Things You Probably Don’t Know about Sabahans & Sarawakians

They are our brothers and sisters from Sabah and Sarawak, but do we really know them? With Malaysia Day approaching, I ask several Sabahans and Sarawakians about things other Malaysians may not know about them – some amusing notes, some random points, and other facts they really wish those in Peninsula Malaysia would remember. One thing that all of them brought up was that Sabah and Sarawak never “joined Malaysia” - as many Malaysians always say - and that the two, along with Singapore and Malaya, formed the Federation of Malaysia as equal partners on September 16, 1963.

  • They are irritated that their fellow Malaysians do not know Sabah and Sarawak were once independent countries themselves. Therefore they were not joining ‘states’ in the way other Peninsula states are, but rather ‘states’ as in sovereign territories. Therefore when Malaysia advertisements frequently emphasise the ‘Malay, Chinese, Indian’ mix as a point of national unity, that leaves East Malaysians understandably peeved.

  • It is common to find Malay-sounding names and even ‘bin’ and ‘binti’ in the names of people who are not Muslim. Don't assume things based on names or surnames, West Malaysians! Intermarriages are pretty common, says Jaswinder Kler, who works for an NGO. “It is normal to have families with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and even pagans in the mix. Everyone gets together, everyone's happy.”

  • Many Sarawakians think food in Peninsula Malaysia is a bit too spicy. They like their spice, but in a more balanced way – food with sweetness and sourness, with a tinge of spice. “Personally I have had to suffer every time I eat at the mamak stalls there, before my stomach can acclimatize to the food. Chili here and there! Sayur pun ada kari kah?”, says journalist Dennis Wong. He adds though, that Sarawakians love nasi lemak from West Malaysia, as he thinks its much better there.

  • Some folks from West Malaysia still actually think that some Sabahans and Sarawakians live on trees, which annoys them to no end. One would think the questions would come from foreigners, but they come from fellow Malaysians, and it still happens.

  • East Malaysians take pride in the fact that they are of various ethnicities and tribes who can live with each other peacefully. Homes in Mukah, the Melanau heartland, for example, often have two kitchens – one halal and the other, non-halal. “No big deal,” they say, as they have been living like that for centuries. Malay stalls operate inside Chinese-owned coffee shops, next to the other stalls selling non-halal food, and it’s no cause for hysterics.

  • The highest peak in South East Asia does not belong to Mount Kinabalu, but Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar. Shock, horror! It seems that many Sabahans have known it was only the fifth highest mountain in South East Asia for some time now.

  • Kuching in Sarawak is not named after cats, despite what tourism brochures say. Kuching was named after a small tributary that no longer exists – Sungai Mata Kucing – which refers to the Dimocarpus longan growing in the area. Cat in the Sarawak Malay language is called pusa, not ‘kucing’.

  • West Malaysians who complain about the immigration checks they have to go through when they enter Sabah and Sarawak do not realise that the controls are due to historical reasons – points of agreements with the two independent states on autonomy at the time of Malaysia’s formation. It basically also limits West Malaysians from taking over jobs or tracts of land there.

  • If many West Malaysians already think filling the ‘Melayu/Cina/India/Dan Lain-Lain’ box is a pain, it is something more resented by East Malaysians. With 32 ethnic groups and Muslims who do not identify as Malays, these boxes are hard to tick. “My husband for example, is a Muslim who is a pure Bisaya from the Kadazandusun stock,” says Jaswinder. “If forced to, he would have to tick ‘Dan Lain-Lain’. At my husband's kampung, they all wear the tudung and baju kurung, but they mainly speak Bisaya and enjoy sago as a substitute to rice.”

  • Things are pretty laid back and chilled in East Malaysia, even when it comes to traffic and driving. A friend in Sarawak says that there are traffic signs in Kuching that go ‘Turn left when the exit is clear’. This is unlike the rule in other parts of Malaysia, where you only turn when the lights are green.

  • East Malaysians are quite open about asking others what their ethnicities are. A Sarawakian friend who preferred not to be named, said he found it more awkward asking West Malaysian friends what their ethnicity was. “They often feel uncomfortable identifying themselves, and I know some who'd just say ‘I'm a Malaysian’, he said, although he understands that this is because people have become more politically conscious in urban areas. But “in the outskirt settlements, ethnicity is like a cloth you wear and it's common to hear "Kami Penan memang suka pergi memburu" or "Ini lah kami Dayak punya budaya...”, he said.

  • The last point may be quite apparent from some already stated, but East Malaysians think West Malaysians seem to get offended very easily.

Know any more points about Sabah or Sarawak that West Malaysians are unaware of? Do sound them off in your comments, and Happy Malaysia Day, fellow Malaysians!