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Go East (life is peaceful there)

DATUK Seri Awang Tengah Ali Hasan, a member of the Sarawak state cabinet and right-hand man of Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, recently proclaimed that the proposed Race Relations Act is not needed in Sarawak. I agree wholeheartedly.

This is another unique thing about Sarawakians: we can agree on many things across race and party lines, especially when it comes to the relations between the state and the federal government. We are united by this common self-identification as fellow anak Sarawak.

The proposed Race Relations Act is not needed in Sarawak because race relations there have always been exemplary in Malaysia since Independence (in 1963). I would even boldly predict that the sort of race riots that broke out in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 will never happen in the Land of the Hornbill.

Gua Niah in Sarawak (© Alex Hilton /

Of course there are bigoted, racist, and xenophobic Sarawakians among us; you get these oddballs in every society. But unlike in West Malaysia, they can never find a viable platform in Sarawak’s political, social, and cultural life.

The ethnic composition of the population probably has something to do with this harmonious state of affairs. The Malays and Muslim Melanaus constitute only a quarter of the state’s total population; the Chinese roughly the same percentage; while the rest of the population is made up of about 26 non-Muslim indigenous communities collectively referred to as “Dayaks”.

The backbone of the Sarawak Barisan Nasional, the Parti Pesaka Bumiputra Bersatu Sarawak (PBB), has a Malay/Muslim arm and a Dayak arm, and no PBB leader would even dream of raising the keris in the party’s general assembly. It would be in bad taste in the first degree.

Logo of Parti Pesaka Bumiputra
Bersatu Sarawak, the backbone
of the Sarawak BN
The Malays of Sarawak are devout Muslims, but the sort of radical Islamic fervour that has gripped West Malaysia since the 1970s has never found fertile soil in Sarawak. PAS has made a few tentative incursions into state politics there over the past decades, but takers are few and far between.

The Sarawak Malays have certainly evolved along different historical and social routes from their brethren elsewhere. They even speak a dialect that is as comprehensible to West Malaysians as Greek.

As in Sabah, 30% of the marriages in Sarawak every year cross racial borders.  I was once married to an Iban lady. Rare are the Sarawakians who cannot speak quite a few languages fluently. I myself speak Iban.

Sarawak has been spared the sort of racial segregation that has plagued peninsular Malaysia for half a century. Sarawakians who do not have personal friends and business associates from a few other ethnic communities are the exception rather than the norm. Some of my best friends are Malays and Dayaks. 

Apart from visiting one another during festive occasions, Sarawakians of various races have no problems having a meal or a drink together at the coffee shop, accompanied by very lively and friendly conversation. Such a scenario is rare in peninsular Malaysia.

As in Sabah, the social ambience in Sarawak feels like a different universe from that in the Klang Valley. By and large, Sarawakians have a long tradition of trusting, open, and convivial hospitality.

Cultural shock
The Sarawak dialect of Malay can be as
incomprehensible as Greek to the peninsular Malays
(© Emin Ozkan /

Polluted by the scourge of communal politics at the national level, party politics in Sarawak also tends to be tinged with racial undertones. Nevertheless, Sarawakian politicians have by and large shown great statesperson-like restraint in their public discourse. Public racial bloodletting would not go down well at all in a state where the people celebrate their ethnic differences, rather than create tension or even hatred out of them.

But whenever East and West meet, there is bound to be cultural shock. 

It is quite common for West Malaysian government officials or businesspersons who have moved to Sarawak for work to fall in love with the local way of life. More than a few have decided to settle down in their new-found homeland.

On the other hand, short-term visitors from West Malaysia stick out like a sore thumb in Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri. They are far too aggressive for meek Sarawakians. Their speech, their mannerisms, and their swagger are all so foreign. 

Sarawakians of all races call these visitors “orang Malaya”, and the term is not meant to be complimentary.

