Friday, January 8, 2010

No, Sabahans don't live on trees!

As a Sabahan, I could relate with most of what Erna Mahyuni writes in her article in MalaysiaKini. (Click here to read it).

I grew up watching Petronas Hari Merdeka advertisements portraying little Ah Chong, little Abdullah and little Ramesh playing happily together as children, and 30 years later as old men these three multi-racial friends would still be able to sit together having coffee at the same table.

As a school student, I noticed that the National Textbooks would always portray multi-ethnicity in their contents, having characters like Siti, Kumari and Mei Ling harmoniously interacting and co-existing with one another.

I grew up having that image of Malaysia in my head and my heart, and living in Sabah does not make it difficult to believe that this is indeed what Malaysia truly is.

It is not a strange scene for the multi-racial (we have over 40 different ethnic groups in Sabah) and multi-religion people (Muslims, Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans etc) in Sabah to sit together having coffee and mee goreng at the same table all the time.

In the late 1990's, I set foot for the first time on the land of Semenanjung Malaysia to further my study at one of the local university. My Malay Semenanjung roommate greeted me, "Welcome to Malaysia!"

Thinking she must have mistakenly identified me as an International Exchange student (from Indonesia, maybe?) I laughed and told her that I was actually from Sabah. To that, she replied, "Yes, I know that! First time here? So what do you think of Malaysia?"

Throughout the years, I was being asked a lot of questions by my fellow Malay Semenanjung friends, among others:

"Is it true that Sabahans still live in the jungles?"
"Do you live on trees?"
"Do people in Sabah wear 'cawat' all the time?"
"So how was your first time on an airplane?"

And as for Ah Meng, Balakrishnan and Ahmad having coffee together at the same table, it was almost non-existent that at that time I thought I was in another country other than Malaysia. The Malaysia that I thought I knew.

Malays would never set foot on a Chinese restaurant. Once I was having a meal with some friends in one Chinese stall by the roadside. A Malay man who happened to pass by spat on the ground near our table. I thought about the beautiful Petronas advertisement, and felt betrayed.

In the university itself, Malays would mingle among the Malays, the Chinese among themselves, the Indians likewise. Always unsure which 'group' we should 'belong to', Sabahans (Muslims and non-Muslims) would always opt to mingle among ourselves, and of course with our fellow Sarawakians (Muslims and non-Muslims).

I could still remember the time when the University decided to implement its 'integration' policy, in which they decided that allocations of hostel rooms for students should not be based on races and religions anymore. A hostel room should be shared by students of different races and religions, to promote unity.

The university students rallied around the campus, protesting against the 'new policy'. Sabahans and Sarawakians could only watch in amazement.

But that was about 10 years ago. With more and more Sabahans and Sarawakians working and studying in Semenanjung, things must be a lot different nowadays. Are they?

This recent squabble over the name of God in Malaysia shocked us Sabahans, not because of the possibility of non-Muslims being denied the right to use the word 'Allah' to worship God, but because after so many years, surprisingly, there are still a lot that our Malay Semenanjung brothers and sisters do not know about Sabah and Sarawak.

Along with the questions on whether we still live on trees (Yes, they still ask that!), in their protest over the use of the word 'Allah' among non-Muslims, we could hear these remarks being made:

"Kita sudah cukup bertoleransi dengan mereka, tapi mereka pula mahu pijak kepala kita".
"This is a propaganda to confuse Muslims and convert Muslims to Christianity".
"The fact that you and your family are still a devouted Christian living in Sabah is a proof as well as a testament that for years ever since Merdeka, you fella have been allowed to practice your religion freely".
"Jumlah mereka cuma 9%, tapi Santa Claus ada di mana-mana."
"Bantah 1Malaysia!!!"

Sabahans and Sarawakians are natives of the beautiful island of Borneo, we were proud to call ourselves Malaysians after this small island happily joined Tanah Melayu to form Malaysia in the 1960's.

As natives of Borneo, we share the same Indigenous title with our Orang Asli and Malay brothers and sisters in Semenanjung Malaysia. And as such, we hold every single right as Bumiputra, or 'sons of the soil' (heheh!) as some people like to call it.

Some Malaysians are now proudly proclaiming how much they have 'tolerated' us all these years.

Definition of tolerate (Essential English Dictionary):
tolerate ['tɑləreɪt /'tɒl-]
1. put up with something or somebody unpleasant
2. recognize and respect (rights and beliefs of others)

We are Bumiputra Malaysians, not PTI (Pendatang Tanpa Izin) that anyone should feel the need to 'put up with' us (are we unpleasant?). Yes, we appreciate it that you recognize and respect our rights and beliefs, but doing so and still treat us like aliens in our own land makes us wonder whether we are 'second-class' citizens in your eyes.

We 'fella' practise our own religion freely not because we are 'allowed' to do so by any human organisations, but because we have the human right as God's creations to do so.

Bantah 1Malaysia? What is 1Malaysia? Even before 'Merdeka', Sabahan and Sarawakian Muslims and non-Muslims have always been able to live together harmoniously and peacefully, despite our differences.

Most of our Muslim brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak have no problems sitting together having coffee with their non-Muslim friends at the same table not because they 'tolerate' us.

It is because they embrace us.

Our Muslim brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak are aware of the existence of the word 'Allah' in Indonesian-translated Bibles of their Christian friends for many many years, but they never accuse us of having secret agenda. They never get confused or get accidentally converted to Christianity. Is it because they 'tolerate' us?

No. It is because they embrace us.

Occasionally after work or during the weekends, we like to have meals together with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Sometimes we would have roti canai at Restoran Bilal. The next day it would be the Japanese Tauhu at Vui Kee. If we want to have nice ais kacang, we would go to Sharmis.

