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Sabah is one of 13 member states of Malaysia.[1] It is located on the northern portion of the island of Borneo. It is the second largest state in the country after Sarawak, which it borders on its south-west. It also shares a border with the province of East Kalimantan of Indonesia in the south. In spite of its status as a Malaysian state, Sabah remains a disputed territory; the Philippines has a dormant claim over much of the eastern part of the territory.[2][3] The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu, formerly known as Jesselton. Sabah is known as "Sabah, negeri di bawah bayu", which means "Sabah, the land below the wind", because of its location just south of the typhoon-prone region around the Philippines.


The region of present-day Sabah was discovered by Europeans around the early 16th century. This was during the period when the Sultanate was in its 'golden era'. The region was known as Sava to Portuguese explorers. In 1658 the Sultan of Brunei ceded the northeast portion of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu in compensation for the latter's help in settling a civil war in the Brunei Sultanate. In 1761 an officer of the British East India Company, Alexander Dalrymple, concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to allow him to set up a trading post in the region. This, together with other attempts to build a settlement and a military station centering around Pulau Balambangan, proved to be a failure. There was minimal foreign interest in this region afterward and control over most parts of north Borneo seems to have remained under the Sultanate of Brunei. The southern portion of Palawan was once part of Sabah, due to Palawan's proximity to Borneo. Southern portions of the island were under the control of the Sultanate of Borneo for more than two centuries, and Islam was introduced. During the same period, trade relations flourished, and intermarriages among the natives and Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and Hindu peoples became commonplace. The intermixing of blood resulted in a distinct breed of Palaweños, both in physical stature and features. In 1749, the Sultanate of Borneo ceded southern Palawan to Spain.

In 1865 the American Consul of Brunei, Claude Lee Moses, obtained a 10-year lease over North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei. Ownership was then passed to an American trading company owned by J.W. Torrey, T.B. Harris and some Chinese merchants. They set up a base and settlement in Kimanis but this too failed due to financial reasons. The rights of the trading company were then sold to Baron Von Overbeck, the Austrian Consul in Hong Kong, and he later obtained another 10-year renewal of the lease. The rights were subsequently transferred to Alfred Dent, whom in 1881 formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd.

In the following year, the British North Borneo Company was formed and Kudat was made its capital. In 1883 the capital was moved to Sandakan to capitalise on its potential of vast timber resources. In 1888 North Borneo became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. Administration and control over North Borneo remained in the hands of the Company despite being a protectorate and they effectively ruled until 1942. Their rule had been generally peaceful except for some rebellions, including one led by the Bajau leader Mat Salleh from 1894 to 1900,[5] and another led by Antanum[6] of the Muruts which is known as the Rundum resistance in 1915.

Second World War and the road to independence

From 1942 to 1945 during the Second World War, Japanese forces occupied North Borneo. The Japanese forces landed in Labuan on January 1, 1942, and continued to invade the rest of North Borneo. Bombings by the allied forces devastated most towns including Sandakan, which was razed to the ground. Resistance forces against Japanese occupation were concentrated on the west and north coast of North Borneo. The resistance in Jesselton was led by Albert Kwok and Jules Stephens of the Kinabalu Guerillas. Another resistance was led by Panglima Alli from Sulug Island, off the coast of Jesselton. In Kudat, there was also some resistance led by Tun Datu Mustapha. On October 10, 1943, the Kinabalu Guerrillas together with followers of Panglima Alli staged a surprise attack on the Japanese. The attack however was foiled. The 324 local residents who participated in the attacks, including Albert Kwok and Panglima Alli, were detained in Petagas and later executed on January 21, 1944.[8] The site of the execution is today known as the Petagas War Memorial.

In Sandakan there was once a brutal POW camp run by the Japanese for British and Australian POWs from North Borneo. The prisoners suffered in agony in their first year of captivity under notoriously inhuman conditions, but much worse was to come through the forced marches of January, March and June 1945 (refer to Sandakan Memorial Park WWII POW Museum Records). Allied bombardments caused the Japanese to relocate the POW camp to inland Ranau, 260 km away. All the prisoners, who by then were reduced to 2504 in number, were to be moved, but instead of transport, were forced to march the infamous "Sandakan-Ranau Death March" route. Sickness, disease, exhaustion, thirst, hunger, whipping, and shooting killed most of the prisoners, except for six Australians who successfully escaped, were never caught, and survived to tell the horrific story of the death march. The fallen of this march are commemorated each year on Anzac Day (Memorial Day) in Australia and in Sandakan, at the original POW campsite where a POW hut style museum and a black marble memorial obelisk monument are nestled in a peaceful park setting with a lily pond.

