Land Below The Wind, Over 80 peoples and 50 Tongues
Sabah is Malaysia’s northernmost state and, together with Sarawak, makes up Malaysian Borneo. Most famous for its two mountains, Mt Kinabalu and the underwater mountain of Sipadan, it still remains something of a frontier.
Before its independence in 1963, the British North Borneo Company administered the state as a protectorate of the British Empire.
For centuries prior to this there were many bloody disputes over the state’s riches attracting raiders and traders from afar, with the Philippines and Indonesia claiming parts of the territory as their own.
Fortunately nowadays 32 officially recognized ethnic groups live here in harmony while, at the same time, preserving their own culture, traditions, festivals and custom.
The 3 million people of Sabah are as diverse as the ecology.
There are 3 main groups of indigenous people, with the largest group, Kadazandusun, making up one third of the population.
Kadazandunsun live mainly on the West Coast to the interior of Sabah and were formerly the main rice producers. The culture observes souls and spirits that must be appeased from time to time through specific rituals. In these modern times, some of the rituals are less common, accept during important festivals.
Another group, Bajaus, landed on Sabah’s shores around 200 years ago, along with Suluks, Irranuns, Binadans and Obian people.
Once regarded as sea gypsies because of their seafaring ways, many Bajaus now enjoy more sedentary lives of rice farming and cattle breeding. Legendary Bajau pony riding skills have earned them the nickname “Cowboys of the East” and their colourful costumes (as well as those of their ponies) are greatly admired.
Murut (meaning hill people) inhabit the interior and southeastern parts of Sabah and the territory straddling the Kalimantan and Sarawak borders.
Many still live in traditional Longhouses. Once feared as fierce and fearless headhunters, Muruts these days have abandoned much of their age-old traditions, especially headhunting. They are also very skilled in hunting with blowpipes.
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. Chinese culture is vibrant and alive and exhibited through many fesitvals celebrated throughout the year.
Unofficially, Sabah is also home to an estimated 700,000 strong Filipino population who enter the country through the difficult-to-police border between Malaysia and the Phillipines.
Resulting from this multicultural society is a festival calendar packed with colourful celebrations and ceremonies in various places throughout Sabah.