You say “lipas”, I say “lipih” (© Made Wirawan /
The suspicion for and the dislike of orang Malaya of various races seems to have united a large swathe of the population in Sarawak. The local Malays there call the Malay soldiers posted to Sarawak from West Malaysia “lipih”.

In the Sarawak Malay dialect, a “lipih” is a cockroach.  Needless to say, these soldiers have had some volatile problems with the local population, especially with the local Malays.

So now the federal government is thinking of introducing a Race Relations Act, purportedly to improve race relations in Malaysia. I truly doubt if this piece of legislation will work, after the people in West Malaysia have been torn apart by race-based parties for half a century.

I could suggest to the federal leaders that to improve race relations, they must learn from Sarawak. But then, they never will, because they tend to look down on my far-flung state as provincial and backward in all things. Certainly, federal ministers very seldom visit Sarawak.

Then again, it is not a bad thing that these orang Malaya perceive a visit to Sarawak as a necessary evil — to be avoided if possible. At least congenial, convivial Sarawak can be spared the sort racist poison that is fast gripping the national consciousness.

In order for Sarawak to remain an oasis of racial harmony, Sarawakians may have to keep it a secret. 

(© Alex Hilton /

Sim Kwang Yang was DAP Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak from 1982 to 1995. His column, An Examined Life, is published weekly on 

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7 Responses to “Go East (life is peaceful there)”

  1. ilann says:

    A little known fact in the peninsular is that Sabah Uumn has Christian bumiputera members in the party.

  2. Richard Huang says:

    I believe Sarawak can show a thing or two about race relations to those in the peninsular.I pray and hope you guys will continue with your proud tradition.

  3. Ajang Laing Sim says:

    “As in Sabah, 30% of the marriages in Sarawak every year cross racial borders. I was once married to an Iban lady. ”

    What you mean by exactly when you say: “As in Sabah”?

  4. ilann says:

    Sorry, typo … that was supposed to read ‘Sabah Umno has Christian bumiputera members in the party’…

  5. Suyi says:

    Thank you for your articles on East Malaysia over the past couple of weeks. This one spoke particularly true to me. My first experiences of being in West Malaysia left me shocked at the level of racial polarisation there – how someone’s foremost defining characteristic was their race. I loved growing up in Sarawak amidst Malays who spoke Hokkien, Bidayuhs who spoke Hakka, and Chinese who spoke Iban. I still see the multiculturalism in people’s faces as I find myself switching languages when speaking to strangers because I had totally misread what race they were. A few months ago whilst renewing my passport outside Sarawak, I confused the immigration clerk because my MyKad chip details stipulated that I was ‘Sarawakian’ for race (I am Chinese). An administrative error perhaps but at the time I thought how apt. My hope is that Sarawak continues to enjoy such levels of racial tolerance but echoing Mr Sim, I do fear that this will be the cost of further integration within Malaysia.

  6. Ling says:

    I am Sarawakian and I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Sim. My husband, who is English, also made this observation after living in Kuching for several years. His business took him to W. Malaysia and around Sarawak and he noticed that the different races in Sarawak socialise with each other more than in the rest of Malaysia. There is always that camaraderie amongst the various races in Sarawak that I simply cannot explain. Growing up in Kuching I can’t remember ever having experienced any racial slurs. Long may this last!

  7. Teng says:

    Spot on, SKY!! After having studied in KL back in the 80s, and then working in Sabah for a few years, my heart yearned to be back in harmonious Sarawak. I have a Sabahan wife and go there for business as well as for holidays, but still cannot find the type of race relationships that we enjoy in Sarawak. I would say it is rather superficial in Sabah, while we Sarawakians genuinely work on the type of relationships that bring harmony among the races here.
    People in the Semenanjung are just too pre-occupied with their hectic schedules to bother with improving their relationships with the other races. Of course, racial sentiments fanned by their politicians do not help one bit. On the other hand, I have met some really exceptional bumiputera from the peninsular (ex-colleagues, taxi drivers, etc.) and I still send greetings to them, especially Encik Hashim, my favourite taxi driver. We need more people like you!!

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