Words by Dr Tan Meng Yoe
Photos by Hamza Delbar, Yeo Li-Sha and Tan Meng Yoe
Sabah is many things to those who are not from Sabah, including West Malaysians. Among other things, it is often romanticised as a mysterious and exotic place of mountains and beaches, or in more recent times, reviled on social media by some for its supposed political naivety for keeping the ruling coalition in government. These views are grossly simplistic, and will remain so, unless time is taken to experience the land and its people.
The study trips organised by the School of Arts and Social Sciences (SASS) at Monash University Malaysia is designed to do just that. Since 2004, the ‘In Search Of’ travel series has provided students with the opportunity to immerse themselves, even for a short time, in the everyday lives of local communities. These interactions, often far away from tourist routes, provide a fresh perspective into the lived realities of the people who inhabit any particular place.
It was no different in our visit to Sabah. The student travellers, through the formal sessions and informal exploration of the Western region of the state, were exposed to issues of land rights, undocumented immigration, river management systems, the role of native courts, corporatisation of agriculture, environmental concerns, impact of tourism, inter-religious and inter-ethnic harmony, revitalisation of indigenous tradition, and more. They experienced a different Malaysia.
Be sure to read the articles that they have written about their experiences and learning points.
Good morning from Kampung Kiau. Enjoy the view!
Organising this trip would not have been possible on my own.
The bulk of the programme was led by PACOS Trust, led by Anne Lasimbang, the founder and executive director. Our guides, Sintiah Samanding, Nasiri Sabiah, and Andrew Gosungkit were patient teachers to all of us, and we were always in good hands. Special thanks also to Hilda Pius, Rojieka Scarlett, Gordon John, and TG for their administrative support and advice throughout the planning phase.
Puah Sze Ning, a SASS alumni and former classmate of mine, was instrumental in the planning of this study trip. As students, we were on the very first study trip organised by SASS in 2004, In Search of Penang. A detour to Kampung Chang Lama in Perak inspired her to be involved in indigenous peoples work in Malaysia to this day. It is due to her recommendation and encouragement that I managed to get In Search of Sabah off the ground.
Another classmate, Kerry-Ann Augustin, together with her parents, Rupert and Carol, come from Kota Kinabalu, and gave me valuable advice. Rupert and Carol were kind enough to show me around the city and tell me about the local culture during my scouting trip in January.
My colleagues Chrishandra Sebastiampillai and Jasbir Singh were pillars of support before and during the trip.
The administrative team at the SASS office provided me with all the assistance necessary in arranging the logistics for the trip.
Finally, a special thanks to Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, the first pathfinder.
The SASS team, with the team at PACOS Trust
Like Sze Ning, I was on the very first trip to Penang as a student. We transported three desktop computers, a printer, and all the video and audio recording devices, by bus to a hotel in Penang. The hotel’s executive suite – the largest “family” room available, became the headquarters of the trip. At night, after the daily programme, we wrote our news stories in the room, printed them, and collated them into a newspaper format to document our trip. We would go to sleep at 6 am, and get on the bus for the next morning session a few hours later.
Now, travellers update their stories live on Facebook, record interviews and write articles on their phones and laptops, crowdsource video footage from fellow travellers, update their blogs the moment there’s free WiFi, and more. In Kampung Kipouvo, we had no phone and internet reception for a day, and the evening walkabout that some of the travellers, including me, took was more than anything, a case of us in search of a phone signal. Even the way these study trips evolved over the years can teach us something about the way we learn, connect, and express ourselves.
Although these trips bear the title of ‘In Search Of’, there is no definitive interpretation of what exactly we are searching for. We were never going to fully discover Sabah in six days. But I think we have all learnt some things about ourselves and the people we engaged with. It is my hope that these experiences will help us expand the way we think about people and places, and move beyond basic sensory descriptions of a place being nice to visit or not, to becoming more informed about this world that we share with others.
It is in the searching that we grow.
In Search of Sabah, 2017
Meng Yoe enjoys many things, believing that “knowing a trifle about everything gives life more colour”. Among his favourites are football, coffee, gaming, boybands, Gossip Girl, and fishkeeping (Fish are pets. Don’t argue.)