When Japan surrendered at the end of the war, North Borneo was administered by the British Military Administration and in 1946 it became a British Crown Colony. Jesselton was chosen to replace Sandakan as the capital. The Crown continued to rule North Borneo until 1963. On 31 August 1963 North Borneo attained self-government. There was a call for complete independence on that date by it was denied by the British Governor who remained in power until Malaysia Day.[9] The intention had been to form Malaysia on 31 August but due to objection from the Philippines and Indonesia, the formation had to be postponed to September 16.[citation needed] On 16 September 1963, North Borneo together with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore formed the Federation of Malaysia and from then on, it became known as Sabah and declared independent from British sovereignty.[7][10] To safeguard the interest of North Borneo in the new federation, a 20-point agreement was entered into between the federal and the state government.

Philippine claim

The Sultanate of Sulu was granted the north-eastern part of the territory as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei against his enemies and from then on that part of Borneo was recognized as part of the Sultan of Sulu's sovereignty. In 1878, Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian partner representing The British North Borneo Company and his British partner Alfred Dent, leased the territory of Sabah. In return, the company was to provide arms to the Sultan to resist the Spaniards and 5,000 Malayan dollars annual rental based on the Mexican dollar's value at that time or its equivalent in gold. This lease was continued until the independence and formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963 together with Singapore, Sarawak and the states of Malaya. As of 2004, the Malaysian Embassy to the Philippines had been paying cession/rental money amounting to US$1,500 per year (about 6,300 Malaysian Ringgits) to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu.

The contract between Sri Paduka Maulana Al Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Alam, representing the sultanate as owner and sovereign of Sabah on one hand, and that of Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent representing the North Borneo Company, on the other as lessees of Sabah, was executed on 22 January 1878. The Lease prohibits the transfer of Sabah to any nation, company or individual without the consent of His Majesty’s Government (“Government of the Sultan of Sulu”).[11]

Less than a decade later, the Sultanate of Sulu came under the control of Spain and in 1885, Spain relinquished all of its claim to Borneo to the British in the Madrid Protocol of 1885.[12] In spite of that, in 1906 and 1920 the United States formally reminded United Kingdom that Sabah did not belong to them and was still part of the Sultanate of Sulu on the premise that Spain never acquired sovereignty over North Borneo to transfer all its claims of sovereignty over North Borneo to the United Kingdom on the Madrid Protocol of 1885. This is so because the Sultan of Sulu did not include his territory and dominion in North Borneo in signing the treaty of 1878 recognizing the Spanish sovereignty over “Jolo and its dependencies.”.[citation needed] North Borneo was never considered a dependency of Jolo.[citation needed] However, the British Government ignored the reminder and still annexed the territory of North Borneo as a Crown Colony on 10 July 1946. This was in spite of the fact that the British Government was aware of the decision made by the High Court of North Borneo on 19 December 1939, that the successor of the Sultan in the territory of Sabah was the Government of the Philippines and not United Kingdom.[13]

On 12 September 1962, during President Diosdado Macapagal's administration, the territory of North Borneo, and the full sovereignty, title and dominion over the territory were ceded by the then reigning Sultan of Sulu, HM Sultan Muhammad Esmail E. Kiram I, to the Republic of the Philippines.[14] The cession effectively gave the Philippine government the full authority to pursue their claim in international courts. The Philippines broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the federation had included Sabah in 1963. It was revoked in 1989 because succeeding Philippine administrations have placed the claim on the backburner in the interest of pursuing cordial economic and security relations with Kuala Lumpur.[15]


The population of Sabah was 2,449,389 in 2000[20] and was the third most populous state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor. It is estimated that Sabah's population has exceeded that of Johor with an estimated population of 3,400,000 in 2007.[21] Sabah indeed has one of the highest population growth rates in the country as a result of illegal immigration from the Muslim-dominated southern provinces of Philippines.

