Racism or anger over social injustice?

  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 17 Jul 2013

Many Sabahans boast about their laidback and hospitable culture that enables them to socialise with people of various ethnicities. On the other hand, there are those who resent the pilak, or illegal immigrants, in the state.

I WAS elated that I could write something about my beloved hometown of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. But at the same time, having lived in Penang and Selangor for the past 15 years, I was afraid that my peppered balik kampung visits would not suffice to truly understand the latest development in my state.

So I turned to social media to get some ideas on what to write about.

I received overwhelming response from Sabahans and non-Sabahans alike. The suggestions may be split into two:

One of the proposals was for me to “write about how we Sabahans have had the 1Malaysia concept way before it was introduced because we are friendlier and can mix with all cultures better than our peninsular friends!”

Others suggested I write about the pendatang tanpa izin or pilak (illegal immigrants) and to “address the trouble and furore” they cause.

Hmm. Such irony.

On one end, we have Sabahans who boast about their hospitality.

On the other side of the spectrum, I sense some coldness towards a certain group of people living in Sabah.

This made me think of a blog post I read last year, about this Australian writer who created a bit of chaos with his touchy article on Sabah’s hidden racism.

Reading the comments on my social media platform, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr Wright was, well, right.

My husband, a city boy from Petaling Jaya, has had the pleasure of spending some time in my hometown and he too feels we (Sabahans) are much more laidback and courteous than the community he grew up in.

When he asked who was who in my yearly class pictures, I could only point out their names but was not too sure of their ethnicity.

Did it matter? No. To me, we are just Sabahans – not Kadazans, Muruts, Bajaus etc. 1Sabah, if I may say so.

Chris Wright contentiously wrote how he found the criminalised image of the Filipino and Indonesian migrants to be commonly held in Sabah.

During his first visit to Kota Kinabalu, he was warned to “watch out for the Filipinos, they’re dange­rous”.

I was led to believe that pilak means the Filipino illegal immigrants who are normally perceived to be troublemakers and law-breakers.

So yes, I do think that pilak is a racist term, especially when we identify which Filipinos we want to apply it to – usually the dark-skinned ones with bronzy, orange hair.

Racism is always alive to a degree wherever ethnic polarisation exists. Sabah is, sadly, no exception.

Let’s take a look at some of these examples.

Chinese are perceived as ungrateful, cutthroat and cliquish or clannish.

Malays in Sabah are not even seen as Malays at all, but rather Muslim individuals who have converted to bumiputra status for benefits (ie. Bruneians, Pakistani-mixed descendants, Indonesians, Filipinos, etc).

Kadazan Dusuns are a demanding lot who don’t work very hard and have a habit with the bottle.

All other Sabah bumis (Muruts, Rungus, etc.) are simply followers of the Kadazan Dusuns, or complacent kampung folk.

Ouch, no?

Pilak are pretty much universally disliked, but how about the foreign workers contributing to Sabah’s economic development?

“Some still prefer immigrants to work in their premises as they are cheap labour but at the same time complain about the influx of immigrants. To put it simply, they (and even I) are just being a bunch of hypocrites,” writes my journalist friend Ricardo from Kota Kinabalu.

They see the foreigners as much needed in filling our human resource gap.

For example, palm oil plantations are facing some of the most serious labour shortages to date. Locals complain about foreign workers, yet they don’t take the jobs after the Go­­vernment removed the foreign workers.

On the flip side, there are those who feel that foreigners dilute our local representation and destroy our cultural heritage.

“Yes, I do believe the natives should protect their rights but not to the extent of inciting hate towards others,” Ricardo adds.

I asked some locals if the Lahad Datu intrusion has made them warier of foreigners working in Sabah.

Apparently, some are a bit wary and nervous about the Suluks already living among them.

Those closer to reality realise that these orang Tausug/Suluks were truly happy to call Sabah home as they escaped war-torn conditions to live a better life. There’s nothing greener back in the southern Philippines for them.

If anything, it was the foreign workers who were more cautious than the locals. A friend of a friend owns a workshop in Penampang, and his Suluk mechanics were calling their boss to ask if it was safe to come to work.

Fast forward a few months to today, nobody really gives a hoot about the fact that they order teh-C ping and food from Suluk teenage waitresses at virtually every kopitiam.

Red IC, MyKad or IC palsu – they’re usually hardworking people who appreciate the little things in life more than locals do.

Sure, racism lingers in the back of everyone’s minds, but fortunately in Sabah, it is nowhere near malicious.

Perhaps a better retort to Wright’s article, as suggested by a Mr Ray is this: is it racism, or is it anger towards social injustice that’s taking place here?

We’re both gunning for the latter.

> Daphne is embarrassed that she is unable to speak Dusun fluently and is trying to pick up the language to teach her half Dusun girls so they are able comprehend the language when they go home to see their Odu and Aki.

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Opinion , daphne iking


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