About 3 years ago, I was in a job interview for a position that I thought was going to be in my hometown of Kota Kinabalu. The interview was going smooth, until one of them asked me: “Would you be able to work in KL?”
Part of me then didn’t think that I had any real reason to go to KL because my friends and family were in KK, and I barely knew anyone in KL. But my interviewer made it sound like a challenge. So…
Few weeks later, I got the job and was told to go over in about two weeks. With barely enough time to make accommodation arrangements, say my goodbyes and pack up, everything went by as quickly as I had said “Yes”. Next thing I knew I was on a plane to KUALA LUMPUR, imagining how my new life there would be daisies and rainbows like this Siti Nurhaliza song…
Then I arrived, and needless to say, there were plenty of culture-shock moments.
Apart from the traffic jams and the very very misleading road signs, the fast paced life, the demanding people and colleagues, and the high maintenance girls, KL was just a different place than I’d imagined it would be. Even after 3 years here, I may have learned to accept some things, but there will always be things that I will never understand from my Sabahan breeding. So let’s start from the beginning…
1. “Welcome to MALAYSIA?!”
Shortly after landing at LCCT (still remember that place or not?), I took a taxi and had my first conversation with a presumably KL-ite, judging from his accent, that went something like this:
Uncle Taxi: Mau peerghi mane?
Shy Sabah Boy: Eee….*show address on handpon*
Uncle Taxi: Ohh…u orang mane?
Shy Sabah Boy: Oo…sia orang Sabah..
Uncle Taxi: Oo…Sabah. First time mari ke Malaysia?
First time… mari ke… Malaysia?
I was dumbfounded. I had to check if I was still holding a Malaysian passport (oklah, I actually used my IC to travel here). So why did I just get welcomed by a fellow Malaysian to my own country that I have never left?
Maybe this uncle taxi was pulling a prank on me feigning ignorance, but when I started telling this joke to other Sabahans who have traveled to KL, they told me they had similar experiences too.
Even our state Tourism Minister pun kena during #SabahQuake…
Why is this happening? As KL-ites like to say, entah. As far as I can remember during my Sejarah class, Malaysia was formed when Malaya, Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore joined into a federation on 16 September 1963. So unless our friendly folks in KL missed the memo, Sabahans are also Malaysians bah!
And this ‘welcoming’ to Malaysia doesn’t just end at the airport. The longer we ‘stay’ in Malaysia, the more absurd the question becomes. Like being asked how long we’ve ‘been in Malaysia’, or what currency do we use in Sabah.
But oklah, maybe the concept of an East Malaysia is too big for them, which brings me to my next item…
2. People can never tell Sabah from Sarawak
So I started my job and eventually some colleagues would try to be friendly and talk to me as if they knew all about my home-state and home town. But I would get conversations like this:
Colleague: I’m going to Kuching to climb the mountain.
Me: Oh, cool, which mountain?
Colleague: That one lah! The Mount Kota Kinabalu.
Me: But Kuching is in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu is in Sabah…
Colleague: Never mind wan! Just nearby mah! Can drive from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu.
Me: Bulih bah kalao kau!
Let me get this off my chest first…
Also, my hometown is not on top of a mountain! (Though that would be totally cool….before the earthquake)
Oklah, I can understand the mix-up if you took Sejarah instead of Geografi for your SPM (but then you shouldn’t be welcoming me to Malaysia either). I would probably make the same mistake by assuming that Kota Bharu is in Johor Bharu. Except that if you had look at the East Malaysia map lately, you would realise that my colleague was just a little off la between Kuching and Kota Kinabalu….by 1,127.4 kilometers (and you have to pass through Brunei. Twice!). As reference, the road distance from KL to Bangkok is about 1,400 km, so you would definitely be within Thai territory if you drove the same distance from Kuching to Kota Kinabalu.
Never minding that some KL-ites don’t know which state capital belongs to which state (then you need to ask how the CILISOS editor-in-chief remembers!), but when you start mistaking that Kadazans are from Sarawak, and Ibans are from Sabah, then you really are minta-ing to have your head kana pancung (by either one of us)!
P/S: Even CILISOS editor-in-chief has gotten it wrong…
… but now he remembers it using the long-short;short-long tip: “SABAH is short, KOTA KINABALU is long; SARAWAK is long, KUCHING is short!”