  • Kadazan-Dusun: 17.8%
  • Rungus
  • Bajau: 13.4%
  • Malay: 11.5%
  • Murut: 3.3%
  • Other bumiputra: 14.6%
  • Chinese (majority Hakka): 13.2%
  • Other non-bumiputra: 4.8%
  • Non-Malaysian citizen: 25%

Ethnicities and religion

Statistics of religion by state are not provided by the Department of Statistics Malaysia. Sabah is home to the second highest proportion of Christians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) in Malaysia, behind that of Sarawak. In 2000, its religious breakdown was as follows: Islam 63.7%, Christianity 27.8%, Buddhism 12%, no religion 1.0%, Taoism/Confucianism 0.4%, Others 0.3%, Hinduism 0.1%, unknown 0.3%.

The people of Sabah are divided into 32 officially recognised ethnic groups. The largest non-bumiputra ethnic group is the Chinese. The predominant Chinese dialect group in Sabah is Hakka, followed by Cantonese and Hokkien. Most Chinese people in Sabah are concentrated in the major cities and towns, namely Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan and Tawau. The largest indigenous ethnic group is Kadazan-Dusun, followed by Bajau, and Murut. There is a much smaller proportion of Indians and other South Asians in Sabah compared to other parts of Malaysia. Cocos people is a minority ethnic residing in Sabah especially at the Tawau Division. Collectively, all persons coming from Sabah are known as Sabahans and identify themselves as such.

Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) is the national language spoken across ethnicities, although the spoken Sabahan dialect of Malay differs much in inflection and intonation from the West Malaysian version. The Sabahan accent of Malay is actually what 'Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka' endorses, which is Baku. English, Mandarin as well as Hakka and Cantonese are widely understood. In addition, Kadazan-Dusun, Bajau, Murut and other smaller groups also have distinct ethnic languages. Sabah also has its own unique slang for many words in Malay.

Sabah demography consists of many ethnic groups, for example:

  • Kadazan-Dusun
  • Malay
  • Kwijau
  • Murut
  • Bajau
  • Illanun[22]
  • Lotud
  • Rungus
  • Tambanuo
  • Dumpas
  • Mangka'ak
  • Suluk
  • Orang Sungai
  • Brunei
  • Kedayan
  • Bisaya
  • Tidong
  • Maragang
  • Orang Cocos
  • Paitan
  • Ida'an
  • Minokok
  • Bisaya (Philippines)
  • Tagalog
  • Chavacano
  • Rumanau
  • Sabah born Chinese (Malaysian)
  • Sabah born Chinese with mixed indigenous parentage Example: Bumiputra Sino Kadazan etc.
  • Lun Bawang
  • Other inhabitants:
  • Filipino born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Chavacano,Visaya,Ilocano,Suluk,Badjao,Iranun,Tausug
  • Indonesian born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Bugis,Jawa,Timoris,Banjar
  • Pakistani born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Punjabi,Pastun
  • Cocos born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Cocos
  • [Burmese/Myramar born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Burmese]
  • Nepal born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Nepal Gurkha
  • Indian born Sabahan (Malaysian)- Punjabi,Tamil
  • Sarawakian indigenous Malaysian - Iban,Penan,Dayak
  • Portuguese & Dutch descendant (Malaysian)- Serani, Belanda
  • Peninsular Malay,Chinese,Indian


Sabah's economy was traditionally heavily dependent on lumber based on export of tropical timber, but with increasing depletion at an alarming rate of the natural forests, ecological efforts to save the remaining natural rainforest areas were done in early 1982 through forest conservation methods by collecting seeds of different species particularly acacia mangium and planting it to pilot project areas pioneered by the Sandakan Forest Research Institute researchers, however, palm oil has emerged as a choice of farmers to plant as a cash crop. Other agricultural products important in the Sabah economy include rubber and cacao. Tourism is currently the second largest contributor to the economy. There are other exports like seafood and vegetables.

