OK Bah!

The Star
17th July 2013
Unedited version:

I was elated that I could write something about my beloved hometown in Sabah but at the same time, having lived in Penang and Selangor for the past 15 years, I was afraid that my peppered “balik kampung” visits, would not be suffice to truly understand the latest development of my state.

So I turned to social media to get some ideas on what to write about.

I received an overwhelming response from Sabahans and non-Sabahans alike.  The majority of suggestions, however, were split into two:

“Write about how we Sabahans have had the 1Malaysia concept way before it was introduced…because we are friendlier and can mix with all cultures better than our Peninsular friends!”

The others suggested I write about the “Pendatang Tanpa Izin (PTI)” or the pilaks and “to address the trouble and furore” they cause.

Hmm. Such irony.

On one end, we have Sabahans who boasts warmly about their friendly hospitality.
On the other side of the spectrum, I sense some coldness towards a certain group of people living in Sabah.

This made me think of a blogpost I read last year, about this Australian writer who created a bit of chaos with his touchy article on Sabah’s hidden racism.

Reading the comments on my social media platform, I couldn’t help but to wonder if Mr. Wright was well, right.

It is true that one thing I constantly hear, is that Sabahans are much more friendlier and nicer than those in West Malaysia.

“Kita urang Sabah lebih friendly bah kalo ko banding sama urang KL*. Kita lagi cool ..indak sombong. Kita tidak kira kalo ko urang bajau kah, urang kadazan, urang cina. Semua sama.”

In a previous article, I shared my sentiments on the 1Malaysia concept. Having spent my growing up years in Sabah, I didn’t see any racial segregation or problems with unity. I just saw everyone as just another person. The only time I sensed we were ‘different’ was when we were separated during Agama & Moral class.

My husband, a city boy from Petaling Jaya, has had the pleasure of spending some invaluable time in my hometown and he too feels we (Sabahans) are much more laid-back and courteous compared to the community he grew up in. When he asked who was what in my yearly class pictures, I could only point out their names but was not too sure of their ethnicity. Did it matter? For me? No. To me, we are just Sabahans - not Kadazans, Muruts, Bajaus etc.  1Sabah, if I may say so.

Hubby was perplexed with my blasé reaction.

“Yeah, you people seem to mix a lot better amongst yourself than our folks.”
When he said that, I couldn’t help but feel a rush of pride. Yes, we promote Sabah as not just a state of natural beauty, but its people are warm and generous when it comes to hospitality.

Well, most of the time.

Chris Wright contentiously wrote how he found the criminalised image of the Filipino and Indonesian migrants to be a commonly held belief in Sabah.

During his first visit to Kota Kinabalu, he was warned to “watch out for the Filipinos, they’re dangerous…nobody rides the buses here in KK because they’re scared of the pilaks on the bus.”

This made me ponder if we were truly as bigot-free and friendly as we claim to be?

I grew up with a wonderful Filipino maid who stayed with us for many years till she remarried and decided (painfully) to head back to Manila. My father raised a young Filipino boy who eventually became his loyal aide till he too, left to look after his wife and twins. My family never referred to them as pilaks. They were just Rose and Willie to the family. They ARE family. 

Recalling back, I remember a classmate asking me how many pilaks and oms did we have in our household. When I asked dad about this, he told me that Rose and Willie had proper, legal documents with them, so they are not pilaks. Om David and Om Anton were our hardworking gardeners. (Om means brother apparently – Indonesians from Timor-Leste. They were also known as om gere-gere to our relatives because of their really curly hair and dark skin. I still don’t understand the logic to that name, but I digress).

It was from here that led me to believe that pilaks mean the Filipino illegal immigrants who are normally perceived to be troublemakers and lawbreakers.

So yes, I do think the labeling ‘pilak’ is definitely a racist remark towards the Filipinos, and this gets more racist when we are able to identify which Filipino we want to refer to as a pilak – usually the dark-skinned ones with bronzy, orange hair.

I asked random friends what do they think when they hear the word pilak.

