Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Community spirit among Sarawakians

Friday September 16, 2011

Community spirit among Sarawakians


Sarawak’s ethnic diversity is well-known. But to actually see the community spirit among the people regardless of race and religion is an experience that touches the hearts of even staunch politicians.

IPOH Barat MP M. Kulasegaran was in typical good humour during an early morning chat at his legal office in Ipoh recently.

“You know, I didn’t see any thambi (“brother” in Tamil) around,” he quipped, referring to Miri and Bintulu where he spent one week campaigning during the Sarawak elections in April.

“There were no Indian restaurants there. No tosai! In fact, I didn’t use my mother tongue during my time there,” he said.

Friendly and earnest: Children with lanterns at the Sarawak Inter-Cultural Mooncake Festival. The spirit of togetherness comes naturally in Sarawak.

Small wonder, really. There may not be many Indians but there are about 27 ethnic groups among Sarawak’s estimated 2.4 million people. Of that, the Ibans constitute 30% of the state’s population.

Skin colour aside, Kulasegaran found it heartwarming that the people of Sarawak could accept one another, even strangers, so easily.

“There is a much larger scope of inter-racial relationships in Sarawak. It is growing and glowing there. The indigenous people are so much more adaptable to each other.”

Almost all road signages are written both in Bahasa Malaysia and Chinese, he said, citing an example.

“And the people were friendly and warm. Everywhere I went, someone would just come up to me and ask: Ini hari ada ceramah? Siapa mari? (Any speeches today? Who’s coming?)” he recalled.

A dragon dance performance at the festival. A trip to Sarawak is so enthralling that you might decide to stay.

While he was there, Kulasegaran said he spoke to the people usually in Bahasa Malaysia or English. In fact, he said that English remained the preferred language in Sarawak courts and the state assembly.

Miri, he said, was much more developed than he had thought.

“It is a well-developed urban place. Everything is accessible. There is Internet access everywhere, wi-fi at most places.”

He sensed a strong Christian presence as well.

“There are churches everywhere; certainly more than Ipoh,” he said.

Sarawak has the highest number of Christians in the country (about 853,000 or 42%); Iban Christians numbered about 408,000 based on the 2000 Population and Housing Census.

Kulasegaran noted, too, that the local coffeeshops employed indigenous people as their workers.

“Pork is available in most shops and also sold at wet markets. People would walk past it, just like that.”

Despite a common perception that Peninsular Malaysia is more developed and progressive, Kulasegaran said it was ironic that Sarawak exhibited greater openness where “things are more relaxed.”

“There seems to be less taboo on matters like pork or liquor consumption,” he noted.

Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, the Seri Setia (Selangor) assemblyman, shared similar observations, saying:

“Some of my Malay friends from Peninsular Malaysia had qualms about eating food prepared by non-Muslims despite it being halal dishes. In Sarawak, however, the local Muslims found that surprising as they have had few problems with that all their lives!

“Even the very religious Muslims in Sarawak were not fussy about how their food was prepared as long as it was halal,” said Nik Nazmi, who spent two weeks campaigning in Nangka, Sibu.

He also noted that Malay and Chinese stalls co-exist next to each other in places such as food courts. On the other hand, he said he knew of non-Muslims in Peninsular Malaysia who would take extra precautions such as buying new pots and making sure the ingredients were halal if they were cooking for Muslim friends.

Nik Nazmi, who was the youngest candidate to win in the 2008 general election at the age of 26, also felt that Sarawakians were a friendly and earnest lot.

“There, people mingle easily with each other. I’ve heard this about them but it’s really remarkable to see the ease in which they mix with Malays, Ibans, Melanaus, Chinese or any race. For someone from Peninsular Malaysia, it’s really amazing to see that.”

“Also, the lifestyle is far more relaxed. It is so easy to make friends there. We like to take pride that Malaysians are friendly but being a PJ boy all my life, you don’t notice it so much.”

In fact, he found the trip to Sarawak so enthralling that what was supposed to be a five-day visit stretched to a fortnight.

“People in the peninsula – myself included – tend to always regard the peninsula as Malaysia and forget about Sabah and Sarawak. We have many things that we can learn from the Sabahans and Sarawakians.”

Perak state executive councillor Datuk Dr Mah Hang Soon, a Foochow boy who grew up in Sitiawan, found that he could fit right in during his visit to Sibu, where the clan dominates.

The Foochows, he explained, are known to be very hard-working, thrifty and a close-knit community.

“Outsiders may find it hard to break into their business circle,” he said, laughing.

Despite his short stay there, Dr Mah said the trip brought back memories of two decades ago.

“The people sitting around at eating places reminded me of those old days when life was simpler. There were not so many taboos then. These days, people tend to be so particular about so many things,” he said.

Racial sentiment was much less in Sarawak, he said, adding that their spirit of “togetherness” seemed to come so naturally.

Dr Mah recalled the times when he attended chapel during his school days in SMK ACS, Sitiawan, although he was not a Christian.

“I can sing many hymms,” said Dr Mah, who gave up a 10-year career as Perak’s leading cardiologist to become a full-time politician in 2009.

(One estimate put the number of Foochows in Sarawak at 120,000 of which about half are Christians.)

Referring to the Aug 4 raid by Selangor Islamic Religious Department on a church over a multi-racial dinner, Dr Mah said he believed that such raids would not happen in Sarawak.

(As someone tweeted that day: “Come to Sarawak. Multi racial dinner happens everywhere, everyday.”)

“These kind of raids were unheard of in the past,” he said.

However, Dr Mah remained optimistic about the future, citing Chenderiang, Perak, in which he is the assemblyman. There are about 20,000 voters there, of which 20% are orang asli, while the Chinese and Malays each formed about one-third of the electorate.

“The level of acceptance is higher in small towns,” he said. “In the schools in Chenderiang, the racial mix is very good. This means that the students have more opportunities to mingle with one another,” he said.

Dr Mah stressed that Malaysians must always be mindful about having a broader perspective in life and that people should be cautious about not making racial remarks.

“At the end of the day, we are all citizens of planet Earth,” he said.

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