In sol­i­dar­ity

Malaysians from Sabah and Sarawak have made great strides into the na­tion’s ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing in its old­est var­sity in the coun­try’s cap­i­tal. Yet an­other rea­son to cel­e­brate is the strong bond and in­clu­sive­ness they inspire.

The Star Malaysia - - Nation - By CHRISTINA CHIN Photos by SA­MUEL ONG ed­u­cate@thes­tar.com.my

The cel­e­bra­tion of Malaysia Day shows how the na­tion’s cit­i­zens from both sides of the South China Sea have come to­gether to strive for ed­u­ca­tional suc­cess.

SARAWAKIANS Mo­ham­mad Faizurie Abang, Valentina Tiong, and Maryanne Te­len Aba, and fel­low Univer­siti Malaya (UM) un­der­grad­u­ates from Sabah – Mohd Niza­mud­din Fauzi, No­ryanti Tarawis and Azwa Azwana Khairul Akhmal, are fine ex­am­ples of who we should as­pire to be as Malaysians.

Click­ing in­stantly de­spite meet­ing for the first time, they shared the chem­istry of lon­glost friends. The six, who are in their 20s, say the close­ness is a re­sult of their East Malaysian up­bring­ing.

Invit­ing their coun­ter­parts from the penin­sula to “visit us more of­ten”, they say the unity among East Malaysians has al­ways been un­der­stated, but un­shake­able.

It’s a bond they want all Malaysians to share. Since com­ing to study here, they’ve learnt to bet­ter ap­pre­ci­ate how Saba­hans and Sarawakians re­spect each other’s dif­fer­ences.

It is a re­la­tion­ship that goes be­yond tol­er­ance. It’s an un­con­di­tional ac­cep­tance that they’re proud of.

In­tro­duc­ing them­selves as ei­ther Saba­han, or Sarawakian, they find race-cen­tric ques­tions from new friends, sur­pris­ing.

Speak­ing to each other in a colour­ful blend of Ba­hasa Me­layu, pep­pered with a healthy dose of col­lo­qui­al­ism and ac­cents, they say speech is the only real dif­fer­ence be­tween those hail­ing from the two states, and those from the penin­sula.

Come, get to know us

How did you get here? Do you wear a loin­cloth? Do you live on trees? What race are you?

This is just part of the stereo­typ­ing the group’s had to put up with since com­ing here to study. Smil­ing, Mo­ham­mad Faizurie says they har­bour no hard feel­ings now, but ini­tially, found such com­ments in­sult­ing and hurt­ful. “It felt like Malaysians from the penin­sula have never been to Sabah or Sarawak. But we un­der­stand there’s no mal­ice in­tended,” he rea­sons.

Maryanne, who of­ten gets mis­taken for a Filip­ina, shares how a Grab­car driver once asked if she got here by boat when she told him she was an Orang Ulu from Sarawak.

“Re­cently, my team won a wa­ter ac­tiv­ity at the pool. And some­one quipped: ‘Of course they can swim well. They’ve got rivers be­hind their houses.’ But I live in a town and I’m not a good swim­mer.”

Be­fore pack­ing up for the big city, No­ryanti won­dered whether she would be ac­cepted by her peers.

“I had so many ques­tions and was wor­ried about whether I would be per­ceived neg­a­tively by stu­dents here. But once I made up my mind to come, I pre­pared my­self men­tally.

“So, al­though I was asked many funny ques­tions ini­tially, I chose to be open minded and to ad­dress them with­out tak­ing things to heart,” she says, cred­it­ing her pos­i­tive at­ti­tude for be­ing able to fit in eas­ily.

Like No­ryanti, Mohd Niza­mud­din feels like he be­longs. He treats stereo­types like jokes. The bub­bly char­ac­ter doesn’t take for granted the hospitality and love of his friends at UM be­cause not ev­ery­one has had the same wel­com­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

“UM is very open, so, we feel at home. But how we re­act and adapt is also im­por­tant.”

Re­call­ing her first im­pres­sion of KL, Azwa Azwana, who’s a Dusun like No­ryanti, mar­velled at the city’s LRT, MRT, tolled high­ways, and sky­scrapers. And, be­cause of her fea­tures, peo­ple of­ten spoke to her in Man­darin. ‘Sorry I’m not Chi­nese’ was a phrase she’d ut­ter ev­ery other day.

“When I tell them I’m from Sabah, I some-

times get per­plexed looks. Some even ask if Sabah is in In­done­sia or Thai­land.”

De­scrib­ing it as “a bit of a cul­ture shock”, she says the hot weather was un­like back home.

