Small Filipino community makes big impact on Sabah’s landscape
THE year was 1989 and I was driving back to my hometown of Sandakan, transporting several dozens of cocoa, mango, durian and rambutan seedlings in my Suzuki jeep.
Accompanying me was my father who was making sure that those seedlings that he had acquired in Kota Kinabalu reached his kebun (orchard) safely.
We were driving past what seemed to be a sea of oil palm plantations after Telupid town, when we came to a patch of pristine forest just beside the road.
A sign proclaimed it to be a virgin jungle reserve and we passed that forest patch in what seemed to be under a minute.
I turned to my father, who was then the general manager for forestry at the Sabah Forest Industries (SFI) after retiring from the Sabah Forest Department where he had been working since arriving from his native Philippines in 1950.
That patch of forest we passed by got me curious, being a journalist, so I asked him about the purpose of such a small forest reserve.
I remember throwing in phrases such as carrying capacity and its sustainability for wildlife, just to impress him.
Being a man of few words, all he said was that it was just one of many small patches of forest that had been preserved for future generations to know the type of the jungle in the area that had been cleared to make way for agriculture.
Years later, speaking to Sabah Forest chief conservator Datuk Sam Mannan, I learnt that my papang (a term of endearment for “father” in Tagalog) was among those responsible for preserving some 30 of these forest patches of about 258ha scattered around Sabah.
Acknowledging that such a small area was not enough to sustain wildlife, Mannan said these mini forest reserves were, however, living monuments of the lowland forests that once dominated the landscape between Kinabatangan and Segama rivers in Sabah’s east coast.
“These forest patches are crucial from the historical and educational perspectives.
“We have a real picture of what these areas once were before the large-scale land clearing,” said Mannan.
I was awed because it was just one of the many contributions of the scores of Filipinos who were recruited by the British colonial administration to serve in what was then North Borneo nearly a century ago.
They came to work as foresters, doctors, architects, teachers, surveyors, loggers and numerous other jobs.
I remember names such as Munoz, Fabia, Corpuz, Dotimas, Pascua, Nobleza and Sario being oft-mentioned in the Forest Department headquarters in Sandakan.
These foresters were instrumental in establishing facilities in Kinabalu Park and Poring hot springs, and -- decades later -- putting in place forest management practices that were still in use until today.
They also imparted their skills and knowledge to Sabahans that included state leaders like Pantai Manis assemblyman Datuk Abdul Rahim Ismail.
After completing his secondary school studies, Abdul Rahim joined the Forest Department in 1969 as a forest ranger and he remembered how the Filipino officers like my father would teach him the ropes of the job.
“They treated me not as a junior but rather like a son, and I learnt so much from them,” said Abdul Rahim, who left the department as a senior assistant director in 1990 to venture into politics.
Many of the Filipinos who came to Sabah since the 1930s, eventually settled and became Malaysians by the process of law when the state gained its independence and teamed with Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
They contributed to Sabah’s progress and diversity, making the state more colourful.
Indeed they introduced the barong tagalog, a shirt for men, which became trendy among the local communities.
And social gatherings such as Christmas open houses and birthdays or anniversaries were opportunities for the Filipinos to introduce their friends to their cuisine including chicken stew and leche flan or egg custard.
Though they are a minority, the Filipino community in Sabah has made an impact on the state.
Two primary school pupils holding the butod or sago worm at the Monsopiad Cultural Village in Penampang.
Filipino foresters in Sabah were among those responsible for preserving patches of forest for future generations. — Filepic