Sabah’s Racism

Sabahans are renowned for their friendly nature and welcoming attitude but is everyone feeling the warmth of the welcome? Chris Wright speaks on a touchy subject of Sabah’s hidden racism.

Funny old lady from Tamparuli | Credit: Pison Jaujip on

Here in Sabah, many of my friends take great pride in being Sabahans.

“We’re Sabahans first and Malaysians last.”

“Ya bah!”, another friend replies.

Whether it be describing your favourite Sabahan food, the environment, or one’s hatred for the traffic in West Malaysia, Sabahans just love Sabah. And who could blame them!

But one thing that I have heard from everyone here is a feeling that in Sabah, people are much more friendly to each other than in West Malaysia.

“We’re just more relaxed than West Malaysians.”

“What do you mean?”, I ask.

“I mean when you study in West Malaysia and you walk into a classroom, you see the Malays over on one side, and the Chinese over there and the Indians on the other side. They don’t mix. They always say things like 1Malaysia and ‘truly Asia’, but it’s not. Here in Sabah, we are 1Malaysia.”

These words rung true recently when I hosted a few friends from West Malaysia who were shocked at how friendly Sabahans were to each other.

“People are so friendly here. I mean, the other day I was just walking the street and people actually said hello as I walked past. That stuff never happens in KL.”

When I asked about the ethnic differences in the West, they also agreed with my Sabahan friends: “Yeah, people here seem to mix a lot more than in West Malaysia.”

So I guess, it must be true, to an extent at least. In my personal experience, I have yet to experience a place quite as friendly, safe and welcoming as Sabah. Sabah is always promoted for its natural beauty, but it has been its human welcome that has so impressed me.

Friendly smiles from Kundasang, Ranau | Photo credit: esharkj on

But as an Australian who grew up in a country that loves to promote its multicultural image, I’m always a bit skeptical whenever I hear anyone boast about their lack of racism.

So maybe I’m the one who is tainted.

I will always remember that when I first came to Kota Kinabalu and planned to walk along the waterfront, I was warned to “watch out for the Filipinos. They’re dangerous.”

This shocked me more than a little.

Previously I had worked in the Philippines and fell in love with the place, the emotion, the food, the fun and the people. My whole perception of the Philippines was one of kindness and colour, and I have yet to meet a Filipino I didn’t get along with. But here I was, being told to “watch out” for them.

“What?! All the Filipinos I know are nice,” I replied.

“Yeah, some are nice, but they’re the one’s in Manila. The one’s here aren’t nice. They’re all criminals.”

Is this the face of a criminal? Filipino market worker in KK | Photo credit: Matt Watts on


Since this time, I have found this criminalised image of Filipino and Indonesian migrants to be a commonly held belief.

When I do ask, “have you ever been robbed?”, some of my friends have indeed told me some horrible stories in response. Yet about 90% of people reply in the negative and can’t recall anyone they know being attacked either.

Most Sabahans would not initially refer to them as “Filipinos” but instead, simply use the phrase “the illegals”. It is assumed that you know who are “the illegals”. This is of course unless you are talking about “Projek IC” whereby “the illegals” might be denigrated for being given legal status to vote in Sabah.

I have also heard the word, “pilak”: “nobody rides the buses here in KK because they’re scared of the pilaks on the bus.”

In a recent meeting on pollution issues in Kota Kinabalu, I remember one successful Sabahan businessman arguing that “it’s all because of the people on Pulau Gaya.” In case you haven’t guessed, Pulau Gaya rises out from the ocean, only a small boat ride from Kota Kinabalu and is home to one of the largest communities of Bajau and Filipino migrants in Sabah. Oh, and they had nothing to do with the pollution.

Even in conversations with sympathising, well travelled friends, I have often heard statements such as: “They’re not all that bad. I mean, if you can educate the children early on, maybe they won’t turn out soooo bad but if you don’t, they’ll just end up stealing.”

"If we educate them, they won't end up as thieves." Children at the Filipino market in KK. | Photo credit: Jaffrin Shahrom on


While I hate to say this, to me this sounds like something I have heard before, in Australia. When the Australian government went about kidnapping Aboriginal children as late as the 1970’s, they used to make statements like, “if you can educate the children, maybe they won’t turn out so bad.” And the government had said it enough, that some people started believing them.

Even now, as Australian politicians continue to argue that “boat people” seeking asylum in Australia remain the biggest threat to its national security, so too do I hear the echoes of Sabahans arguing that Sabah used to be safe until the “illegals” arrived.

Neither one likes to use the word “refugee”.

So it strikes me to ask, is Sabah as racism-free as it seems?

Maybe it’s time that we ask someone from the Philippines or Indonesia. After all, they make up over 1/3 of Sabah’s population these days.

In fact, the “illegals” might even be “the majority”.

There is no doubt a political side behind all of this, but politics is one thing and people are another.

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Posted on 19 November 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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