In 1970, Sabah ranked as one of the richest states in the federation, with a per capita GDP second only to Selangor (which then included Kuala Lumpur).[23] However, despite its vast wealth of natural resources, Sabah is currently the poorest of Malaysia's states. Average incomes are now among the lowest in Malaysia, and with a considerably higher cost of living than in West Malaysia. In 2000 Sabah had an unemployment rate of 5.6 per cent, the highest of any Malaysian state and almost twice the national average of 3.1 per cent. The state has the highest poverty level in the country at 16 per cent, more than three times the national average. Due to the lack of industry that can provide jobs for professional and highly skilled workforce, large numbers of Sabahan's have literally migrated or practically moved out to either to Peninsular Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and USA. Part of the problem is the inequitable distribution of wealth between state and federal governments, and large numbers of illegal immigrants from Indonesia, the Philippines, even from China and East Timor, whose population was estimated to be in the region of half a million people. Due to huge tracks of land that has been cultivated with palm oil, the industry is not fully mechanized and it is highly dependent towards immigrants with work pass and illegals. In 2004 the poverty level worsened to 22 per cent.[24] However the state government with the assistance from the Federal government and active participation of UN and the governments where the illegal immigrants originated, steps has been taken and slowly Sabah is overcoming the crises.

The recent tabling of the Ninth Malaysia Plan has allocated RM16.908 billion for Sabah, the second highest state allocation after Sarawak's but it is still only 8% of the total national budget for a population of Sabah of more than 13%, and an area of more than 25%. This is clearly discriminatory and has contributed to the State of Sabah having the largest number of people below the poverty line in Malaysia, and lower than the Indonesian national poverty rate and in the same level as Aceh and Myanmar based on 2004 United Nations figures.[24][25][26][27]

The fund is pledged to improve the state's rural areas, improve the state's transportation and utilities infrastructures, and boost the economy of Sabah. The government has placed its focus on three major areas of the economy which have the potential to be Sabah's growth engine. These are agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.

When this discriminatory budget against Sabah and Sarawak was pointed out, the allocation for Sabah was increased from the earlier figure of 15.7 billion RM while there is none for Sarawak. The reason given to Sarawak's Chief Minister, as reported by Borneo Post (11 November 2007) is that it is not economical to develop Sarawak. Sarawak is to be the source of renewable resources for Malaya. This situation applies to Sabah as well except that Sarawak's renewable resources are not even meant for Sabah. The percentage of the total budget is still much less than Sabah's population and area burdens.



Tourism, particularly eco-tourism, is a major contributor to the economy of Sabah. In 2006, 2,000,000 tourists visited Sabah[30] and it is estimated that the number will continue to rise following vigorous promotional activities by the state and national tourism boards and also increased stability and security in the region. Sabah currently has six national parks. One of these, the Kinabalu National Park, was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2000. It is the first[31] of two sites in Malaysia to obtain this status, the other being the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak. These parks are maintained and controlled by Sabah Parks under the Parks Enactment 1984. The Sabah Wildlife Department also has conservation, utilization, and management responsibilities.

National Parks

Sandakan City

  • Mount Kinabalu Park - the highest mountain in Southeast Asia with an altitude of 4,101 metres (13,455 ft). It is lower than Puncak Jaya in Irian Jaya on the island of New Guinea, Indonesia at 4,884 metres which is located outside of the South East Asia Region.
  • Turtle Islands Park - conservation efforts for endangered sea turtles
  • Tunku Abdul Rahman Park - A national park consisting of five islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu
  • Sipadan Park - Located near Semporna, the oceanic island of Sipadan has a very rich underwater ecosystem.
  • Pulau Tiga Park
  • Crocker Range Park
  • Tawau Hills Park

Arts and entertainment

Reality TV

Sabahan contestants attained many finalist spots and even won major reality TV show contests. This phenomenon is probably due to many hidden Sabahan talents finally uncovered through Reality TV.

  • One in a Million: Ayu (OIAM2 winner), Esther (1st runner-up OIAM3)
  • Akademi Fantasia finalist: Norlinda Nanuwil & Adam - AF2, Felix Agus & Marsha Milan Londoh - AF3, Velvet & Lotter - AF4, Candy & Ebi - AF5, Stacy the AF6/1st Sabahan champion, Adira - AF8
  • Gang Starz: E-Voke (season 1 semi-finalist), One Nation Emcees (season 2 winner)
  • Blast-Off: Jiaja (season 2 winner)
  • Mentor: Pija (winner season 1), Fiq (winner season 2), Chaq (finalist season 3)
  • Raja Lawak: Kechik (winner season 4), Alex (3rd place season 4)
  • Reality TV stars (non-finalist): Nikki Palikat (Malaysian Idol), Mas (AF2), Yazer (AF3), Nora (AF4), Farha & Noni (AF5), Rubisa & Zizi (AF7), AB & Mark Malim & Shone (OIAM2), Ema & Anum & Ain (AF8)
  • Love Me Do: Kelvin Teo (season 1 winner)

Movies & TV

The earliest known footage of Sabah comes from two movies by Martin and Osa Johnson titled 'Jungle Depths of Borneo' and 'Borneo'.

