Sabah is a beautiful state. I am not Sabahan but I have been going to the north of Borneo every year for the past ten years. Mostly, I have been going to attend the Borneo Eco Film Festival where I have been a trainer training local rural communities to produce films so they can tell their own stories.
In between, I go back often just to enjoy being in the land below the wind. The last trip I took was a two-week road trip with my wife and kids and we drove from Kota Kinabalu all the way down south to Tawau, stopping in Kundasang, Sandakan, Sukau, Semporna and Mabul.
The year 2020 has been the only year where I have not gone to visit Sabah. My wife and I were due to go there in the fourth quarter to shoot a documentary. Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 spike that has hit the state, we have decided to reschedule.
Not only is Sabah a beautiful land, the people and culture are beautiful too. We, in West Malaysia, could learn a lot from the people of Sabah. In fact, I wish our people here were more like them over in the east.
Sabah is the epitome of multiculturalism and pluralism. The number of different ethnicities and religions that exist in the state can’t be counted with both hands and they all live harmoniously together with no problems at all. What a big contrast from the peninsula.
Nobody ever asks what religion or race you are. Despite many different ethnic languages and dialects, everyone speaks Malay, Sabahan Malay that is. Sentences are littered with “bah“, which can be used to mean many things, from acknowledging someone to just being a stress word for dramatic purposes.
Although I visit Sabah so often, I still cannot speak like a Sabahan. Maybe it’s better I don’t even try because I’ll probably be laughed at so hard by the locals! I do however like to do impressions of the slang. My favourite phrases to imitate are “Aku sampai sudah naik belon!” (I’ve arrived on a plane) and “Aku mau toombok mooka kau!” (I want to punch your face).
According to my wife, I’m the only one who thinks it’s funny. But in my defence, all my Sabahan friends will laugh when I do it. Maybe they do it out of politeness. Who knows? I mean, Sabahans are a very nice lot anyway.
Now back to the multiculturalism and pluralism of Sabah, which I think is their best quality of all. The litmus test is that you can be a Christian, Muslim or an Animists who revers the spirit of Aki Nabalu, and still sit in the same restaurant eating and drinking together.
It doesn’t matter if you eat pork or not. Nobody cares if you drink tuak or not. You handle and manage your own beliefs however you want to because to each his own. Like they always say in Sabah, “Boleh bah kalau kau!” (You can if it’s you).
This isn’t just in the urban cities like Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan, but also deep in the rural areas like Keningau. Different siblings in a family can be an ustazah (a religious Muslim teacher), a church pastor and a bobohizan (a high priestess in Kadazan Dusun spiritual rites), yet they still celebrate every Hari Raya, Christmas and Keamatan together.
Recently, Sabah has been going through quite a tough time. First, they went through a political crisis where the opposition at that time tried to claim the state government by persuading state assemblyperson to jump alliances.
The chief minister at the time, Shafie Apdal, rightfully called for an election. After an intense campaigning period, the opposition did indeed win the state government, albeit with a very small majority. Disappointed they may be, but Sabahans are accepting the results.
What is worrying is the fact that the coalition that won does not share the same multiculturalism and pluralism beliefs that Sabah is known for. In fact, they have been calling for the state government to appoint PAS members into the state cabinet.
Let’s be clear. PAS did not even contest in Sabah. Umno and Bersatu, two Malay-based parties in the winning coalition, have expressed their intentions of wanting this to happen. I do not see how an Islamic-based party being in the state cabinet will be of any benefit to Sabah.
PAS being in the federal government is proof that things can go south pretty fast. We have a minister, Khairuddin Aman Razali, who broke Covid-19 quarantine and was let off with a mere RM1,000 fine. His party members defended him by using religion and morality as an excuse.
They have elected MPs who make negative remarks about other religions. Pasir Puteh MP Nik Muhammad Zawawi Salleh made an insensitive remark claiming that the Bible is distorted. Obviously, this offended Malaysian Christians. Of course, he refused to apologise.
They are now pushing for the Hudud Bill (Act 355) to be tabled in Parliament, which will threaten religious harmony in the country. Its leaders are also constantly making public statements that support a Malay-Muslim-majority-led government is the only salvation for the country.
PAS isn’t just bad for Sabah. It is bad for Malaysia as a whole.
The spike in Covid-19 infections is also something Sabah needs to face. The numbers are increasing so rapidly and now the government will be imposing an inter-district travel ban which will hopefully curb the virus from spreading further.
It’s been a tough few months for Sabah. I hope that whatever I am writing won’t be seen as “Malaya-splaining” (you know… like “man-splaining”!). I just love the state and its people. So let’s pray and hope that everything turns out better for Sabah soon and I can come visit again.
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