Aug 312015


On this date in 1963 Sabah (North Borneo) became self governing as a prelude to becoming part of the Malaysian federation. Although only 12 years old at the time I remember it well. In fact I gave a morning talk on it in my class in Australia. The formation of Malaysia was big news in that part of the world – even though I, as a youngster, was not especially politically aware. I remember one of my teachers pointing to a map of the world, first to China and then to Australia, saying “here’s an overcrowded country (China), and here’s an empty country (Australia); we could easily be overrun – we need a buffer.” It seemed to make sense at the time. True, Oz had only 10 million people back then (and over 12 million sheep!), was rich in minerals, and prosperous. BUT . . . most of the vast land mass was, and is, inhospitable desert. Yet, we need to remember the fearful political climate of the depths of the Cold War, the era I came of age in, and the irrational scare stories that easily spread. Australia was feeling more and more abandoned by Britain, toying with entrance to the European Economic Community and fearing its exports might have no markets. Malaysia was a blessing


The history of Sabah can be traced back about 23–30,000 years when evidence suggests the earliest human settlement in the region began. This history is interwoven with the history of Brunei and the history of Malaysia. The earliest recorded history of Sabah dates to the early 15th century during the thriving era of the Sultanate of Brunei. Prior to this, early inhabitants of the land lived in predominantly tribal societies, and such tribal societies continued to exist well into the 20th century. The eastern part of Sabah was ceded to the Sultan of Sulu by the Sultan of Brunei in 1658 for helping in a victory over Brunei enemies, (although some historians dispute this). By the late 19th century, both territories previously owned by Sultan of Brunei and Sultan of Sulu had been granted to a British syndicate. Sabah became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1888 and subsequently became a crown colony until 1963, during which time it was known as North Borneo. On 16 September 1963, Sabah merged with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia.

During the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago, Sabah and the rest of Borneo island was connected to mainland Asia in a landmass known as the Sundaland. Subsequent deglaciation, which caused global sea levels to rise, resulted in parts of Sundaland being submerged, separating Borneo from the rest of Asia.


Earliest human settlement in the region is believed to date back about 20,000–30,000 years. These early humans are believed to be Australoid or Negrito people. Stone tools and artifacts have been found in Madai and Baturong caves and in the archaeological site in Lake Tingkayu near the district of Kunak which were estimated to date back roughly 28,000–17,000 years. There is evidence of human cave-dwellings around 15,000–6,000 years ago. An ongoing 2012 study by Universiti Sains Malaysia and Sabah Museum revealed stone tools in Mansuli Valley near Lahad Datu believed to be 235,000 years old and in another site in Kampung Lipasu, Bingkor believed to be at least 200,000 years old. These recent findings suggests that human settlement in Sabah and Malaysia existed much earlier than previously thought.

The earliest ascertained wave of human migration, believed to be Austronesian peoples, occurred around 3000 BCE. This wave of migration is believed to represent the time when the indigenous hill people of present-day Sabah first arrived, namely the Murut and the Kadazan-Dusun, while Brunei Malays appeared somewhat later. It is believed that some Australoid people mixed with later Asian immigrants and remained in Borneo, while other indigenous people migrated to Melanesia, the Lesser Sunda Islands and Australia.

The theory that Austronesians in Southeast Asia arrived from China through Taiwan has been challenged by Stephen Oppenheimer who suggested that many cultures including the people of China and India might have actually originated from Sundaland. A new finding based on DNA research in 2008 supported Oppenheimer’s theory that migration flow might have been radiated out from Sundaland some time around 15,000 to 7,000 years ago following the submergence of Sundaland due to rise in sea level.

Prior to the expansion of the Sultanate of Brunei, most of the coastal region of Borneo has been either ruled or claimed as part of various Hindu communities or kingdoms from around Southeast Asia. However it is uncertain whether the influence of these kingdoms had ever reached the coasts of present-day Sabah.

