Known as the ‘Land below the Wind’, Sabah on the eastern side of Borneo is home to over 30 different ethnic races with over 80 local dialects. Its title comes from its location; directly beneath the typhoon belt making it free from climatic disturbances. Despite the advent of modernity, tradition and culture still prevail in local lifestyles, especially as a practice to welcome international visitors. A visit to Sabah is indeed a multi-cultural and fascinating experience.
Sabah’s early records indicate that it was broken up into various areas ruled by local chieftains in the early 9th Century. Later, in the 15th Century, it became a part of the Brunei Empire until an American Trader named Moses arrived in the 1880s’ to lease it. From there, it was passed on to an Englishman named Alfred Dent who converted the lease into a cession. The British North Borneo Chartered Company was thus established, ruling over the state until the Japanese occupation during World War II, after which it became a British Crown Colony. In 1963, Sabah joined the coalition of Malaysia.
Sabah’s 2 million residents are a diverse mix of races, with the Kadazan, Bajau and Murut forming the main indigenous groups. There are of course, sizeable populations of Chinese, Malays and Indians who form the majority of Malaysia’s social landscape.
The largest indigenous group in Sabah is the Kadazan-Duzun, which makes up a third of the population. They are known as prolific rice-producers, but many have gone into other commercial markets outside their traditional field. They are also known for their colourful customs, including those that involve female priestesses named ‘Bobohizan’. Their most famous festival is the Harvest Festival or ‘Tadau Ka’amatan’, which celebrates a season of good rice harvest.
The Bajaus are known for their many skills, from farming rice to rearing water buffaloes and making boats to riding horses. They are established mostly in Sabah’s coastlines, near the sea which is a central part of their culture. Traditionally, they are a nomadic, sea-faring people, with pockets of their race scattered in other countries across South East Asia. A peaceful lot, the Bajaus often put on shows demonstrating their awesome skill in horse-riding and handling for visitors during the annual ‘Tamu Besar’ Festival in Kota Belud.
The Muruts are found deep inland in Northern Borneo, renowned for their hunting skills using spears, blow pipes and poisoned darts. They used to practise head-hunting but have renounced it for a life of agriculture. Today, many cultivate hill paddy and tapioca, with some fishing and hunting in between.