Born Again in Borneo

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An Indian identity crisis in the eastern Malaysian province of Sabah

ONCE THE MALAYSIAN peninsula is out of sight from 24,000 feet up in the air, an azure emerald-scape, the South China Sea, takes over dotted by isles with jagged navy-blue fringes until fluffy cloud patches reveal a terrain that stretches to the horizon—plateaus, vales and hills—punctuated by one of the last rainforests the world still affords. This is Borneo, a European application of the Sanskrit ‘boorni’, land, teeming with orangutans, long-nosed monkeys, clouded leopards, pit vipers, flying loris and people as diverse as its fauna—indigenous folks, western Malays, Chinese, Indonesians, Bruneians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, and Indians—spanning 743,330 sq km of rugged soil, making it the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea, shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak to the north, the Indonesian Kalimantan to the south and the tiny Brunei scooping up a part of its north-central coast.

As the flight lunges through the cottony clouds, the coastline opens up a vista of red-roofed villas, meandering concrete roads plied largely by four-wheelers, a warren of high-rises and rows upon rows of shops and restaurants, mostly run by Chinese or Indian immigrants. In the shadow of the imposing Mount Kinabalu (4,100 metres above sea level), the capital city of the easternmost periphery of Malaysia’s Sabah state, Kota Kinabalu, is home to some 500,000 people, with indigenous Bumiputeras (‘sons of the soil’, a moniker coined by the Malay government to distinguish between Malays and non-Malays) making up nearly half that figure, 95,000 Chinese and 2,500-odd Indians, among other immigrants.

Once out of the aerodrome-by-the-sea, as the radio taxi snakes its way through orderly traffic, the minuscule Indian community’s stamp is visible across storefronts with familiar names, such as ‘Royal’, ‘Fancy Stores’ and the Arabic sounding ‘Maimunah’, to name a few. On closer inspection, the Chinese-owned commercial zones are largely managed and run by Indians, mainly by Indian Muslims from three districts of Tamil Nadu: Tiruchirapalli, Ramanathapuram and Madurai. Other Indians, including a handful of Sikhs, are at the forefront of professional services, rendering legal advice, medical assistance and engineering skills. Of Sabah’s 3.7 million denizens, roughly 12,000 Indians make a living on industry and trade, but few are as prominent as Tamil Muslims, known locally as ‘Mamaks’.

Tamil migrants headed out to this part of the world, some 10,500-km away from their home, way back in 1965, a couple of years after Malaysia was formed, to work in the rubber plantations of Lahad Datu, a town in the eastern extremity of Sabah surrounded by cocoa and palm plantations. Ever since, the stream has turned into a torrent, as organisations such as the now-defunct Malaysian Indian Congress cropped up to help the newcomers with citizenship.

Tamil Muslims now dominate restaurants and provision stores in Sabah. “Around 2003, the Malaysian government started giving out eight work permits [for employees] to every restaurant, provided they stayed open for 24 hours. Employees with such permits can work for five years at a stretch, and return to their homes, before reapplying for permits, until they turn 55,” says Datuk Baisul Khan Salman, the Sabah Chapter President of Malaysian India Muslim Congress, a political party formed in 1976 to represent the interests of the minority Indian Muslim community in Malaysia. Nevertheless, these immigrants can apply for citizenship after five years of work in the country.

Strikingly, almost all of these restaurant work permits are given to ‘cooks’ and ‘roti makers’ who might turn up to toss dough without even knowing kitchen basics. A bulk of such ‘cooks’ end up as helping hands at provision stores, claims Salman, alluding to the ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ adage. “We have an understanding with the immigration authorities to get around such legal bottlenecks,” he adds. According to the local Daily Express Editor-in-Chief James Sarda, these Indian Muslims are an “asset” to this land of plenty as “they make the cheapest meals”, including Roti Canai, a variation of the parantha. Though pork is an obvious exclusion from the menus at such restaurants, halal meals of all stripes, including beef curry, butter chicken, fish head curry, stir-fried mutton, may be ordered 24/7.

