Bridging the east and west Malaysia divide


For the privileged few who have studied, worked and lived in both East and West the experience has enriched them and opened their eyes towards appreciating Malaysia’s beauty in our diversity. CP Writer – from East Malaysia – speaks to others like herself to get the down low on their uniquely Malaysian stories.

Sabah Sarawak

Image: Kamil Haziq

When it comes to Sabah and Sarawak, most West Malaysians draw from what we’ve learned in school history lessons – ridiculous stereotypes that East Malaysians are jungle dwelling ‘Tarzan’s who swing from tree to tree; and from a stream of Borneo wildlife advertisements that wrongly reinforce the perception that East Malaysia is undeveloped.

With Malaysia entering its 52nd year in existence, we figured it’s the perfect occasion to debunk these vague (and demeaning) stereotypes of East Malaysians as we get familiar with the unique experiences of the peeps over in the “land below the wind” and “land of the hornbills”.

First up, we kick off with the confessions from a pool of East Malaysians who are currently residing in the West side of our motherland.

Moving to a metropolis for the first time can be daunting, more so if you’re from a small town. While we assume newbies would be prepared for the obvious differences (like traffic or cost of living), other quirks don’t sink in until much later.

# The Black Sheep  

“For some, Sabah is just chunks of forest and a lot of nature but to me, it screams mountainside, islands, seaside towns, breath-taking sunrises and sunsets as well as crystal clear night skies. Sabah makes me proud to be her son.”

SabahSarawak, Shannon

Image: Shannon

Born and bred in Sandakan, Shannon Fernandez is most certainly one of the rare breeds. Of Chinese Indian descent, the 25-year-old lad is currently pursuing a law degree at Brickfields Asia College and enjoys immersing himself in the memoirs of authors and famous personalities during his spare time. Like many of his comrades back home, tertiary education eventually took him to the Peninsular. “Sabah has very few institutions that offer pre-university programmes besides (the much dreaded) STPM,” he explains.

Approaching his third year in Kuala Lumpur (KL) now, Shannon admits to experiencing subtle differences during his transition from Sabah to West Malaysia. Unsurprisingly, language was a struggle in the beginning as most East Malaysians do face a hard time comprehending KL jargons. “It took me a year to decipher the term “kot”. It’s particularly interesting how certain words are used as a multipurpose verb over here, like jom layan milo ais,” states Shannon who has taken to mamak cuisine. Perhaps the most striking disparity that turned out to be in his favour is the sudden flock of Malaysian Indians around him (Quick trivia: Indians in Sabah comprise only 0.3% of the overall population). “Back home, there are hardly any machas. I woke up one fine day on the west side of the country and bam, suddenly I am everyone’s brother in-law,” he laughs.

# The Ethnic Princess

“I would love for West Malaysians to learn from our rather chill, laidback and humble ways of living in diversity”.

SabahSarawak, Jasmine Goh

Image: Jasmine

A true concoction of Sabah’s indigenous ethnicities, Jasmine Goh is a Sino-Sungai-Visaya lady who also hails from the “Nature City” of Sandakan. Now a multimedia designer in KL, she completed her tertiary education in Multimedia University and has continued to reside here ever since. Despite having the same nationality, Jasmine too found herself struggling to cope with the huge differences between the east and west sides of our nation.

It was the language and culture she found most challenging. During her initial conversations, she faced endless bobbed heads and squinting stares going, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” “Seeing that we’re all Malaysians, who would have thought that East Malaysians actually face so much trouble assimilating? I had a tough time trying to minimise my Sabahan slang and accent”, says Jasmine with a sheepish smile.

The 25-year-old lass also had problems trying to fit in. Being of mixed-ethnicity and a little shy and reserved to begin with, the process of making new friends was a strenuous one for her. To her, the most distinct difference she noticed was the sight of race-based cliques. “I do hope people will broaden their minds and try to socialise outside of their own races,” states Jasmine ruefully.

# The All-Rounder

SabahSarawak, Amadeus

Image: Amadeus

“The lifestyle we have back in Sabah is certainly one of a kind. That makes me real proud to be a Sabahan.”

Similarly, the accessibility to tertiary education also precipitated Amadeus Chin’s shift to KL. No longer just a vacation spot, West Malaysia has now become his second home of five years. Unlike a majority of East Malaysians who typically opt to return home, Amadeus sees himself settling down here. A globetrotter by nature, he’s even open to the idea of living outside of Malaysia.

Highly adaptable, Amadeus is certainly one of the lucky ones who swiftly blended into the new culture. Besides figuring a way around the local transportation system, it was a relatively smooth transition for the 25-year-old. “Here’s my two sen. Initially, it will be tough (moving to) any foreign place. You’ll have to tune your mind into believing that things are going to get messy before eventually working out,” explains the MBA in Services Management student.

Of course, Amadeus also experienced the contrast of cultures between the east and west of Malaysia, particularly when it came to interaction with people. “People over here are generally ‘colder’ and suspicious of strangers. I’m guessing it’s some sort of defence mechanism from uncertainties,” opines Amadeus.

Nonetheless, not everyone is cut from the same cloth, as there are cases of those who ultimately found themselves purchasing a one-way ticket back home to the east.

# A Teacher, A Hero

“We are united in one way, in being a Bornean. We have a church right next to a mosque, siblings who are of different religions, sights of Muslims dining at Chinese food stalls. We are never bothered with the religion factor, let alone race and I hope it will always remain that way.”

