How to return Malaysia to being 'truly Asia': Lessons from the eastern front

The Temu in Sabah is a cultural institution in Sabah dating back to the colonial days where people from all over the region ― the paddy-planting Kadazan farmers, sea-faring Bajau lauts, horse-riding Bajau samas and bead-weaving Rungus ― all gathered to bather and interact. ― Picture courtesy of Lano Lan
The Temu in Sabah is a cultural institution in Sabah dating back to the colonial days where people from all over the region ― the paddy-planting Kadazan farmers, sea-faring Bajau lauts, horse-riding Bajau samas and bead-weaving Rungus ― all gathered to bather and interact. ― Picture courtesy of Lano Lan

KOTA KINABALU, Nov 5 ― Every October, the district of Kota Belud turns into one giant colourful open market, an extravaganza of some of Sabah’s best handicraft, local produce and costumes that culminates in a spectacular parade of the Bajau Sama people on their resplendent costumed mounts on the town green.

While there are many markets all over Sabah, or tamu as they are called in the local lingo ― derived from the Malay word for meet, “temu” ― the Kota Belud market is the grandest of them all. It is essentially one big melting pot that celebrates Sabah’s cultural diversity.

Started in the 1800s by the colonial British who once ruled this north Borneo state, Sabahans from all 32 officially-recognised ethnic groups would converge to trade, swap news and gossip and show off their diverse talents, among others ― the paddy-planting Kadazan farmers, the bead-weaving Rungus tribe to the north, the sea-faring Bajau Laut to the east and their horse-riding cousins the Bajau Sama to the west.

The tamu has since become a cultural institution even in this age of shopping malls and convenient neighbourhood stores, as it tethers the past to the present and showcases Sabah's plurality, where differences are not only tolerated but co-exist happily.

“People here have learnt to get along with each other for hundreds of years. When the people of the hills met with the people of the coast, they learnt to mix, interact and get to know each other during these tamus,” Universiti Malaysia Sabah senior lecturer Paul Porodong.

“You couldn’t go to the tamu on your own. You need friends, allies, business partners. And because everyone had different products and specialties, the different communities learnt that they needed each other in order to do well,” he told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.

Diluting the blood to thrive

According to the environmental anthropologist, Sabahans and Sarawakians learnt early on that they needed to rely on each other to survive and thrive, which led to the spread of marriages between peoples of different tribes, far more prevalent in the Borneo island than in Peninsular Malaysia.

Mixed marriages are so common in the two east Malaysian states that one would be hard-pressed today to find a pure-blooded Kadazan, Iban, or Dusun, Porodong said.

In Penampang, the heartland of the Kadazandusun, it's been said that everyone is family, separated only by one degree; even if they follow different creeds, they live under one roof harmoniously.

One degree of separation

An example of this is Caroline Asin, a Sino Kadazan Muslim. She was born to Chinese Kadazan Christian parents. Her father changed his name from Chai Yat Sin to Asin to avoid being identified as Chinese by Japanese soldiers during the outbreak of World War Two.

Three of Caroline's siblings are Catholic. Another, like her, embraced Islam upon marriage and one more married a Hindu and changed her religion but according to Caroline, the different faiths have never hampered their family ties.

“It wasn’t like our parents wanted to disown us for converting. They said as long as we were doing it for the right reason, it was fine with them. We are still family. We celebrate Christmas at home, and for Hari Raya, they come to mine or my sibling’s home and for Deepavali, we visit my brother-in-law’s family’s home,” the 37-year-old banking executive told Malay Mail Online.

“Growing up in Sabah, 'race' was a very neutral term that didn't matter much among friends. It was just fact ― like if you had straight hair or curly hair, short or tall, you didn’t have a choice what you were so it was just a thing to be accepted,” she said.

Sharing food, forging intimacy

Porodong believes that apart from mixed marriages, the success of multiculturalism in Sabah and Sarawak is due to the bonds forged over shared meals.

