Meet me in the crowd, people, people

Throw your love around, love me, love me

Take it into town, happy, happy

Put it in the ground where the flowers grow

Gold and silver shine

Shiny happy people holding hands

Shiny happy people laughing

Everyone around, love them, love them

This song by REM can truly be dedicated to the wonderful people of Sabah, a land which is no doubt created by God himself. Smiling faces, bright eyes, shiny demeanor, polite, enthusiastic, hospitable and filled with warmth that even melt the coldest heart. What I found in Sabah is no doubt a soul that is blessed by the Gods the Sabahans worship. Childlike enthusiasm, soft-spoken words, laughter and gaiety and a lot of unity in their diversity.

Sabahans at a local market
Sabahans at a local market. Picture Credits:

Malaysia is a country of diversities and this is seen even more so in Sabah. Sabah can truly be called the melting pot of cultures. Home to over 33 ethnic groups, that converse in more than 80 dialects within a population of three million, these unique and different races found in East Malaysia are even more diversified compared with West Malaysia.

But despite the extreme diversities, you find people bonding, chatting and working harmoniously at local tea houses. Inter-tribe marriages have become more and more acceptable and very soon differentiating between natives and non-natives will be a thing of the past.

The ability to coexist in-spite of the differences is also because Sabahans are considered to be one of the friendliest people in Malaysia. Most Sabahans are able to speak at least three languages, their national language – Bahasa Malaysia, English and their tribal mother tongue.

Indian woman with Sabahan peopleA charming folktale explains the legend and history of Sabah’s oldest people. You can call it a Sabahan legacy.

Compared to the garden of Eden, it talks of a place called Nunuk Ragang, that was found somewhere in the heart of Sabah which had a river running through it. A banyan tree or Nunuk as it was called stood proudly on the banks of the river. The native children played all day in the river and climbed the huge branches to dry and sun themselves. This is supposedly the reason for the golden glow on the skin of the Sabahans.

People lived harmoniously and happily and soon the numbers started increasing and Nunuk Ragang got very crowded. Not left with many choices, many families moved out in search of newer places to live. Some settled as farmers while some went across valley plains while others went up the highlands, learning to hunt and reap the jungle bounty. Many of them went as far as the east coast of Sabah and settled. In this way, the original Sabahans spread all over the place.

Indian woman posing with two Sabahan children But the fact is that most of these ethnic groups share languages, traditions, and history. However, the geographical barriers and rugged terrains led to the evolution of many dialects in common languages, and a variety of dressing styles, rituals, handicrafts, cultures and systems. The biggest indigenous ethnic group is Kadazan-Dusun, followed by Bajau, and the Murut. Sabahans follow these traditions and customs to date and hold their history close to their hearts.

Local Sabahan Woman with a baby
Picture Credits:
The Kadazandusun Tribe

The Kadazandusan tribe is the largest ethnic category in Sabah. They are into predominantly wet rice and hill rice cultivators. Their language can be traced to the Dusunic family and they also share a common animistic belief system with various customs and practices. They firmly believe that everything has a life, be it the trees, the rocks, the river and that these are all alive. Recent times have seen many of the tribe migrating to urban areas and are performing prominently well in the civil service and other professions.

The Bajau Tribe

The Bajaus are Sabah’s second largest indigenous group. They are found in concentrated numbers on the coastal areas especially from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud and around the Semporna area. Originally seafarers and at one time many were feared to be pirates. The West Coast Bajaus are now mainly farmers and cattle breeders, the renowned “Cowboy Horsemen” of Sabah. The Bajau of the East Coast are the fishermen and coastal dwellers although many have now settled on land. The Bajaus are mostly Muslims who are believed to have emigrated from the Philippines, although they do claim to be descendants of the Johor Malays.

Sabahan man with a decorated horse
PC: Reema Suri
The Rungus Tribe

The Rungus tribe who inhabit the Kudat district are a tribe who have still managed to hold on to their ancient traditions even to this day. The traditional costumes worn by the women of the tribe has still not really changed much as the women still use cloth processed from hand-grown and hand-spun cotton for their costumes. The Rungus are famous for their beadwork and you can see quite a bit of in their costume too.

The Murut Tribe

The word “Murut” actually means “hill people”. They are inhabitants of the interior and southeastern parts of Sabah, and the territory at the edge of Kalimantan and Sarawak borders. Feared at one time as the head-hunters, they now no more indulge in that sport. Muruts are mainly found in three districts, Tenom, Keningau and Pensiangan. They were mainly longhouse dwellers, who are mostly shifting cultivators and hunters. They also do river fishing. Hunting with a blowpipe and spear is their primary element but apart from that, they also gather plant paddy as well as jungle produce such as rattan and resin. With around 15 languages and dialects in use by the tribe, Tanggal is the most commonly used and understood the language of the Murut. Their language is also linked to the Kadazandusun languages.

Sabahans are very proud of their culture and take pride in their origins, in spite of modernity setting in. My interaction ranged from my tour manager Hazel to our hosts from Sabah tourism and Borneo trails. The staff of the various places I visited from Sutera Paradise to Sabah tea garden and Shangri-La Rasa Ria and the various restaurants, cafes and grocery shops to vendors in the market, speedboat drivers or chefs and instructors for various activities or even people just passing by on the road. And the only thing I realized was that no matter what their status or position was, they were all shiny happy people who I fell in love with. Their happiness was contagious which kept me smiling always.

“Shiny happy people, you’ve made my heart your home”

Sabahans with their traditional wear
Sabahans with their traditional wear
PC: Reema Suri


Read more about the indigenous tribes of North Borneo and their arts and crafts



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here