Sabah's first homegrown film was Orang Kita, starring Abu Bakar Ellah.

Some films and TV shows filmed in Sabah include the reality show Survivor: Borneo, The Amazing Race, Eco-Challenge Borneo, films Bat*21, as well as a number of Hong Kong production films such as Born Rich. Sabah was also featured in Sacred Planet, a documentary hosted by Robert Redford.


There are many types of traditional dances in Sabah, most notably:

  • Daling-daling: Danced by Bajaus and Suluks . In its original form, it was a dance which combined Arabic belly dancing and the Indian dances common in this region, complete with long artificial finger nails and golden head gear accompanied by a Bajau and Suluk song called daling-daling which is a love story. Its main characteristic is the large hip and breast swings but nowadays it is danced with a faster tempo but less swings, called Igal-igal by the Bajau from Semporna District.
  • Sumazau: Kadazandusun traditional dance which performed during weddings and Kaamatan festival. The dance form is akin to a couple of birds flying together.
  • Magunatip: Famously known as the Bamboo dance, requires highly skilled dancers to perform. Native dance of the Muruts, but can also be found in different forms and names in South East Asia.


Matlan Marjan is a former football player for Malaysia. He scored two goals against England in an international friendly on June 12, 1991. The English team included Stuart Pearce, David Batty, David Platt, Nigel Clough, Gary Lineker, was captained by Bryan Robson and coached by Bobby Robson.[34] No other Malaysian player managed to achieve this.[citation needed] In 1995, he along with six other Sabah players, were arrested on suspicion of match-fixing. Although the charges were dropped, he was prevented from playing professional football and was banished to another district.[35][36] He was punished under the Internal Security Act (which allows for indefinite detention without any trial, despite being proven innocent, and even on non-security related issues).

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—  State  —


Coat of arms
Motto: Sabah Maju Jaya
Anthem: Sabah Tanah Airku
      Sabah in       Malaysia
Coordinates: 5°15′N 117°0′E
Capital Kota Kinabalu
 - Ruling party Barisan Nasional
 - Governor Ahmadshah Abdullah
 - Chief Minister (Ketua Menteri) Musa Aman
 - Total 76,115 km2 (29,388.2 sq mi)
Population (2009 est.)
 - Total 3,202,880
 - Density 42.1/km2 (109/sq mi)
Demonym Sabahan
Human Development Index
 - HDI (2003) 0.735 (medium)
Postal code 88xxx to 91xxx
Calling code 087 (Inner District)
088 (Kota Kinabalu & Kudat)
089 (Lahad Datu, Sandakan & Tawau)
Vehicle registration SA,SAA,SAB (Kota Kinabalu & Kota Belud)
SB (Beaufort)
SD (Lahad Datu)
SK (Kudat)
SS (Sandakan)
ST (Tawau)
SU (Keningau)
Former name North Borneo
Brunei Sultanate 16th century
Sulu Sultanate 1658
British North Borneo 1882
Japanese occupation 1941-194


Mount Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Malaysia.

The western part of Sabah is generally mountainous, containing the three highest mountains in Malaysia. The most prominent range is the Crocker Range which houses several mountains of varying height from about 1,000 metres to 4,000 metres. At the height of 4,095 metres, Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia . The jungles of Sabah are classified as rainforests and host a diverse array of plant and animal species. Kinabalu National Park was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2000 because of its richness in plant diversity combined with its unique geological, topographical, and climatic conditions.[16]

Lying nearby Mount Kinabalu is Mount Tambuyukon. At a height of 2,579 metres, it is the third highest peak in the country. Adjacent to the Crocker Range is the Trus Madi Range which houses the second highest peak in the country, Mount Trus Madi, at a height of 2,642 metres. There are lower ranges of hills extending towards the western coasts, southern plains, and the interior or central part of Sabah. These mountains and hills are traversed by an extensive network of river valleys and are in most cases covered with dense rainforest.

