Sabah received waves of immigrants in its pre-history,
Austronesians whose ancestors constitute the present
day indigenous population. Thereafter, its isolation
meant that it was only very cursorily visited or
considered bythe great Empires of South-East Asia,
though Chinese sources did indicate of emissaries
visiting Borneo. Up until the mid-fifteenth century,
Sabah was nominally under the suzerainty of the
Sultans of Sulu and Brunei, then a quiet haven of
riverine settlements and jungle clearings.
There were trading links
with Imperial China and what is now Sabah. As early as
the ninth century AD, Borneo was exporting her camphor
wood, shells, cowries, pepper and birds' nests to
Imperial China. Trade also brought the Spanish and the
Portuguese to her shores and though they tried to
seize Sabah to augment their various empires, nothing
became of their forays.
The Sultan of Brunei's
nominal control was curtailed even more after the
arrival of James Brooke in the 1840's who cleared the
west coast of much of its piracy. A curious historical
fact is the short-lived American trading station at
the mouth of the Kimanis
River. This was followed up bythe success of
the merchant adventurers, Cowie and the Dent brothers,
in securing grants of territory from the local rulers.
Their grants were given
legitimacy bythe incorporation of the North Borneo
Chartered Company in 1881 and the founding of Kudat as
the capital. The capital was later moved to the town
of Sandakan, an old German trading station called
Elopura, or the 'Beautiful Town' which had been
accidentally burnt to the ground years before.
Sandakan was in the heart of the rich east
coast with its birds' nests, gutta-percha and
tobacco. A record of the state's exports in 1897
reveals a curious assortment of commodities - old
jars, animal horns,
belacan or shrimp paste and even
worth of treasure.
In its perpetual search
for revenues and dividends, the Company built a
railway line that linked the interior with the coast,
a venture reminiscent of one of the British writer
Conrad's South Sea novels.
To increase the
population, the Company encouraged the immigration of
Chinese settlers, drawing Hakkas to the west coast and
Cantonese to the east, as well as a lone colony of
Shantung settlers on the edge of present day Kota
Kinabalu who forsook their windswept plains for the
heat and humidity of Borneo.
The pacification of
Sabah was not an easy matter and the Chartered Company
was forced to quell two uprisings. The first was led bythe legendary figure, Mat Salleh, at the turn of
the century, though the rebellion was finally quelled.
The second and possibly more interesting rebellion
concerned the Murut people of the interior who joined
forces under the leadership of Antanum in 1917, during
the First World War. They refused to agree to British
demands for corvee labour and objected to the way
bridle paths were built across their ancestral lands
without regard for the
djinns and spirits of the hills. The British
murdered Antanum under the guise of the parley and
mowed down his supporters, an act which had blotted
the colonial record.
The Second World War
brought the Japanese to Sabah and with them the
beginning of the end of the colonial era. An elegy for
those times was Agnes Keith's touching memoirs 'The
Land Below The Wind', which captured the atmosphere of
1930's Sandakan. A small enclave of colonial buildings
still stands on the ridge over-looking what was once
the Residency, a forgotten outpost of an Empire.
Sabah suffered heavily
during the War and Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu were
destroyed byAmerican bombings in the dying days of
the War. There are three memorials - one on the
foothills of Mount Kinabalu, Kundasang and another in
Sandakan, commemorating the death march that claimed
the lives of all but six of the 2,400 men who marched
from Sandakan to Ranau; and the third at Petagas on
the west coast honouring the brave but ill-fated
'Double 10' revolt in 1943, in which a resistance
group succeeded in seizing Jesselton for a day and a
night before they were forced to retreat bythe
Subsequent history has been peaceful bycomparison and
Merdeka, or Independence, was granted on the 16
September 1963 to the state within the Federation of
The three million
population of Sabah is as diverse as its ecology.
Comprising of a colourful mix of 32 ethnic groups and
other non-indigenous people – they are all interwoven byculture, tradition, marriage and language. The
result is a face and dialect unmistakably Sabah.
