About Sabah

Flag of Sabah

Sabah State Crest


Flora and Fauna

Prehistory of Sabah

History of Sabah

Some Significant Historic Dates

Kota Kinabalu

Important Information


Sabah (then North Borneo), the second largest state in Malaysia, is located on the northern part of Borneo Island, the world's third largest island. Sabah covers an area of 75,500 square kilometres with a coastline of 14,400 kilometres long washed by the South China Sea in the west, the Sulu Sea in the north east and Celebes Sea in the south east.

Sabah, known as the "Land Below The Wind" is rich not only in natural beauty and resources, but also in the historical and cultural heritage of its people.  Picture yourself in a country where the attractions are as varied as they are excitingly fresh and unspoilt, uncrowded beaches, isolated tropical islands, fascinating culture, colorful and beautiful marine life, spectacular countryside dominated by an awesome mountain (Mt Kinabalu, the highest in South East Asia), and where the genuine friendliness and hospitality of the people are part of their tradition.

Sabah's State Parks are a naturalist's paradise with their unique flora and fauna.  Sabah also has the world's largest orang utan sanctuary.  If you are feeling adventurous, go jungle trekking, visit a longhouse and be intrigued by the traditional lifestyle, explore caves, experience rafting, go mountaineering, or dive and discover exciting and lolorful marine life.

However you want it - Sabah can be simple or sophisticated.  She has retained her traditional charm and freshness, as well as keeping in step with the 20th century.  Sabah will surely impress you with her unique and unspoilt character - truly Borneo's paradise.

Flag of Sabah

Sabah Flag

Sabah State Crest

The two arms carrying the Sabah State Flag represents unity and harmony among its multiracial citizens towards progress and success. The state motto "Sabah Maju Jaya", means "Let Sabah Prosper".

The five different colors represent the five residencies of the Sabah State.


Sabah occupies the top portion of the island of Borneo (the third largest island in the world) and covers an area of 74,500 aq km (29,388 sq miles) with a coastline of about 1,440 km (about 900 miles) washed by the South China Sea on the West and the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea on the East.

Sabah lies between 4o and 8o North of the equator, and its climate is tropical but pleasant, Sunny blue skies typify most days and it is summer all year round.  Though depending on the month locality, rain may cause a little inconvenience, with the annual rainfall varying from 60 to 120 inches.  As a general guide the wet season falls between November and February.  Fortunately, Sabah does not experience any natural disaster or calamities.  In fact it is under the typhoon belt (thus the name "Land Below The Wind") and is free from any climatic disturbances.

Temporatures seldom reach 90o F (33o C) and usually vary during the day from 74o F to 88o F (23o C to 31o C) and are cooler on the mountains.

Flora and Fauna

Sabah is a mountainous country. Its mountainous area is crisscrossed with rivers which run through the valley to fertile land. In this State is located the majestic and highest mountain in Borneo, Mount Kinabalu which is 4,101 metres high.

Sabah is a botanical paradise. The world's largest flower, Rafflesia whose huge red bloom can grow up to a metre in diameter, is found in Sabah. Many species of orchids, pitcher plants and rhododendrons are endemic to Sabah.

Panoramic view of Mt. Kinabalu

The lush greenery provides home for wildlife such as the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Orang-Utan, Elephant, Mousedeer, Monkey, Flying Squirrel, Barking deer and Birds.


Sabah is endowed with a heterogenous population where its people are as diverse in their cultural background as they are linguistically. Based on their languages, the indigenous population is made up of some 50 ethnic groups and not less than 80 sub-groups, namely, Ambai, Pingas, Alumbia, Rumanau, Baukan, Rungus, Bisaya, Selungai, Bonggi, Sembakung, Bundu, Serudung, Dumpas, Sinambu, Dusun, Sinandapak, Gana, Sinorupu, Garo, Sonsogon, Gonsomon, Sukang, Idahan, Sukpan, Kadazan, Sundayo, Kalabakan, Sungai, Kavananan, Tagahas, Kedayan, Tagalong, Kimaragang, Tagol, Kolobuan, Talantang, Kolod, Tangara, Okolor, Tatana, Lingkabau, Tidung, Liwan, Timugon, Lobu, Tinagas, Kwijau, Tindal, Lotud, Tobilung, Liba, Toliting, Lundayo, Tombonuo, Makiang, Tuhawan, Malapi, Tutong, Begahak, Bajau, Minokok, Balangingi/Balanguingui, Murut, Cocos, Naaboi, Iranuns, Nulu, Cagayan, Paitan, Suluk, Paluan and Bruneis.

