In response to a recent event reported in the media ("Anger over Sabahan subjected to chokehold"), our writer recounts her own personal experiences as a Sabahan living abroad in Semenanjung Malaysia around two decades ago. Have you ever felt similarly for being Sabahan in Malaysia? In a country divided by the South China Sea, do you think that media has played a role in distorting perceptions of what it is to be Sabahan?

In response to a recent event reported in the media (“Anger over Sabahan subjected to chokehold“), our writer recounts her own personal experiences as a Sabahan living abroad in Semenanjung Malaysia around two decades ago. Have you ever felt similarly for being Sabahan in Malaysia? In a country divided by the South China Sea, do you think that media has played a role in distorting perceptions of what it is to be Sabahan?

Illustrated by Alanis Mah (Instagram: _alanismah_)

When I was studying in Kuala Lumpur about two decades ago, I found myself slipping out of my Sabahan accent and putting on a “Semenanjung” slang in my interactions. I’m not sure when I realised I was doing this; but I was aware that my shapeshifting, or code-switching, stemmed from a discomfort after experiencing the way Orang Semenanjung, as we Sabahans called them, would react. My Sabahan accent was either met with laughter or confusion, followed by an insistence that they couldn’t understand what I was saying.

And so, I thought the initial awkwardness of code-switching was a worthwhile trade versus the unrelenting discomfort of being told by my own country folk that they could not understand me; I adopted a West Malaysian accent, to appease them. 

Although there was some awkwardness at first, code-switching between my Sabahan and newly-formed West Malaysian accent was as easy as slipping in and out of clothes, because I had always listened to the Semenanjung slang. All forms of media I grew up with, on television as well as radio, portrayed West Malaysian lives, their culture, and their language. It created a sense of familiarity for me even as a young person leaving my hometown for the first time to pursue education in a land where I knew no one. Yet, because of the media I grew up with, I found myself able to assimilate and associate. 

Sadly, when I spoke with my Sabah accent in West Malaysia, I was often assumed to be Indonesian. It made me wonder: how was it that West Malaysians were more familiar with the Indonesian lilt than that of their own tanah air (homeland)?

Extrapolating my past experiences to today, and after over a decade as a media practitioner, I’m thoroughly sobered to the far-reaching impacts of media representation, politically-shaped narratives, and the importance of storytelling honouring the source. How are our counterparts, with an ocean between us, meant to recognise how we look and sound when all the representation of Sabah in mainstream media portray our state as a tourism and ecological cash cow, abundant in lush greenery and sweeping ocean views as far as the eye can see, and little else than that? Meanwhile, news arising from our state often sets us against the backdrop of immense poverty and deprivation, ironically amid generous natural resources?

While we pride ourselves on our heritage and rich biodiversity, our pride is accompanied by a bitter taste left behind as remnants of appropriation and exploitation. Sabahan stories are valuable and highly sought-after, we are told – but only when they are told in a manner palatable by the masses. The 2017 film ‘Tombiruo: Penunggu Rimba’ tells of a forest guardian of the same name, set in the wilderness of Sabah. Tombiruo is portrayed as a powerful, skilled warrior wielding his prowess for the good of the forest and its beings; but the titular role of this extraordinary character is played not by a Sabahan, but Zul Ariffin, despite the character being explicitly rooted in Sabahan contexts. In fact, the front-running lineup of characters are all played by West Malaysian actors while Sabahan talents are reduced to secondary, notably less prominent roles. One could argue for the decision-making with consideration to the pull of “famous” actors influencing box office reception, though it leaves the question: why can’t we Sabahans tell our own stories? 

In the 2022 box office smash hit ‘Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan, Borneans receive a not-so-subtle nod in the form of Toga, depicted as a ruthless mercenary hired by British colonial forces and hailing from the Borneo region. Throughout the movie, Toga is seen enthusiastic in his slaughter of resistance fighters, faithfully riding alongside the British. Although the character of Toga was not explicitly established as Sabahan, the barbaric portrayal of a Bornean “assassin” plays implicitly into the distillation of the identity of people from this part of the region as savages reduced to bodies for hire, motivated primarily by money with no sense of morality.

Distorted representation in the media makes for a fertile breeding ground of divisive narratives, further alienating already fragmented plural identities and leaving them in the margins in favour of a monolithic majority. Though it had been percolating for years, and is perhaps inseparable from our societal DNA until we dare to go to the wounds of our origins, this polarisation culminated in the wake of the 15th General Election. The campaigning period witnessed the rise of the “green wave” instigated by the Perikatan Nasional camp with Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) fanning the flames of racial and religious supremacy narratives, further provoking division. This election campaign narrative later spilled over to resurrect discourse surrounding the tragedy of 13 May 1969, most concerningly through a supremacist lens.

In early November this year, news broke of an e-hailing rider in Kuala Lumpur who was allegedly assaulted by a security guard due to a misunderstanding between the two. It is believed that the rider was denied entry into the premises but kept insisting, following a customer’s instruction. In a video clip of the scuffle, the security guard could be seen pinning down the rider while questioning his nationality, as the rider spoke in Malay but with a Sabahan accent. 

The video showing the Sabahan rider pinned to the ground surfaced a gruesome reminder of what happened to 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA, back in 2020. Floyd, a black man, was similarly pinned to the ground with a police officer’s knee to his neck, which eventually cut off his circulation and led to his death – all in under nine minutes. Would it be too much of a stretch to liken this recent incident to the brutality of what happened to George Floyd? Floyd was singled out and targeted on account of racial profiling. The rider in this case was brutalised for “appearing” different because the security guard did not recognise the former’s Sabahan accent as Malaysian. If this lack of understanding of our diverse peoples is exacerbated, would it be too much to say this kind of incident could potentially or may have led to a similarly cruel death?

In the age of information today and with social media as such a prominent force, I can, however, see that some things are changing. More West Malaysians are aware of diverse Malaysian accents – the Sabahan accent being one of them. Following the case of the e-hailing rider, many Malaysians from both sides of the sea took to social media, calling for better understanding, defending positive expression and encouraging all Malaysians to retain their natural accent.

Yet, social media being what it is, this discourse is not representative of the whole nation. After 60 years of the three entities – Sabah, Sarawak, and Malaya – merging to form Malaysia, finer nuances are impossible to address through social media discourse alone. There are still corners of the nation that need reaching, especially for a country divided by ocean. What happened with the e-hailing rider was certainly not an isolated case. Just a few months ago, a friend of mine shared an experience with a taxi driver in KL who asked her how long she’d been in Malaysia, and when she would be back to Sabah. Don’t be surprised – many Sabahans share similar stories. 

Going back to the e-hailing rider, I couldn’t help wondering if the rider had spoken in a Penang, Kelantan, or Kedah accent, would the security guard still question his nationality? I find that hard to believe.

I don’t believe that anyone is born ignorant nor incredibly well-informed. Ignorance is a learned behaviour and it can be unlearned, but it takes awareness and a sense of openness. Nobody can possibly know everything all the time – but we could perhaps approach the unknown with a curiosity rather than a suspicion, on the basis that it is different from what we know.