Is it because we 'tolerate' each other? Yes, when my friend insists on having ais kacang while I am craving for roti canai, of course we need to be tolerant with one another in coming up with the best solution.

But more than that, we also embrace each other.

When I first became a teacher 5 years ago, my Headmaster asked some of the non-Muslim teachers to help out as AJK Hadiah for Majlis Tilawah Al-Quran for our district. Being a small school, we didn't have enough teachers. No problem. We were more than happy to help out.

"But it's a Majlis Tilawah Al-Quran. You have to wear tudung", my Headmaster said.

"No problem", we said. We giggled gleefully as our fellow Muslim colleagues helped us put on the tudung, we even experimented with different styles and tried to match it with different kerongsangs. I was pretty sure that I looked like the famous singer Waheeda at that time.

We did that, not because we 'tolerate' our Muslim colleagues. We did that because we love them. We embrace them. We trust them.

Our students got the second place in the Nasyid Competition which was held simultaneously with the Tilawah Al-Quran. No words could express my feeling when the little children ran towards me with their arms open, pure innocent joy in their eyes, declaring proudly "Teacher! Teacher! We won! We won!"

I remembered opening my arms as wide as I could and EMBRACED the little ones, one by one.


  1. This is a very enlightening article indeed. Unfortunately many west malay-sians are still ignorant about the world outside the boundaries of west malaysia itself.

    Great piece, I will share it with my future Sabahan wife. :-)

  2. Tis is the first time I read your blog which was posted in FB! Very interesting post! I wish more and more Malaysian 'over there' will adapt the Sabahan & Sarawakian nature of living in peace and harmony with everyone regardless of their race or religion... ;-)

  3. Good job Cyn...Luv ya...!!! hehhhee... :D

  4. Hahaha I'm really glad that I was born as Sabahan. I think we Sabahan are the most harmonious community all over the world. I was wonder why we have to even care about the people in West Malaysian? They took our resources, they flatten out our forests and even dried up our oils? even more dared to insult us even after we gave all those things? I'm Muslim though and I really ashamed on how the "Muslim" in west Malaysia reacted and acted like an idiot and ignorant people.

  5. I love your post and as a Sabahan, I do agree that we do not live on trees. LOL... tho it is very disappointing that most of THEM are still ignorant about us and even consider us as 2nd class citizens when all of us are Malaysian.

  6. totally made my day! i'd been a bit gloomy all day- as i'd made the mistake going into a blog on the net about this 'issue' n spent quiet amount of time explaining that we had use that one particular word since ages ago..i was a bit frustrated really having to explain over n over again, when it shouldn't hv mattered in the first place if only we weren't treated as second class citizen or if only they hd a bit more awareness of other peoplew bt themselves...huhuhuhu..n, reading ur blog really made me happy....thanks!!!!!

  7. Cris, I'm glad it did. Really, really glad it did make your day.

    Please don't hesitate to share this with our frustrated fellow Sabahans. I did, and many have expressed how much they were comforted by this humble thoughts.

    Let's comfort each other. That's what Sabahans do.

  8. i totally love your blog, and im proud of being a sabahan

  9. Proud to be a Sabahan all the time.

  10. cindy, god bless you for your love and openness. thank you for sharing.

  11. well. that usia sandakan issue is embarrassing..

  12. proud 2 b native borneo!...

  13. We Sabahans are like brothers and sister, regardless of race, religion or creed. We are Borneans who have lived peacefully for hundreds of years. How good it is if all Malaysia embrace this.

  14. When they stated bantah 1 malaysia, it is still not confirm that they're Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu or UMNO in Malay. They maybe from others like the Al-Arqams. To those who was shallow minded might think directly it was he who stated the green light for the rally.

    He might be very much painful to choose whether to say ok or not. In the other hands the rival just wait what his action. If he say ok to the rally, the FRUs can still control those few hundreds of his fellow. The opposition will offend him and stay calm. But if he said not ok. There might be much trouble because the FRUs can't control the few thousands opposition riots which on day light they dare to burn everything on their path.

    1M means to gather support by the Malays. It is like to choose 60% and sacrificed the 9%. Not all Malays are stupid. There are very few scum that only act without order. To, Sabahans and Sarawakians. Unity and tolerance is our key to live in peace and harmony. If they didn't BODOH us why should we BODOH them? I mean BOTHER.

    This issue will be drag much longer then. Until the westerns interferes soon, they reach the goal of 1M. But that must be before GE13. The Indonesians were already publish a Holy bible with Elohim instead Allah. What then? I am sure my faith will be only to Him started long before I was babtist in St. Valentine Church.

  15. Great article Cindy! And I agree with you too... I'm a Sarawakian, was a Catholic before I married my West Malaysian muslim husband. I must say I'm thankful and glad that he shares the same view as many of us from the Borneo.
    He had the same experience like you when he joined his non-muslim west malaysian colleagues for a drink at a chinese restaurant. They asked him lots of questions, and repreatedly said, "you go to chinese restaurant also aah??", which is ridiculous! "I was just drinking tea! Why is that a big problem??" he said. He's used to the culture because he have seen how we, Sabahans and Sarawakians, live and go about our daily lives, muslims and non-muslims together. Peacefully. In harmony.

    I must say that I am damn proud to have been born and bred in the Borneo Island. I am just sad that our fellow brothers and sisters in the west malaysia have only realised and started to campaign the 1Malaysia concept only last year, when we in the Borneo have been practising it since a long, long time ago...

  16. Dear Cynthia,

    Just sharing the international community's view on this issue.....


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