The KadazanDusun - Contestants of the "Unduk Ngadau" (Beauty Queen contest), the highlight of the Harvest Festival which are celebrated in May each year.

The Rungus inhabit the northern part of Sabah, Kudat district. Their costumes are predominantly dark or black in colour and worn with beautiful ornaments, accessories and headdresses.

The Bajaus in traditional costumes. On the west coast of Sabah, they are farmers as well as fishermenm and are well known for their expert horsemanship.

They are traditional practising wet rice or hill rice cultivation with some hunting and riverine fishing. On the coastal area, they are traditional fishermen.

Some indigenous communities still practise the traditional way of life as farmers and fishermen, though many are now involved in various occupation such as white collar workers, that is, busnessmen, civil servants and successful politicians.

The Chinese forms the largest non-indigenous group in Sabah. They have settled in the state over the past century.

Headhunting was practised by the interior indigenous people of Sabah such as the Murut and the Kadazandusun. However, this activity was not practised rampantly as was among the Sawarakian tribes. It was held to confer benefits both on the individual taker of the head and on the community to which the taker belonged.

The taking of his first head denoted a youth's entry into manhood. It proved him to be a tried warrior and he was then entitled to receive his first tattoo marks. The possession of a head also enabled him to win the favour of the young woman of his choice and to press a suit which would have been less successful had he been unable to show any such material proof of his prowess. Besides that, the souls of those whose heads had been taken were believed to follow thier victors to the spirit world; and naturally the greater number of heads a man obtains the greater respect was he likely to win from his fellows both in this life and the next.

Under the British North Borneo Chartered Company, law was imposed by the British on the headhunting activities. This caused a decline in practising headhunting among the indigenous people of Sabah. Now, the headhunting in Sabah was regarded as a nostalgia of the past.

Prehistory of Sabah

Only about 15 million years ago did the island of Borneo really begin to push its way out of the sea, although some parts of what is now eastern Sabah may have appeared above the surface of the sea during the Cretaceous period (140 million to 65 million years ago). The large limestone massifs found mainly on the east coast of Sabah were formed during this period and may have emerged and submerged many times, most recently 2 million years when they re-emerged.

During the Pleistocene period about 2.5 million years ago, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Celebes and Peninsula Malaysia were all joined together, along with many smaller islands and they formed a continent known as Sundaland. At times when the sea level was low they were all connected to mainland Asia and it would have been possible to walk from here to Ireland without crossing sea. This ancient land bridge had the effect of enriching the flora and fauna of Borneo. The seas rose again separating Sundaland, leaving Borneo to evolve separately.

During the Miocene period, 10 to 15 million years ago, a large mass of molten rock intruded beneath the marine sediments that were eventually to form the Crocker Range of mountains. The rock cooled, hardened and formed granite. This granite pluton remained buried beneath the earth's surface until just over a million years ago, when it forced its way upwards at a geologically tremendous rate to form Mount Kinabalu.

The island of Borneo found its present coast line only about 10,000 years ago as the gigantic blocks of ice formed during the last ice age melted away and raised the sea level.

