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Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Has our national narrative ignored stories from East Malaysia? (Kuching waterfront, © Hafiz Ahmad / 123rf)

“THERE are so many untapped stories from East Malaysia,” says film and television actor Tony Eusoff.

The national spotlight has been turned on Sabah and Sarawak ever since the 8 March 2008 general election, no less because leaders from both the Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat realise that elected representatives from Sabah and Sarawak play a key role in determining who will govern the country.

But aside from rampant post-election political speculation, the question of why there are still so many untapped stories from East Malaysia remains unanswered.

When we tell stories, we try to make sense of our origins and conflicts in relation to the world around us. We each have tales to tell about things that matter to us. Each story is unique because we insert our own memories — cultural or geographical — and our deepest fears and hopes into our storytelling.

This Malaysia Day, the question we should ask is, has the Malaysian narrative ignored, perhaps even suppressed, stories from Sabah and Sarawak?

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Pete Teo (Pic by Kato Masaya)
Klang Valley-centric

According to multiple award-winning Sabahan singer-songwriter Pete Teo, the Malaysian music and film industry is centred in the Klang Valley.

“The need to be located in the Klang Valley is pretty much a professional requirement if an artist is interested in developing a nationwide audience. The situation in big Asian markets like Japan and Korea is very similar.

“One might even argue that the situation isn’t so different in the US, the largest film and music market in the world, where most hinterland artists have to be localised in Los Angeles or New York in order to advance their career beyond the regional level.

“Thus, there is nothing unique or unusual about the plight of East Malaysian artists in this regard,” Teo says.

Perhaps, then, it is the location of the cultural nucleus that determines how resources — financial or otherwise — are allocated for the arts and entertainment. And this will naturally affect the kinds of works that get produced and disseminated for mass consumption.

To a certain extent, Tony agrees. He tells The Nut Graph: “Definitely, actors from Sabah and Sarawak have to Semenanjung-ise themselves somewhat to succeed in the mainstream entertainment industry.

“But this is not unusual. For example, if you want to succeed in Bollywood, no matter which part of India you come from, you have to be fluent in Hindi.”

But who decided that Kuala Lumpur would be the nucleus for the entire arts community in Malaysia? Did this nucleus emerge organically? Can there not be more than one cultural nucleus in this country?

These questions invite complicated responses, given how some East Malaysians feel that West Malaysians have quite a different outlook compared with their fellow citizens in Sabah and Sarawak.

Racial ambiguity

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Iban man (© John Bevan /
Says Tony: “In Sarawak, there is a lot of racial ambiguity, and people don’t really bother [with race]. There’s such a nice mix of faiths. You can see this in the number of churches and mosques we have in Sarawak, and it’s really not a big deal.

“Nobody treats you differently if you’re Bidayuh, Iban, Kelabit or Melanau. So it was strange for me to come to Kuala Lumpur, where a person’s race matters so much.”

Sharifah Zarina, whose hit song Langit ke-7 flooded the airwaves in 2005, agrees. She tells The Nut Graph in a phone interview: “Saya fasih juga bercakap bahasa Iban dan Melanau. Di Sarawak, kawan-kawan saya berbilang bangsa.

“Masa perayaan, memang kita akan mengunjungi rumah masing-masing. Tak kira Hari Gawai atau Hari Raya atau Hari Krismas.”

However, she notes that she hasn’t had much problem in the peninsula because she is Muslim, and that makes it easier for her to blend in. “Mungkin sebab orang tengok nama saya, Sharifah. Jadi kebanyakan orang akan tahu saya orang Islam dan tak banyak bertanya.”

Independent filmmaker Chris Chong Chan Fui locates the heart of the matter as he sees it: “The problem starts when peninsular Malaysia tries to speak for everyone in Malaysia, including East Malaysians.

“I mean, it’s not like we want to separate from Malaysia. But I find that we, as Sabahans, always look over at the peninsula like it’s a different beast.

For one thing, one’s race is not always used as a point of attack or a point of defence.”

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Chris Chong
Chong seems to reinforce the sentiment of Teo’s April 2008 effort — a non-partisan, non-profit, multi-artist recording of his composition Here In My Home, an anthem celebrating racial and religious diversity in Malaysia.

This is one reason why it is important for artists to tell stories that reveal the complexities of being Malaysian. If Sabahans and Sarawakians feel different, or even segregated, as Malaysians, then it is worthwhile to examine why.

After all, the concept of the nation-state is a modern one, and citizens from all over the world have been grappling with it for at least the past century.

