The People






Sabah is a uniwue land, a meiting pot of many indigenous and immigrant groups.  The population of sightly over 2.5 million comprises over 30 different races and over 80 different dialects, each group having its own colorful culture, tradition, festival and customs.

The indigenous groups include the Kadazan/Dusun, Bajau, Murut, Rungus, Lotud, Brunei, Orang Sungei, Kadayan, Bisaya and many other subgroups.  The Chinese form the largest non-indigenous group.


Pretty Kadazan GirlKadazanDusun group is the largest indigenous group in Sabah. They are actually a collectivity of ethnic groups speaking similar languages and dialects as well as having similarities in culture and traditional beliefs. Within this group there exists at least 10 distinct languages with possibly 30 or more dialects.

The largest ethnic group in Sabah, the Kadazans/Dusuns make up about one third of the population, and are found mainly on the West Coast.  The Kadazans/Dusuns are prosperous agricultural people and are the main rice producers of Sabah, though now many have gone into different professions.  Their system of beliefs revolves around their rice-planting and harvesting with female priestesses called bobohizan presiding over the rituals.  The many sub-groups of the Kadazans/Dusuns include the Rungus, Lotud, Tambanuo, Kimarangan, Sanayou, Minokok and Tenggera.

 There are some people of this KadazanDusun group who prefer to call themselves Dusun, while others particularly in the Penampang/Papar areas prefer the term Kadazan. Many others however prefer to call themselves by tribal names such as Lotud, Rungus, Orang Sungai (River People), Kuijau, Tambanuo etc.

The KadazanDusun are mainly found on the west coast from Kudat to Sarawak border and in the interior areas of Ranau, Tambunan and Keningau. They are traditionally farmers occupying the fertile plains of the west coast and the interior. The majority of the KadazanDusun peoples are Christian while many also profess Islam with some still classed as pagans.


Bajau - The Cowboy of Sabah Bajau, the second largest indigenous group, is a collective term for a predominantly Muslim peoples and Kindered groups. Originally seafarers there are now two distinct groups, the East Coast Bajau and West Coast Bajau. The West Coast Bajau have now settled down around the Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud areas and have learnt the art of farming and cattle rearing.

Bajau woman They are the famous cowboys of Sabah. Their skills in horsemanship are well known locally and on festive occasions both horses and riders are dressed in colorful costumes. On the east coast however many of the Sea Bajaus still live in the traditional way. Fishing is the main activity. While many have settled on land or in water villages some are still nomadic boot dwellers.




Muruts are the third largest indigenous group in Sabah. The Muruts, literally meaning 'hillpeople', are found mainly in three areas of the Interior Division, Tenom, Keningau and Pensiangan. The Muruts are for the most part shifting cultivator, living in the more remote areas.

They live in communal longhouses, usually near rivers, using the rivers as their highways. They plant hill padi and topioca, hunt and fish for a living and were the last of Sabah's ethnic groups to renounce head hunting.

Murut people in front of their longhouse Murut
picture: Murut dancers on the lansaran
The men are skillful hunters with blowpipe and spear, and of course their hunting dogs. Mostly converted to Christianity or Islam the Muruts still practise a remarkable from of a bride wealth in which a man on marriage pays bride wealth throughout his life. They are an extremely hospitable people and as in the KadazanDusun group some still refer to themselves by old tribal names such as Timogun, Tagal, Nabas etc.


The Rungus are renownes in Sabah as highly skilled artisans who traditionally make colorful beaded necklaces made from local plant seeds and clay. Rungus beadwork come in all sizes and the most significant are the pinakol or shoulder bands which are long and broad with multi strands and worn diagonally across the chest. The beadwork motifs are from ancient design and usually tell old fables and legends.

Rungus Women are highly skilled in the art of weaving colth and basketry. Their traditional attire is made from home grown, hand spun cotton which is woven on back strap loom. Their black cotton sarong are decorated by an intricate colorful border of linangkit, a form of needle weaving. Again, traditional motifs and designs are maintained. All this requires painstaking hours of time and attention.