Sabah Map The prehistory of Sabah is most interesting, in fact unique in South East Asia. The oldest sites are found in Tingkayu area near Kunak, on the east coast of Sabah. These sites, around the shore of a prehistoric lake, formed by a lava flow blocking the Tingkayu river more than 30,000 years ago provide evidence of main activities 31,000 years ago. The stone tools produced at this, what is believed to be a factory (manufacturing) site are some of the finest found in South East Asia. Similar stone tools found in other areas of South East Asia date back 17,000 to 20,000 years ago, meaning to say, man in Sabah was 10,000 years more advanced than any other man so far discovered in South East Asia. If this was a factory site, and all evidence points to this fact, then specialization of work already existed 30,000 years ago; specialization also means trade. But these early Sabahans were not the forbears of modern day Sabahans, they were probably more akin to the present day Australian Aborigines. The forbears of modern Sabahans, that is, the Mongoloid Kadazan, Dusun, Murut, Orang Sungai etc. only arrived on these shores about 5,000 years ago.

Tingkayu lake drained away about 15,000 years ago further exposing the limestone massif at its centre. In the caves shelthers of this limestone massif, known as 'Baturong', evidence of man around the time of the lake's disappearance has been found. Man inhabited Baturong and the cave sites at Madai, a few miles away, from about 15,500 years ago until 6,500 years ago. But the skillfully made stone tools from Tingkayu 15,000 years earlier had disappeared. The technology was lost. We are still not sure if the inhabitants of Madai and Baturong were the descendents of the Tingkayu peoples. If they were, why were the skills lost? If not, what happened to those people? One possible answer is that they were defeated by a stronger more numerous rations. But why were the skills not passed on? Could they have been wiped out completely? We don't know.

From 6,000 years ago until 2,500 years ago we have found no evidence of man in the cave sites, but it was during this time that the first Mongoloid settlers arrived. Evidence of this is found in the stone tools and potteries discovered at Bukit Tengkorak near Semporna. Also the obsidian drill bits found here do not come from Sabah. The nearest source is a few South Sea Islands. This suggests long distance migration. About 2,500 years ago man moved back to Madai and Baturong. There is an abundance of potteries of the late neolithic material. The materials of Bukit Tengkorak however seem to predate the Madai late neolithic and could possibly date back to 4,000 to 5,000 years before present. As yet carbon dating is not completed. But this site being on the coast, could be one of the early Mongoloid settlements. Two teeth found at the site have proved to be the teeth of Mongoloid peoples.

From 2,000 to 1,000 years ago finds from the caves are characterised by rich incised potteries, copper and bronze artifacts and iron (Madai iron spears).

From 1,000 to 500 years ago finds are characterised by burial coffins and also burial jars. Burial jars during this period are found all across Sabah, not only in caves but also beneath the ground.

About 500 years ago people ceased permanent habitation in the caves although they continued to be and still are seasonally occupied for the collection of bird nests, which are used for the Chinese delicacy, Bird's Nest Soup. The first mention of nest collection is in 1761, from Madai, in the annals of the Sultanate of Sulu, although they were probably collected before this as the Chinese had been trading along the coasts of Borneo since about 700 A.D.

History of Sabah

28,000 years ago, a lava flow from the now extinct Mostyn volcano dammed the Tingkayu River, causing a lake to form. Fine stone-age tools were found on the old lake bed, now covered with oil palms, which is believed to be a stone-tool factory site. The tools, said to be among the finest of its kind in Southeast Asia, indicate the presence of settlers on the lake shores between 28,000 - 18,000 years ago

Based on archaeological findings, Sabah was inhabited by man at least 28,000 - 18,000 years ago at the Darvel Bay area in the east coast. These early communities lived in caves in the east coast of Sabah, namely the Tingkayu area, the Baturong cave, the Madai cave, the Tapadong cave and Gomantong cave.

The modern history of Sabah began with the barter trade relation; ceramic wares from China were exchanged for spices and other jungle produce with the local people. It was believed to have happened in the 10th century during the Sung Dynasty.

Then, during the Ming Dinasty (14th century), it was believed that one expedition led by Ong Sum Ping sailed out to North Borneo via the Sulu Sea. This expedition sailed upriver to what is now known as Kinabatangan and made a settlement there.

Magnificent archaeological artifacts from Tingkayu site.

A Vietnamese drum or known as "Dongson Drum" which had existed between 2,500 - 2,00 years ago, decorated pottery container and sherds which are found at the Bukit Timbang Dayang, Banggi
The existence of the Chinese settlement however remains a mystery as there has not yet been any archaeological evidence to identify the settlement on the Kinabatangan. Nevertheless, the name "Kinabatangan" was said to have connection with the existence of this early settlement.

