Ah, Sabah! The land of unity in diversity, where a Bajau, a Kadazan, and a Chinese can all sit down to a piping hot meal of “nasi lemak” without batting an eye. Yes, we’re so tolerant; we’re practically the United Nations of Malaysia.
So, imagine my astonishment—and perhaps a dash of chuckles—when I stumbled across a YouTube video by a disgruntled Nigerian student. He claimed that Malaysians, and by extension, Sabahans, were the most racist people he’d ever encountered.
Our Nigerian protagonist, who was in the country to visit his Ugandan friend who studies here, decided after a few days in KL, “Hey, why not visit the best part of Malaysia?” Well, of course! Sabah is like the cherry on top of the Malaysian sundae. His first surprise was another immigration checkpoint. Honestly, even we Sabahans sometimes forget we’ve got this protective layer of entry requirements (blame it on our splendid patriotism – MA63 FTW!).
Then comes the kicker— he was separated from his Ugandan friend and after a lengthy interrogation, he was sent back to Kuala Lumpur (“We do not want your kind here,” said the immigration officer) while his friend waltzes into Sabah as if she’s on a shopping spree. He claimed it’s because he is a Nigerian.
(He also suffered racism when he went back to the peninsula alone without his friend but we are talking about Sabah here.)
Let’s get one thing straight; if Sabah’s immigration officers were practicing racism, they need a manual because they’re doing it all wrong. They let the Ugandan friend in, didn’t they? So, either they’ve never read ‘Racism for Dummies,’ or there’s more to the story than meets the eye.
What I meant was the many spam emails we would have received at least once in our lifetime, the ones promising untold riches if only we share our bank details to help a down-on-his-luck Nigerian Prince (it is a global phenomenon). These emails have practically turned into folklore.
Now, that doesn’t mean every Nigerian is out to scam you; it’s just that stereotypes stick like “kunyit” on your best white shirt.
So no, we’re not racist; we’re just overly cautious. We’re more like the prudent souls who check the weather before an outdoor picnic at the beach. We’re not against the waves or even an occasional drizzle; we’re against our BBQ chicken wings getting soggy, and our packed rice and noodles becoming a seaside disaster. We safeguard the integrity of our culinary delights just as staunchly as we do our cultural norms. That’s Sabah-first for you.
I guess there are lessons to be learned from this though.
Firstly, this episode does shed light on the need for transparency and better communication in our immigration procedures. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of public relations finesse, an easy-to-follow guide on our unique Sabahan immigration requirements, for instance.
I mean, how many of us have even confused ourselves when explaining the difference between Peninsular Malaysia and the states of Sabah and Sarawak to our foreign friends? It’s high time that we streamline this information for the uninitiated.
Secondly, we ought to consider developing training programmes for our immigration officers that focus not only on security but also on diplomacy and cross-cultural relations. A Nigerian student’s less-than-ideal experience shouldn’t be the calling card for a place known for its unparalleled hospitality. We’re the friendly next-door neighbour of Southeast Asia, for goodness’ sake!
Lastly, to our Nigerian friend, a heartfelt apology is due. You arrived excited to experience the best of what Malaysia has to offer but left disillusioned and disappointed. It’s a failing that shouldn’t define your view of Sabah or its people.
We’re not the sum total of one unfortunate incident at a border checkpoint. We’re the smiling vendor who serves you the best ‘tomyam santan’, the hospitable local who helps you find your way when you’re lost, and the myriad of colourful cultures that would’ve welcomed you with open arms.
So, dear Nigerian friend, please consider this an olive branch and an open invitation. Give us another shot, and you’ll see that we’re not all about border bureaucracy; we’re also about beautiful beaches, breathtaking landscapes, and yes, an abundance of warm, welcoming smiles. Sabah is still the cherry on top of the Malaysian sundae, and we’d love for you to have a taste.
As for us Sabahans, let us remind ourselves that we’re indeed the kaleidoscope of Malaysia—a myriad of colours, patterns, and shapes that are distinct yet unified.
Let’s keep it that way, ever harmonious and ever welcoming, yet cautiously protective of the beauty we hold dear.