I SEEM TO HAVE A STRANGE PHENOMENON THAT IS RATHER EAST MALAYSIAN. Suddenly my Twitter account has quite a number of Sarawakians wanting to follow my tweets. I can only attribute this to the articles I have written about my experiences for The Malaysian Insider, and that I have a few Sarawakian friends.
I would have to say that I have been surrounded by Sarawakians, but in different permutations. I suppose my first encounter with them would be one of my closest friends dating and marrying one. And that the family knew my family. Then when my friends and I started to ‘berjinak-jinak’ with the nightlife, we’d do our best to sneak into Scandals, which was owned by nightlife queen, Rhona Drury. Yet to say that I was conscious of the Sarawak connection at that age would be a lie. When you’re in your 20s, you just wanted to see the world and have a good time.
Like many Peninsular Malaysians, Borneo to me is an exotic country. All of us have known someone who’s a relative of someone who had been spooked by Orang Asal black magic. Kuih lapis is a staple for Raya open houses. And yes, orangutans. Mulu Caves. And the truly rich Malaysians all live in Sarawak and Sabah.
So when I arrived in Sarawak to do some field work for my new column, I realised that I was a tourist with romantic notions of the Bidayuh and Sarawak. There was a lot of work to do, and 10 days were not enough. I had to field off stupid text messages from a relative who wanted me to find a bomoh because she was having marital problems, and I learned that this column was not a straightforward case of entering a situation — meeting people — interviewing them — going home with story.
Perhaps after being indoctrinated by my friends, I now see Sarawak and Sabah as two different countries, and not states of a country. They are too big, too vast, and the languages and cultures are different. Peninsular Malaysia will never ‘get’ Borneo. I will always remain an observer, and not an expert on East Malaysia.
I attended the Sarawak Pre-election Forum organised by the Merdeka Centre in KL recently. The presenters were academics, I believe. I wanted some fire; after all, the Sarawakians I am friends with are passionate. The forum was tepid. The presentations, academic. I believe one of the presenters was Sarawakian while the others were Orang Semenanjung who were political scientists and had researched Sarawakian politics. Sarawak is now sexy. If you’re an activist or politically aware, jump on the Sarawak bandwagon.
I left the forum a bit let down, because what I learned was what I had already read in the news, mainstream and the internet.
Borneo is very much its own person. It doesn’t need validation from anyone else. It can stand on its own. And we Orang Semenanjung will always be that — the outsider.
Dina Zaman is a writer based in KL, and is working on her column-cum-book.