For example, soon after the unification of the different states to form the nation of Italy in the 1860s, the nationalist Massimo D’Azeglio observed: “We have made Italy; now we have to make Italians.”

Transporting this quote to the present, we need to add: “What kind of Malaysians do we want to make?” How are Sabahan and Sarawakian artists contributing to the making of Malaysians?

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Mount Kinabalu (© Davelynn /
East Malaysian landscapes

Chong is quite clear about his artistic goals. He says: “For my films, the Sabahan cultural landscape provides a starting point for larger stories. Stories that have particular flavours that are unique to Sabah, but yet are universal in nature.

“I think artists from Sabah are now beginning to feel confident in being who we are. Except for being gripped by the ugly arms of the tourism industry and ill-conceived development projects.”

Teo concurs. He talks about his signature song, Jesselton Tonight, taken from his album Rustic Living for Urbanites. He confesses: “[The song] evokes a memory of Sabah before she’d been pillaged in the name of development. In fact, some regard the song as a sly critique of modern Sabah, and by extension, Malaysia, because the images painted in it stand in such stark contrast to what she has become.

“I guess it is a little like reading early Lat comics and then realising what Malaysians have lost as a community.”

But Chong and Teo are independent artists, who have more creative control over their artistic output. Teo has won numerous awards for his musical output, including Best English Album for Television, at the 14th Anugerah Industri Muzik. Chong’s latest short film, Block B, has just won the Best Short Film prize at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. His previous short feature, Kolam, was also named Best Short Film at the same festival in 2007.

Doesn’t resonate

Howevever, the images Teo and Chong use in their art do not necessarily resonate with a mainstream Malaysian audience.

Teo himself observes: “The irony is, most Malaysians don’t even know that ‘Jesselton’ is the old name for Kota Kinabalu. A surprising number think the song is about teenage love in some English town. I don’t blame them.”

And this is the kind of environment that makes it difficult for East Malaysian artists to break into the mainstream entertainment industry. Tony, for instance, has an interesting story.

“My real name is Anthony Joseph. I actually wanted to use ‘Tony Joseph’ at first, but instead I chose ‘Tony Eusoff’ to get a head start. A family friend recommended it, because being Malay herself, she thought it would get me more roles. It really was a marketing strategy.

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Tony Eusoff
“The thing I don’t get is why people automatically assume ‘Eusoff’ is Muslim. It’s Arabic, I know, but aren’t there Christian Arabs called ‘Eusoff’ as well?”

In fact, Tony’s looks lend him a sort of ethnic ambiguity, which has sparked the occasional outcry from fans who discover that he is heavily tattooed.

“I’ve been told before that my tattoos are controversial, because people think I’m Muslim. Some people actually get quite angry and make a fuss about my tattoos on online forums, but then those who know I’m not Muslim usually come to my defence.

“But I got these tattoos as a matter of legacy. I didn’t want to only speak Bidayuh; I wanted to embody other aspects of my culture as well,” he says.

This reality complicates the question of how exactly artists from Sabah and Sarawak are going to help define Malaysia, when it is apparent that so many of our cultural benchmarks are rooted in the imagination of certain forces in the peninsula.

Pastikan terbaik

Sharifah has a very practical answer. She says: “Kalau artis dari Sarawak nak maju, mungkin kena ambil manager atau perwakilan dari Semenanjung.

“Supaya senang sikit nak berhubung dengan media, DJ dan sebagainya. Tapi itu satu aspek sahaja. Dari segi kualiti seni atau produk, kita mesti pastikan yang terbaik.”

Lessons from East Malaysian storytellers
Sharifah Zarina
Teo offers a more long-term perspective and basically comes to the same conclusion as Sharifah. “It is nice to think that things might be different in the future. The Malaysian arts scene should not be as Klang Valley-centric as it is today.

“But for that to happen, we would need to develop a far more sophisticated and decentralised media and arts production infrastructure. Unfortunately, given the relatively small size of Malaysia’s music and film market, this is unlikely to happen. Some might even say it is impossible in the foreseeable future.”

But perhaps artists like Teo and Sharifah would delight in being proven wrong. It is true, 45 years after Malaysia came into existence, race and religion are still used as tools to divide Malaysians.

However, if we paid attention to these stories from Sabah and Sarawak, perhaps we would discover new ways of being and of embracing our diverse Malaysian identities, so that celebrating Malaysia Day wouldn’t just be a textbook exercise. End of Article

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