“There are more than 800 Chinese shops in the city and they rake in three to four times the amount we Tamil Muslims do here” says Zakir Husain manager, Mei Moon Trading

Meet the 54-year-old Jamal bin Ali of Syarikat Maimunah provision store. He landed up in Kota Kinabalu 30 years ago from somewhere between Madurai and Trichy, and today runs six shops, including four restaurants and two groceries. Busy as a bee, every now and then as his mobile phone rings, he looks up and mouths, “Just a minute, lah.” From this provision store alone, in downtown Kota Kinabalu, Ali’s profit margin is approximately Malaysian Ringgit (RM) 500 per day (Rs 9,000), after wages and other costs. After all, it roughly attracts 1,000 footfalls on a daily basis.

Though his annual sales from all the six stores in 2017-18 stood at RM 292,000, Ali is upset he ended up paying the now- obsolete Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced by the former Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organisation government, that unlike in India, taxed all goods and services in Malaysia at a uniform rate of 6 per cent, irrespective of it being a BMW or a bath towel. “Accounting became difficult since despite running six shops, we have fluctuating sales. It makes sense to pay GST only if a firm’s annual sales clock a minimum of RM 350,000 (for economies of scale to take effect), but since we were far lower than that figure, profitability took a hit,” explains Ali.

Last year, when Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad assumed office, he scrapped the value-added GST and replaced it with Sales and Service Tax (SST), much to the relief of shopkeepers like Ali, since only businesses that make RM 500,000 and above a year are subjected to SST. Ali now wants to expand his business through a franchise model under the Maimunah banner. “We should have at least 10 restaurants by 2025 across Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur,” says his nephew, Sabir, an IT engineer from Trichy who’s helping his uncle build an empire.

“I divorced my Malay wife in 2002 but yearn for my wife and two kids back home. In 5-6 years, after my shops attain a decent turnover, I will return home,” says Raman Sultan storekeeper

In the vicinity, Zakir Husain hawks sundries and daily needs, from cola to razors. Brother-in-law of the store’s owner, Husain is the manager and has been in Kota Kinabalu for the last 18 years when he moved in from Trichy. Profits from his provision store alone amount to RM 800 a day, but he insists Chinese businesses (more than 800 shops in the city) make “three-four times the amount”.

The story is no different at Mazuin Beauty Centre next door, where store manager Mohammad Rafi from Tirunelveli narrates a similar story, though he set foot in the city only in 2011 and worked as a helping hand to other Tamil shopkeepers until he became a manager two years later.

LUQMAN MICHEL, A former finance manager with a clutch of companies who has turned into a dyslexia crusader, offers a couple of more revelations. He claims that most sundry goods shops were owned by the Chinese in the past. That has changed. “Mamaks and Pakistanis soon took over these shops and started offering credit, becoming moneylenders, which only added to their popularity. The Chinese never offer credit,” he says. Michel observes that many Indian Muslims land up in Sabah and marry second wives as part of their retail business strategy. “Most of the immigrant Indian Muslims and Pakistanis, who have wives in their villages back home come here and remarry a local, generally single mothers, so that they can get a licence in their name and in return, pay them a token amount of, say, RM 1,000 each month. In this manner, they get control over businesses,” he says.

Some 175 km away, in the coastal town of Kudat near the tip of Borneo, Michel’s observation rings true. Raman Sultan, 51, runs two shops under the Royal and Trichy banners, both being managed by his two Malay born sons. An immigrant from Tennur near Trichy, Sultan dropped anchor in this quaint fishing port some 35 years ago after rejecting an offer to go to Brunei, where his brother is “a well-known shopkeeper”. With a friend already settled in Kudat, Sultan too took the plunge and married a Malay girl despite having a wife back home. “I divorced my Malay wife in 2002, but yearn for my wife and two kids back home. In five-six years, after my shops attain a decent turnover, I will return home,” says he.