“I kept get­ting sick here. In Sabah, it’s cooler be­cause we have so many trees. Our build­ings aren’t as tall. And the night sky is al­ways full of stars. In my first month here, I was hunt­ing for stars ev­ery night be­fore fi­nally spot­ting one,” she re­calls, laugh­ing.

For Valentina, the cul­ture shock had noth­ing to do with the en­vi­ron­ment. It was the peo­ple. She was up­set at how race-cen­tric and cliquish some of her peers were.

The daugh­ter of an Iban mother and a Chi­nese fa­ther, she’s been called a “ba­nana” – Chi­nese who are un­able to speak Man­darin.

“I felt so sad. Back home, ev­ery­one just sits to­gether and chats.

“The race and re­li­gion ques­tion never gets asked. It’s ir­rel­e­vant. That’s our way of life.

“When I came here, I didn’t know who to mix with be­cause those of the same race tend to stick to­gether. I didn’t want to of­fend any­one, yet I could click with ev­ery­one.

“One day, a friend asked why I mix with the Malays more than the Chi­nese. I though it was a joke. Then I re­alised it was a se­ri­ous ques­tion.”

Dumb­founded, she ended up invit­ing her friend to visit Sarawak to see how the com­mu­ni­ties there in­ter­act with each other.

“I have a Chi­nese sur­name but I’m Iban. We’re a mix of so many races but some peo­ple just want to pi­geon-hole us.”

It’s only dur­ing the an­nual Lan Ber­am­beh gath­er­ing for Sarawakians, says Mo­ham­mad Faizurie, that race is on show, be­cause that’s when par­tic­i­pants turn up in their tra­di­tional cos­tumes.

“Oth­er­wise, it would never oc­cur to us to ask.”

Cel­e­brat­ing to­gether

Shar­ing how Sarawakians are a con­sid­er­ate lot, Mo­ham­mad Faizurie, who’s a mix of Malay, Chi­nese and Iban, shares how non-Mus­lims would pre­pare ha­lal food for their Mus­lim guests dur­ing their re­spec­tive cel­e­bra­tions.

They do this with­out be­ing asked. To be con­sid­er­ate is com­mon sense for us, he says. Valentina agrees.

“Those of dif­fer­ent re­li­gions never try to in­flu­ence their friends. You have your re­li­gion, and I have mine. As Malaysians, we’re happy for each other and we visit those of dif­fer­ent faiths when they have their cel­e­bra­tions.”

When it’s the fast­ing month, she of­fers to wake her friends up for morn­ing prayers, which al­ways elic­its sur­prise.

“My Mus­lim friends ask if I stud­ied the re­li­gion but I tell them knowl­edge of other com­mu­ni­ties’ prac­tices are a re­sult of mix­ing around. It’s not from books but from what we see. We learn from liv­ing with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and be­liefs.”

“I am a Mus­lim but I have many Chris­tian rel­a­tives.

“Visit­ing open houses for Christ­mas is nor­mal for me. And the hosts are al­ways very re­spect­ful. They don’t drink al­co­hol in front of us.”

He fails to un­der­stand why cer­tain quar­ters are quick to judge and con­demn.

“Some de­manded to know why I speak Ka­gayan to my mother in­stead of Ba­hasa Me­layu. But when I use the na­tional lan­guage, my accent be­comes an is­sue,” says the Me­layu Brunei.

While there are many races and re­li­gions in Sabah and Sarawak, ev­ery­one lives as one, adds Azwa Azwana.

On Fri­days, churches open their carparks to the mosque-go­ers and on Sun­days, the favour is re­turned.

Merdeka is sig­nif­i­cant, but Malaysia Day has a very spe­cial mean­ing for Mo­ham­mad Faizurie.

The spirit of Septem­ber 16, he says, burns bright in the hearts of East Malaysians be­cause it marks the birth of a union.

“Malaysia Day is when we all come to­gether. Fam­i­lies fly the Jalur Gemi­lang, and our state flags, to mark the oc­ca­sion.”

Mohd Niza­mud­din says a pa­tri­otic song like “Se­hati Se­jiwa” (One Heart One Soul) makes them feel ap­pre­ci­ated be­cause the lyrics in­clude Kadazan and Iban di­alects.

De­scrib­ing it as the com­ing to­gether of two dif­fer­ent ter­ri­to­ries, and many dif­fer­ent races, cul­tures, and faiths, Valentina says Malaysia Day is a re­minder that as one na­tion, we must strengthen our unity to move for­ward to­gether.

“We’re part of Malaysia and will al­ways be.”

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