Sabah's population is heterogeneous and culturally diverse, with more than 30 different ethnic races and over 80 local dialects spoken. The origins of the ethnic groups are charmingly “explained” in an old folk tale that originates in legend and history and is a legacy from Sabah’s oldest people. The tale speaks of a place called Nunuk Ragang, the original Sabahan’s Garden of Eden, somewhere in the heart of Sabah. A river ran through it with a nunuk or a banyan tree on its bank. The native children loved to play in the river and climb the huge branches of the banyan tree to sun themselves – which is how true Sabahans got the golden glow on their skins. People lived happily together and multiplied. Very soon, Nunuk Ragang got too crowded. Families had to move out in search of new places to live. Some went across valley plains and settled as farmers while others made their way up to the highlands and learned to hunt and reap the bounty of jungles. Some trekked as far as the east coast and settled there. And that was how the people spread across the land.
Many of the ethnic groups share a similar oral history, languages and traditions. However, lack of communication due to rugged terrains has resulted in the evolution of many dialects in common languages, different dress styles, handicrafts and cultures. The largest indigenous ethnic group is Kadazan-Dusun, followed by Bajau, and Murut. Traditions and customs have long been part of Sabahans’ daily lives.
One will normally ask what kinds of people live in this land of eco-treasures. Often by further understanding their spectrum of cultures, one will find the answer as all types, colours and creeds. All these ethnic groups live together harmoniously while at the same time preserving their own culture, traditions, festivals and customs to make Sabah a multicultural and exotic experience unlike any other that you might have already experienced.
This is the largest ethnic category in Sabah and is predominantly wet rice and hill rice cultivators. Their language belongs to the Dusunic family and shares a common animistic belief system with various customs and practices. Their ancient beliefs on the verity that everything has life - the rocks, trees, and rivers are all living things. Now many have migrated to urban areas and are prominent in the civil service and the professions.
The Bajaus are Sabah’s second largest indigenous group. They are found in concentrated numbers on the coastal areas especially from Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud and around the Semporna area. Originally they were seafarers and at one time many were feared pirates. The West Coast Bajaus are now mainly farmers and cattle breeders, the renowed “Cowboy Horsemen” of Sabah. The Bajau of the East Coast are traditionally coastal dwellers and fishermen although many have now settled on land. The Bajaus are Muslims believed to have emigrated from the Phiippines, although they also claim descent from the Johor Malays.
The Rungus living in the Kudat district are known to have maintained their ancient traditions to this day. Even the traditional ladies costume has not many changes made to it. Some of the women still wear costumes made from cloth processed form hand-grown and hand-spun cotton. The Rungus are also well-known for their beadwork and the costume shows off some of their finest.
Literally "Murut" means hill people". They inhabit the interior and southeastern parts of Sabah and the territory straddling the Kalimantan and Sarawak borders. They were onced feared head-hunters. Most Muruts live in three districts, Tenom, Keningau and Pensiangan where they were mainly longhouse dwellers. They are mostly shifting cultivators and hunters with some riverine fishing. Besides, hunting with a blowpipe and spear, they also gather jungle produce such as rattan and resin as well as plant paddy. Those of Murut origin speak 15 languages and 21 dialects. The language commonly used and understood by the large majority is Tanggal. Their language is also related to the Kadazandusun languages.
Islam is the official religion in both Malaysia and Brunei. Proper dress and manners should be adhered at all times. It’s customary to remove shoes before entering a mosque as well as homes. In places of worship, visitors should remove their shoes and women should ensure that their head, knees and arms are covered. They should not pass in front of people at prayer and should not touch the Quran. Nude sunbathing is not allowed and is very frowned upon. Avoid pointing your index finger at others, or to beckon someone with fingers and palm facing upwards as this is considered rude in the local custom. Instead the whole hand should be waved with palm facing downwards. Gifts, particularly food, are passed with the right hand.
Apart from the Sabahans’ very own diverse mother tongues, Bahasa Malaysia (national language) and English is widely spoken; Mandarin and some Chinese dialects are also widely spoken. In Sabah, we greet people by saying “selamat datang” (welcome) and/or “terima kasih” (thank you) with a smile. Due to religious reasons, some may prefer not to have physical contact with others. However, a handshake is generally acceptable as a way of introducing oneself.