Sabah, Malaysia

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This article was researched and written by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic. 

Sabah is the easternmost state of Malaysia; located on the northeastern tip of the island of Borneo, it is one of two Malaysian states on the island. Sabah is the second largest state in Malaysia, next to neighboring Sarawak which eclipses Sabah in geographic size (to help keep this in perpspective, however, the entire nation of Malaysia consists of a land area slightly larger than the US state of New Mexico).  A tropical state with a great ecological wealth, Sabah was an early player in the development and promotion of ecotourism and revenue from this sector now makes tourism the second largest contributor the state's Gross Domestic Product. 


Sabah was directly ruled by the British North Borneo Chartered Company from 1881 until 1942, when, amidst the rapidly changing environment of World War II, the region was occupied by Japan. Post-WWII, Sabah became a British Crown Colony until it obtained independence in 1963.

Sabah, along with the neighboring Eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak, joined the Federation of Malaya (the states comprising present-day peninsular Malaysia that had gained independence from Great Britain in 1957) in 1963; this union marked the formation of the nation of Malaysia. The nation’s early years were marked by Communist insurgency and the secession of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965. The state of Sabah was claimed by the Philippines, a claim that persists, albeit dormantly, through today.


Located on the northern portion of the island of Borneo, Sabah has over 1400 kilometres of coastline and a land area of 72,500 square kilometers. The state has land borders with the Malaysian state of Sarawak, as well as the East Kalimantan province of Indonesia. Coastally, Sabah borders the South China Sea in the north and west, and the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea in the east. Known as “the land below the wind,” Sabah sits immediately below the frequently typhoon-hit region of the Philippines. The state is home to Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu; with a peak elevation of 4085 metres, Mount Kinabalu is also the world's youngest non-volcanic mountain.

Environment and Ecology

Sabah enjoys a lush tropical environment; the state is home to the world’s largest flower species (Rafflesia) whose red blooms can span over a metre (m) in diameter. The state’s mountainous forests and jungles (approximately 60% of the state is covered by forest) are home to an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, including such fascinating creatures as the Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephants, flying squirrels, and many species of monkeys. Off the coast, the shallow, tropical waters provide ideal habitat for a diversity of marine species, including such majestic sea creatures as the Dugong. A range of ecosystems and climate zones reflective of the state's geographic size and physical features (including an elevation spectrum that runs from sea level to over 4000 m) are encountered in Sabah.

The primary environmental concerns facing the state are water pollution from the dumping of raw sewage, runoff and sediment deposition from agricultural practices (particularly from oil palm plantations), coastal habitat degradation, deforestation, and urban air pollution (from industrial and vehicular emissions).

Culture, People and Demographics

The nation of Malaysia is home to a broad diversity of ethnicities and religions. Although a multitude of languages are spoken throughout Malaysia (Bahasa Malayu being the official language), there are also many indigenous languages that persist in the state of Sabah, including Iban and Kadazan. In Sabah there are over 30 ethnic groups and 50 indigenous languages spoken; the largest indigenous group is the Dusun/Kadazan, with the Chinese comprising the largest non-indigenous group. The Dusun/Kadazan are a traditionally agrarian people that rely heavily on rice cultivation.

The population of Sabah is estimated to be around 3.5 million, with considerable numbers of undocumented individuals entering the state from southern Philippine provinces. Islam is the dominant religion, practised by about two-thirds of the population, with Christianity and Buddhism making up most of the remainder.

Tourism and Entertainment

caption The Sumatran Rhinoceros, one of the world's most endangered mammals, is found in isolated regions of Sabah, Malaysia. Photo Source: Encyclopedia of Life.

Eco-tourism attracts the majority of the state’s two million annual tourists, the state’s seven national parks (including Kinabalu National Park which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 ) are popular tourism destinations. An aggressive tourism promotion campaign spearheaded by the Minsitry of Tourism, Culture and the Environment is expected to lead to an increase in this vital sector of Sabah’s economy.

Domestic, intercity telephone service is provided primarily through microwave radio relay; the network between Sabah and Sarawak runs through Brunei and, although considered adequate, is somewhat below the peninsular standards. The international communication system is considered to provide excellent service. The state of Sabah produces 16 television broadcast stations

The American reality-TV show Survivor (Season 1), One episode of The Amazing Race, and Eco-Challenge Borneo were all filmed in the state of Sabah.

Economy and Agriculture

The primary industries of Sabah are logging and petroleum production. The state’s primary exports include: petroleum (crude), palm oil, cocoa, rubber, and timber. Approximately 70% of total state output is through the export sector, although tourism (presently the economy’s second largest contributor) and manufacturing are expanding within the state. Oil palm plantations cover over 700,000ha of land in the state (predominately along the eastern coast) and contribute nearly a third of gross export income; however, this profitable enterprise raises some environmental concerns.

Although Sabah ranked as Malaysia’s second wealthiest state in 1970, it is currently the most impoverished of the nation’s states. This condition is driven by several factors, including a high rate of illegal immigration, and a great disparity in revenue distribution between federal and state governments.


Malaysia is governed under a constitutional monarchy based in Kuala Lumpur. The state of Sabah is headed by a federally-appointed governor who exercises limited powers under the constitution.  Sabah, like neighboring Sarawak, retains some constitutional prerogatives which are guaranteed by the agreement that merged the two island states with the Federation of Malaya in the early 1960s.  While such powers as the authority to maintain autonomous immigration controls remain, many critics argue that few remnants of autonomy can still be found, for instance, the federal government takes 95% of profits off the state’s natural resource production, leaving 5% to Sabah. The state government is a representative democracy with full suffrage given to all residents at the age of 21. Elections for the state assembly, which is based on a Westminster system, are held no more than 5 years apart (see further readings section, below, for government structure of Sabah).

Domestic and Transnational Issues

The neighboring nation of the Philippines retains a dormant claim to the territory of the state of Sabah; offshore drilling and hydrocarbon exploration also remain contentious issues between many state actors in the region.

Sabah also deals with a host of environmental concerns including: deforestation, water pollution, and coastal habitat degradation. The rich coastal waters of Sabah are prone to damage by side-effects of common anthropogenic activities; run-off from oil palm plantations, for example, has led to degradation of sea grass habitat by way of significant sediment deposition.

References and Further Reading

See Also


This article was partially researched by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.




Schlegel, L. (2014). Sabah, Malaysia. Retrieved from


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