KOTA KINABALU: Ronny Nasrullsanie Syafrizal was born in Larkin, Johor, lived in Puchong and tied the knot with his girlfriend, Laila Safwana, in Kuala Lumpur.
He knew that marriage meant embarking on a new life together, but tearing up his roots in the peninsula and moving to Sabah, where Laila’s family reside, was not part of his plans.
“I had doubts about agreeing to such a move,” he said of the initial suggestion by his father-in-law, former Pantai Manis assemblyman Abdul Rahim Ismail, that they try life in East Malaysia.
“Laila suggested that maybe we could just give it two months and see how it felt.”
That was in 2005. Fourteen years have passed since then, and Ronny has never looked back.
He and Laila now have two children: 13-year-old daughter Naeema and nine-year-old son Nazran. It’s been three years since the family’s last trip to Johor to celebrate Hari Raya.
He’s shy to say so as he does not wish to slight his family there, but he prefers to celebrate Hari Raya in Sabah.
“I feel more Sabahan than ‘orang Malaya’ now,” he confessed in a recent interview with FMT.
Ronny had made several trips to Sabah before his marriage, but it was only after visiting the state with his wife-to-be a few times and meeting her family there that he grew to love it.
He said there is a big difference between Raya celebrations in Sabah and those in the peninsula.
“In Sabah, you only wear baju Melayu on the first day, but back home you wear it for almost a week.”
The food, too, is different.
“In the peninsula, the food is more traditional Malay comfort food like lodeh with nasi himpit, rendang ayam and sambal tumis.
“Here, depending on the community, my family-in-law will have food like serunding and kelupis,” he said, referring to the traditional kuih of the Bruneian Sabah community.
“There is also soto (chicken or meat broth with noodles) and even roti canai, which is weird for people from the peninsula.”
As for duit Raya, Laila said Sabahans are nonchalant about the custom.
“My kids would have tonnes of money if we celebrated in the peninsula, but here not so much.”
Visiting relatives in the peninsula would take days as Ronny’s family members are scattered throughout West Malaysia. Raya visits in Sabah, meanwhile, only take place in her hometown of Papar, a southwestern district.
But what Ronny loves the most about Sabah is its culture of harmony and unity among its people.
“I find it beautiful that everyone can mix together anywhere they are. And they are genuinely respectful of each other’s customs and faiths. Everyone is friendly and I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere.”
In the peninsula, he said, about the only place where people of different races mingle is at mamak shops.
“I really have come to learn for myself what I only heard and read of before. I hope Sabah will always stay like this,” he said, adding that those in the peninsula could learn a lot from Sabah about how to be a multiracial country.
“I’m glad that we took the leap.”
Policeman Hazlisham Othman is another West Malaysian who now calls Sabah home. He has lived in Sabah for 17 years now, and will be going back to his hometown in Perlis this Raya for the first time in six years.
Even so, he said, he and his wife Steverini Jane Petrus, a Dusun from interior Tambunan, are only doing so because a relative is getting married.
Hazlisham, the former personal bodyguard of a top state minister, said he used to go home more frequently when he was undergoing training in Sabah, back in 2002.
But his trips grew fewer and further apart after his parents died in 2010 and 2011, and stopped altogether when he got married in 2012.
“I didn’t want to disturb my siblings back home as they have their own lives. But to tell the truth, I prefer to stay back in Sabah because all my friends are here,” he said.
“The tolerance level is also like nowhere else in Malaysia.”
Hazlisham, who now has two foster families in Sabah, said he genuinely detests it when “the other side” plays up racial or religious sentiments.
Giving the example of the recent billboard issue during Good Friday, he said he “really gets frustrated” with things like that.
“I want to tell those people that what they say and how they think is not right. I feel I need to defend the culture here because the other side just doesn’t understand how it is.”
But he comforts himself with the knowledge that Sabahans understand that most West Malaysians who have lived there for a long time do not think that way.
“There are limits based on each other’s religion, but I’m proud to say people here know no boundaries when it comes to mingling with and accepting others who are not of their own race or faith.”