A sea change in Sabah

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SABAH’s people are a reflection of their homeland — they endure much like their mountains and yet are as unknowable as the seas.

They are hard to understand, hard to explain to West Malaysians who are mystified by their vastly different takes on politics, race and religion.

A lot of it has to do with history and culture. Sabahans are notably less feudal than the rest of Malaysia because they have never had kings or rajahs.

They are less likely to stand on ceremony, more prone to bluntness and can come across as straight out rude — an infamous example being Kinabatangan MP Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin.

Follow Sabah politicians on their campaign rounds and you will hear laughter, witness a lot of back-slapping, and casual banter.

Outsiders may misunderstand, think Sabahans are not a serious people, that we are backward and uncouth.

We are just a lot less uptight, which I wish I could say about the east coast states where even wearing football shorts can get you a talking-to from the authorities.

While the east coast states are veering even harder towards religious conservatism at the expense of everything else, Sabah’s people are a lot more preoccupied with one thing: money.

It is, I believe, what eventually led Sabahans to again vote against the ruling government.

The way they did, when they kept the United Sabah Party (PBS) in power when it left Barisan Nasional. Before Penang, Sabah had thumbed its nose at the federal government and paid the price for decades.

BN promised development when it took power in the state and while Kota Kinabalu (KK) is the cleanest it has ever been, the state still lags behind in economic opportunity and infrastructure.

KK is still the small town pretending to be a city I remember — it just has a lot more cars. It relies far too much on tourism; turn every corner and there is a travel agency. Tour agency signs written in Korean Hangul. Bak kut teh stalls in a concentrated density that could make KK the next Klang.

An overhead air-conditioned bridge connecting two malls is being built; obviously for tourists as the average local is just going to jaywalk as usual.

It is amusing, and also a little sad.

Catering to tourists might, in the short term, help increase tourist numbers. Especially with winter fast approaching, East Asians will flock to our sunnier shores for cheap seafood, fruit and respite from the cold. Yet, are we doing enough for our own people?

I ponder this as I walk on the streets of KK, so far removed from what I remember. The streets are clean; the smells of the wet market no longer overpowering. Bus stops and information signs are clearly marked and maintained.

Yet what you don’t see is the salaries that have not increased, while prices have. Sayur ikat (vegetables) that went for 50 sen to RM1 now cost no less than RM2. But wages have not matched the increase but that is something that is inflicting the whole country.

Climate change has affected economies all over the world. Will our fish continue to be cheap? While the hot weather means plenty of durian all year around now, what of Sabah’s vegetable farmers who already make very little?

Do we think about the impact tourists have on our ecology and what measures there are to compensate for that? What of plans to log and mine in formerly protected areas? What of our failure so far to protect our elephants, rhinos and orangutan from poachers and overzealous plantation owners?

I do not miss the days when KK was so run down our neighbours in Kuching would mock how little we seemed to care for the city. Being stuck in the past and clinging to nostalgia is not my desire; my only hope is that as Sabah lumbers forward to catch up with the rest of the country it does not forget what makes it unique and different.

That it does not sacrifice the very things that have sustained the state for so long and that we do not destroy our future to fund our present.

In the meantime, I can still breathe in the sea air and see the stars so clearly in the night sky the way I can’t in Kuala Lumpur. I hope that that never changes.

Erna Mahyuni is from Sabah and is currently a sub-editor and columnist with Malay Mail.