During the 7th century CE, a settled community known as Vijayapura, a tributary to the Srivijaya empire, was thought to have been the earliest beneficiary to the Bruneian Empire existing around the northeast coast of Borneo. Another kingdom which was suspected to have existed according to Chinese records beginning in the 9th century was P’o-ni. It was believed that P’o-ni existed at the mouth of Brunei River and was the predecessor to the Sultanate of Brunei.


The Brunei Annals in 1410 mentioned about a Chinese settlement or province centering on the Kinabatangan Valley in the east coast surrounding Kinabatangan River founded by a Huang Senping. This is consistent with the recent discovery of timber coffins in the Agop Batu Tulug cave in the Kinabatangan Valley. The coffins, adorned with carvings believed to resemble cultural practices in China and Vietnam, are believed to date back to around 700 to 1,000 years ago.

From the 14th to the 16th century, the Majapahit empire expanded its influence to Brunei and most of the coastal region of Borneo. Some time around the late 15th to 18th century, the seafaring Bajau-Suluk people arrived from the Sulu archipelago and settled on the coasts of Sabah. It is believed that they were fleeing from the oppression of the Spanish colonists in that region.

The Sultanate of Brunei began after the ruler of Brunei embraced Islam. Some sources indicate that this had occurred around 1365 after the ruler, Awang Alak Betatar, converted to Islam and became known as Muhammad Shah. Other sources suggests that the conversion occurred much later around 1514 to 1521. In this period, trade relations flourished, and intermarriages between the indigenous peoples and Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and Hindu peoples became commonplace. The intermixing resulted in the distinctive Palaweños.


During the reign of the fifth sultan, Bolkiah between 1485–1524, the Sultanate’s rule extended over Sabah, the Sulu Archipelago and Manila in the north, and Sarawak to Banjarmasin in the south. This was the so-called ‘golden era’ of the sultante. In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei ceded the northern and eastern portion of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu in compensation for the latter’s help in settling the Brunei Civil War in the Brunei Sultanate, although the Sultan of Brunei continued to loosely govern the west coast of Sabah. Many Brunei Malays migrated to this region during this period, although the migration had begun as early as the 15th century after the Brunei conquest of the territory. While the Brunei and Sulu sultanates controlled the western and eastern coasts of Sabah respectively, the interior region remained largely independent from either kingdoms.

In 1761, Alexander Dalrymple, an officer of the British East India Company, signed an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to allow him to set up a trading post in the region. This plan, together with other attempts to build a settlement and a military station centering on Pulau Balambangan, proved to be a failure. A map by Dalrymple of North Borneo is exhibited in the National Museum of Scotland. There was minimal foreign interest in this region afterward and control over most parts of north Borneo seems to have remained loosely under the Sultanate of Brunei.


In 1846, the island of Labuan on the west coast of Sabah was ceded to Britain by the Sultan of Brunei and in 1848 it became a British Crown Colony. Labuan became a base for British operations against piracy in the region.

In 1865 the U.S. Consul General of Brunei, Charles Lee Moses, obtained a 10-year lease over North Borneo from the Sultan of Brunei, Abdul Momin. Ownership was then passed to a U.S. trading company owned by Joseph William Torrey, Thomas Bradley Harris, and some Chinese merchants. They set up a base and settlement in Kimanis and the Sultan of Brunei appointed Torrey as “The Rajah of Ambong and Marudu”. His fortress “Ellena” was located in Kimanis with hundreds of Iban trackers led by Lingkanad. Torrey returned to the U.S. in 1877 and died near Boston, Massachusetts, in March 1884. The rights of the trading company were then sold to Gustav Baron Von Overbeck, the Austro-Hungarian Consul in Hong Kong (though he was actually a German national), and he later obtained another 10-year renewal of the lease. The lease was subsequently converted into a cession via a treaty which was signed by the Sultan of Brunei Abdul Momin. In the treaty, the Sultan appointed Overbeck as “Maharajah of Sabah and Rajah of Gaya and Sandakan.” The treaty granted Overbeck the right over the whole region of Sabah, including parts purporting to be the dominion of the Sulu Sultanate including Sandakan and Tawau. The treaty was signed on 29 December 1877 at the Brunei Palace.