Rungus Men can be easily distinguished by their richly embroidered traditional headgear called the sigal tinohian. IT is worn as part of their daily attire. The sigal plays an important part of their social life, at festivals and celebrations.

As with most ethnic communities in Sabah, the traditional colour of the Rungus is black. Aside from the different patters, design, beads and headgear, Rungus women used to adorn their necks, arms ans legs with heavy brass coils. This tradition is still being maintained but may disappear as the skills for making these coils are dying out and many young grils today opt not to wear them as part of their daily lives.

Rungus trays, baskets and cointant are called rinago and are made from coils of the lias plant and are bound together with a kind of wild grass called lingkong. Winnowing trays are called nyiru and the Rungus make them from thin strips of the bemban stem.

Rungus Women The Rungus have Islam and Christianity while some have remained animists. However, regardless of their religious creed, the Rungus like many other ethnic groups in Sabah, have maintained their cultural and traditional beliefs. This is seen with the continual acceptance and practice of traditional Rungus rites and rituals among the present generation. Today, the Rungus still call upon the services of their ritual specialists known as Bobolizan. There are male and female Bobolizan and they perform specific rites rituals accordingly.

In selecting the suitability of a new site for their longhouse, the Rungus will invite the service of the male Bobolizanwho will initiate a ritual, know as the mamabat. Prayers know as moguhok are chanted a four-string puzzle know as mongumbang is used to ascertain the health and safety of the longhouse residents from evil spirits and beings. Other rituals involve the use of paddy grains, clam shells and prayers in ancient Rungus.

When conducting rituals with the 'spiritual world', the female Bobolizan must wear the sombre black attire consisting of a cotton top known as banat, a sarong and hood known as tapi and kuluvu respectively, and a sash or sandang. To contact spiritual beings, the kamagi, a special beaded necklace is worn and the Bobolizan shakes a rattle called gonding at the start of the 'good' spirits. These rituals may last up to a day while some take at least a week.

Part of their task is healing the ill and one female Bobolizan at Kampung Tinanggol is known to perform a ritual where her ancestors' spirits, sambavan divato are summoned to 'enter' her body and called upon to help the ill person fight off the 'angry' spirits. Certain ceremonies also include traditional ritualistic dances such as the monigigol samundai. As in the old days, the Rungus also perform the dance at the other special festivities without he religious ceremonies which normally accompany it.

The ritual specialists can also take the role of the local 'doctor' and their intimate knowledge of medicinal herbs and remedies ensure that very much sought after. Indeed the Bobolizan has many roles, and depending on the need, they can be a faith healer, spirit medium, or advisor. In today's age of modern and hi-tech advances, the Bobolizan is part of a vanishing breed especially as the younger generation pursue more lucrative careers.


Chinese Lion DanceChinese is the second largest group in Sabah. The largest single Chinese  group in Sabah are Hakka (Kek), although Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, Henghua and other groups are found. While the Chinese have been visiting the shores of Borneo for over 1,000 years, basically for trade, and Chinese settlements are believed to have been established at a few places, namely on the Kinabatangan river and in the Brunei bay area, mass Chinese migration to Sabah only started in the 1880s after the formation of the British North Borneo Chartered Company.

The early Chinese migrants were mainly farmers brought in to open up the land, although artisans and miners also came. The early Chinese settlers in Sabah were mainly Hakka Christian farmers. Even today this is reflected in the census, whereby in 1980 over 50% of the Chinese in Sabah were classified as rural dwellers.

The Chinese have intermixed with the local population, mainly the KadazanDusun, often creating a confusing situation ethnically whereby a person with a Chinese name may not be Chinese. This may only be an indication of some Chinese ancestry. He may be Kadazan in appearance, culture and language.

source: "SABAH, land of the sacred mountain"