I have always told people that I am from Kuching, Sarawak – despite being originally rooted in the Peninsular and not having any blood related relatives from Borneo. Having spent my teenage years in Kuching, a lot have said that my persona was shaped there.

Kuching to me is a very laid back, no fuss, liberal-minded place. The air feels crisp, cars move slower, the streets are cleaner. Personally, the grass is really greener on this side of the country. We have churches next to mosques and Malays dining at Chinese food stalls; and ultimately not being judged on how people dress or even whom they hang out with. Our common ground definitely transcended racial lines.

So to come from that and move into a small and what I thought would be a modern town, became difficult for me. I was judged by the way I speak, dressed, behaved. A very young me back then couldn’t figure out why, because I thought being brought up in the same country, went through the same education system made us all think the same way, like the people back in Kuching.

Years have gone by since, but some things I learned along the way have stayed with me until this day;

1. It is OK to respect and celebrate differences

At school assemblies the Catholics would recite the prayer after the doa. We weren’t in any way forced, pressured or tempted to follow what they were doing. We may have different religious views but that didn’t stop us from living with one another, being friends and kind to each other. Everyone respected one another, regardless of your race or religion. No one made an issue about a Malay going to churches for weddings or an Iban using the word Allah.

2. All sarawakians are living on trees

and mind you we go up to our tree houses using fabulous escalators, just in case you’re wondering.

It puzzles me every single time I get this question from old friends, or even new ones, whenever I tell them I grew up in Kuching, Sarawak. I don’t know if I should feel offended or bad for the person asking – are you really ignorant of the socio-political, economic and cultural realities of people living in Borneo?

3. I can’t fit in, anywhere

You see, I was born in Kelantan, and prior to moving to Kuching, I was a Subang Jaya kid for ten years. With such a diverse (read: complicated) background I would think I would have blended in with the crowd better. But nope. When I was in National Service camp a large fraction of the trainers came from Kelantan, and after finding out that I too, was born in Kelantan, one of them came to me and said “Oh you ore kelatey eh, buat malu je”. I didn’t get the memo that we apparently have to act/talk/dress according to where we were born. Or raised. Or that we label people according to where we come form? I don’t know, I’m confused too. That was very hurtful, to say the least.

4. Sarawakians don’t speak like a normal Malay?

This I couldn’t get the correlation between the two, until today. I did not realised that this was a thing, until working as a host for a Malay speaking TV show and I get criticised all the time for having an ‘accent’ and their conclusion would be, “Patut la, dia orang Sarawak”. Why though.

Even after 55 years of becoming one, while some seamlessly blended in well with one another, many Malaysians do still feel disconnected and fail to embrace and learn what is unique about the different cultures and socio economies. I consider myself lucky, because exposure to the different parts of Malaysia have enriched me and opened my eyes towards appreciating the beauty of our country’s diversity.

While we may have a lot to blame for this – geography separation, political parties, 1963 Malaysia Agreement, media, education system – the real challenge is us breaking away from the perspective and stereotypes. #MalaysiaBaru is what most Malaysians have voted for and aspire to achieve. With the newly elected government, there’s hope for Sarawak and Sabah leaders to be treated as equal partners and are given the autonomy to implement their policies without interference and have their voices heard. The people of Sabah and Sarawak would really appreciate this too.

I do personally feel, after meeting so many people from the different parts of Malaysia, one has to look beyond their race, have an open mind and make an effort to learn. Laughing at why the dayak gives black pepper as a gift at weddings, bear in mind, can be offensive. We may not always understand why some people do what they do, but this is exactly why we Malaysians should learn other cultures, in order to respect and understand one another.

Judging and stereotyping is what will hold us back from soaring higher and going further as a nation. Ultimately our diversity is what makes us united and unique as Malaysians.

Selamat Hari Malaysia my fellow Malaysians.

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