It is known that as long ago as 700 A.D. trade and diplomatic links of some form existed between Borneo and China. In 1406 according to Chinese records the Rulers of Brunei sent an envoy to China with gifts for the Chinese Emperor. Also recorded in Chinese annals is the existance of a Chinese principality established somewhere along the Kinabatangan River. Exactly where has not yet been discovered. The Kinabatangan is a large river and would have been navigable by what were sea-going ships in those days for at least 50 to 60 miles. The settlement could have been on either bank. By now it will probably be covered with at least 10 to 20 feet of silt, if not more, as the river overflows its banks every year.

It is also known from the records that some time in the 15th Century a Chinese princess from the Kinabatangan married the first Sultan of Brunei, the term Sultan only being used after Brunei, converted to Islam and became the second Sultan.

But basically before the 16th century the area we now know as Sabah, Brunei and Sarawak centered around the kingdom of a Brunei, Brunei being the centre for trade with China. This region was in turn controlled by two great empires of that period; first the Sri Vijayan of Sumatra and then by Majapahit of Java. However in the early 15th century the Malacca empire spread its influence and took over the trade of Brunei. Through its traders Islam spread to Brunei and the leadership of the Islamic faith in South East Asia passed to the Brunei Sultans after the fall of Malacca to the Portuguese in 1511. Under Sultan Bolkiah, Brunei extended its influence over the greater part of Borneo and as far north as Luzon and Sulu but internal quarreling in the Brunei Sultanate in the 1600s was one of the factors that led to the decline of the empire.

Towards the end of the 14th century, it was believed that Islam was first introduced in Sabah. This is based on a Jawi manuscript in the Idahan language dated 1408 A.D., which gives an account of an Idahan man named Abdullah in Darvel Bay who embraced Islam.

In the early 16th century, Sabah came under the de'facto rule of Brunei Sultanate. A century later, Sabah was ruled by two de'facto powers; the Brunei sultanate in the west coast area and the Sulu Sultanate in the east coast area.

Relations of Sabah with Britian begun in 1763 when the British East India Company made a settlement on Balambangan Island and later on Labuan Island in 1846.

The American Trading Company later made a settlement in Kimanis in 1865. In 1881, Sabah was administered by the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC), a hierarchical system of administration.

Under the BNBCC, Sabah underwent numerous development. Overall the administration was smooth and peaceful, though there existed some opposition. Taxes introduced by the British on land, head and boat caused anger among the local people. This led to the emergence of local warriors who opposed the British. Among them were Mat Salleh, Mat Sator, Syerif Osman, Antenom, Si Gunting, Pak Musa and others.

Hj. Saman and his men attacking the British at membakut, 1846.

Datu Paduka Mat Salleh was a prominent warrior in a series of uprising against the British, 1894 - 1900.
In the 1880s and 1900s, the opening up of commercial estates was accelerated and assisted in uplifting the socioeconomy of Sabah i.e. railway services.

On 1st January 1942, the Japanese army landed on Labuan Island. The mission to capture Sabah was rapid. On 16th May 1946, Sabah was completely under the Japanese rule. Sabah was divided into two divisions, the West Coast including the interior and Kudat was named "Sheikai Shiu" and the East Coast was called "Tokai Shiu".

The Japanese occupation was resisted by guerilla groups i.e. the Kinabalu Guerrillas led by Albert Kwok at West Coast and another led by Datu Mustapha at the northern part of Sabah. However, the Kinabalu Guerrillas movement ended with the mass killing of Kwok and its members in Petagas on 21st January 1944.

The liberation of Sabah began on 9th June 1945 when the 9th Australia Imperial Force Division attacked the Japanese location on Labuan Island.