The central and eastern portion of Sabah are generally lower mountain ranges and plains with occasional hills. Kinabatangan River begins from the western ranges and snakes its way through the central region towards the east coast out into the Sulu Sea. It is the second longest river in Malaysia after Rejang River at a length of 560 kilometres. The forests surrounding the river valley also contains an array of wildlife habitats, and is the largest forest-covered floodplain in Malaysia.[17]
The northern tip of Borneo at Tanjung Simpang Mengayau

Other important wildlife regions in Sabah include Maliau Basin, Danum Valley, Tabin, Imbak Canyon and Sepilok. These places are either designated as national parks, wildlife reserves, virgin jungle reserves, or protection forest reserve.

Over three quarters of the human population inhabit the coastal plains. Major towns and urban centers have sprouted along the coasts of Sabah. The interior region remains sparsely populated with only villages, and the occasional small towns or townships.

Beyond the coasts of Sabah lie a number of islands and coral reefs, including the largest island in Malaysia, Pulau Banggi. Other large islands include, Pulau Jambongan, Pulau Balambangan, Pulau Timbun Mata, Pulau Bumbun, and Pulau Sebatik. Other popular islands mainly for tourism are, Pulau Sipadan, Pulau Selingan, Pulau Gaya, Pulau Tiga, and Pulau Layang-Layang.


State government structure

Administrative divisions and districts of Sabah

Sabah is a representative democracy with universal suffrage for all citizens above 21 years of age. However, legislation regarding state elections are within the powers of the federal government and not the state. The Yang di-Pertua Negeri sits at the top of the hierarchy followed by the state legislative assembly and the state cabinet. The Yang di-Pertuan Negeri is officially the head of state however its functions are largely ceremonial. The chief minister is the head of government and is also the leader of the state cabinet. The legislature is based on the Westminster system and therefore the chief minister is appointed based on his or her ability to command the majority of the state assembly. A general election representatives in the state assembly must be held every five years. This is the only elected government body in the state, with local authorities being fully appointed by the state government owing to the suspension of local elections by the federal government. The assembly meets at the state capital, Kota Kinabalu. Members of the state assembly are elected from 60 constituencies which are delineated by the Election Commission of Malaysia and may not necessarily result in constituencies of same voter population sizes. Sabah is also represented in the federal parliament by 25 members elected from the same number of constituencies.

The present elected state and federal government posts are held by Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of parties which includes United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP), United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation (UPKO), Parti Bersatu Rakyat Sabah (PBRS), Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS), Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA).[citation needed]

The last state election was in 2004 and as of 2006, the state legislature has 60 members. It comprises 59 BN state legislature members (Ahli Dewan Undangan Negeri) and a single independent. Of this, 32 are from UMNO, 13 from PBS, 5 from UPKO, 4 from the SAPP, 3 from LDP, and one each from MCA and PBRS.[18]

The political climate

Prior to the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the then North Borneo interim government submitted a 20-point agreement to the Malayan government as conditions before Sabah would join the Federation. Sabah entered Malaysia as an autonomous state with a Christian Kadazan-Dusun chief minister, but soon succumbed to Kuala Lumpur's vision of a one-party unitary Islamic state dominated by the indigenous Muslim Bajau and Brunei Malay people. This has created considerable friction and even occasional calls for secession. These tensions are further inflamed by Kuala Lumpur's colonial mentality towards Sabah, wherein 95% of the profits from Sabah's immense natural resources are taken by the federal government, leaving the state government with only 5%. Aside from nominally separate immigration controls, little evidence remains of Sabah's theoretical autonomy.[citation needed]

Until the Malaysian general election, 2008, Sabah, along with the states of Kelantan and Terengganu, are the only three states in Malaysia that had ever been ruled by opposition parties not part of the ruling BN coalition. Led by Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, PBS formed government after winning the 1985 elections and ruled Sabah until 1994. Due to certain internal troubles, BN took over the government in 1994 despite PBS winning the elections. PBS subsequently joined the BN coalition in 2002.[citation needed]

