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 / sxc.hu)
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 BNThe 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.
The Sarawak dialect of Malay can be as
incomprehensible as Greek to the peninsular Malays
(© Emin Ozkan / sxc.hu)
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 / sxc.hu)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 / sxc.hu)
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 Malaysiakini.com.