Our ecological heritage is our greatest asset, our gift, our pride—and our burden.
The descent begins. Sit on the right. The edge of the island is an endless, nondescript line on the horizon. The name “Borneo,” however, colors that line with a sense of expectation and—if you know the place well enough—those inseparable partners, love and despair. There is a storm brewing—the sky here is rarely cloudless—but, weather permitting, you will see a few ships, vessels channeling a maritime history that has defined this archipelagic corridor region. The two-and-a-half hour flight from the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and across the South China Sea to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, bridges a chasm between the two Malaysias that is geographic, cultural, political, and psychological. We must go overseas to meet the other half. The ghostly outline of hills becomes more vivid as you approach, the curls of foam on the shoreline beguilingly distinct.
Labuan Island is easy to spot; it is now a federal territory and the center of Sabah’s oil and gas industry. Much of the country’s modern colonial history starts from here. There’s the famous old pirate town Membakut, bisected by the North Borneo Railway line, and Pulau Tiga, where Mark Burnett shot reality TV show Survivor, Borneo. There are the Crocker Ranges, with oil palms creeping up their base. And there’s Putatan, with its new shopping mall and hypermarket. Put on your seatbelt. Where’s my mountain? Show yourself. There she is. Hello my love. The plane lands.
For returning Sabahans, there is a certain feeling of privilege to standing in the immigration queue; other Malaysians used to take their places in a different line but, after much complaint by the Peninsular Malaysians, the two queues have recently joined together. “Same same but different,” as the local saying goes. Immigration control by the state is one of the last tangible remnants of the “Twenty Points,” a manifesto that was drafted to safeguard Sabah’s interests and autonomy within the new federation that led to the Malaysia Agreement and the establishment of that country. Through the agreement, Malaysia was formed as a merger between the distinct territories of Peninsular Malaysia (previously the Federation of Malaya) that is the coccyx of the Asian continent, and Sabah and Sarawak, the two Malaysian Borneo states. Singapore was briefly included too but that particular shoe didn’t fit and it was soon expelled. Immigration control was meant to protect Sabahans from Peninsular Malaysian dominance within Sabah’s borders, but this has become tokenistic.
In 1963, when the country of Malaysia was formed, the Sabah (previously North Borneo) and Sarawak political landscape was in its infancy. Both had just experienced their first local elections, having been British protectorates since the nineteenth century. Sarawak had been under the rule of the White Rajahs of the Brooke Dynasty, and Sabah under the management of the British North Borneo Chartered Company. Both only officially became British colonies in 1946 after World War Two and the Japanese Occupation.
Made up of 11 states, the Federation of Malaya had experienced a much longer and more cosmopolitan modern history, coming under first Portuguese then British colonial influence. The nine Sultanates within the grouping, and the sophisticated Malay elite, had enjoyed political influence alongside colonial powers and developed a much greater political awareness than the Borneo states. This was compounded by a growing intellectual rigor, often inspired by writers and thinkers from their close relations in Sumatra and Java.
The developing political ideologies and nationalistic fervor of neighboring and newly independent postcolonial nation-states such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Federation of Malaya had been of little interest to the politically immature and inherently insular, even parochial Borneans. The suggestion of alliance with a new federation orchestrated by the Malayans with the approval of the British caught the Borneans by surprise. They were comprehensively seduced by the overtures and promises of the Malayans, eventually relinquishing dreams of their own independence for what was believed to be a greater cause—that of a new country called Malaysia.
The early Borneo leaders did their best to safeguard the interests of their territories, but a nagging sense remains that Sabah and Sarawak have been subsumed by the Federation of Malaysia—with its center far away overseas in Peninsular Malaysia—and have thereby lost much of their own identity as well as cultural, economic, and political influence. This feeling is compounded by many factors, ranging from Peninsular Malaysia’s official reckoning of Malaysia’s age from the date of Malaya’s independence in 1957 (an event that pre-dates the formation of Malaysia itself, implying a neocolonialist attitude) to the dismissal of Malaysia Day and the near void of all things Malaysian Borneo in the peninsula. Adding insult to injury is Peninsular Malaysia’s shocking ignorance of the Borneo states and its regular manipulation of the Malaysian map to make Peninsular Malaysia look geographically larger, when in fact the Borneo states make up 61% of the Malaysian landmass.
This sore intensifies as those in the Borneo states suffer worsening poverty and limited developmental infrastructure while seeing their natural resources leave the states without reaping notable economic reward. Indigenous communities have become disenfranchised from their land as oil palm estates—often owned by massive national corporations—grow. The cultural landscape has also been eroded though the loss of land and the homogenizing influence of language, media, and popular culture dominated by Peninsular Malaysia. Local politicians are seen as subservient and submissive to their federal counterparts, while political gossip in the coffeehouses builds to a crescendo.
The circular conveyor belt at baggage claim is surrounded by billboards and pamphlets selling nature: “Welcome to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo: Eco treasures from mountain high to ocean deep.” We are reminded by the Sabah Tourism Board that “Deep in our hearts, we all dream of a tropical haven. Pure, green, pristine.” The utopian sales pitch may be half a millennium old but it still works. We half believe it ourselves, the love of the place is deep in our hearts, but despair stirs. Our ecological heritage is our greatest asset, our gift, our pride—and our burden. Our jungles and seas contain some of the world’s greatest concentrations of biological diversity. Borneo’s nature is unusually blessed. Our memory of this place cannot be separated from our memory of nature and of the landscape. We are our landscape and everywhere we see the landscape changing, and with it our sense of self.
The rest of the world needs us to be a place of escape, of wilderness, an antidote from an industrial world, a storehouse of nature representing the dream that there is still somewhere wild. Henrietta, the Wild Woman of Borneo was a favorite book that we used to borrow from the Kota Kinabalu state library in the 1970s. Henrietta was a crazy-haired American girl whose exasperated parents would call her the wild woman of Borneo, so wild was she. One day, Henrietta climbs into a big crate and asks her prim ballerina sister to mail her off to Borneo, where she might be as wild and free as she liked. The airport is full of Henriettas with their backpacks and heavy boots, proud to update their Facebook statuses that they’re off to face the wilderness and conquer Borneo. I pass through the glass doors looking for my parents.
Sabah and Sarawak have very little documented history. Our school textbooks focus on Peninsular Malaysia’s great empires and largely ignore Bornean history. We do not learn our history through written texts. Our learning is largely based on myth, legend, oral storytelling, and local chatter. We have grown up in an insular void. We’re wild because we are less grounded by history than by myth. We can reinvent ourselves because our storytelling allows it, and because almost nothing is written down. We’re the “land below the wind” where sometimes ideas are caught and tossed about, but need time to settle. We’re still developing our ideas about ourselves and about who or what we might want to be when we grow up.
The tree at my parents’ front gate that began as a sapling in my primary school driveway now needs two people to circumference its girth. My mountain rises to the east above the storm clouds. She is the compass to our landscape and place, a guide to our memory, and the final resting place of our ancestors. I take my shoes off and go inside.
–Yee I-Lann is an artist and film production designer based in Kuala Lumpur, Peninsular Malaysia and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo.