Loving the laid-back life in Sabah

TheStar Online
Friday September 16, 2011

A Peninsular Malaysian recalls how backward everything seemed to be in Sabah when she first visited the state. But there was more to the place than meets the eye, and she ended up staying more than three decades.

WHEN Anne Keyworth landed in Kota Kinabalu, she was greeted with the sight of a thatched roof structure. That was in 1978, and the Penangite was on her first trip to Sabah.

“I was appalled. I could not understand why the airport was so small and in such poor condition,’’ recalls Keyworth who was then in Sabah for a month-long holiday. She had just undergone major spinal surgery to remove a benign tumour, and her doctor had suggested that she take a long break.

But if her initial impression of Sabah was not favourable, Keyworth soon changed her mind when she travelled from the remote interior of Keningau to Sandakan in the east coast.

Happy in the Land Below the Wind: Anne Keyworth feeding one of the Bukit Harapan residents.
“The people were so warm and kind, I just loved the laid-back feeling of life here,’’ says Keyworth, who was 32 then.

That holiday changed her life, as she decided to stay and make Sabah her home. The mother of three children aged seven to 12 returned to Penang to inform family and friends that she was taking up a clerical job in a timber camp in Sook, near Keningau. She had separated from her husband at the time and he had custody of their young children, so she was on her own.

Keyworth worked at the camp until 1982 when she was hired as a field officer by the Sabah branch of the Malaysian Red Crescent Society. In 1988, she set up a non-profit home, Bukit Harapan, to look after the disabled, orphans, single mothers and victims of human trafficking. Now 65, Keyworth is a social activist. Affectionately called Mama Anne, she continues to work tireless to help the underprivileged and poor in the rural heartlands of the state.

One of her daughters is also helping her at the home she runs.

Keyworth was born in Ipoh in 1946, to an Indian father, John Arulnasalam, and Chinese mother, Cheah Moi Quee. Her parents were ostracised by both sides of their families as they could not accept the inter-racial marriage.

Tragedy struck in 1951 when Keyworth was five. Her father died and Keyworth’s mother, unable to cope, had to split up the family. Keyworth was put in the care of nuns at a convent school in Taiping. Her brother was put under the care of a Malay family and her sister was adopted by a relative. When Keyworth started work in Penang with Motorola, she got involved in social work. She remembers how after the May 13, 1969, race riots, the Malays, Chinese and Indians in her neighbourhood in Brown Garden rallied together and set up neighbourhood groups to promote the muhibbah spirit.

“We also checked on crime in our neighbourhoods and helped rehabilitate drug addicts and prostitutes,’’ Keyworth says.

The spirit of muhibbah seems to have been lost over the years as Malaysians today have become more materialistic and don’t have time for each other particularly in Peninsular Malaysia, she notes. Keyworth is concerned that a similar situation may arise in Sabah.

“Apart from being friendly, Sabahans are a very forgiving people. Their strength is their ability to mix with all races. Their inter-marriages and extended families strengthen the social bonds among Sabah’s communities. They put no conditions in accepting you into the family,” she points out.

However, this close-knit bond may unravel as development and materialism creep into the fabric of Sabahan society, she adds.

“Much has changed in Sabah over the 32 years I have been here – new airports, better roads, many more educational facilities. More still needs to be done in remote places like Ranau and Paitan,’’ Keyworth says.

“Social problems will continue to grow with progress but these must be addressed through providing a strong foundation for youths. Old values like muhibbah among the races need to be rekindled,’’ she says.

Keyworth thinks it’s important to get young people to be more actively involved in sports, games and camps.

“The young these days do not have roots. They are just too much into computers, which is a very individual activity. It does not allow them to interact with others,” she points out.

“Malaysia is a great country, but it will take all of us to learn from each other to move forward,” she concludes.


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