From the outside looking in, Sabah looks like the promised land of racial, tribal, religious harmony and unity. Even P Waytha Moorthy, the current Minister of National Unity and Social Wellbeing, sang praises for the state.
When he visited the Land Below the Wind in August, he was reported to have said, “I intend to introduce this Sabah culture to the peninsula and we will share Sabah’s experience there as this is the kind of unity that we all should have.”
Compared to the polarization in Malaya, Sabahans are undoubtedly more united, but the much-praised and much-heralded unity is not without flaws, some would even argue that it’s a well-constructed façade.
Truth be told, despite the continuous marginalization of Sabahans in the grand scheme of Malaysian politics, the people of Sabah aren’t as united as how we portray ourselves to be. Sure, we will all come together when our state or one of us are unfairly criticized by “outsiders”, but amongst us, the lingering sentiments of distrust, one-upmanship, and even disgust are still widespread.
There are certain segments of our population that are continually and continuously marginalized, maligned and frowned upon. And no tribe bears the brunt more than the Suluk people.
When one looks at the history of North Borneo, the imprints of the Suluk people have always been prominent throughout its history. How many people know that North Borneo was established via land concessions through 1877 and 1878 between the Sultanates of Brunei and Sulu with Gustav Overbeck?
In 1884, Sandakan became the first capital of North Borneo and was known as “Little Hong Kong”; besides being the administrative center, it was also the center of commerce in North Borneo. But how many know that Sandakan was named as such because, in the Suluk language, it means "The place that was pawned" alluding to the circumstances of the creation of North Borneo?
Even with the founding of North Borneo and in the development of the state the Suluks already played a protuberant role, what more if you venture further in history before North Borneo was created?
In present day context, when the then North Borneo joined hands with Sarawak, Singapore and Tanah Melayu to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the Suluks were still one of the most prominent tribes. Prior to the formation of Malaysia, the Suluks were not only firmly entrenched in the North Bornean society, they also held a lot of the political power in the former British territory. How many people know that the first Sabahan and the first Malaysian from Sabah, as North Borneo has become to be known, is a Suluk himself?
The erasure of the once prominent people from modern history
So, how did the once most prominent tribe in state’s history become the most condemned people in today’s Sabah society? How could the unequivocally recognized natives of Sabah, as explicitly contained in the “Sabah Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance 1958”, become a people so negatively stigmatized that some of their own have shied away from identifying themselves as one?
Before I proceed further, some disclosure: I am 100% Suluk and I am proud of who I am, who my people are, and what we have contributed to the state, historically till the present day. I could be accused of confirmatory bias but recorded data and facts across the annals of history will prove otherwise.
The intellectual dishonesty in the rewriting of a different history that saw the systematic denigration of my people started in the mid-80’s. It was when a methodical – subtle or otherwise – campaign to bury the proud identity and rich history of the Suluks were carried out in order to put forward a new narrative and elevate another tribe to prominence vis a vis the state’s history and society.
The carefully and intellectually crafted campaign was so successful in indoctrinating today’s society - many of whom grew up during that period - that the once proud and prominent Suluks are now perceived as nothing but menaces to society and the main causes of everything that is wrong in the state.
The mental encoding of this revisited history was so efficacious that, as mentioned above, some of the Suluks, in not wanting to bear the brunt of this stigma, chose to either hide their true identities or reclassify themselves to be from different tribes.
Fast forward 30 plus years later, much of the stigma lingers till today; the concentrated and strategic efforts to undermine the Suluks have taken place through politics, the media, and policies. But with the ascension of Datuk Seri Panglima Shafie Apdal to the highest political office in the state, the Suluks are now seen to be slowly coming out and are once again, proud of who they are.
Be they UMNO or Opposition supporters, Warisan members or current government supporters, every Suluk I have spoken to in Malaya and back home share the same thought: that Shafie Apdal has allowed the Suluk people to come out of their self-imposed and self-placed identity disguise.
His leadership has given my people hope that the marginalization we have suffered since the mid-80’s will be reversed, and like the last inspirational and indefatigable leader to have come out of the east coast, Sabah’s very own “Bapa Kemerdekaan” Tun Mustapha Harun, the Suluks are optimistic that the current Chief Minister will right the wrongs committed against my people, his people.
United we stand, divided we fall.
With a new government in place and a new Malaysia, the call for a meaningful autonomy with the full implementation of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) in letter and in spirit is becoming louder. But unless the divide between the “East” and the “West” is permanently patched up, and the wrongs pf the past corrected, the fulfilment of the MA63 dream will remain unattainable.
As a state, Sabah started losing its strength when the campaign to malign and disparage the Suluks for whatever reasons inadvertently created the “East vs West” divide, a divide that is still conspicuous embedded in the Sabah of today.
It is with this backdrop that I humbly ask the other people of my state, especially those in a position to shape perceptions like those in the media and in politics, to stop the denigration of the Suluk community and people; stop trying to erase us from your version of history in order to position your own as the true natives of the state.
You all might have succeeded in the past, you might have casted us in a negative light and negated us to a people who are doubted all the time, but bear in mind, with those successes came the marginalization of our entire homeland.
Isn’t it hypocritical that you keep on fighting for more meaningful rights and full autonomy for the state and yet, in the same token, choose to dishonestly rewrite history and deny the most prominent native of their rights and place?
Need I remind you all that we achieved self-rule in 1963 and subsequently helped create Malaysia because we buried our differences and distrust for one another?
We are divided because of some of our own people’s doing. Let us all put a stop to this gobbledygook of who the real sons of the Sabah soil are. Should the vilification stop, I know my people will even stand with all of you in solidarity and support in your quest to get the same explicit recognition – like the kind of recognition bestowed upon us - in the definition of who the true Sabahans are.
Only a united Sabah could we stand tall and muster enough strength to seek for what we deserve. Until then, our voices will forever be drowned and will be forever be unheard.
Note: The article that appeared on NST on October 20 is slightly different from the one above. This is the original article that I wrote and submitted.