At a recent wedding of a Sino Kadazan groom to his bride of Ceylonese, Chinese and Kadazan roots, the spread consisted of among others, hinava (raw fish salad with chili, lime and ginger), kolopis (glutinous rice steamed in a local leaf), rendang, chicken cooked in lihing (locally brewed rice wine) and Chinese fried rice.

A separate line offered a local soy sauce pork stew. The older womenfolk and some of the teenagers were roped in to serve cans of beer, glasses of lihing or a syrup drink. They all raised their glasses or cans to cries of “aramaiti”, a Kadazan word meaning “all together now”, used to toast the newly-wedded couple.

“Everywhere in the world, one of the most intimate and ultimate acceptance of a person, is the sharing of food. Our culture promotes this belief, by sharing the fruits of their labour and inviting friends and family around to partake in a feast of food and drink,” Porodong said.

“This food sharing is so ingrained, particularly in my Rungus culture, that there are provisions in our native customs that could see you charged in native court for not sharing your food,” he said.

The environmental anthropologist said the tradition dates back generations to the time when hunters would be greeted with a hero's welcome and a feast upon their return from the jungle with the wild boars that they killed for the village's supply.

Porodong noted that the times have changed and caterers would now be called to supply the food at festivities with the organisers even providing a separate halal spread to cater to Muslim guests even though East Malaysian Muslims seemed to be more open about sharing food without the worry of its halal status.

“They may not eat pork, but they do not mind it when others do, and are happy to partake in the merry-making anyway,” he said.

When east and west Malaysia collide

Whenever Rosie Rajah travels abroad and is asked where she's from, she mentions Malaysia, but almost sheepishly. She goes to great lengths to explain she hails from Sabah on the island of Borneo, the only Malaysian state she feels “is Truly Asia”.

“It’s not that I don’t like Malaysia. But the news that gets out to the world ― the outright racism, corruption, politicking is not the country I want people to think I’m from. I like to tell people about my home in Membakut, how welcoming everyone is, the amazing culture, how friendly and laid back the people are and the beautiful nature that surrounds us.

“When I meet other Sabahans or Sarawakians when travelling, its almost an instant kinship, an understanding that we are in a club of our own, and we are so proud of it, we don’t need to know what race they are or what language they speak. This most definitely doesn’t happen with West Malaysians we meet, ” the 28-year-old told Malay Mail Online.

Caroline, who now resides in Kuala Lumpur, held a similar view, saying that in her hometown of Penampang, the people mingled freely without thought for age, gender, race or religion.

“It wasn’t till I was in West Malaysia that I started to think about how our race and religion affected others. I was in a largely Muslim Malay batch of students and experienced for the first time, peers judging one another based on how religious they were perceived to be or not be.

“I recall asking a friend why they were so 'busybody' about someone else's praying habits or whether they covered their hair, and what was explained to me was that they felt it was their religious duty to keep everyone 'in the flock' on the straight and narrow,” she said.

Caroline used to laugh at news of racial and religious tension in West Malaysia, sure that it would never reach the shores of her homeland; but she now cringes and crosses her fingers and hopes that she is still right.

Positive parochialism?

Political scientist Dr Arnold Puyok said that Sabah and Sarawak seem to be united in their loyalty to their regional identity, but added that the increasing number of racial and religious issues highlighted in the media ― bible-burning threats, dubious mass conversions of rural Christians to Islam, the rage and vitriol from Muslim groups over a dog-petting event ― have reached East Malaysian shores and are troubling the people there.

“People in east Malaysia are driven by a sense of parochialism belonging to their geographical location, cultural uniqueness, and salient local issues. Regional identity is much more pronounced than religious or racial identities,” he said.

He warned of a growing distrust among East Malaysians towards their western countrymen and urged the federal government based in Putrajaya to increase the Borneo Bumiputera's sense of belonging to the country, suggesting greater autonomy in the management of cultural affairs.

“The Federal model cannot be imposed on East Malaysia as local leaders may use the east and west divide to pit them against each other, when they should be building, not burning bridges,”  the Universiti Sarawak Malaysia lecturer said.