Wednesday, October 08, 2008

How did Sabah get its name

The following article (published last month courtesy of New Straits Times) is an interesting reading for those who ever wonder how and where did Sabah get its name from:

Getting to root of the name Sabah

By : Jaswinder Kaur

FROM "North Borneo" to "Sabah", just how did the state get its name?

The quest to discover the origins of Sabah's name took me deep into the Internet and volumes of journals and articles.

My first stop was the search engine Google which took me to websites on names for babies. Sabah, the websites explained, is a girl's name and means morning in Arabic. In Africa, it refers to the sunrise.

The only reference in the Internet to how Sabah got its name is detailed in a couple of blogs, with information pieced together from a variety of sources.

One blog entry claimed the name was widely used in the 15th century when Sabah was part of Brunei and that it referred to pisang saba, a type of banana which grew well along the coast.

Interestingly, Seludang cropped up as an old name for Sabah. According to a blog, it was used in reference to this region in a Javanese poem dating back to 1365.

Obviously, I couldn't get all the information I needed on the Web, so I went to the Sabah state library.

In volume seven of the 1981-1982 Sabah Society Journal, I found a nine-page article by Allen R. Maxwell titled The Origin of the Name Sabah.

Maxwell did not mention the banana theory but he dismissed the numerous theories and meanings ascribed to the name Sabah in published literature as "fanciful suggestions" because there was a lack of supporting evidence.

He said a study on the subject suggested that Sabah was derived from the Malay word sabak which is the place for or act of boiling to extract palm sugar. Again, he ruled out this theory due to lack of evidence.

Maxwell also says that in Bruneian Malay, saba means downstream but other studies say it means upstream. Sabah is located to the northwest, or upstream of Brunei.

"The other sense of meaning of the word saba, and the one which specifically gives rise to the name of the state of Sabah, is much less general, and refers specifically to the northern portion of the island of Borneo.

"The published literature abounds in examples of this usage, but different authors seem to place an almost endless variety of only slightly different interpretations on this sense of meaning," Maxwell adds.

"Various authors indicate that Sabah is a local name, a Malay name, an old Malay name, a native name, an old native name or an indigenous and Brunei people's name; a name referring to portions of the northwest coast of Borneo, northern Borneo, north of Brunei, or the territory of the British North Borneo Company."

A few days later, I found myself flicking through old books at a small corner of the Sabah Museum library.

I came across Volume Four of the Sabah Society Journal 1969-70 which had an article titled The Prehistory of Sabah by Tom and Barbara Harrisson.

According to the authors, most names in Borneo had their roots buried in prehistory, and were "beyond any hope of further disentanglement".

"Most Sabahans take their state's title for granted. They are wise to do so... Sabah is better considered as a word of obscure local origin," the Harrissons wrote.

Realising that I was not likely to get any more answers, my attention turned to why, after being called North Borneo for 82 years from the time of the British North Borneo Chartered Company in 1881 until independence in 1963, the state's name was changed to Sabah.

In the state's annual report for 1963, published the following year, it was stated that the legislative council had voted unanimously that the British colony should become independent on Aug 31 under the name of Sabah, but it did not give any reasons. From that date, North Borneo became known officially as Sabah.

Former Sabah state secretary Tan Sri Richard Lind, who was in the civil service during British rule, told me that the matter of changing North Borneo's name to Sabah was raised well before independence by the late Tun Mustapha Harun, who later went on to serve as head of state and chief minister.

"There was a lot of objections from Governor Roland Turnbull who said the whole world already knew North Borneo.

"It took over two years and there was a debate over it," Lind said.

He said the word Sabah was not commonly used during British rule but that the Native Courts called the region negeri Sabah.

"I served as a district officer once and I know that the native courts used the word Sabah. They never called it North Borneo," he said.

I also found a book published five years before the state's independence, called Sabah Men At Work, in the North Borneo Social Studies series which indicated that the name Sabah was known to the public.

A much earlier use of the name was in Joseph Hatton's book The New Ceylon, being a sketch of British North Borneo, or Sabah in 1881.

As Maxwell had pointed out, the study of the origin of place names can be fascinating, informative and rewarding.

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