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Filipinos helped make Malaysia what she is, too

/ 04:26 AM July 21, 2013

There are many Malaysians of Filipino descent who have collectively contributed much to this country, especially in Sabah.

My eldest son looked troubled when I picked him up from school in Kota Kinabalu.

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This was about seven years ago when he had just started his secondary education.

He kept quiet when I asked him what was bothering him. About five minutes later, he blurted out: “I wish I wasn’t a Filipino.”

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I was floored but I tried not to show it. Instead, I asked him to tell me more.

It turned out that his schoolmates were teasing or taunting him after they found out he was of Filipino descent, from his surname.

At that time, the term Filipino was associated with foreigners who were involved in all sorts of crimes, including illegal entry, drug trafficking, theft and robbery.

Let’s fast forward to early 2013 and months into the hearings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry on Sabah’s illegal immigrant problem.

The term Filipino has since been associated with, among others, foreigners who slip into Sabah, get identification documents overnight and even become voters.

Then came the intrusion of the 200 Sulu gunmen at a little known coastal village called Tanduo in Lahad Datu district in February.

In the weeks that followed, the term Filipino became downright unsavory based on the chatter on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

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Seven years ago, I told an upset 13-year-old boy on the way home from school that he just happened to be a Malaysian of mixed Filipino and Kadazandusun parentage. It was a heritage to be proud of, I reassured him.

Yes, I am a Malaysian of Filipino descent and there are many Sabahans like me whose parents came from the Philippines more than half a century ago.

My father was among dozens of newly graduated foresters who were hired by the British colonial administration soon after World War II to fill up the administration of North Borneo, as Sabah was then known.

And so my dad and his contemporaries came to Sabah to help establish conservation areas such as the Kinabalu Park and put in place the state’s forest management policies that are in practice until today.

Names such as Nobleza, Corpuz, Udarbe, Pascual, Dotimas and of course, Sario, were often heard in the corridors of the Forestry Department headquarters at that time. Skilled Filipinos were also brought in by the British to work as engineers and teachers and for various other jobs.

Quite a number of others were hired by the private sector such as the Kennedy Bay Timber Company for logging operations at Silam in Lahad Datu.

They did not only work in the state but also shared their skills with Sabahans.

Pantai Manis state assemblyman Datuk Abdul Rahim Ismail remembers how he was hired as forest ranger, just after completing his secondary schooling at the age of 19 in 1969.

“They were like fathers to me,” he says of his Filipino forebears.

“And they put me at ease while teaching me the ropes, things like basics of forest management, plantation forests, research,” said Rahim, who rose through the ranks and eventually became senior assistant director before leaving the department in 1990.

His fondness for them is evident in that he never fails to enquire about my father whenever we meet.

In broad terms, many of the Filipinos who came to Sabah in the late 1940s and 1950s eventually settled and became Malaysians when the state gained its independence and joined Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya to form the federation in 1963.

The subsequent groups of Filipinos that came to Sabah were largely those from southern Philippines fleeing the civil war in that region in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Growing up in the east coast town of Sandakan, many of us, the offspring of these people, did not feel different. We were simply accepted as who we were.

Entrepreneur Maria Nobleza whose father was my dad’s forestry colleague had the same experience and went through the same experiences like other minority communities—those under the “kaum lain-lain.”

Our parents had to scrimp and save to finance our post-secondary studies. Scholarships, loans and public universities were out of the question.

Born and raised in Sabah, my siblings and I spoke English at home. Tagalog and my father’s Ilocano mother tongue were limited to a few words—mainly confined to things like dishes such as pinakbet (vegetable stew), sinigang (soup), adobo (stewed meat), lumpia (spring rolls) and of course lechon baboy (roasted pig).

Not knowing the language provided for some awkward moments on the few occasions when I visited relatives in Manila and when I spent a month in southern Philippines to cover the Sipadan hostage crisis in the year 2000.

I have learnt that many Filipinos (as in those in the Philippines) tend to be a culturally chauvinistic lot.

When a guy looks like a Filipino, has a Filipino sounding name but cannot speak Tagalog, they tend to pose a are-you-trying-to-mess-around-with-me? look.

And to respond to them, I devised this answer: “I am a Xerox Pinoy (Xerox is the generic term for photocopy, as in no longer an original).”

I may have lost some elements of my heritage but I am proud to say I am a Malaysian of Filipino origin and I truly believe that in some ways, we as a community have collectively made this country much more colorful and diverse.

***

The author is a journalist with Malaysia’s The Star newspaper. This commentary, is reprinted with his permission.

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TAGS: Filipino, Malaysia, Migration, Sabah
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