How inspiring! Sabah stays true to unity in diversity

How inspiring! Sabah stays true to unity in diversity
By Zan Azlee

One thing that I miss during this pandemic period is that I haven’t been to one of my favourite states in Malaysia, Sabah, for so long. For the last 10 years, I have been going to Sabah annually, usually for the Borneo Eco Film Festival and the Suara Filmmaking Workshop series which aims to train local Sabahan civil society organisations in video storytelling.

It is always a pleasure to be in Sabah. The landscape is beautiful and diverse (beaches, islands and mountains), the wildlife is inspiring (just head on to Kinabatangan), the food is good (one word – ngiu chap!) and the people are just so pleasant. Of course, the best part is the people of Sabah.

We constantly talk about Malaysia being a multicultural and multireligious society that is able to find a balance that works, yet it doesn’t feel that way. We are a society that actually tolerates one another’s differences.

Even then, quite barely. In politics alone, we are currently being administered by an almost all Malay-Muslim government.

In the community, there are also many instances where we just tolerate each other. So many Chinese Malaysians, Indian Malaysians and Malay Malaysians are living almost homogenous lives where they don’t really interact with other races, aside from just surface relationships that need to happen.

Check ourselves and see if we actually have deep relationships with those of other races and religions. Do you have best friends from other races? And I mean real best friends and not just a neighbour you just greet ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in the mornings and evenings. Do you have relations who are of a different religion with whom you interact regularly?

If you answer yes to these questions, then congratulations! You are one of the very few who are actually accepting of cultural and religious diversity.


Acceptance is another word that seems to be a strange thing. Our society constantly preaches tolerance but never acceptance when it comes to race and religion.

So, what has all of this have to do with me missing Sabah? Well, of all the years and time I have spent in Sabah and its people, I have yet to see racial and religious tension being a thing in the Land Below The Wind.

This is not to say that Sabah is heaven on earth. Of course, they have their problems, too. But major racial and religious tension is not one of them.

It is highly likely that they are the way they are because of their extremely diverse society. There are so many different ethnicities living in the state, from the indigenous to the more mainstream ones (for lack of a better term that those from the Semenanjung can understand). And they all have different languages, dialects and religions.

It is so diverse that they just cannot avoid interacting with one another on all levels of society. Go to work and you will interact. Go to school and you will interact. Hang around in the kampung, towns, or neighbourhoods and you will interact. In fact, even within the family, there will most likely be those of different religions. It’s just how it is in Sabah.

Also, in Sabah, everyone can speak Sabah Malay fluently. So, it doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are and what dialect or language is your mother tongue; everyone can communicate well with each other.

And, speaking in Malay isn’t seen as something to be embarrassed about or shameful. It doesn’t suffer from elitism.

Eating habits are also different. It is difficult to find people there who are so uptight about whether the food that is being served is halal or not, is there pork or not, is there beef or not, and so on. It is just assumed that everyone will be considerate, and the best thing is that they always are. So no worries at all.

Eating in public is also not as uptight as in the Semenanjung. It doesn’t matter if a coffee shop is owned and run by whoever; everyone will still feel comfortable enough to sit and hang out. You can eat if you want to or you can just have a drink. There is hardly any paranoia about being in a non-halal or halal restaurant in Sabah.

I also admire how Sabahans are fiercely protective of their acceptance of diversity. The state, its people, and its government (no matter who is in power) have never compromised on this. This continues when recently, the federal government expressed intent in wanting to draft new syariah laws which include a bill to restrict other religions from propagating in Malaysia.



Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor


Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor (who is from Umno, by the way) made a statement rejecting this plan.

“Sabah is a state which has a population made of people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, who have been living in harmony and peace.

“Although we have many ethnicities and our own set of beliefs, we have always respected each other without any problem.

“So, Sabah is saying no to the government’s proposal to introduce the Control and Restriction on the Propagation of Non-Muslim Religions Bill,” Hajiji said.

Now, this doesn’t mean that Sabahans do not care about cultural and religious practices. Far from it. What it is is that they are respectful and accepting of each others’ beliefs and practices. There is a big difference between tolerance and acceptance. When they say “Boleh bah kalau kau”, they really mean “Boleh bah kalau kau”! (For you, anything).

I really do miss Sabah!

[This article was originally written for and published at]

Get Zan Azlee’s best-selling book ‘Liberal, Malay and Malaysian‘ today!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is liberal-cover.png

Buy more Fat Bidin books, films and merchandise at The Fat Bidin Store!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s