At the tip of Borneo, a very special point that separates the South China Sea from the Sulu Sea of the Philippines where Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet supposedly landed to perform repairs on his ship, Gemma Asaad has come picnicking with her family from Kota Kinabalu. An authorised placement agent, she has placed youth from Punjab “in droves across Ukraine’s colleges”. She, too, had a brush with GST when it was around, and it cost her. “I lost RM 1,000 in penalties for a default once, but since I was connected, I got away with less. Otherwise, I would have had to cough up RM 3,000,” she maintains.

“It makes sense to pay GST only if a firm's annual sales clock a minimum of 350,000 Ringgit, but since we were far lower than that figure, profitability took a hit, ” says Jamal bin Ali promoter, Maimunah

Talking of Punjab, there are about 2,500 Sikhs in Sabah alone, claims Datuk V Jothi, the Chennai-born president of the Sabah India Chamber of Commerce, who has been a resident in this far-eastern state of Malaysia for the last 48 years. The history of Sikh migration to North Borneo, in all earnestness, began in 1882 with the majority of them serving in the North Borneo Armed Constabulary (NBAC). According to Swarn Singh Kahlon in his seminal Sikhs in Asia Pacific: Travels Among the Sikh Diaspora from Yangon to Kobe, ‘Sikhs in Sabah have long inter- married with people from various local ethnic groups. These unions have resulted in the establishment of a new community of peranakan Punjabis. The term ‘peranakan’ refers to the Children of Chinese migrants, who married Malay women. Peranakan Punjabis refer to a new generation born from inter-marriage of Punjabi Sikhs with non-Sikh communities…. the majority of Peranakan Punjabis in Sabah, especially the younger generation, can only speak Malay. Nevertheless, they have inherited Sikh religious values, especially those related to faith, religious practices and prayer.’ Interestingly, though, most Peranakan Punjabis today have the advantageous Bumiputera status, thanks to an affirmative-action programme in public education that puts them on par with Malays and indigenous people.

That, understandably, has placed Peranakan Sikhs in top jobs across the state, claims James Sarda, even as it is hard to spot Sikhs who’re non- Peranakan in Borneo. This is where Luqman Michel weaves in an anecdote about one Karam Singh, who at the turn of the century was a well-known dairyman here with a sizeable herd. “The [milk-gulping] British gave Karam Singh land in the heart of Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu’s former name), which came to be known as Karamunsing.” Today, Karamunsing is the city centre’s pride, with shopping complexes, arcades and a bustling residential zone.

A nine-minute cab ride away is Sri Pasupathinath Alayam Kota Kinabalu Hindu Temple. Though Hindus account for a mere 0.1 per cent of Sabah’s population—it has the least Hindu residents of all Malaysian states—they are well represented in professional services. Talking to Daily Express, former president of the Sri Pasupathinath Temple, Dr K Mathavan, had said: “We have Indians (read Hindus) who came here from India as well as from West Malaysia as surveyors and plantation workers.” That explains the six Hindu temples across Sabah—in Kota Kinabalu, Lokawi, Sandakan, Tawau, Kota Belud and Labuan (an island off the coast of Sabah, which is part of the Malaysian federation).

I lost 1,000 ringgit in penalties for a default (on GST) once, but since I was connected, I got away with less. Otherwise, I would have had to cough up 3,000,” says Gemma Asaad, placement agent

Dr Victor Suppiah too visits temples and donates generously. President of Federation Malaysian Indian Organisations, Suppiah is a Chettiar (land-owning caste) from Tamil Nadu and a vegetarian to boot. His grandfather came from Trichy and he was born and educated in Selangor, peninsular Malaysia.

Born Veerasamy Suppiah, he went to a Gospel school run by the Chinese at Selangor and his friends started calling him ‘Victor’. That stuck.

Until 1985, he worked in Port Swettenham (now Port Klang), also Malaysia’s main port. In 1986, he set foot in Sabah because “I had timber on my mind”. Half of global annual timber procurement is from Borneo. Being a seaman, Suppiah was soon chartering ships and transporting timber worldwide. A successful shipping magnate, Suppiah is now exporting seafood from Sabah and Jakarta to Australia and Saudi Arabia. As the head of an Indo-Malay trade body with 8,000 members, Suppiah says: “In Sabah alone, we have 100-odd Indian businessmen who generally own hospitals and restaurants.”