A unique feature of Sabah politics was a policy initiated by the BN in 1994 whereby the chief minister's post is rotated among the coalition parties every 2 years regardless of the party in power at the time, thus theoretically giving an equal amount of time for each major ethnic group to rule the state. This extremely weakens the executive branch of the state government, which was formerly much at odds with the federal government in Kuala Lumpur. It also serves to give a disproportionate power to the indigenous Muslim Bajau ethnic group, at the expense of the mainly Christian indigenous Kadazan-Dusun, the largest ethnic group. This practice has since stopped with power now held by majority in the state assembly by the UMNO party, which also holds a majority in the national parliament.[citation needed]

There has been a conspiracy theory that the chief minister post rotation system was implemented to allow UMNO to control the post permanently by abolishing the whole system once it was UMNO's turn to hold the post. It has never been proven but it is considered impossible for UMNO to get a hold of the post through any other method. The conspiracy theory was brought up once again when a division from UMNO proposed to implement the same rotation system in Penang, when it was under BN rule. It was one of the two states which were not controlled by UMNO but was under BN rule (the other state being Sarawak). The proposal was raised even though UMNO abolished the system in Sabah by declaring it a failure.[citation needed]

UMNO had a quick rise to power since its entry into Sabah in 1991 where before that both eastern Malaysian states were not penetrated by the party, whose president is the de facto leader of the ruling coalition BN and automatically the Prime Minister of Malaysia. This has given rise to dissent as the chief minister rotation system was halted just as UMNO was holding the post. Thus the 2004 general elections saw widespread disillusionment, coupled with an ineffectual opposition. The state assembly is now dominated by the ruling party BN with only one seat held by an opposition politician who is an independent candidate. This was caused by a general sentiment where a number of voters were reluctant to cast votes for BN whose victory was almost assured but did not trust the opposition parties, most of which were not vigorously active before the election. Therefore many cast votes for independent candidates.[citation needed]

Sabah politics, as are Malaysia's, is very much based upon party lines. An effort by PBS, a component party of BN, to hatch a co-operation with the one opposition candidate within the state assembly, who conversely was a former UMNO member competing independently because he was not nominated for the constituency by his party, in an unprecedented attempt at bipartisanship, was harshly criticized by UPKO, another component party of BN.

Chief Ministers of Sabah

Year                                Chief Minister

1963-1964                       Tun Fuad Stephens

1965-1967                       Datuk Peter Lo Sui Yin

1967-1975                       Tun Mustapha Datu Harun

1975-1976                       Tun Said Keruak

1976 (44 days)                 Tun Fuad Stephens

1976-1985                       Datuk Harris Mohd Salleh

1985-1994                       Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan

1994-1995                       Tun Sakaran Dandai

1995-1996                       Datuk Salleh Tun Said Keruak

1996-1998                       Datuk Yong Teck Lee

1998-1999                       Tan Sri Bernard Dompok (now

1999-2001                       Datuk Seri Osu Haji Sukam

2001-2003                       Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat

2003–present                   Datuk Seri Musa Aman

Administrative divisions

Sabah consists of five administrative divisions, which are in turn divided into 24 districts.

These administrative divisions are, for all purposes, just for reference. During the British rule until the transition period when Malaysia was formed, a Resident was appointed to govern each division and provided with a palace (Istana). This means that the British considered each of these divisions equivalent to a Malayan state. The post of the Resident was abolished in favour of district officers for each of the district.

Local Government

As in the rest of Malaysia, local government comes under the purview of state governments[citation needed]. However, ever since the suspension of local government elections in the midst of the Malaysian Emergency, which was much less intense in Sabah than it was in the rest of the country, there have been no local elections. Local authorities have their officials appointed by the executive council of the state government.

Urban centers and ports

There are currently 7 ports in Sabah: Kota Kinabalu Port, Sepanggar Bay Container Port, Sandakan Port, Tawau Port, Kudat Port, Kunak Port, and Lahad Datu Port. These ports are operated and maintained by Sabah Ports Authority.[28] The major towns and city are:

Rank City Population[29]
1 Kota Kinabalu 532,129
2 Sandakan 448,074
3 Tawau 349,962
4 Lahad Datu 119,938
5 Keningau 97,152
6 Semporna 71,157
7 Kudat 34,481

Notable Sabahans

Politics and governance

Mat Salleh was a Bajau leader who led a rebellion against British North Borneo Company administration in North Borneo. Under his leadership, the rebellion which lasted from 1894 to 1900 razed the British Administration Centre on Pulau Gaya and exercised control over Menggatal, Inanam, Ranau and Tambunan. The rebellion was by Bajaus, Dusuns and Muruts.[5]

Antanum or Antanom (full name Ontoros Antonom) (1885–1915) was a famous and influential Murut warrior who led the chiefs and villagers from Keningau, Tenom, Pensiangan and Rundum to start the Rundum uprising against the British North Borneo Company but was killed during fighting with the company army in Sungai Selangit near Pensiangan.

