Tuesday February 19, 2013
Free-wheeling spirit of Sabah
By KARIM RASLAN
I LEARNT two new phrases when I was in Sabah recently for my show, rekindling a deep fondness for the state.
The first was: Boleh bah, kalau kau – which basically means “no problem for you bro”.
The words capture Sabah’s attractive free-wheeling spirit.
The mood envelopes as you land: Kota Kinabalu is different from Kuala Lumpur and indeed anywhere else on the peninsula.
Indeed, it’s this openness and friendliness that has made the state so popular with visitors, so much so that tourism has become the growth industry for Sabah with over 2.875 million visitors last year and an estimated RM5.178bil in receipts.
I’ve been very fortunate – blessed even – in that I was introduced to Sabah back in the early 90s, spending a few years in and around KK.
It was also a period of relative political turbulence as Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s PBS tried to rule the state having turned their backs on Barisan Nasional and more importantly, then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the 1987 general election.
However, for those of us who weren’t involved in politics, KK was a rare haven – outdoorsy and healthy – where you could be out in the waters of the South China Sea, lying on a beach or be surrounded by the temperate forests of Mount Kinabalu.
It sounds corny but it’s true: Sabahans enjoy a surprisingly high quality of life.
I now realise that the experience changed me.
It made me see Malaysia differently.
Suddenly, I was no longer a KL insider.
Instead, I was looking at the country and in particular, KL from the outside.
I began to understand that for most people in Sabah, KL was neither benign nor particularly relevant.
For Sabahans, the capital, my home was (and is) a pompous, self-important place full of greedy bureaucrats and politicians.
Thus, whenever someone mentioned the word “Semenanjung” and then paused, I knew what their silence meant.
Revisiting Sabah over the past few weeks has brought it all back – the sense of resentment, exclusion and frustration, all the more so as my travels coincided with hearings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigration which brings me very elegantly to the second phrase: ini kali-lah - which means “this time-lah”, referring to the Opposition’s call to oust the incumbent Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman.
It would be foolish to pretend that the current Chief Minister is universally liked or respected.
Instead, he’s a player: cool, business-like and savvy.
Moreover, he’s mastered the complexities of Umno politics so much so that he has become adept at getting Kuala Lumpur to “play” to his tune and not the other way around.
His challenge in the upcoming polls will be persuading Sabahans that he deserves to break the “ten year” rule – that has kept the state’s politics in a continuing and lively ferment.
If he secures a further mandate, many, including his own party colleagues, are concerned that he will become a second Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, ruling without challenge.
But Sabah is more than just politics and politicians.
After all, they come and go and no one really cares too much about them once they’ve slipped off into well-deserved obscurity. Sabah is very important for all of us because it appears to have cracked the great Malaysian challenge – namely, how to create a community that invites a real sense of belonging and ownership.
Sabah isn’t about mere tolerance.
In Sabah, it goes beyond “tolerating” the “other”.
Instead, the different races and religions seem to relish and actually enjoy one another’s company.
Which brings me to the tamu or marketplace I shot for Ceritalah Malaysia in Kota Belud.
It’s a historic spot alongside the Tampasuk river where the people of the interior (the Dusun) and the coast (the Bajau and Irranun) have met and traded for centuries.
Their stalls are intermingled but generally you can tell who’s who by what they sell: the vegetables, the honey and tobacco come from the highlands whilst the fish and the cakes are from the coast.
Having shot loads of footage, I remember trying a slug of chewing tobacco from an elderly Dusun lady.
Unwisely, I actually started chewing it at which point I began to feel slightly “high” and had to lie down, almost passing out.
But there again, maybe that sums up Sabah? It’s so much fun that we peninsula Malaysians just get over-excited.