On the east coast of North Borneo near Sandakan, William Cowie, on behalf of Dent’s company, negotiated and obtained a lease in perpetuity from the Sultan of Sulu over its holdings in this region in 1878. This lease was signed on 22 January 1878 in the palace of the Sultan of Sulu. The lease would later be the subject of dispute by the modern republic of Philippines regarding the sovereignty of the state of Sabah. The rights were subsequently transferred to Alfred Dent, who in 1881 formed the British North Borneo Provisional Association Ltd. In 1881, the British government granted the British North Borneo Company a royal charter. William Hood Treacher was appointed the first British Governor of North Borneo.

In the following year, the British North Borneo Company was formed and Kudat was made its capital. Beginning 1882, the Company brought in Chinese people mainly Hakkas from Guangdong province to work as laborers in plantation farms. Most of the migrants settled in Kudat and Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).


In 1883 the capital was moved to Sandakan to capitalize on its potential of vast timber resources. In 1885, the United Kingdom, Spain and Germany signed the Madrid Protocol of 1885. The purpose of the protocol was to recognize the sovereignty of Spain in the Sulu Archipelago and also for Spain to relinquish all claims it might have had over North Borneo.

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-Suluk leader Mat Salleh from 1894 to 1900, and another led by Antanum of the Muruts known as the Rundum resistance in 1915. Many Suluk people had moved to North Borneo during this period due to the Spanish invasion of the Sulu Sultanate. Beginning in 1920, more Chinese immigrants arrived from the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian and even Hebei after the British changed its immigration policy to stimulate the stagnant economy during that period. There was also Javanese migration into Sabah beginning in 1891 and subsequent recruitment of laborers by the British from 1907 onwards. Other significant immigrants from present-day Indonesia into Sabah include the Bugis people beginning in the 1890s and the Florenese people from Flores beginning in the early 1950s.

The First Natives Paramount Leader was Pehin Orang Kaya-Kaya Koroh bin Santulan of Keningau “The father of former Sabah State Minister Tan Sri Stephen (Suffian) Koroh, and Sabah’s fifth State Governor Tun Thomas (Ahmad) Koroh (the elder brother of Suffian)”. Santulan which also a Pengeran, the father to Pehin Orang Kaya-Kaya Koroh was a Murut descendant of Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin, the 25th Sultan of Brunei.

United States Japan Apology

As part of the Second World War Japanese forces landed in Labuan on 1 January 1942, and continued to invade the rest of North Borneo. From 1942 to 1945, Japanese forces occupied North Borneo, along with most of the island. Bombings by the allied forces devastated most towns including Sandakan, which was razed to the ground. Resistance against Japanese occupation was concentrated in the west and north coasts 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 10 October 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 21 January 1944. 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 under notoriously inhumane conditions, with worse was to come through the forced marches of January, March and June 1945. 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 2,504 in number, were to be moved, but instead of transport, were forced to march the infamous Sandakan Death March. 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.

The war ended with the official surrender by Lieutenant-General Baba Masao of the 37th Japanese Army in Labuan on 10 September 1945. After the surrender, North Borneo was administered by the British Military Administration and in 1946 it became a British Crown Colony. Jesselton replaced Sandakan as the capital and the Crown continued to rule North Borneo until 1963.

On 31 August 1963, North Borneo attained self-government. The idea for the formation of a union of the former British colonies, namely, Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo was mooted as early as the late 19th century, but it was Tunku Abdul Rahman who officially announced the proposal of wider federation in May 1961. In general this idea was supported by the British. There was a call for complete independence at this time but it was denied by the British Governor. In 1962, the Cobbold Commission was set up to determine whether the people of Sabah and Sarawak favored the proposed union. The Commission had found that the union was generally favored by the people but they wanted certain terms and conditions incorporated to safeguard the interests of the various peoples. The Commission had also noted some opposition but decided that such opposition was minor. The Commission published its report on 1 August 1962 and made several recommendations. Unlike in Singapore, however, no referendum was ever conducted in Sabah.

