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Proud to be Sabahan

DAPHNE Iking once wanted to be a doctor, but she changed her mind when a teacher told her she had a knack for storytelling and writing. She says her father was not too keen on her decision to do a Mass Communications degree, so she paid her own way through university.

Iking recalls her father asking her: “You think you want to be (Datuk) Yasmin Yusoff or Patrick Teoh, is it?” But she has since acted with Teoh and occasionally hangs out with Yasmin; and now, she says, her father has warmed up to her media career.

“He gave me a light squeeze on my arm when he came for my graduation,” says Iking. “That was his way, I suppose, of showing his approval.”

Iking, who has a Masters in Communications from Universiti Sains Malaysia, started her television career as financial programme Ringgit Sense host in 2003. She has also hosted reality adventure show Explorace, and is currently hosting ntv7’s The Breakfast Show, besides writing and acting.

The Nut Graph interviewed her on 25 May 2010 in Petaling Jaya.

TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

Daphne Iking: I was born in Keningau, Sabah in 1978. My mum’s a nurse, and she told me she had to drive herself to the hospital to give birth to me because my dad, who was in the police force, was working elsewhere. The story is she kept telling her hospital colleagues she was about to deliver, but for some reason, they didn’t take her seriously. So I was delivered by a cleaner at the hospital — she caught me.

We moved to England when I was about four years old because my dad went to continue his education, and came back to Sabah when I was about 10 or 11. We came back speaking English with a cockney accent! I remember I couldn’t even sing the national anthem in school — I was so shy, I cried. I promised myself after that I would learn to speak Malay, no matter what.

With relatives in Tambunan, Sabah

What are some of your strongest memories of the place where you grew up?

When we came back from England, we lived in a rented kampung house in Penampang with stilts. My mum grew our own vegetables, so we always had fresh produce to eat. She also reared chickens, ducks and a pig. My sister and I would bring our food scraps to feed the pig, fondly called Babe.

One day, my parents had a big gathering, and my sister and I noticed Babe was missing. We asked my mum, “Where’s Babe?” She was very quiet and told us we would get a new pig because Babe was getting fat. That’s when we realised he had been slaughtered. We were so upset, we cried and told my mum, “We can’t eat our pet!” She told us Babe was not our pet, and he was meant to be eaten. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy meat until today.

Can you trace your ancestry? 

My parents are both Kadazandusun. My mother’s parents were rubber tappers, and my father’s family mostly farmers. There are actually 41 ethnic groups within the Kadazandusun. I asked my father which ethnic group we belonged to, but he told me, “Just say we are Kadazandusun, we are the same.”

My father was adopted by his parents’ relatives. Three children born before him had all passed away. The bobohizan, which is like a shaman, told his parents there was a curse on his family and they had to give their eldest child away to break it.

My paternal great-grandfather used his name Iking as a surname. So from my paternal grandfather onwards, we adopted the surname Iking, which is not so common among Kadazandusuns.

In Tambunan with a rambutan tree her mother made
her plant
My parents used to make us balik kampung to Tambunan. I liked it when my paternal grandfather was alive. He used to keep dogs and my grandmother kept cats. I still don’t know how that worked. My grandfather used to bathe his dogs in my grandmother’s huge kuali, and they would regularly disagree about this.

But after my grandfather passed away, I dreaded going [back]. My parents made us go because they wanted to make sure my siblings and I understood our culture. That was the only time we would speak Kadazandusun and meet all our relatives. I didn’t understand when I was young, but nowadays, I can’t wait to balik kampung, and I really look forward to it.

Are there any stories from your family that you hold on to?

Once, when we balik kampung, my paternal grandfather told my siblings and I that he would get durian for us. He asked each of us to choose what colour durian we wanted. Any colour. So I said, “I want a blue durian!” My sister, pink. And my brother chose yellow.

The next day, he asked us to come and get our durians. He had spent all night peeling the skin of the durian so that only a thin outer layer remained. He then wrapped each durian in the respective colours — blue, pink and yellow. He told us, “Don’t let anyone ever tell you [that things are] impossible.”