Isap gam. Syabu user. Penyangak. Red IC holder. Lives in Kampung air. Sells cheap cigarettes by the kaki lima. Projek IC

The salient point here is that the word ‘pilak’ is usually reserved for reference to a said subject, in line with some of the descriptions above, and does not really take into consideration whether or not the person is Filipino or Indonesian, legal or illegal.
A friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous told me this;

“I’ve heard Chinese and Kadazan-Dusuns refer to these migrants as “Malays”. Hardworking Indonesians are called “Orang Bugis, while localised Filipinos are called “Bajaus”.”

How’s that for bigotry?

Racism is always alive to a degree wherever ethnic polarization exists. Sabah is sadly, not an exemption.

Things may be all hunky dory on ground level, but let’s take a step back and you’ll see that more lies beneath. Not even against migrants, but amongst our own locals!

Let’s take a look at some of these few examples gathered.
Chinese are perceived as ungrateful, cutthroat and cliquish or clannish.

Malay people in Sabah are not even seen as Malays at all, but rather Muslim individuals who have converted to Bumiputera status for benefits (i.e. Orang Brunei, Pakistani-mixed descendants, Indonesians, Filipinos, etc.)

Kadazan Dusuns a demanding lot who don’t work very hard and have a habit with the bottle.

All other Sabah bumis (Muruts, Rungus, etc.) are simply followers of the Kadazan Dusuns, or complacent Kampung folk.

Ouch, no?

Pilak” types are pretty much universally disliked, but how about all the foreign workers contributing to Sabah’s economic development?

Some still prefer immigrants to work in their premises due to cheap labour but at the same time complain about the influx of immigrants. To put it simpler, they (or even I) are just being a bunch of hypocrites,” writes my Journalist friend Ricardo from Kota Kinabalu.

They see the foreigners as a much needed necessity in filling our human resource gap.

For example, palm oil plantations are facing some of the most serious labour shortages to date, as locals complain about foreign workers, yet they don’t take the jobs after the Government removes the foreign labour  force.

On the flip side, there are those who feel that foreigners dilute our local representation and destroy our cultural heritage.

“Yes, I do believe the natives should protect their rights but not towards the extend of inciting hate towards others.” Ricardo adds.

I asked some locals if the Lahad Datu intrusion has made them more wary with the foreigners working in Sabah.

Apparently, some were a bit wary and nervous about the "Suluks" already living amongst them and were ready to attack.

Those closer to reality realise that these orang Tausug / Suluks were already well and truly happy to call Sabah home, as they escaped war torn conditions to live a better life. There's nothing greener back in the Southern Philippines for them.

If anything, it is the foreign workers that were more overly cautious than the locals. A friend of a friend owns a workshop in Penampang, and his Suluk mechanics were calling their boss to ask if it was safe to go to work.

Fast forward a few months to today, nobody really gives a hoot about the fact that they order  Teh-C pings and food from Suluk teenage waitresses at virtually every kopitiam.

RED IC, Mykad or IC Palsu - they're usually hard working people who appreciate the little things in life more than locals do.

“Truth be told, most locals don't even realise who's foreign or not.
“Malay" looking girl serving a bowl of char-sau rice, doesn't seem too ironic to people here,” chides my anonymous friend.

Sure, racism lingers in the back of everyone's minds, but fortunately in Sabah, it is nowhere near malicious.

Perhaps a better retort to Wright’s article, as suggested by a Mr Ray is this: is it racism, or is it anger towards social injustice that’s taking place here?

We’re both gunning for the latter.

*KL is sometimes used in Sabah as the generic meaning to Semenanjung Malaysia. Like how Colgate is for toothpaste. 

Daphne is embarrassed that she is unable to speak Kadazan fluently and is trying to pick up the language to teach her half Kadazan girls so they are able comprehend the language when they go home to see their Odu and Aki.


  1. I was reading in rapt attention with a few giggles and a new realisation in between.

    You've come a long way since I first met you in Sepang (MPE 2008). Looking forward for more articles!

  2. Very true...Sabahans are the BEST ! I was working there for 2 years and now Sabah is my second home. I've never felt so welcomed anywhere before.

    P/s - I took the KK bus regardless of pilak or none.. !

    Thank you Daphne for the article


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