Sabah in General

Sabah In History

  • Brunei Sultanate 16th century
  • Sulu Sultanate 1658
  • British North Borneo 1882
  • Japanese occupation 1941-1945
  • British Crown Colony 1946
  • Accession into Malaysia 1963

Sabah, was part of the Sultanate of Brunei around the early 16th century. This was during the period when the Sultanate’s influence was at its peak. In 1658, the Sultanate of Brunei fought with the island of Singhs and ceded the north-east 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.

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 became the 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.

Second World War and the road to independence
From 1941 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 of most towns including Sandakan, which was totally razed to the ground. Japanese have a brutal POW camp at Sandakan for the prisoner British and Australian servicemen. Allied bombardments caused the Japanese to relocate the POW camp to inland Ranau, 260 km away.This worse condition forced marches of January, March and June 1945. All the prisoners, who by then were thinned down to 2504 in numbers, 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 or shooting of the failed escapees killed their lot except for the six Australians who successfully escaped, were never caught and survived to tell the horrific story of the death march.

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 August 31, 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. The intention had been to form Malaysia on August 31 but due to objection from the Philippines and Indonesia, the formation had to be postponed to September 16. On September 16, 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


The people of Sabah are known as Sabahans. Sabah is the third most populous state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor; it also has one of the highest population growth rates in the country. Sabah’s indigenous tribes comprise 31 different groups, including the Kadazans, Muruts, Bajaus, Kedayans, Sulu, Bisaya, Rumanau, Minokok, and Rungus, speaking over 80 different dialects. The largest non-indigenous ethnic group being the Chinese and the largest indigenous group being the Kadazan-Dusun people. Two other larger ethnic groups in Sabah are Bajau and Murut, compared to other states in the country; Sabah has relatively very small population of Indians and South Asians. The population on year 2007 estimate is 3,387,880 person with density of 32.2 persquare and was the third most populous state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor. Sabah became one of the highest population growth rates in the country.

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

Ethnicities and religion in Sabah is different with others state in Malaysia. Sabah has one of the highest populations of Christians (Roman Catholic and Protestant) but this proportion is believed to have fallen due to Muslim immigration from Malaya and Indonesia. Religious breakdown (2000):

  • 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%.

Malay 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, having more similarity in pronunciation to Indonesian. 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 Sabahan-slangs for many words in Malay.


Sabah’s economy was traditionally heavily lumber dependent, based on export of tropical timber, but with increasing depletion of the natural forests and ecological efforts to save remaining natural rainforest areas, palm oil has emerged. 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.