Most ethnic community leaders of Sabah, namely, Tun Mustapha representing the Muslims, Tun Fuad Stephens representing the non-Muslim natives, and Khoo Siak Chew representing the Chinese, would eventually support the formation. An agreement was signed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, Harold MacMillan, the British Prime Minister, and William Goode, the last Governor of North Borneo, signed on behalf of the territory on 1 August 1962 putting on paper the agreement to form the union. It went into effect on 31 August 1963. The intention had been to form Malaysia on that date, but due to objections from the Philippines and Indonesia, the formation had to be postponed to 16 September 1963. At that point North Borneo, as Sabah, was united with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore, to form the independent the Federation of Malaysia.To safeguard the interests of North Borneo in the new federation, a 20-point agreement was entered into between the federal and the state government.


Sabah cuisine is, as you might expect a mix of indigenous, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese (and other) foods. I have chosen a raw fish salad, Hinava, akin to ceviche, as the dish of the day because it has its roots in the long history of Sabah and is very popular. Mackerel is the preferred fish but you can use tuna or any firm fish.




600g raw tuna or mackerel, cut into strips
120 ml lime juice (or vinegar)
3 to 4 small red shallots, sliced or chopped finely
2 inches young ginger, finely julienned
2 large chiles, cut into fine strips
5 bird’s eye chiles, cut finely (both green & red)
1 small bitter gourd, cut into strips and doused in salt for a few minutes
salt and sugar to taste


After a generous coating with salt to reduce the bitterness of the gourd, rinse it well in cold water.

Marinate the fish in the lime juice for 10 minutes.

Mix all the ingredients in a non-reactive bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve.

  6 Responses to “Sabah”

  1. “Their rule had been generally peaceful except for some rebellions, including one led by the Bajau-Suluk leader Mat Salleh from 1894 to 1900”

    Thank you for a great history material about Sabah … I like history especially about Sabah and the history about Mat Salleh in particular. Do you have more story about him?

    My father said, the history about Mat Salleh is a bit different. British regarded him as a rebel but to us he is a fighter. My father knows a lot about him because he is the 3rd generations of Mat Salleh. He told us that Mat Salleh’s real name is different from what we know. ‘Mat Salleh’ was the nickname given by British. During that time, The British named and called him “Mad Salleh” instead of his real name because of his rebelliousness.

    Mat Salleh did not died but rather gone in hiding. The man got hit was his faithfull righthand man.

    • Thanks for your comment. Over the past 2 years I have tried to learn about, and inform people about, people, places, and things all over the world. So I range across a lot of subjects I do not know much about — but am willing to learn. A lot of the time I wish I knew more, but posts take me a lot of time daily, and I do have a real job too — hahaha!! Wikipedia has a good page on Mat Salleh — (with good references). Always you will get a different story depending on who is telling it. Obviously the British colonists were a burden to local people because of heavy taxation, and armed resistance was one result. Independence was the ultimate answer.

      • Gd evening from Sabah dear sir. i wish i know more about the world histories or can write history like you do but i dont know much about the world history… juz afew i learned from school and i think its a bit too late for me to start anyway…

        • It is NEVER too late to learn. I am 64 and I am learning every day. The more you learn, the smarter you become 🙂

  2. Hey… I’m interested in the history of a man named lingkan @lingkanad… he’s either dutch or British I’m not sure.. but if u know anything about him.. Could u tell more.. and furthermore he’s a friend of the Brunei’s sultan and he is one of the people who tried to destroy the tax system if im not wrong… it’s one of sabah history.. he’s sort of like my great grandpapa. So it would really help.. to know him better… thank you…

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.