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 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.”
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.”