Sabah is the real owner of ‘bosku’

When non-Sabahans attempt to borrow expressions derived from the culture in Sabah, Sabahans tend to be critical over the authenticity of certain terms. 

BOS and bosku, what is the difference?

Bos (which in English means “boss”) is a term of endearment that has found its way into the Sabah Malay lingo, according to linguist and anthropologist Trixie Kinajil Tangit.

Bosku (my boss), said the senior lecturer at the Faculty of Development and Multicultural Studies at University College Sabah Founda­tion (UCSF) in Kota Kinabalu, was generated among Indonesian migrant workers in Sabah.

In Indonesian, she said the honorific term for higher-ups is gender specific such as Bapa X or Ibu X.

To understand the term “bosku”, she said it was important to look at the origin of the expression “bos” (the Malay language spelling) or “boss” (the English spelling) as widely used in Sabah by speakers of Sabah Malay.

From the outset, she said it is a referential term from a subordinate to a superior in the English language. However, nowadays, it is often heard in several social context.

For example, it is spoken by a customer when addressing the owner of a shop or restaurant, and including the workers there.

Another example is when a peer refers to another as “bos/boss” in a light-hearted and playful manner.

“When people accommodate each other in this way, language can be seen to be a kind of social ‘currency’, where it facilitates communication and elicits camaraderie among people, friendship and even solidarity,” said the linguist and anthropologist.

“Bosku”, Tangit said comes specifically from Indonesian plantation workers/speakers, who use the term to refer to their respective employers/bosses, particularly in the east coast of Sabah, such as in Tawau around the 1980s.

In turn, she said the phrase is also used on a social level such as between friends, similarly to create a sense of closeness or to bridge a perceived social distance owing to status.

In Sabah now, one can hear some people alternate between “bos” and “bosku”.

“The terms ‘bos’ and ‘bosku’ are powerful words to create and maintain social relations that promote greater harmony among people, and so diffuse any underlying tension owing to power imbalances,” she said.

“Further, as Sabahans use these terms to subvert the original meanings in them (that of a differential power relationship, for example between a boss and a servant) and use them to equalise statuses between people, they are in a way experts in endearing people to each other without calling to mind social class.”

On the question on how “bosku” spread to Peninsular Malaysia, Tangit said it is assumed that the Sabah Malay lingo was widespread in other parts of the country.

She said Sabah Malay speakers being mobile and found in Kuala Lumpur (KL) other than in Sabah may also lead to the question – is Sabah Malay now widely spoken in KL?

The answer, she said would probably be “no” given that KL is not typically known to be representative of Sabah Malay speakers (that is people from Sabah from any ethnic background who speak Sabah Malay).

Tangit said it was better to look at specific cases on how the term “bossku” was used in isolation by a promoter that is former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

“One can also then post a follow-up question to see if non-Sabahan speakers are now using ‘bossku’ the way Najib Razak is engaging with the term, and not necessarily as how Sabahans would,” she said.

There’s a difference between Sabah’s “bosku” and Najib’s “bossku”, she said.

“This is perhaps the more interesting part of the entire conversation and that of cultural misappropriation.

“Apparently, the use of the term ‘bosku’ by Najib did not elicit the same sense of fellowship, or even meaning, for and among Peninsular Malaysia-based Sabahans, let alone with Sabahans in Sabah, for the most part,” she said.

“Perhaps, this is because when non-Sabahans attempt to use Sabahan local culture, including language as their own, they tend to be critical in terms of authenticity. (The same is true for other cultures).

“Some Sabahans are very proud of their Sabahanness (‘Sabahan identity’) and place saliency solely on language. So that, one can eat and dress like a Sabahan, but only when one speaks Sabah Malay like a Sabahan can one truly draw praise (and acceptance) from a true blue Sabahan,” she said.

The root of the lack of endorsement from KL-based Sabahans, according to Tangit, was due to how “bosku” is paired with the phrase, “malu apa”.

She opined that the combined phrasing creates a collocation clash, that is, a problem with the compatibility of meanings produced by words that appear together.

“To put it simply, ‘malu apa, bossku’ is an oxymoronic expression for Sabah Malay speakers or Sabahans because the first stem/phrase is antagonistic by nature, whereas ‘bossku’ is not.

“While being a term that strategically but subtly diffuses power imbalance, ‘bosku’ is firmly associated with good fun, goodwill and promoting social relations – a set of virtues that multicultural Sabahans seek to preserve to enable inter-ethnic relations among them,” she said.

“There is no express permission from Sabahans for other Malaysians to use terms derived from local Sabahan culture.

“When they are used by public figures, such as Najib, and used creatively with other Malay expressions, Sabahans naturally feel uncomfortable because they, as experts of their language and culture, can tell that outsiders are misappropriating these aspects of their identity.”

That’s the difference between Sabah’s “bosku” and Najib’s “bossku”.


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