On the other side of the story, we have Indra who stayed in West Malaysia for seven years before eventually moving back to the

SabahSarawak, Indra

east. A Psychology graduate whose dream is to be an educator, his decision to return home was one that didn’t squander much of his brain cells. “It was an effortless decision. Aside from the concern that my parents are staying alone, I knew it’s a calling for me to render my passion in education to the children in my hometown,” explains the 27-year-old don who is currently a junior lecturer in Tawau. A Ranau native, Indra also sets up free tuition classes for underprivileged children.

Interestingly, it appears that each East Malaysian had encountered his or her share of predicament in the realm of language upon landing on West Malaysian soil. While some struggle to comprehend the rojak mixture of West Malaysian’s spoken language, a lot are also particularly troubled by the norm of using English in daily conversations. “I was born in a society where everyone doesn’t converse much in English. Despite being the best student for MUET in my STPM, I still found it a struggle to adapt in an environment where English is so regularly spoken – it was something akin to a battlefield where I was constantly on guard with every word that I uttered,” states Indra who is of Dusun ethnicity. Nonetheless, it also removed him from his comfort zone and pushed him to improve. When asked if there is one thing that East Malaysians should pick up from the west, Indra mischievously advocated the “work hard, party harder” motto. “I think my fellow KL friends have made a point and it is something that I strive to practise in whatever I do,” shares Indra with a grin.

# The Eastern Marketer

“Generally, I still find East Malaysians more approachable regardless of their skin colour. Plus, most of us have very good sense of humour.”

SabahSarawak, Clement

Image: Clement Chee

As for Clement Chee, he too had spent a good five years in KL before eventually moving back east. Perhaps due to the disparity in cultural upbringing, Clement found himself tussling to meet the west’s definition of success. When the Sandakan native first embarked on an unconventional path as an Internet marketer, he was rather taken aback by everyone’s scepticism about it. Coupled with the struggle to cope with the high expenses of city living, Clement figured it would be more ideal for him to grow his online business back home in the east. “These days, I feel more at ease in expressing myself. There’s no need for me to justify my choices in life,” he thoughtfully ponders.

A big foodie, the most significant change during the transition years that took a toll on Clement was… you guessed it, the cutback in food selections. “I am a big fan of Indian cuisine and I prefer the Indian food variations over in the west. KL certainly has one of the most authentic Indian cuisine on earth,” enthuses Clement.

While most West Malaysians would flip out at the mere thought of even being temporarily stationed over East Malaysia, Rooban begs to differ.

# The Tree Hugger

“East Malaysians are generally more patient when it comes to driving. Some of them aren’t even aware of the existence of fast lane. Best part about diving over there? They always give way to each other and hardly hit the horn, almost never”

A Nemophilist at heart, Rooban Ramasamy boldly volunteered to be placed in East Malaysia as part of his bond with a Petronas scholarship. Upon his graduation from Universiti Teknologi Petronas, the Selangor native figured it would be an icing on the cake if he embarks on a journey away from the hustle and bustle of city life. “I’ve always wanted to experience a different lifestyle and pick up some new cultures. At that point of time, Sarawak and Sabah seemed exotic and foreign so I thought to myself, why not? And I gave it a shot,” he grins. Thanks to his East Malaysians buddies back in college, he was fuelled with a sense of curiosity towards the whole idea of living in East Malaysia.

SabahSarawak, Rooban

Image: Rooban

Rooban’s love affair with Borneo started way back in August 2003 during his first placement in Miri. The moment he set foot in Sarawak, the seasoned engineer was immediately blown away by the heartfelt hospitality that the locals were so generous with. “They poured in a lot of effort just to make sure I could seamlessly adapt to the new environment and were never tired of showing me around,” adds Rooban gratefully. In fact, strangers whom he met in less than an hour always ended up to be his long term buddies. Likewise, when he was transferred to Sabah five years later, he immediately felt at home again.

Ultimately, Rooban believes it is up to every individual’s conscious effort to learn and integrate his or her values into another culture. “East Malaysia is the epitome of respect and harmony despite the differences in religions or cultures”, states Rooban pensively.

As we celebrate Malaysia Day, we hope that these amusing and interesting personal stories will help to foster an appreciation for the diversity and uniqueness of all the peoples in our beloved nation. We’re all a part of the same family, and we should treat each other as such. Like the saying goes, variety is the spice of life – embrace it!

Sabah Sarawak

Image; Kamil Haziq

# Questions you can (and should) stop asking a Bornean.

Shannon: You wouldn’t believe the number of times that I have to repeat and pronounce “boleh bah kalau kau” slowwwly. It can get really taxing.

Indra: People still question if we travel by boats and live on trees. It’s such a cliché that these statements continue to linger on even though everyone is aware that’s not the case. For the last time, yes, we do travel by boats but that’s because we own islands (wink) and no, we don’t live on trees because we do have condominiums, bungalows, penthouses (you know, like everywhere else).

Clement: You are from Kota Kinabalu, right? Note to all – not every East Malaysian originates from Kota Kinabalu.

# What you might not know about East Malaysia

Shannon: Sabah and Sarawak entered the federation as equal partners but are referred to as states now.

Amadeus: Life is amusing and carefree in East Malaysia. You’d be surprised with how much you’ll love it.

Clement: Hours are miraculously longer in Sabah. You’ll find that you have more time to spend in a day.

Rooban: Almost all their food is served with a bowl of clear soup. Yes, even mamak mee.

Grace Chan


Grace Chan

Writer. An ardent follower of Carl Jung & Rumi. A green tea junkie whose daily dose of therapy include binging on the divine fluid. Grace also feeds on Psychology and will give away just about anything to cuddle with furry felines. Oh… and she not-so-secretly wishes to marry José Mojica.

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