KOTA KINABALU: Ethnic tolerance among Sabahans is very high but on the way down, Universiti Malaysia Sabah’s (UMS) social expert told the Royal Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigrants in Sabah.
Associate Prof Dr Kntayya A/L Mariapan from the School of Sociology UMS, said a study he conducted in 2007 to measure the level of acceptance between different races in Sabah showed that the people at grassroots level were very tolerant towards each other.
The study involving respondents mainly from the native Bajau, Suluk, Kadazandusun and Murut, tried to quantify the level of acceptance among the different ethnic groups.
Over 1,000 households from Sandakan, Keningau and Kota Kinabalu, were selected as respondents using the random sampling method in the research, which also used the focus group interview approach.
Testifying as an expert witness during the inquiry yesterday, Dr Kntayya explained a set of 16 questions covering social, political, economic as well as religious aspect were given to the respondents.
The questionnaire among others asked the respondents their level of willingness to marry someone from outside their own ethnic group, form a join business venture with partners from other races, join political parties whose members are predominantly from other races and so on.
He said analysis of the data gathered led him to conclude that the ethnic groups in Sabah involved had very high tolerance towards each other, scoring between 1 and 2 on the Bogardus social distance scale.
“This is very high, with 1 being the highest or very tolerant and five the lowest or no tolerance,” said Dr Kntayya who specializes in ethnic Malaysia relationship studies.
However, he clarified that the study only captured the ethnic tolerance at the particular time it was conducted and ethnic tolerance is not a static but a fluid entity that could change at any time.
He explained the level of tolerance or acceptance between ethnics could either improve or worsen depending on any given triggering factors, and based on his observation the ethnic tolerance in Sabah was going down rather than going up.
“In Bosnia, before the war, the ethnic tolerance was very high too. The acceptance of the people at grassroots level was very good, but then it collapsed so spectacularly,” he said.
While he did not explain what were the factors causing the changes in ethnic tolerance in Sabah, Dr Kntayya said the collapse of inter-racial trust was often caused by “ethnic mobilization by the leaders”, which in sociology is termed as “ethnic entrepreneurs”.
He said no other studies had been conducted anywhere else in Malaysia, making it difficult to conclude if Sabah had better ethnic tolerance compared to the other states in the country.
However, it can be deduced that ethnic relation in Sabah is different than that in Peninsular Malaysia.
“I do not see the same segregation like in the peninsula, where communal political parties are prominent. Here, even Umno is not exclusively for the Malay. So, the political influence in dividing races is not that evident as in the peninsula, although the tendency is always there,” he said.
Dr Kntayya also agreed with the Commission that one of the factors contributing to the high tolerance was the fact that most Sabahans were from mixed parentage.
He noted that most of the people interviewed in the study, nine out of 10, could be those from mixed origin.