Sabah and Sarawak

I thought I will turn my attention towards our neighbouring states, Sabah and Sarawak, favourite holiday destinations for Bruneians especially in this month of December. I have written once about Sabah in passing when I was talking about how the name Istana Manggalela in Kuala Belait came about. I was going through my collection of books in the hope of finding something to write about today. In some days, writing comes easy but in other days, it takes a little bit of effort. I came across a book I bought many years ago entitled 'Asal Usul Negeri-Negeri di Malaysia' (the Origins of the States of Malaysia) written by Zakiah Hanum and published in 1989. I bought the book from the Times Bookstore - remember? We used to have a Times Bookstore in Brunei.

I will concentrate on the origins of the names of Sabah and Sarawak only even though all 13 Malaysian states are mentioned in the book. Sabah was originally known as Api-Api (Fire) because in the 16th century, a map described Sabah as Fire Islands - due to the existence of mud volcanoes in Pulau Tiga (near Labuan). Unlike Brunei, Sabah was hardly mentioned in ancient writings. The earliest reference to Sabah was in 1292 when a Kublai Khan emissary came to visit the Kinabatangan area. In 1365, Sabah was known as Saludang. The name Sabah became widely used in the 15th century when it was a part of Brunei. But when the British came, they renamed it North Borneo before becoming Sabah again when it joined Malaysia in 1963.

According to the book, the name Sabah came from the banana 'Pisang Saba' which grew along the coast and is very popular in Brunei too. It is said that because the banana grew very well along the coasts and that many people planted and ate it, the name Sabah was applied to the place and that subsequently became the name of the state. Though a couple of historians tried to give Sabah a more romantic origin by linking it with 'Shaba' in Yemen. The Arabic origin theory has gained popularity - when you think about it, do you want your country to be named after a banana? - but according to Tom Harrison, a famous historian, Sabah is a local name and its origins cannot be traced as are many other local names around the region.

The origin of the name 'Sarawak' is even harder to trace. Some said the origin of the name was when Pengiran Muda Hashim surrendered the early parts of Sarawak to James Brooke in 1841 - he said, 'serah pada awak' (given to you) and hence Sarawak. But the name Sarawak was already given to the Sarawak River even when the whole of Sarawak was a Brunei territory. However the origin of the name Sarawak River remained unknown.

The name Sarawak was also applied to the capital of the state, Kuching. It was known as Sarawak proper. It wasn't until 1872 that the state government decided to call the capital as Kuching and the state as Sarawak. Kuching itself was said to come from the word 'Cochin' which means 'port' and the name is also used in India. Though there are also those that said the name Kuching came from the river 'Sungai Kuching' which is a small river that adjoined the Sarawak River. The name itself came from the many 'mata kuching' trees (a local fruit that came from the same family as the lychee and the longan) that grew along the hill beside the river. The hill is known as Bukit Mata Kuching.


Anonymous said…
Cool, I didn't even know the origin of the name Sabah
Leonard Alaza said…
Very resourceful. well done.

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