KUALA LUMPUR: East Malaysians may speak with a distinct accent and carry unique-sounding names, but they are Malaysians, and not to be gawked at or asked ridiculous questions about their homeland.
Yet, many from Peninsula Malaysia cannot seem to wrap their brain around these individuals who often rather be called Borneans or East Malaysians rather that good, old “Malaysian” for obvious reasons.
Here are five questions East Malaysians regularly get interrogated with and that grate on their nerves no end.
1. What country are you from?
Many East Malaysians have suffered at the hands of well-meaning people who simply feel Sabah and Sarawak are “foreign” after coming back from a family holiday there.
But just what about Sabah and Sarawak makes someone from Peninsula Malaysia think it’s another country? The fact that it is located across the sea? Therefore “overseas”?
Time to hit the history books again people, and get acquainted with the two states that are part and parcel of Malaysia.
2. Do you take a sampan to school?
No, that sounds impractical, don’t you think? As jaw-dropping as it sounds, most students here get to school in their parent’s comfortable air-conditioned cars.
However, those from smaller towns and rural villages prefer to ride motorbikes as it’s easier to navigate the narrow and sometimes muddy roads besides being kinder on the wallet.
With half of lowland Borneo covered in forest, swamps and marshlands, maybe that’s why the sampan is suspected to be the navigational vehicle of choice.
Nevertheless, the sampan is solely reserved for the most isolated of folk, fishermen, or for the paying tourist.
3. How come you speak English?
This lightly-veiled insult is often not the result of malice or patronisation, but rather of incredible feats of intellectual laziness.
East Malaysians study and sit for the same exams as all national school students. PMR? Yes. SPM? Same here.
So, to assume East Malaysians only speak in exotic tongues is fantastically ignorant.
Besides the many other bohemian-sounding dialects spoken by indigenous communities, most East Malaysians have a basic understanding of English just like their brothers and sisters in Peninsula Malaysia.
4. Do you see orangutans all the time?
Actually, yes. But mostly plastered on tourism billboards with a photoshopped image of a Rafflesia and a way-too-happy-looking European.
See, the iconic orange-haired Bornean orangutan is a critically endangered species. So threatened is their livelihood that they are housed in wildlife sanctuaries and protected.
So, most East Malaysians themselves have not encountered the iconic primate, as orangutans sadly do not wander around freely on the roads, or swing happily from tree to tree in the parks.
5. Are your family members headhunters?
You have got to be kidding, right? About 200 years ago, headhunting in Borneo and Sumatra was considered a prestigious and even common activity.
Granted, collecting heads boosted the social status of a headhunter from man to warrior, so more skulls meant more respect from fellow villagers.
However, the year is 2020 and times have very much changed since the practice was outlawed in 1860.
If you were to attempt to pick up the ancient practice of headhunting now, you’re more likely to end up in a jail cell than in the loving arms of villagers.
So now you know…
Despite the tendency of those from Peninsula Malaysia to view East Malaysians as still living in the bowels of the jungles, there’s no hard feelings.
But do remember that while your questions are painstakingly answered with a strained smile plastered across the face, there’s a fair bit of eye-rolling going on inside the head and pure incredulity at how little general knowledge some people possess.
Word of advice? Quietly look it up online before asking these questions out loud.