Another notable Sabahan is Donald Stephens who helped form the state of Sabah under the UN appointed Cobbold commission. He was an initial opponent of Malaysia but was persuaded by Lee Kuan Yew with an offer of 8 university places for Sabahan students at the University of Malaya, Singapore[citation needed].

Donald Stephens was the first Huguan Siou or paramount leader of the Kadazan-dusun and Murut people.

Tun Datu Mustapha was a Bajau-Kagayan-Suluk Muslim political leader in Sabah through the United Sabah National Organisation (USNO) party.[9] He was a vocal supporter of Malaysia but fell out of favor with Malayan leaders despite forming UMNO branches in Saba and deregistering USNO. Efforts to reregister USNO have not been allowed, unlike UMNO that was allowed to be reregistered under the same name.[33][citation needed]

Former Chief Minister Joseph Pairin Kitingan is the current Huguan Siou and the President of Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS). Pairin, the longest serving chief minister of the state and one of the first Kadazandusun lawyers, was known for his defiance of the federal government in the 1980s and 90s in promoting the rights of Sabah and speaking out against the illegal immigration problems. Sabah was at the time one of only two states with opposition governments in power, the other being Kelantan. PBS has since rejoined BN and Datuk Pairin is currently the Deputy Chief Minister of Sabah.

The 8th and current Attorney General of Malaysia, Abdul Gani Patail, comes from Sabah.

In 2006, Penampang-born Richard Malanjum was appointed Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak and became the first Kadazandusun to hold such a post.

Datuk Hj. Railey bin Hj. Jeffery was the first and well-known Cocos political leader. He was the Deputy Information Minister and the JKR Deputy Minister in the 1990s.

Hons. Penny Wong was the well known Sabah born appointed as Australian Minister for Climate Change, Energy Efficiency and Water. She's born in Kota Kinabalu (1968) before moving to Australia in age 5.


Sabah has produced a fair number of well-known media figures. With the advent of Satellite TV in Malaysia, Sabah produced more breakthrough artist compared to 4 decades before.

  • Actors: Marsha Milan Londoh, Farid Amirul Hisham('Gerak Khas' as Lim), Fung Bo Bo, Chung Shuk Wai, Tony Francis Gitom (filmmaker)
  • Broadcasting: Daphne Iking, Kamaruddin Mape, Farish Aziz
  • Radio Disc Jockey: Maryanne Raymond(Mary), Constantine Anthony(Constantine), Shahrizan Ferouz(The Shaz), Fadhil bin Luqman(Fad Da Dillio); all from TraXX FM. DJ Johnboy Lee of, DJ Othoe of Suria FM
  • Modelling: Guess model Amber Chia
  • Musicians & Composers: Guitarist Roger Wang, Composer Julfekar and Asmin Mudin
  • Singers: Nazrey Johani of Raihan, Azharina Azhar, Peter Dicky Lee, Pete Teo, Jerome Kugan, Mia Palencia, Yan Qing, Gary Cao
  • Band & Groups: JIAJA , E-Voke, One Nation Emcees, B.A.D. Boys, Lotter & Divine Masters, Richael Gimbang with Estranged
  • Highly Acclaimed International Furniture Designer: TL Bong
  • Internet Star/Internet Celebrity: Abangben & Moonboy (Melbourne Shuffle)
  • International Artists: Chenelle


Sabah's first established newspaper was the New Sabah Times. The newspaper was founded by Tun Fuad Stephens, who later became the first Chief Minister of Sabah.

American author Agnes Newton Keith lived in Sandakan between 1934–1952 and wrote several books about Sabah. Sabah was also the main location for the filming of the 1937 American documentary based on the adventures of Martin and Osa Johnson titled Borneo.

In the Earl Mac Rauch novelization of Buckaroo Banzai (Pocket Books, 1984; repr. 2001), and in the DVD commentary, Buckaroo's archenemy Hanoi Xan is said to have his secret base in Sabah, in a "relic city of caves."

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