He loved us so unconditionally. When he was ill with throat cancer, he came to live with us. He could hardly eat due to the cancerous growth on his neck. One day, my mum told me to make his porridge. Instead of just making it plain, I decided to add in ingredients, which resulted in the porridge burning. The burnt smell was horrible, although the top half could still be eaten. I told my grandfather the porridge was burnt, but if he waited half an hour, I could make some more. He stopped me and insisted on eating the burnt porridge, even though he was so ill. He said it was part of my effort.

My mum also told me this story about how she and her mother used to go to tap rubber near their house. On the way there one day, she saw a small, short, old man who started a conversation with her. Her mum, however, couldn’t see who she was talking to, and told her to stop talking to her “friend”. But my mum answered that all he wanted to know was how to roll rubber sheets. So some people had imaginary friends as children, but my mum says she had a toyol friend.

Are there any aspects of your identity that you struggle with as a Malaysian?

I joined an Unduk Ngadau competition in 2003 because my sister, who was part of the organising committee in Kuala Lumpur, said there weren’t enough contestants. Being part of the contest made me realise there’s so much more I need to know about my culture. It was a turning point for me.

I wish I could speak better Kadazandusun and knew a lot more so I can pass it all on to my daughter Isobel. It’s not really an aspect of my identity that I struggle with, but more about being upset that I don’t know more about Kadazandusun culture.

Daphne with daughter Isobel (centre) with parents, sister and brothers

I’m extremely proud to be Sabahan. In Sabah, we don’t really bother about who’s Malay [Malaysian], Chinese [Malaysian] or Kadazandusun. But in peninsular Malaysia, people will say,  “Oh, you look Malay [Malaysian]…” “Are you Chinese [Malaysian]?” — that kind of thing.

People are also sometimes very ignorant about Sabah. After the Sibu by-election, some friends asked me, “So how was the by-election?” I answered, “Which by-election? I’m not from Hulu Selangor or Sibu, I’m from Sabah.” They replied, “Yalah, Sibu is in Sabah, right?” It really surprises me how intelligent people can get facts like this wrong.

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and for future generations.

I’m bumiputera, so I get a 7% discount for property and can open an Amanah Saham Bumiputera account. But when it comes to education, I think that Malay bumiputera still get preference. Bumiputera Kadazandusuns have to compete for their university places, just like Chinese and Indian [Malaysians] and the rest. I think we need a Malaysia that’s fair and peaceful, where one group is not trying to dominate over the others.

Daphne, seated, winner of the Unduk Ngadau competition

We should also treat animals and the environment fairly. I’m currently campaigning against the building of a coal-fired power plant in Sabah. The authorities say it’s a good location because it’s far from the kampung. But they want to locate it in a pristine coastal area, which is also an important catchment area for corals and fish. 

I also hear they are disposing lead acid into our land instead of disposing of it properly. I am going to fight for a ban on lead acid [batteries], too. If the Perak government can do it, so can Sabah and other states.

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6 Responses to “Proud to be Sabahan”

  1. harith hariz says:

    Proud to be Sabahan ;))

  2. H. Kler says:

    A week ago, I had three young (20-30ish year olds) working for [the Malaysian Palm Oil Council] at a dinner table. I know all were intelligent, young hardworking Malaysians. But NOT one could tell me the date of creation of Malaysia…how could you not know your own birthday???

    Thanks for speaking up about the coal-fired power plant Daphne!

  3. Catherine says:

    It’s always great to hear celebrities using their privilege to help causes like the environment and fair treatment of everyone/everything.

    Daphne Iking sounds down-to-earth and sensible 🙂

  4. Ellese A says:

    Can you ask “is there any aspect of your identity you are proud of as a Malaysian?”

    Positive sikit. There are too few writings on commonalities which we should focus and build upon. I believe if you ask this the answer to your last question may be different.

  5. benny says:

    I am a Sarawakian studying in Penang. [People] will always ask me, sometimes they think KK is in Sarawak. LOL…

    And about education, Daphne got it right! I love you, Daphne! You are smart and gorgeous.

  6. Farouq Omaro says:

    Daphne still has that kampung girl feel to her. Her experiences remind me of the song that played on RTM during PBS’ time; “Sabahans will show you the way”.

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