Many local phrases originating from the state are gaining traction in the peninsula. Some have even become political slogans.
“BAH bossku, jalan dulu (I’m going off),” I said to a group of politicians from Parti Solidariti Tanah AirKu (Sabah STAR).
It was a blazing Thursday in a suburb at Sandakan in the east coast of Sabah.
I stumbled upon the politicians – including Sabah STAR president Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, who is Keningau MP and Tambunan assemblyman, and Sook assemblyman Datuk Ellron Angin – having lunch at a seafood restaurant.
I sat with them to get the opposition insight on who will win the Sandakan by-election.
The talk of the town was bossku Datuk Seri Najib Razak of Umno was coming to town to campaign for Parti Bersatu Sabah with his Malu apa, bossku? (What’s the shame, my boss?) moniker the following day.
The former prime minister has made “bossku” famous in Malaysia. But many living outside my state may not know that the phrase originated in Sabah.
I asked Edward Linggu, the former Tamparuli assemblyman, on the usage of “bossku” among Sabahans.
He doesn’t remember when exactly locals used it but he knows it has been decades.
Linggu said it was a norm in Sabah to address someone you respect as boss or uncle instead of “tuan” (the Bahasa Malaysia word for “boss”).
Boss, he said, was a reflection of respect to someone who can be a taukeh (businessman).
But he said it was also used among friends or to address someone you don’t remember or know by name.
Kitingan added: “Sabahans have a unique way of relating to each other. Rather than call someone by his name, you call them ‘boss’.”
Linggu and Kitingan’s explanation, however, did not explain how the “ku” was added to “boss”.
A Sabahan politician who I’ve heard addressed as “bossku” in Peninsular Malaysia before Najib made the phrase famous is Kemabong assemblyman Jamawi Jaafar, who was with Umno before joining Parti Warisan Sabah.
I met him in Muar, Johor, for supper with his Umno Youth members from the peninsula in 2017 and at the meeting they were calling him “bossku”.
I thought it was a unique way of addressing him as it was such a Sabah phrase.
“Bossku, when did you start using ‘bossku’?” I asked Jamawi over the phone.
He said back in the early 1990s when he was in a secondary school in Tenom, in the interior of Sabah, his classmates were using the phrase “boss”.
“At that time, we called our friends ‘boss’,” he said.
For example, he said, just say you need help from your friend instead of calling him by his name, you say: “Boss, help me to do this.”
“It is to avoid using kau (you) which is less polite. We even use it to address a security guard or a coffeeshop assistant. That is the kebiasaan (norm) in Sabah,” he said.
On how the “ku” was added to the “boss”, Jamawi said it probably started in the east coast of Sabah.
When Jamawi worked in Kuala Lumpur in the 2000s, his friends addressed themselves as “boss”.
In my article in 2013 on Jamawi contesting for the Umno Youth deputy chief post, it started with an Umno man addressing him as “boss”.
“Selayang no problem, boss,” said a Selayang Umno Youth chief aspirant at the 26th floor of the Mara headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.
The fair-skinned Jamawi smiled and said, “Boss, thank you for the support”.
In the Umno Youth annual general assembly in 2009, Jamawi, as an Umno Youth exco member gave an opening speech.
“In my speech, I called KJ, yang berhormat boss kita Khairy Jamaluddin. After that many Umno Youth members started calling me bossku,” he said, adding that the context was “bussku” as kawan kita (my friend).
“Sabahans use ‘boss’ but later ‘ku’ was added to give a personal touch to show that you appreciate the person you are addressing,” said Jamawi.
He added: “My spelling for the phrase is ‘bussku’ and not ‘bossku’.”
When his boss was then rural and regional development minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, Jamawi called him “bussku”.
It was the same when he was with the then communications and multimedia minister Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak. Mohd Shafie and Salleh are both Sabahans.
The phrase that originated in Sabah and crossed over the South China Sea to become a political slogan is “Ini Kali Lah” (this is the time). The other less famous slogan is “Lain Kali Lah” (next time).
There are other Sabah slangs – such as buli bah kalau kau (can because it is you) or “aramaitii” (let’s be merry) – that are gaining traction among Malaysians in the peninsula who have Sabahan friends.
Still relatively unknown outside of Sabah are kupi kupi dulu sebelum karaja (let’s have coffee before we start work), dari kau saja bah (it is up to you), nah kotoh (Kadazandusun phrase meaning “Serve you right”) and apa kau rasa? Oren? (what do you taste? Orange? – which is similar to “I told you so”).In the context of a divided Malaysia, politicians should promote the Sabah slang – kita-kita juga baini (we are all one).
Buli kah, bossku? (Can kah, bossku?)