Sabah: Of Race & Ethnic Relations - Some Observations & Discussions

Sabah is a multi-racial land where no ethnic group predominates.  The largest ethnic group, the Christian Kadazandusun, is barely 20% of the population, whilst other groups between 10% and 20% include the Muslim Bajau and the Chinese.  There are also large legal and illegal foreign immigrant groups, such as the Filipinos and Indonesians, who may account from anything between 30% to 50% of the population – no one really knows.  Whatever it is, the ethnic groups have generally lived in peace though underlying tensions do exist, especially when the Malaysian federal government tries to pit Muslim groups against Christian ones, not to mention attempts to boost the local Muslim population by granting licenses to Muslim immigrant groups from southern Philippines and Indonesian Kalimantan.

Some interesting observations and discussions with locals:


-          Many inter-marriages between Chinese and Kadazandusun and inter-ethnic ties are good between the two communities.  The Chinese in Sabah are mostly Christian Hakkas and the Kadazandusun are Christians too.  Both also look alike in physical appearance.  In fact, some say the Kadazandusuns originally came from China or Taiwan.  Some of them have studied in Chinese schools and speak Mandarin.  In KK, where there are many Kadazans, I can hardly tell who was Chinese or Kadazan.  I sometimes spoke Mandarin to someone and then realized that he/she did not speak Mandarin.  Even local Chinese told me of similar experiences.  Bahasa Malaysia has thus become a common tongue for all ethnic groups in Sabah.  

-          Kadazan is the name generally used for city or town tribesmen while Dusun is used for those who live in the countryside.  In recent decades, the term "Kadazandusun" is used to denote any tribal who is not Muslim in Sabah.  The term encompasses 40 tribal groups speaking different though related languages and dialects, and have come to identify with each other in an increasingly urbanized society.

-          I noticed a number of bah kut teh (a kind of Chinese pork soup) restaurants in KK where many of the waiters and even cooks appear to be non-Chinese.  I asked a local if they could be Muslims.  He laughed, saying that was possible.  The local Muslims, he explained, are more liberal and open-minded, and would not mind working with pork.  West Malaysia is a lot more dogmatic about it in the public arena, though many Muslim Malays breach these rules in private.  He said he had even seen Muslim Kelantan policemen drinking and having Chinese barbecued pork while on holiday in Sabah.  His Indonesian friends also had good time drinking beer in KK, while insisting that beer is not alcohol!