Not Local Enough: Sabahans Struggle To “Fit In”

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Image from Shutterstock
Image from Shutterstock

This article was originally published on SERATA.

Moving to a new place for work has its own set of challenges, even when it is within the same country. Each state in Malaysia, or even districts within each state, has its own culture, cuisine, norms, and even accents or slang.

For a number of Sabahans, adjusting to life across the South China Sea may be quite a feat, especially when having to change their ways of speaking in order to ease their assimilation into a new place. But still, changing speech patterns doesn’t come naturally, and Sabahans may find themselves penalized for it.

Growing up, most Sabahans would be familiar with the accents of those who live in West Malaysia, especially the “KL slang,” mainly because of its wide representation in media. The same cannot be said for Sabahans, where their voices are rarely heard and often in the minority.

Recently, a Sabahan e-hailing rider was pinned down and questioned regarding his nationality for speaking in Malay but with a Sabahan accent. Such incidents just reinforce the fear that Sabahans have of speaking in their own language, lest they be mistaken for a foreigner.

Screenshot of article on Daily Express (Sabah) on 6 November 2023
Screenshot of article on Daily Express (Sabah) on 6 November 2023

Sabahans already are internalizing the idea that just because of the accent, we may be perceived to be not good enough. For example, three years ago, Melisa Idris and Sharaad Kuttan on “Consider This” discussed a tweet by a young man named Malek Faisal, who relayed that he had been turned down for an internship in KL because of his Sabah accent. The invisible bias may mean that Sabahans feel that they have to change their accents so they don’t sound like they come from East Malaysia. As Sharaad rightly puts it in this segment, what is wrong with being from East Malaysia?

Screenshot of Astro Awani segment, “Consider This” on YouTube
Screenshot of Astro Awani segment, “Consider This” on YouTube

However, relocating for better work opportunities is a necessity for a large proportion of Sabahans, considering the lack of good job opportunities and low wages. This is further compounded by lax regulations and non-existent protection of working people in Sabah, caused by a 19 year wait for the Sabah Labour Ordinance 1950 to be amended to provide the same benefits and protections as the Employment Act 1955.

SERATA talked to three different Sabahans about their experiences of living in West Malaysia and navigating the landscape of assimilating into a different culture. We especially wanted to know just how widespread the need for Sabahans to change their accents to fit in and why.

“I was very conscious of my accent because I’ve been made fun of. Even though it’s not malicious, it’s still annoying when people make fun of your accent. At the same time, because I was a crime reporter, most of my contacts and sources were Malay speaking, and I found myself assimilating my accent to make myself more accessible to them and, at the same time, to build some rapport,” says Natasha Joibi, a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Kuala Lumpur for the past eight years.

“There were times, especially when dealing with authorities, I think it’s just easier for me to code switch. Because then I realized sometimes when I speak in my Sabahan accent, and because I look racially ambiguous, people have a lot of questions about my race also, which I am not always in a mood to respond to.”

“I am not comfortable speaking Sabahan (in West Malaysia). Firstly, because people don’t understand us anyway. And when we speak Sabahan, they might think that we’re from Indonesia, Secondly, I don’t feel comfortable because there are stereotypes against Sabahans. I would like to avoid that. That’s why I try to speak the so-called local slang,” says Shaan Gom, who has been residing in Kuala Lumpur for the past eight years, having completed his undergraduate studies there and is now working in the city.

“It was quite hard for me to connect with people. Even though I’ve been in KL for around eight years, it’s hard for me to switch. I try to, but then I also think it’s because our language, the way we pronounce stuff is very different from how they pronounce it. And we were never raised around that environment of people speaking the KL slang.”

“I have to admit, even when speaking KL also, people can still tell I’m Sabahan, but at least I try. If you want to make friends, it’s easier for you to make friends with them if you speak their slang. They connect with you more in that way,” Shaan said.

Dr Farhana Abdul Fatah has a slightly different take, having had a long history of relocating around Malaysia since her teens and completing her studies in West Malaysia. Additionally, she has been working in Penang as a lecturer for the past three years. She no longer feels slighted when people question her about her Sabahan accent.

“When I was an undergraduate student in Penang, I had this very strong inclination to retain my Sabahanness. So I made the very conscious decision and deliberate decision to just speak in the Sabahan dialect – a Putatan / Kota Kinabalu dialect, whenever I would interact with others. But when I was living in Shah Alam as a teen, I would accommodate and then change my dialect or my accent,” Dr Farhana elaborated.

“However, I felt like it wasn’t getting me anywhere in the sense that people have a lot of assumptions about the identity that comes associated with the accent or dialect that sounds like that. So people would often say, “Oh, dari Indonesia?”

“But in Penang now, and indeed, when I speak with West Malaysians in general, I will accommodate to their Semenanjung accent, more of a northern dialect. But when I speak to my husband’s family, who are from Petaling Jaya, then I speak the standard Shah Alam accent.

But it’s to maximize communicative efficiency, so I just speak the way they do. But of course, when West Malaysians are in Sabah, because of the social context where we are the majority, then I would speak the Sabahan dialect,” she added

Most West Malaysians are most familiar with Sabahans adding “bah” in their daily speech, whether to illustrate a point or even to indicate agreement. However, when done improperly by non-Sabahans, it sounds strange.

“When they know that you are Sabahan, and then they deliberately and everything, you know, not sarcastically, but macam yang deliberately, peppering “bah” at the end of their sentences. I can’t tell if they’re trying to be respectful or if they’re trying to make me feel welcome. Or even whether they are making fun of me,” said Natasha.

Shaan echoes the same perception, saying that he understands that it may be a joke to West Malaysians, but it is still slightly hurtful.

Accents and slang can also get in the way of ordering food, as shared by Natasha. “I remember once that I wanted to order iced water to drink, so I asked for air sejuk. The response I got was “What?” and the server started giggling. I was confused, what else should I call it? That was when I learnt that it is called ais kosong here. Kitchai ping (lime drink with dried plum) doesn’t exist in the Malay restaurants or Mamak. When I asked for it, they said, “What is that?” Is it limau ais?”

“I don’t order kitchai ping or limau ais anymore,” she said.

On the other hand, they shared how West Malaysians are always surprised by the standard of English by Sabahans.

According to Shaan, many were surprised that he, as a Sabahan, could speak proper English, thinking that Sabahans were not as well-educated. “I don’t blame them in any way because I know how Sabah is always portrayed in mass media. Maybe they assume that we are only surrounded by jungles, especially because we are lacking in development.”

Dr Farhana, on the other hand, sees this as a positive perception by non-Sabahans. “If there’s one positive thing that I’ve always got from some West Malaysians is that we speak good English. But I think they still think that we have a lower level of literacy and things like that.”

Another misconception is that Sabah is made up of only Kadazan Dusun Murut Rungus (KDMR) as a race, when in fact, Sabah is made up of 33 indigenous groups that communicate in over 50 languages and 80 ethnic dialects.

Sadly, even Sabahans themselves are not aware of the many different dialects in Sabah, including the ones residing on the East Coast of the state.

Perhaps one day, Sabahan accents will be as widely recognized and accepted, just like Scottish or Irish accents in the United Kingdom. While Malaysia is polarised in many ways, the hope is for people to accept and celebrate the diversity of Malaysians, be it in language, accents, culture, or social background.

This media output is supported by ARTICLE 19 and Canada Fund for Local Initiatives and the High Commission of Canada in Malaysia.