3. The accent… and the slangs!
I admit la, we Sabahans speak a Bahasa that is a little different than everyone else (some say influenced by our neighbouring Indo). Not everyone is going to get what it means to ‘bubut’ someone, or what is ‘limpas’ when asking for directions, or getting caught with our ‘celana’ down, or why it’s totally appropriate to smack a child’s ‘pantat’ for being naughty (it means a different body part in Sabah and everyone has the same one).
Strangely though, when I’m speaking Bahasa in KL, I get commented for speaking it too ‘proper’.
But when it’s my turn to listen to how the locals here speak it, I start to wonder if the Bahasa that I learned in school is really the same one that my cikgu taught me.
All the ‘a’s become ‘e’s (Ye keh? Mane ade!), and we have to remove all the ‘Saya’s, ‘Aku’s, ‘Engkau’s and ‘Awak’s from our memory because it has apparently been removed from the national vocabulary. Betul! I tak tipu you!
But after a while it’s not hard to grasp what they are actually saying when you understand that they are actually short forms of one word or another. But that doesn’t apply to everything. For example, for the longest time since I’ve been here, I’ve never been able to guess what was the original word for ‘kot’ was, and why I always get stood up by people when they say they are coming, kot.
4. The Indians…
Not that I want to try and sound racist la, but it was quite intimidating when I first saw a group of Indians on the streets of KL.
Yeah, I said it. A group. What? You thought I was going to say Indians?
It was more out of fascination than fear, but sighting more than one Indian on such a normal occasion really sinks in the fact that I am are not in Sabah anymore.
Ui, jangan temberang bah! Surely got Indians also in Sabah too…
Ada, but Indians are a real minority in Sabah. According to the 2010 census, they make up 0.3% (rounded up) of the state’s population. So hypothetically, for every 100 people in Sabah, we only see 1/3 of an Indian. That’s how rare they are, and I think I can only name less than 5 Indian friends (oklah, one of them is half Ceylonese) that I made before I came to KL.
So don’t blame us for being surprised when we see more than one macha in every corner of KL. And I’ve just used up my entire Tamil vocabulary.
But we still have cool Indians, though. Like this guy, and he can tell you how confusing it is to be a Sabah Indian.
5. Why on earth is race is sooooooo important?
This is often the first and strangest questions that I get asked. Usually after a very scrutinising scan of evil eyes.
I don’t know what makes a Chinese in Sabah look any different than our kin in KL, but it amuses the heck out of me to see the shocked faces when I tell them that I’m a 100% Chinese.
But after a while, the novelty wears off and it’s actually quite sandi (that’s sedih in Bahasa Sabah) when I start thinking how my mixed blood Sabahans have to answer this question. Not to mention the confused looks they get if their answer don’t fall in one of the three that the KL-ites are expecting.
But why are KL-ites so boxed in about races in this multi-racial country? And why do people care about your race more than your name, or where are you from?
Truth be told after some observations and personal experience, I can see that there is a practical side of knowing what race you belong to. It’s like carrying a membership card to an exclusive club around here. Once you are identified belonging to one club, you are almost by nature put in your place with rules to observe. You cannot mix with those from other clubs. You can only eat on the same table with those of the same club. And you must speak the ‘secret’ language of your club so that the other clubs won’t know you are conspiring against them.
Ok, maybe we are not always plotting Game of Thrones style against those not of the same race, but seeing how tables at the mamak or food court are organised by skin colour, is both a fascinating and depressing sight to see as a Sabahan. Just what is so taboo about having friends outside our racial circle? This way of thinking is so ingrained in the KL social culture that even if I tried reaching out, I am met with indifferent cold stares like: “What this fella trying to sell me?”.
And there’s a dark side to this. Racism here is used as a shorthand to find fault on things, instead of looking closer at it. For example, instead of blaming someone for their flaws to their person, we generalise that it is found in the race. To be honest, it is a very tempting way of thinking because it lets us put the blame on someone else and I have seen Sabahan friends adopting it here, partly because they have been fed with the Dark Side but partly because of convenience. Even if I’m not judging them, what’s to say they are not judging me?
Back home, we have 32 ethnic groups (I actually had to check this because I loss count) and if we had easily dismissed each other at a glance of someone’s skin colour, then we would have a relationship map that even George R.R Martin cannot fathom. #stopmakingGoTreferences
But I think the real reason why we never bothered with one’s race is because interracial marriages are so common in Sabah and it has been going on for generations until it doesn’t matter who or WHAT we marry anymore or what kids do we have. Everyone has a little something of something in their blood, and the only reason why I managed to stay ‘pure’ is because my parents aren’t originally from Sabah.