Among them is Abdul Kadir, perhaps the most successful Indian businessman in Sabah who runs a RM 40 million textiles- to-bakeries-to-supermarkets-to- restaurants conglomerate under the Kumpulan BTC Berhad banner, where ‘BTC’ stands for Bumiputera Textiles Company.

Born in western Malaysia’s Perak state, the 61-year-old CEO, whose father came from Pudur Illangudi village in Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu, started out by selling clothes after school at night markets in his hometown under the supervision of one Sajad Hussain, a textile shopowner from Uttar Pradesh and his mentor, some 20 years his senior. He worked with Hussain for a couple of years after finishing school in 1975 and moved to Sabah, where his two elder brothers were already working as government servants. All of 20 then, he found Sabah to be “peaceful and easier to do business in” compared to the Malaysian mainland.

“Western Malays don’t treat me as a Bumiputera owing to intense competition, but if you know how to mingle your way through, you don’t need such a tag to survive in Malaysia,” says Abdul Kadir, CEO, Kumpulan BTC Berhad

In 1977, Kadir took the plunge to set up a textile shop in downtown Kota Kinabalu with savings and a little help from his brothers and friends. Soon, he was notching up a turnover of RM 500- 1,000 a day, which quadrupled by 1982- 83 as he shifted out to the ground floor of the same complex, with assured footfalls. In 1983, he ventured into the restaurant business and also opened a bigger shop in Kota Kinabalu. Simultaneously, he became a textiles supplier to government institutions.

A decade later, he was managing canteens and gradually opened halal supermarkets across Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Lahad Datu. Today, his kitchen has the capacity to feed 10,000 people at one go. “I’m in safe businesses since everyone has to eat and wear clothes, lah,” he says.

DESPITE CLAIMING Bumiputera status, Kadir had difficulties in western Malaysia. “They don’t treat me as one owing to intense competition, but if you know how to mingle your way through with the Malays, Chinese, indigenous folks and speak as many languages, you don’t need such a tag to survive in Malaysia. If the Chinese are doing it and earning the big bucks, so can the Mamaks. All you need are hard work, enterprise and patience.” Apart from English, Bahasa Melayu (Malay language) and Tamil, Kadir is conversant in Urdu, Hindi and Mandarin. He considers Sabah to be more tolerant than western Malaysia, particularly when it comes to picking up government tenders—that’s when his Bumiputera tag does the talking.

However, non-Bumiputeras still face discrimination. “Successful Tamil Muslims (like Kadir) claim to be Bumiputeras in Sabah, while in peninsular Malaysia, this status is denied,” says James Sarda. He contends that the Malaysian constitution defines Malays as those professing Islam and the subcontinent’s Muslims use such a loophole by marrying a local woman to start a sundry shop business using her name. “After five years, they apply for citizenship as the law allows it, but they are not treated as Bumiputeras or first-borns. Being Muslim, they just slip from one identity to another. Malaysia is perhaps the only place where you can undergo an ethnic change overnight. They chuck away the identity and lifestyle of their ancestors for something radically different because the new identity comes with privileges,” elaborates Sarda.

However, here in Sabah is a society where affirmative action has not hampered the mobility of non- beneficiaries. The minority Indians in the state have done phenomenally well as professionals by the dint of hard work and enterprise. But whenever talk of inclusion as Bumiputeras arises, there is mayhem. Malays and the indigenous people of Borneo, who constitute two-thirds of the country’s 31 million people, took to the streets a couple of years ago when the then Prime Minister Najib Razak considered granting that status to Indian Muslims. They argued that the inclusion of Indian Muslims under the state’s affirmative action policy would dilute the identity of the ‘bangsa Melayu’ (Malay race). Perhaps current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose ancestry may be traced back to Kerala, can correct such an anomaly.

But is there a crying need? Unlike in India, where reservations are typically doled out as pre-poll gimmick, the Indians of Sabah—Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus— have shown resilience in the face of resistance to their success and emerged winners. They know how to wend their way in a mixed habitat that has proverbially come to be known as ‘the land below the wind’.