By Umie Syazwanie Mohd & Petronella Felix
KUCHING: Sarawak, popularly known as ‘Bumi Kenyalang’ (Land of Hornbills), will be celebrating its independence on Sept 16 in conjunction with the 58th Malaysia Day.
According to the 2020 Population and Housing Census by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, Sarawak is home to over 2.9 million people of various ethnicities and religions.
In Malaysia, Sarawak is a model state of unity and harmony. Sarawakians celebrate festivities together, share the same table at eateries, support each other’s businesses regardless of their religious or racial backgrounds.
Five members of the public today share with New Sarawak Tribune their personal experiences of living with people of diverse backgrounds as well as the uniqueness of the state.
“It is written in history that solidarity among Sarawakians existed long before the formation of Malaysia. Our ancestors lived in harmony despite the varying beliefs they practised,” said academician, Mahdi Bujang.
He pointed out that the secret to lifelong unity in the state was that Sarawakians respected each other and were open-minded in accepting the differences in religious beliefs and practices.
“There are 27 ethnic groups in Sarawak. However, it is rare to witness Sarawakians disputing, let alone divided, over the differences in practices and beliefs,” said The Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia (STPM) history teacher.
Another academician, Dancy Agan, added that Sarawakians accepted and respected each other’s religions and beliefs.
“We go through our daily lives as if we were born from the same womb despite coming from different ethnic groups and practising distinct beliefs,” said the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) history teacher.
Satia Sabu, an entrepreneur, said, “Most Sarawakians are open towards one another. Therefore, we rarely come across racial discrimination.”
She pointed out that racism was one of the greatest enemies for countries with diverse populations such as Malaysia because it would affect the solidarity of the people and unity of the countries.
Another solidarity factor, according to Fazdhil Mu’Azam Jamil is inter-racial and inter-religion communication, which is the key to establishing any relationship within a community.
“In some regions in Sarawak, ethnic languages have become the lingua-franca. For example, in some rural areas, you will hear non-Iban residents conversing in the Iban language,” said the student.
Fazdhil said effective communication evoked familiarity between people of different backgrounds and helped to unite them.
Recalling his most memorable experience of unity in the Land of Hornbills, Mahdi said, “Thirty years ago, when I was a teacher at SK Ng Buku, Pakan in Sarikei, most of my students were Ibans.
“I was the only Malay teacher while five of my fellow teachers were Ibans and one was a Bidayuh, another a Chinese, and an Indian. However, I never felt left out by the community as they treated me like one of their members.”
In Pakan, he said he learnt the Iban traditional dance, Ngajat, and took part in some agricultural activities.
“I still keep in touch with them because we are not just former colleagues or friends, we are family,” said Mahdi.
Army retiree, Hassan Sinusi, added when he was serving with the Malaysian Army, he and his colleagues helped each other regardless of their cultural or religious differences.
“We were each other’s pillars of strength. There were no differences between the Sarawakians, Sabahans or Malayans.”
As for Dancy and Fazdhil, their vivid memories of solidarity revolved around school activities, including festivities hosted by their respective institutions.
Dancy said she enjoyed learning traditional dances of various ethnic groups with her schoolmates.
Fazdhil, on the other hand, experienced unity first-hand during a joint Hari Gawai and Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration when he was a substitute teacher at a school in Sarawak.
“That is the beauty of unity in Sarawak — two celebrations of different cultural backgrounds hosted at the same time and you see students and teachers attending the festivals in their respective traditional costumes,” he said.
Meanwhile, Satia said she was blessed to have Iban, Bidayuh, Chinese, Malay and Melanau friends.
“As an entrepreneur, you need support from friends and family for your business to flourish and I am blessed that despite our differences, my friends are very supportive of my traditional food business,” she explained.
So, what makes Sarawak unique?
Hassan said, “People of different racial backgrounds can sit together and talk about their achievements. In Sarawak, we can see eatery owners sharing tables and facilities despite operating separate stores.”
Fazdhil said, “Sarawak is the state where we will witness people of different cultures and religions having their meals in the same restaurant.
“In some areas of Sarawak including the capital city of Kuching, you will see Malays gathering and even sharing the same table with people of other ethnicities in a Chinese-owned coffee shop.”
Fazdhil added that such sights were rare in other states.
Mahdi said, “If you happen to visit Miri, you will see a church beside a mosque.”
These tales of unity are heart-warming and may Sarawak continue to be a model state for unity and harmony in Malaysia for a long, long time.