But if my horny ancestors back then were not allowed to take a liking to the native sumandaks, we wouldn’t get these beautiful hybrids, as this song illustrates…
6. Oh, the religious extremism…
Now let’s get a little serious. If we can’t understand why race is already a dividing issue here, then religion only just makes things worse.
As a Sabahan, we just don’t get this ‘us vs. them’ mentality that some NGOs here are strongly advocating. When these groups start playing the victim card of how their religion is being under siege by something as innocent as hanging a cross, or printing a certain word that gets used in the publication of a different religion, it leaves us partly riled up, and partly scratching our heads.
Ok, maybe those are extreme cases la. But even the conservatism and the abstinence of interacting with non-Muslims is a little puzzling to us sometimes. Back home, we are used to eating in the same shop with our Muslim compatriots.
Heck, even halal and non-halal stalls are opened in the same shop so long as the halal dishes and the non-halal dishes are kept separate. We have to freedom to choose if we want a hot bowl of soto or a juicy dish of ngiu chap for breakfast. But once we are over here, Muslims avoid entering an establishment without the Halal sign like it were the gates of Hell itself.
The thing is, again because of interracial marriages and because we have been living like this for generations, religion also gets thrown in the mix too. Same members of the extended families can have different religion and we’re fine with that. The key is as long as we learn to respect each other. Remember the thing that used to be beaten into us as children so that we don’t grow up to be jerks? RESPECT.
In fact, religious mingling is not a problem for us, but it is something that is celebrated.
7. The Mystical House of Sabahans
But the most baffling thing that I’ve heard is that we Sabahans like to look down on everyone. Yeah. True. We look down on everyone because apparently we live up on trees. TREES!
I don’t know where this stereotype originated from, and it’s not like our old photos show that we live on trees. Maybe it came as an afterthought when an embarrassed parent in the 60s couldn’t explain to their children what Sabah was like…
“Where do Sabahans live?”
“Haiya….why ask so much questions? Ermm…..they live in the jungle so they must live on trees lah!”
Well, let me give you a tour of the average Sabah house….
Sorry. Wrong house. Here we go…
Shocking right? Who knew that Sabahans liked living on the ground as much as the next person who likes standing on it with two feet.
But jokes aside, Sabah actually has a thriving property sector and that is not always a good thing for us. For one, our property prices are rocketing so high to outer space levels that our pittance of a salary can only look up and gaze at it like the stars.
No kidding. This survey in 2015 (latest info, yo!) even tells us that our affordability rate is the lowest in the country. KL and Penang pun kalah, ok? So don’t come complaining to us that you can’t afford a home here, when it’s easier for us to buy a house in KL than in our own backyard.
Getting back to us living on trees because we live in the jungle, it must have germinated into the mass consciousness that makes KL-ites have some odd assumptions. Because of that assumption, we get treated like sakais like as if we have never seen civilization. So once in a while, we get these odd questions:
“Got cars a in Sabah?” We got an excess of four-wheel drives.
“Got malls ka in Sabah?” Too many and more coming….
But this is a pure classic:
“How did you come to Malaysia? By sampan?”
Truth is, sometimes we don’t know if we should feel embarrassed for being asked these questions or for the ones asking us these questions. You have tall twin towers, but you never knew that there would not be an AirAsia, if there was no Sabah.
So why lah?
So why la, Malaysia? Next time before we kutuk about other countries, ask yourself if you have hugged a Sabahan lately. It actually kinda hurts when we get treated as a foreigner in our own country.
In fact, if we don’t put on the band-aid on the wounds, our own negative perceptions of West Malaysians (maybe CILISOS will let me do another article on this?) is only going to grow and fester. More so, when you start pushing our buttons with stunts like this. If this keeps going, it will make us believe more and more that the general consensus you have about us is that we are just hicks from the far side of the country that you didn’t know existed, with nothing to offer *cough*exceptOil*cough*. Ahem!
How about just visiting Sabah and see it for yourself? No need to go to Bali for islands, or Nepal for mountains (just don’t pose naked on sacred ground la). In Chinese we say Sabah ‘got mountain, got water’…(but don’t forget the jungles, the orang utans, and the sweet sweet sumandaks too!)
But the best part about visiting Sabah is meeting the people la. We’ve embraced 1Malaysia-ness long before it even became the slogan of Najib’s administration (siapa main tiru-tiru ni?). In the end, wouldn’t it be perfect if we were all just treated equally and got along happily?