Yee I-Lan, Anak Negeri Kinabalu Series, 2007 (Courtesy of Yee I-Lann)
THE question of integration between East and West Malaysia, and why it has failed to eventuate after 45 years, is one I approach with ambivalence. I cannot speak for all Sabahans — including those near and dear to me — and I certainly will not presume to speak for Sarawakians. I only hope to illuminate, where possible, commonly held truths and hopes.
When I was 17, my high school made it to the final of a Malay-language forum competition held nationally. Our three-person team comprised my classmates, all wonderful students and speakers, and a reserve member from the lower forms. Ours was the only team in the final that didn’t have a Malay and/or Muslim participant, which we thought was irrelevant.
I came to school the next morning to find my classmates distraught. The emcee had disclaimed his announcement of the winners with the statement that the first-place winner was chosen not only based on points given to the teams, but also on a “discussion” among the judges. My classmates thought it strange, but surely it couldn’t mean anything awful?
They were wrong: my school was placed third, an announcement that (as one of my classmates related) prompted the entire room to turn around and stare at our team in shock. Not because we hadn’t deserved the prize, but because virtually everyone thought we deserved better.
I will never forget what one of my classmates said to me afterwards: “If you were the reserve member, we would have won.” Not because I was highly intelligent or particularly articulate, but because I was Muslim and wore a headscarf — and so was “Malay-looking” enough for the judges, most of whom were from West Malaysia.
West Malaysian readers may, at this point, feel a horrible sense of familiarity. The more cynical may have guessed that the winning team was all-Malay. They are right, but how many would also have guessed that three out of the four students in my school team were bumiputera? How many assumed that I identify as “Malay” instead of vehemently rejecting the label?
Furthermore, many Sabahans would instinctively condemn the judges of the competition for discriminating against Sabahans. Racism is part of this prejudice, but it is also interlinked with other issues within a larger rubric of intolerance and ignorance.
(© John Nyberg / sxc.hu)Parallel train tracks
There is a severe disjuncture between the lived reality of most Sabahans and what is assumed to be a common framework of socio-political discourse in Malaysia, particularly on the issue of ethnic relations. We are told that Malays, Chinese and Indians co-exist in harmony but as though on parallel train tracks, running on the same ground but never quite touching. We are taught to assume that religion is an integral part of one’s ethnic identity.
This is alien to a Sabahan: a Kadazandusun may be Christian or Muslim or Buddhist or even embrace Sikhism. Your ethnic identity does not predetermine your religious identity, and vice-versa. Furthermore, the only thing remarkable about inter-racial marriages in Sabah and Sarawak is how unremarkably common they are, and thus a Sabahan may have many relatives of different ethnicities and religions.
Many West Malaysians seem to find this a novelty; I wish they would instead think of it as an ideal to work towards. It is easy to dismiss East Malaysia and its characteristics as simply “too different” from what is assumed to be the mainstream, and marginalise Sabahans and Sarawakians from the process of nation-building.
Some even find the fluidity of ethno-religious identities and relationships in Sabah threatening because it undercuts the rhetoric of ketuanan Melayu: many Sabahans of indigenous descent are neither Malays nor Muslims, but are still the original owners of the land. They disprove the assumption that bumiputera is synonymous with Malay.
Malaysia’s real birthdate remains poorly acknowledged, let alone celebrated. The excuse often given to justify this is that Tunku Abdul Rahman originally intended for the official formation of Malaysia to take place on 31 Aug; however, this was delayed due to objections by Indonesia and the Philippines.
This makes no sense: surely the commemoration of a historic event must be based on the actual date of the event, not when the people involved hoped it would happen. And it doesn’t explain why Malaysia’s anniversary year is dated back to the independence of Malaya — Malaysia did not exist then, and would only come into being in 1963.
Children of Bajau Laut heritage in SabahCondescension
To grow up Sabahan is to live with the knowledge of terrible poverty and corruption, exacerbated by local politicians who sold out their own people for personal gains. It is to know that you are only important during elections, when the ruling coalition wants your vote, and otherwise ignored.
Condescension cuts across the political spectrum: I read with despair Pakatan Rakyat supporters chiding Sabah for “delivering” the election victory to Barisan Nasional while displaying their lack of knowledge on issues close to the heart of Sabahans, as well as the failure of DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat to work together to harness dissatisfaction on the ground.
These attitudes are prevalent not only within government machinery and the business of political horse-trading. Experiences abound of Sabahan students in West Malaysia being asked if they lived on trees, enduring jokes about orang-utans and head-hunters and having their accents made fun of.
The utter apathy of West Malaysians towards East Malaysia is disheartening: I can name the capital cities of all Malaysian states, while my Malaysian university mates in Melbourne struggled to place Kota Kinabalu correctly. The 2005 controversy over an orang-utan picture being used as the background for two Akademi Fantasia contestants from Sabah was not simply Sabahans “overreacting” to “a joke” — it touched a raw nerve precisely because of a history of discrimination.
Until Sabah, Sarawak and Peninsula Malaysia are seen at all levels as equal partners in nation-building, “integration” is a sham. At worst, all it has to offer for Sabahans is a one-sided assimilation.
It is clear that the current political relationship between East and West Malaysia has to change. Mere window dressing such as having parliamentary speakers from East Malaysia is not sufficient if our needs and voices continue to be marginalised. Budget increases are also ineffective without effective machinery put into place, and development policies will bring about grief if implemented without respect for the special relationship between the indigenous peoples of Sabah and the land.
Mazu statue in a Taoist temple. In early 2008, the mufti of Sabah issued a fatwa saying the proposed erecting of a Mazu statue was “offensive to Islam” because it was too close to a mosque
(Source: ckgoplaces.blogspot.com)A political reform has to take place within East Malaysia itself. Once upon a time Sabah — and Sarawak, for that matter — had something to teach West Malaysia about living together as one and agreeing to disagree, politically and socially. I don’t know if that is still true: Sabah has changed irrevocably since the coming of Umno to her fair shores. I read now of a fatwa being issued against the building of the Mazu statue, and Sidang Injil Borneo’s legal battle, and other stories of religious discrimination. This is not the Sabah I know and love.
We are slowly losing our collective memories of unity as we have lost our autonomy to undeserving political masters, and lost our native land to unscrupulous profit-makers. The long marginalisation of East Malaysia has resulted in the stripping away of our stories and identities, crushed under the weight of the “official” narrative of Malaysia.
A number of Sabahan leaders seem to be fighting back and standing up for the Sabahans’ shared issues, but are their efforts enough? On the eve of a date upon which Sabah may change this country’s political history, who are we now?
Yasmin Masidi is an alumni of the All Women Action Society (Awam)’s Writers for Women’s Rights Programme, and currently works for an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur. She is a long time coming home.