Thoughts on Sabah, Brunei and Kuala Lumpur

Calling this jumble thoughts on Malaysia would be slightly preposterous, so here we opted to assemble some observations on the places we have visited on Borneo and Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia is a hodgepodge of cultures, mostly influenced by Chinese and Indians

Apart from rural Sabah our impressions of Malaysia are limited to “KK” (Kota Kinabalu) and “KL” (Kuala Lumpur). However, we soon realized what a melting pot of cultures this country is. Especially the influnce of Chinese and Indians seems to be huge, something that definitely adds to the quality of food here, including some amazing fusion kitchens. It was also interesting for us to hear people talk to each other and switch back and forth between different languages in the middle of a sentence.

Given its diversity, there seem to be lots of discussions about the Malay identity. One reason for this is immigration. Approximately 30% of current Malaysians are first- or second-generation immigrants, and 20 percent of Malaysian residents in the 2000s were not born in here.

Another reason for discussions about identity in Malaysia is religion. In Christian dominated areas of Sabah we heard people complain about a centrally steered initiative for a more homogeneous, i.e. Islamic, Malaysia. Some Christians further told us about attempts of Muslims to actively convert them to Islam. We also heard complaints about highly controlled TV channels which only promote centralized Malaysian topics and neglect minorities.

Typical sight outside a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur

Borneo is a very fertile place that is rapidly becoming less and less exotic (think oil palm!)

The word “Borneo” probably invokes exotic images of rain forest and Orangutans for many people. Whilst both are obviously important elements of Borneo, we also saw its other side. For instance Sabah has some of the best roads we have seen in South-East Asia so far as well as a highly industrialized agriculture industry. Whilst many farmers still grow traditional plants like Durian or cocoa, many areas of Sabah are now covered with endless fields of oil palm.

Oil palm is a highly controversial topic and would deserve a lot more attention than in this short subsection of this post. However, here is a short summary of what we learned: Large scale palm oil farms are actually not necessarily harmful for the environment according to Virgil, the COO agronomist of Orou Sapulot. The industrial plantations have agreed to create zones for animal migration and water run-off corridors between their plantations. According to Virgil this is a result of an EU policy that tries to ensure that palm oil is planted in a more sustainable way.

Small and medium farm holders are, however, in many cases a problem. They often do not comply with environmental standards and ignore repariant areas or plant on slopes that are too steep, speeding up soil erosion and landslides.

By the way, if you were wandering how all the oil palm affects Orangutans, well, eating the fruit seems to be good for their skin! 🙂

Oil palm plantation in Sabah – a very common sight

In Brunei the oil-rich royal family is pulling all the strings

At the peak of its Sultanate, Brunei used to control all of Borneo. Yet, it could not sustain its power and ended up losing most of the island. Brunei, however, chose not to join the Malay federation but rather stay independent. Only after this decision the Sultanate realised they had oil. Lucky strike, right? Yes, absolutely! Even though Brunei is not a bragging glamorous city where everything glitters in gold, it does generate a lot of wealth from oil.

Visitors also soon realize that the Royal family pulls all strings. The Sultan himself is a very public figure. Locals know when he is going out for a bike ride or when he joins a sports event. One of the biggest and best museums of Brunei is entirely dedicated to his coronation and the silver (25 year) celebration thereof. All this is slightly odd as well as highly amusing for us Europeans, coming from a democratic country…

By the way, he is the country’s prime minister, minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs and trade, and the supreme commander of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces. One more fun fact is his name, here you go: Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibn Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam. We met a local who fondly remembered having to learn the name by heart as a school kid…

A whole museum dedicated to the coronation of the Sultan


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