan district councillor Marutin Ansiung also points out that another common sight is that of food stalls selling halal food operating next to stalls selling non-halal dishes.

“Religion and race are no barriers for Sabahans to come together, and I think many Orang Malaya don’t realise this,” says Marutin, 41.

As Jaafar succinctly puts it, “Many of our fellow Malaysians from across the South China Sea do not realise that Sabahans have been living and breathing 1Malaysia long before the concept was even coined.”

Jaafar adds many West Malaysians also do not know how common inter-racial marriages are in Sabah.

‘We may not have super highways and other such modern trappings but we have something better – unity that comes natura lly,’ says Raimeh Siting. ‘We may not have super highways and other such modern trappings but we have something better – unity that comes natura lly,’ says Raimeh Siting.

“This is why we accept the various communities wholeheartedly. Many West Malaysians are surprised when I tell them that an extended family in Sabah may be a combination of the Bajau, Kadazandusun, Chinese, Indian, Iranun, Filipino or Eurasian communities,” says Jaafar.

According to Marutin, such acceptance is a pull factor for Peninsular Malaysians posted to Sabah. Many choose to settle down in the state.

“I know of teachers from Kelantan who have opted to remain in Sabah after experiencing life here,” he says.

Marutin adds that after 49 years of nationhood, there are still some West Malaysians who still think that Sabah and Sarawak are not really part of the country.

“Otherwise, why would some announcements still state bagi seluruh negara termasuk Sabah dan Sarawak (for the whole country including Sabah and Sarawak)?” he asks.

Such statements, in his mind, make Sabah and Sarawak seem like an afterthought in the minds of Peninsular folk. For Raimeh Siting, some Facebook users who have been posting derogatory remarks about Sabah are just as bad, if not worse.

“Some of them still think we Sabahans live on trees or are an uncivilised lot. They should make a trip here to see for themselves what we have,” says Raimeh, a Bajau from northern Kota Belud.

“We may not have super highways and other such modern trappings but we have something better – unity that comes naturally,” concludes the 38-year-old housewife.

Related Stories:
Proud to be Malaysian
Two nations, one family

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