The largest ethnic group
is the Kadazandusun, making up 1/3 of the total
population. They can be found mainly on the West
Coast, to the interior. Formerly the main
rice-producers of the state, the Kadazandusun are now
a major force in Sabah’s rapid progress towards urban
The Bajau were
originally the seafarers of Borneo. Many still reside
along the coastline with fishing being a major
occupation, while others have moved inland and taken
up animal farming. Their riding skills on ponies have
earned these Bajau the nickname “Cowboys of the East”
and their colourful costumes (as well as those of
their ponies) are greatly admired.
The Murut reside mainly
in the hinterland, with many still occupying the
traditional longhouses. Once feared for their
headhunting, the Muruts now mainly use their blowpipes
and darts for hunting food and on ceremonial
occasions. A typical Murut wedding celebration
showcases the best of this unique culture through the
music, dance, costumes and food.
The highlight of all
ethnic community festival is the Harvest Festival held
in May. Traditionally, it is a ceremony to give thanks
to the rice-spirits for a bountiful harvest, and to
ensure the same for the next season. Gong-beating
competition, Unduk Ngadau (Harvest Queen), buffalo
races and other traditional sports, the appearance of
the “bobohizan” or high priestess, are all part of
this interesting festival.
A majority of the ethnic
communities in Sabah are either Muslims or Christians bychoice. Hence, in addition to their traditional
celebrations, the respective communities also
celebrate Hari Raya Puasa, Hari Raya Haji, Awal
Muharam, Good Friday and Christmas.
The Chinese, who migrated in great numbers to Sabah
during the early years of the North Borneo Chartered
Company era, make up a large portion of the
non-indigenous people. Living mostly in and around
city areas, they engaged themselves primarily in the
commercial sectors of the economy. The Chinese has
adapted themselves well in Sabah with many of their
traditional beliefs and celebrations such as Wesak Day
and Chinese New Year, are still being observed and
celebrated in Sabah; not only the Chinese alone but
with the community as one.
State Mosque, Kota Kinabalu
resplendent structure, with its majestic domes and
gold inlay motifs, is a spectacular sight, ideally
located as a place of worship for Kota Kinabalu's
Muslim inhabitan3ts and visitors.
Sabah Foundation Building, Kota Kinabalu
The 30-story circular glass building,
supported byhigh tensile steel rods emanating from a
central building, is an architectural and engineering
feat. It is one of only four such buildings in the
Kota Belud is a small town located 77 km
from Kota Kinabalu. Every Sunday it comes alive in a
scene of blazing, riotous colour when the "Tamu," or
open market, takes place.
Tuaran is the location of the region's
agricultural station. Nearby is Mengkabong, a Bajau
village built over water. Also close byis Tamparuli,
a town specializing in the production of local
Another village that offers an insight into
Sabah's varied ethnic groups, Penampang is home to the
Kadazan people. The village is located 13 km south of
Sandakan is busy port on the Sulu Sea,
about 386 km from Kota Kinabalu. The forestry
exhibition in Sandakan showcases the astounding
variety of flowers and plants found in Sabah; the
Sandakan Orchid House has a collection of rare
orchids. Along the Labuk Road from Sandakan is a
crocodile farm, housing about 1,000 crocodiles of
The journey to the Gomantong Caves takes a
whole day; first a boat-ride across the bay from
Sandakan, then a drive bylandrover through 16 km of
dense jungle. Within the marvellous caves, swifts
build their nests high on cave walls and roofs. These
nests are considered a delicacy, and are carefully
collected bynative men climbing on tall bamboo poles.
Tours can be arranged through the Forest Department in
Sabah or a travel agency.
Located on the southeast coast of Sabah,
Semporna is the jumping-off point for Pulau Sipadan, a
diving paradise, and Pulau Gaya, the island where
Sabah pearls are cultured.
A long way from Kota Kinabalu (238 km),
Kudat is, nevertheless, worth a visit, as it is home
to the colourful Rungus tribe. The journey to the
village is an attraction in its own right, winding
through the region's varied terrain of mountains,
valleys, and jungles.