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Sabah chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, who is also MP for Semporna, and Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin attending the second meeting of the first term of the 14th Parliament sitting on Monday. Shafie, who is of Bajau/Suluk descent, has given hope to the Suluk community. FILE PIC

FROM the outside looking in, Sabah looks like the promised land of racial, tribal, religious harmony and unity.

Even P. Waytha Moorthy, the current Minister of National Unity and Social Wellbeing, sang praises of the state. When he visited the Land Below the Wind in August, he was reported to have said: “I intend to introduce this Sabah culture to the peninsula and we will share Sabah’s experience there as this is the kind of unity that we all should have.”

Yes, it does appear that Sabahans are more united, but the much-praised and heralded unity is not without flaws; some would even argue that it’s a well-constructed facade.

Truth be told, the people of Sabah aren’t as united as how we portray ourselves to be. Sure, we will all come together when our state or one of us are unfairly criticised by “outsiders”, but amongst us, the lingering sentiments of distrust, one-upmanship, and even disgust are still widespread.

There are certain segments of our population that are continuously marginalised, maligned and frowned upon. And no tribe bears the brunt more than the Suluk people.

When one looks at the history of North Borneo, the imprints of the Suluk people have always been prominent throughout history. How many people know that North Borneo was established via land concessions through 1877 and 1878 between the sultanates of Brunei and Sulu with Gustav Overbeck?

In 1884, Sandakan became the first capital of North Borneo and was known as “Little Hong Kong”; besides being the administrative centre, it was also the centre of commerce in North Borneo. But how many know that Sandakan was named as such because, in the Suluk language, it means “The place that was pawned”, alluding to the circumstances of the creation of North Borneo?

In the present day context, when the then North Borneo joined hands with Sarawak, Singapore and Tanah Melayu to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the Suluk was still one of the most prominent tribes.

So, how did the once most prominent tribe in state’s history become marginalised and frowned upon in today’s Sabah society? How could the recognised natives of Sabah, as contained in the “Sabah Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance 1958”, become a people so negatively stigmatised that some have shied away from identifying themselves as one?

Before I proceed further, some disclosure: I am a Suluk and I am proud of who I am, who my people are, and what we have contributed to the state, historically until the present day. I could be accused of confirmatory bias, but recorded data and facts across the annals of history will prove otherwise.

The rewriting of a different history that saw the systematic denigration of the Suluk started in the mid 1980s. It was when a methodical campaign was launched to bury the proud identity and rich history of the Suluk and in its place a new narrative was put forth and another tribe was elevated to prominence vis-a-vis the state’s history and society.

The campaign was so successful that the once proud and prominent Suluk are now perceived as a menace to society and the main cause of everything that is wrong in the state.

Fast forward 30 plus years, much of the stigma lingers till today; efforts to undermine the Suluk are through politics, the media, and policies. But with the ascension of Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, of Bajau/Suluk descent, to the highest political office in the state, the Suluk are seen to be slowly coming out and are once again, proud of who they are.

Every Suluk I have spoken to in Malaya and back home, either from the opposition or government, share the same thought.

Shafie’s leadership has given the Suluk hope that the marginalisation we have suffered since the mid-80’s will be reversed, and like the last inspirational and indefatigable leader to have come out of the east coast, Sabah’s very own “Bapa Kemerdekaan” Tun Mustapha Harun, the Suluk are optimistic that the current chief minister will right the wrongs committed against them.

United we stand, divided we fall. With a new government, and a new Malaysia, the call for a meaningful autonomy is becoming louder. But unless the divide between the “East” and the “West” is permanently bridged, and the wrongs of the past corrected, the fulfilment of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 will remain a dream.

As a state, Sabah started losing its strength when the campaign to malign and disparage the Suluk (for whatever reasons) inadvertently created the “East vs West” divide, a divide that is still conspicuously embedded in the Sabah of today.

It is with this backdrop that I humbly ask all Sabahans, especially those in a position to shape perceptions like those in the media and in politics, to stop the denigration of the Suluk community; stop trying to erase us from history.

Stop this debate of who the real sons of Sabah are.

Only with a united Sabah can we stand tall and have the strength to achieve our dream.

ivan.omar@theiomovement.com; Twitter @ckliio9.

The writer heads Brand Strategy at The In/Out Movement, an ensemble of thinkers, creatives and perfectionists who believe in doing right things right

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