The war in Sabah ended with the official surrendering by Lieutenant General Masao Baba on Labuan Island on 10th September 1945, Colonel Elimus in Papar on 15th September 1945 and Major Akashi in Beaufort on 17th September 1945. This was the result of the combined bombing of the Allied Forces (Australia, British, United States and New Zealand) which in the process also devastated Sandakan, Jesselton and Labuan.

After the Second World War, Sabah was administered by the British Military Administration until 15th July 1946 when civil rule was resumed.

Sabah was made a British Crown Colony as the British North Borneo Chartered Company was not able to redevelop the devastated Sabah as the result of the Second World War. The British Government reorganised and redeveloped the administration system which was planned/implemented by the British North Borneo Chartered Company. Jesselton was made the new state capital as Sandakan was almost totally ruined by the War.

The wind of change began to be felt in many countries in Southeast Asia after the war. The spirit of nationalism and the wish to be independent became more conspicuous.

The announcement by Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj on 27th May 1961 on the possibility of creating a Malaysia Federation which comprised Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Singapore had greatly boosted the spirit and hope of the North Borneo people to attain independence.

Various negotiations were held and oppositions were faced in the process of Sabah being granted independence. Finally, the Malaysia Federation was formed on 16th September 1963 without Brunei and North Borneo was renamed Sabah. Spectacular and memorable events were held at Jesselton Town Padang to mark this day. Before that day, North Borneo was granted self rule by the British on 31st August 1963.

Through the Federation, Sabah had undergone rapid development in various aspects.

Donald Stephens, Chief Minister of Sabah, reading the proclaimation of Independe of Sabah through Federation of Malaysia on 16th September 1963 at Padang Merdeka, Kota Kinabalu. With him are Tun Mustapha bin Datu Harun, the Head of State of Sabah and Tun Abdul Razak, Deputy Prime Minister of Malaya, representing the Federal Bovernment of Malaysia.

Some Significant Historic Dates

1665 The first Englishman, Captain Cowley, visited Borneo.
1877 Baron Von Overbeck and Alfred Dent signed four leases with the Sultan of Brunei. Some 28,000 square miles of territory and some 900 miles of North Borneon coastline were leased out to them. Another treaty with the Sultan of Sulu was also concluded ceding large portions of territory to Overbeck and Dent.
1881 Kudat became the first official capital of North Borneo until 1883.
1882 The British North Borneo Chartered Company was formed.
1884 Sandakan became the capital of British North Borneo.
1888 North Borneo became a British protectorate.
1942 Japanese forces landed in Labuan, Sabah on January 1st and occupied Sabah until she was liberated by the Australian Ninth Division in 1945.
1946 Sabah became a British Crown colony. Kota Kinabalu became the capital.
1963 Sabah gained independence from Britain on 31st August.
1963 Sabah joined Sarawak and Malaya to form Malaysia on 16th September.

Kota Kinabalu

Kota Kinabalu (then Jesselton) was the third capital of Sabah after Kudat and Sandakan. The town of Jesselton, named after the Vice Chairman of the Brtisih North Borneo Chartered Company, Sir Charles Jessel. On 30th September 1967, Jesselton was given its new name, Kota Kinabalu.

In Kota Kinabalu, there are three remaing pre-war structures - the Old Post Office Building, the Atkinson Clock Tower and the Old Welfare building. All three have been gazetted as historical buildings.

View of Kota Kinabalu, 1904

View of Kota Kinabalu, 1996

Important Information

Climate Equatorial/Tropical
Average Temperatures
Lowlands : 32o C
Highlands : 21o C
Relative Humidity 85 - 95%
Currency The unit of currency is the Malaysian Ringgit (RM).  Travellers cheques and foreign currencies can be changed for Malaysia Ringgit at banks and hotels.
Major Credit and Charge Cards VISA, American Express, Diners Club and Master Card.
Bank Hours
Monday to Friday : 10.00am - 3.00 pm
Saturday               : 9.30am - 11.30am
Local Time Standard Malaysian Time is 8 hours ahead of GTM
Electricity 240 volt AC / 50 - Cycle system
Language Bahasa Malaysia is the official and national Language.  However, English is widely spoken.

Source: Sabah Tourism Promotion Coporation & Sabah State Museum