Saya nak tahu kaum apa diorang ni. Tapi yang pasti diorang memang bukan rupa Melayu,” I said to my father.

We were in a night market beside the sea, smack in the middle of Kota Kinabalu. Enjoying a late night tea during our four day visit to Sabah.

My dad shrugged to signal his own ignorance of the ethnicity of the various peoples of the night market. To satisfy our curiosities, we caught hold of the stall keeper serving us.

Kamu suku kaum apa?” my father asked the young girl, who couldn’t be more than 17 years old.

Of course, she was startled.

Orang sini. Orang Sabah,” was the reply.

Ya, tapi kaum apa?”

Mak orang Bajau. Ayah orang Bugis.

If it’s one thing I learned from my short trip to Sabah, it’s that it’s way more multi-cultural than anywhere on the peninsular. Sabah’s ethnic makeup is unique in the sense that no one ethnic group has a clear, commanding majority in the state. That is why the issue of ‘ketuanan‘ of one ethnic group, a rhetoric that plagues the peninsular, is by and large non-existent in Sabah.

In Sabah, they cherish their multi-culturalism. My uncle married a Sabahan Kadazan-dusun (who converted to Islam). Yet during Hari Raya, her Christian relatives would visit her, so much so that the first day of Aidilfitri is fully booked for her to entertain her relatives. When my cousins got married, the nights will be filled with religious activities whilst the day witnessed cultural activities such as the Kadazan’s tarian sumazau. And one of her children married a Bajau, to further add into the melting pot another ethnic mixture.

In the peninsular, our multiracial tolerance is considered ‘healthy’ if other races are mixing freely with each other. In Sabah, they bring tolerance to a whole new level.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from Sabah. Here is a state with at least 32 officially recognized ethnic groups with a multitude of different faiths, from Christianity to Islam to animistic beliefs. Yet, whilst they may differ ethnically and religiously from each other, they see themselves as Sabahans. They have their native languages, but they converse with each other in that Sabah dialect of Bahasa Malaysia.

Yet it is said that this mystical land, this beacon of ethnic tolerance and integration has been increasingly sidelined by the developments taking place in West Malaysia. My journey to Sabah was limited to places accessible by roads, but I have read that there are still many places cut off from any major forms of transportation. Not to mention the lack of basic amenities such as water and electricity. In this month’s edition of Off the Edge, there is an entry by Mr. Joe Leong entitled “No Bailout for You – Part II“. The article brings to our attention the plight of the people of Pitas, within the Kudat peninsula, a region known for the hardcore poor in Sabah. They live in huts with no furniture, their children will probably not finish school and they have to ‘borrow from here and there to meet ends meet’. No electricity, no water and public transport is non-existent.

Even in places with access to electricity, water and transportation, the facilities pale in comparison to the worse areas in the peninsular. Along the way to Simpang Mengayang, the northernmost tip of the island of Borneo, we had to pass through a stretch of road which was not tarred. And to think, Simpang Mengayang is a tourist destination, not some far off village!

But oh how we have plundered theĀ  East Malaysian states dry. Their rich natural resources has provided a steady revenue for the federal government. And we can’t even provide basic amenities for their people. Daylight robbery?

Supporters of the New Economic Policy, who claim that there’s nothing wrong with the policy and it should not be reviewed, should spend some time in Sabah. They will see that a policy based on ethnicity and not on merit will not ultimately serve its purpose. The children of well-connected Datuks will obtain assistance under the policy, but the poor youth in Kundasang will be forgotten, if we continue with the New Economic Policy without any attempt to review its effectiveness.

Actually, I think a lot of Malay ultras and ethno-nationalists (especially those from the ruling coalition) should spend some time in Sabah. They will realize that the whole concept of supremacy of the Malays as the indigenous people Malaysia, will not hold water in Sabah. Malays make up only 11% of the population, yet somewhat perplexingly, a Malay chief minister (from UMNO) leads the state. The argument put forth by the ethno-nationalists that this state or that state must be lead by a Malay because Malays are the majority doesn’t seem to apply to Sabah. If going by that argument, a Christian Kadazan-dusun should be the Chief Minister. Of course, in saying that, I myself am bringing to Sabah the racial ‘logic’ from the peninsular. Maybe Sabahans do not care who leads them, as long at the end of the day, he/she is a Sabahan.

My father continued his ‘interrogation’ of the Bugis-Bajau stall keeper.

Mak orang Bajau, bapa orang Bugis ye? Jadi, kamu orang apa?

Orang Sabahlah!” she replied, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.