Sabah’s Sino-KDMs love CNY but worry about lack of native certificates

Like many other Sino-native families in Sabah, the family of Johnny Goh, a former state assemblyman, celebrate Chinese New Year in a big way.

KOTA KINABALU: How many mothers would chastise their kids for offering to sweep the house, especially during a major festival with guests about to arrive?

Well, Floris Jais’ mother, Lok, for one. And she would not be alone.

“She used to yell at us for just touching the broom because the Chinese believe sweeping the house on the first day of the New Year means sweeping out the good luck that came in after the house was cleaned,” she explained to FMT.

Jais, a Sino-Kadazan former health department worker, recounted how she and her six siblings had to bathe in pomelo leaves the night before Chinese New Year to wash away bad luck.

She recalled how her mother, now 86, was determined to ensure good luck and prosperity so she always made sure all her children kept strictly to every Chinese tradition at Lunar New Year when they were growing up.

Jais, 67, speaks Malay, Kadazan and Cantonese, as do many Sabahans of mixed descent. “So although it’s a Chinese festival, don’t be surprised to hear lots of chatting in Kadazan.”

“For us, Chinese New Year is even bigger than the Harvest Festival and Christmas. The only difference is we don’t pray to our ancestors as we are Christians.

“But other than that, we go the whole nine yards. The night before, there’s ang pow, pomelo fruit for good luck, lanterns, lion dances, raw fish salad, and of course, a huge reunion dinner,” she said.

“We were taught all the traditions while growing up and we passed them down to our children. Now they are teaching their own children.”

Jais’ father, the late Stephen Jais Situ, was a pure Kadazan. He met Lok, who is from Miri, Sarawak, while he was working in Brunei.

The pair returned to Sabah and married in the period before Sabah gained independence from the British. The timing turned out to be significant for their children and grandchildren in terms of determining their official ethnic status.

Jais’ son Lester, 43, said “I embrace my Kadazan side but I am equally proud of my Chinese heritage.

The Jais family tossing the Yee Sang during Chinese New Year.

“Except for my grandmother Lok, none of us is full Chinese but we celebrate Lunar New Year with a bang, even more than some full Chinese,” he said.

“The first day is usually reserved for family gatherings, but after that we take turns holding open houses.

“Each open house involves lots of festive foods, including Chinese-style steamed chicken, yam with pork, and red eggs. Everyone wears the colours of that year’s Chinese zodiac sign.”

He intends to keep both sets of family traditions alive with his sons Caelen, 8, and Daevon, 2. “I’ll teach them the ways of the Kadazan and also the Chinese.”

Sabah Sino Kadazan Dusun Murut Association information chief Jerry Goh maintains that the roughly 300,000 Sino-KDMs are very much part of Sabah’s fabric.

“The term Sino is only accorded to children from marriages between the offspring of Chinese people who were in Sabah before independence, and KDM or native people,” he explained.

Jais’ father and mother fulfilled this requirement.

“That means if a Chinese person from Sarawak or the peninsula marries a KDM now, their children will not be considered Sino.

“And the term Sino on its own is incomplete – it must be Sino-Kadazan or Sino-Dusun for example,” said Goh.

Like the Baba and Nyonya in Melaka, the Sino-KDM community is fiercely proud of its culture and is doing its best to protect its heritage and rights.

Floris giving the red packet to a lion dance troupe during a Chinese New Year celebration at their Penampang house.

Goh said the freezing of native certificates since 1982 has put Sino-natives in a quandary.

Native certificates allow their holders to enjoy all the rights of a Sabah Bumiputera.

The Berjaya government stopped issuing them after it found that non-indigenous people were fraudulently obtaining them to acquire native lands and other Bumiputera benefits.

“Having native certificates prove we are original people of the land, or natives,” Goh explained.

“Without them, things like transferring land titles to the children of native parents are difficult because the government doesn’t recognise us – that’s the children – as natives.

The association is working with the National Registration Department to come up with guidelines for the government to identify and recognise Sino-natives as natives.

Under a special provision approved by the late Tunku Abdul Rahman when he was prime minister, a person identifying with the Sino-KDM community can claim native status if he is the offspring of one native parent and lives as a member of the community.

“We all hope the government will solve this problem sooner rather than later,” said Goh.

One thing is certain, certified or not, the Chinese-Kadazans of Sabah will all be making merry during this Chinese New Year, and taking care not to reach for any brooms.