Sabah; Malaysia: Through My Eyes

Its been almost a month since I returned from Malaysia and have only now gotten around to putting this up now. I debated on the approach to take in this blog. I could provide a complete tourist view-point on the place, though that would have been short, or an anthropological review of the community and its comparison towards India. In the end, I figured it would be best to provide an understanding of the place in terms of the feelings and thought processes it instigated within me.

Sabah, is one of the thirteen states in the federation of Malaysia and is located in the eastern part of the state, with Borneo and Kalimantan of Indonesia as its neighbours.  Sabah is often described by people as one of the last states to join the federation, the state which is still holding on to its ethnic groups and their individual identities, one of the states where Islam isn’t the dominant religion, one of the least developed states in the region etc. However, my first reaction to Sabah was honestly that of excitement, peace and at the same time of sadness. These conflicting emotions confused me to a great degree and really made me think of what it was in this place that made me feel this way.

The excitement was of course in part because of the work I was to do there, which would be extremely challenging and demanding but also because this was the first time I left the Indian subcontinent. The peace was an emotion I felt more upon arriving in the city of Kota Kinabalu and driving down to Sabah. The journey of around 3 hours through those low hills and small cities and settlements for some reason calmed my excitement and senses and allowed me to appreciate the simple beauty of the place. As clichéd as the line is, at the time it almost felt as if the world had slowed down. Suddenly there was no rush to get to a destination, no deadline to meet, just the feeling of slowing down and taking a deep breath. I know, this feeling is mostly experienced while one is close to nature, hence it was surprising to feel this on the main highway in the area, driving at more than 100 km/hour.

Perhaps it was the fact that even at that speed, cars would slow down instead of overtaking; even on an empty road, and would maintain at least 5 feet of distance between the cars or that no one felt the need to use the horn in their cars or perhaps that even at that speed, everyone took the time to greet each other from within their cars. That simple raising of the hand from the steering wheel reminded me off the oft quoted statement about people in metropolitan cities: “we are connected to people across the globe, but don’t know our known neighbours”. How long does it take, to raise your hand in acknowledgement, how long does it take to smile at the person in front you and let them know that you see them, how long does it take to say a hello to your neighbour? why do we hesitate?

Maybe it was the view from the road, with the trees lining the hills and completely covered by creepers, they almost had human shapes, as if frozen in their place in some fantasy story. I almost felt like stopping and trying to listen to their story. This feeling continued when we arrived at our destination and during our trips to the villages. The villages or Kampongs, are organized around a common area, which is also treated as playground for the children, with the stilt houses spreading in a radial around the field and the main buildings such as the church and long house being located closer to the field. Even surrounded by cars, television sets and mobile phones, the Kampongs manage to slow you down, as if saying go on, take a break. With children, dogs and cats playing in the field, women going about their daily business and completely organic food, the sense of calm is amazing. People told me that my skin looked better, cleaner when I got back to Delhi, I was told it was because of the humidity in Malaysia, which cleaned my skin, I have feeling this sense of peace also played a major role.

However, like I said before the place also filled me with a sense of sadness. Sadness because while Sabah is still in touch with nature, the coming of technology, of palm oil and coffee plantations replacing natural forests and the younger generations moving to the cities; one wonders how long this will last. I know, this is a viewpoint which receives alot of flak, should the under developed not receive the benefits of development ? Of course they should, how can anyone argue against it, but does it have to be accompanied by the loss of connect to nature and an inhabitation of a concrete world? I sincerely hope not. When flying over the country, one can see the expanse of plantations which have replaced the natural tropical forest. While interacting with the community, they told us that the next generation is not interested in the traditional agriculture, they are not aware of the forest produce that was used by the previous generation as food or medicine or for handicrafts. I understand it to be a case of the grass being greener on the other side. Perhaps we value nature more because we have lost access to it, perhaps those who have it in abundance see it only as a hindrance to their having access to everything the people in cities have. However, do the two have to exclusive? Once again I hope not, the country of Bhutan is a good example where a conscious effort is being made by the government to protect the culture and nature of the country. That will be my next blog, my trip to Bhutan, however in the meantime I would strongly urge anyone reading this to definitely make a trip to this country, but not to its cities and beaches but to its interiors, spend some time with the community and experience the true Sabah, cause one never knows how long it will last.




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