Sabah: Unpublished photos

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Like most other places, the landscape in Sabah is fast changing.

A few years back I had a love affair with Sabah, a Malaysian state in the island of Borneo. It was a time when I wanted so much to fit in and be accepted, a time when I thought things had to be perfect. Like much of the photos I published online at that time, I was obsessed with getting an all encapsulating photo.

I’d say I did a lot of my “growing up” in my mid-20s in Sabah. The most important thing I think I learnt is to not take things so seriously. It is not that I care any less, but now I’m rather more focused on embracing the moment.

Although there’s a lot more I’d love to share about Sabah, in the spirit of embracing moments, here’s a short series of unpublished photos from that very special time of my life.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A lot of roads have opened up, making once hard-to-reach places now very accessible.

Growing up as a Chinese diaspora in an urban environment, I will never truly understand what it’s like to be indigenous to a certain place and have traditions and cultures so closely linked to the land. But in all the villages, no one ever held my awkwardness against me and very zealously encouraged me to find a Sabahan husband.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Day-to-day life was certainly different and everyone kept busy putting food on the table in the literal sense.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Subsistence rice fields.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Chasing away birds that will eat up the padi in the evenings with a makeshift flag.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

CAUGHT! Padi-eating birds.

In some areas, rice is still grown for subsistence use. Wild vegetables and wild game often compliment a rice meal. For really poor families living in a degraded forest, they make do with salted fish and rice. There’s even a very catchy local song about how boring it gets to be eating salted fish every day, Silaka Ikan Masin.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A fox being chopped up for the frying pan.

Wild meat went a little unappreciated on me as I was not a huge fan of meat.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Highly prized porcupine bezoar stones.

I never fell very sick in a village before, but a man once approached me to see if I wanted to buy porcupine bezoar stones which is popular and highly sought after in Chinese medicine. He said he dreamt he found a porcupine with the said stone in its stomach. Sure enough, when he went hunting the next day he had caught a porcupine with these “black gold” in it.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The smell of money smells much like sewage.

And of course, no “well to do” village is not without the stench of rubber being dried when rubber prices are high.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Merry-making nights, depending on one’s mood and alcohol tolerance, can be highly anticipated or dreaded.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

A Sungai Rumanau elder (left) and woman (right).

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Carrying chickens to be slaughtered for a feast (left). Taking a nap in a government-issued house (right).

Like with most developing areas, the pressure for indigenous communities to integrate into a more organized and controlled system gets higher over time, for better or for worse. Though a lot of people find that it is very much for the worse.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Relocation project site in Sabah (Kg Gana)

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditions gone moldy?

I for one have always admired the way the people of Sabah adapt to change and foreign influence while at the same time maintaining a very strong sense of their own identity.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Murut dance.

There were many times when I felt overwhelmed by the richness in culture and diversity, only to feel a sense of lost, the lost of my own cultural identity.  Have I lost it all? Am I just part of this global, homogenized, mainstream society that drinks Starbucks and watches 12 seasons of American Idol? And is that what would become of the indigenous people? (Puah Sze Ning)

Traditional Rungus dance.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

All night “exchange of poems” singing during a Murut wedding celebration.

Having fun in the river. (Puah Sze Ning)

The next day after the wedding, the kids in the village dressed up like their elders using dried leaves as they were playing in the river.

With all that being said and shown, I’m so pleased and excited to also announce that I’ll be going back to Sabah for a very special photography assignment soon! I certainly anticipate it like as if I am going home.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Running home. Children at Kampung Mansiad, Sook.

Till then, I’ll just be dreaming of the chilly clear Bornean evening air.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

The view from Kg Buayan.


Workers in oil palm estates

In 2007, I was a research assistant at Wild Asia and one of my first few field trips with a DSLR camera was to oil palm estates where I assisted in social surveys.

The conversion of land into oil palm estates is rampant, badly affecting many indigneous communities who have lost much of their traditional land (and thus their livelihood) to large corporations.

Seen as a crop that will bring economic development to rural areas by the government – the expansion of oil palm plantations does not seem to be halting anytime soon despite protests from grassroot organizations and environmentalists.

With much of the workforce coming from neighboring countries, the well-being of these workers widely differ from estate to estate. In the worst cases, the conditions can be akin to modern slavery.

Below are some photos of the workers in the estate, all taken in 2007.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate.

Workers at the oil palm estate get onto trucks early in the morning to be transported to their area of duty in the estate. (Puah Sze Ning)

They bring along sickles that are used to harvest the fruits.

A worker sweeps up loose fruits which fall from the bunches when it is harvested. (Puah Sze Ning)

While the young ones can carry the heavy fruit bunches, the older men and women collect the loose fruits on the ground.

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate. (Puah Sze Ning)

An oil palm harvester marking the amount he harvested today. He is paid by piece rate.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

These markers are left by the fruits.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

Fruit bunches are left by the road, awaiting collection.

An oil palm estate worker washing up. (

A worker washing up.

 (Puah Sze Ning)

(left) In estates where the workers are well taken care of, workers such as this sweet old lady have made it very much their home, so much so that the linesite (workers’ quarters) looks and feels like a kampung (village); proudly maintained and adorned with flowering plants (to compete in the annual Most Beautiful Linesite contest). Unlike in Peninsular Malaysia, migrant estate workers in Sabah have their familes with them. This lady, originally from the Philippines, has lived here for a long time but no longer works in the estate fields. Instead, her sons work for the estate, so they’ve been able to continue living here. She can’t imagine being anywhere else; as she says, “this is my home”.


River play

Children bathing in the river while the intestine of a cow, sacrificed for a feast that evening, is being washed downstream next to them. (Puah Sze Ning)

I daresay I’ve probably missed a number of opportune moments to take river shots. We go to the river to bathe in the evenings and I normally leave my camera behind out of sheer exhaustion from travelling, fear that I might slip and dunk my camera into the water and other thoughts such as making sure my sarong does not come loose and float away (we bathe in the open with a sarong wrapped tightly around).

Here are some photos from times when I brought my camera with me.

The top photo was taken during our filming of Drowned Forest and Damned Lives, a campaign documentary against the construction of the Kelau dam which would relocate two Orang Asli (indigenous minorities) communities without their free prior and informed consent. We took a bath in the Kelau river and just as we were done, some Felda settlers came fresh from slaughtering a cow and were washing parts of the cow (like the intestine in the man’s hands) in the river.

Below are some photos from Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia.

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning |

Chewong girl from Kuala Gandah leaping into the river. (

Chewong child jumping into Sg Rengit for a swim | 2007 (Puah Sze Ning/Puah Sze Ning |

Chewong kids from Kuala Gandah having run in the river. (

These shots of the river are from Kg Mengkawago. It’s a rural village where the villagers are dependent on the rain and river for water. Unfortunately illegal logging upstream has polluted their river, jeopardizing their water source, worst felt during the drought.

The women here in Kg Mengkawago depend on the river to bath, wash their clothes as well as their cooking wares. (

Children in Kg Mengkawago bathing in the murky river, polluted by illegal logging upstream. As a result, many of them suffer from skin ailments. (