“Just keep on going, Dato’ … it should be around here somewhere.”
The Dato’ at the wheel of the four-by-four doing roughly 80 km/h on a stretch of road somewhere between the towns of Beluran and Kota Kinabatangan in the heart of Sabah, also referred to as North Borneo, was no Dato’ in the traditional sense of the word. He had not been presented with this honorary title, similar to that of knighthood in the United Kingdom, by a Sultan (or Chief Minister, in the case of Sabah…) but rather by the three passengers riding along with him, myself included.
In the past, the title was generally reserved for ageing civil servants, judges, ministers or even well-to-do businessmen who had offered some form of outstanding contribution to the administrative divisions in which they operated. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for Datoship to be obtained by simply being generous with money to the right people.
The latter did not apply to our chaperone though, for his position as a field team coordinator for a social enterprise dedicated to raising environmental awareness among palm oil producers could never enable such financial liberties. No, his unofficial Datoship was derived purely from the appreciation and respect his colleagues had for him. Appreciation for being a good-natured and reliable person, respect for the fact that he actually resided out in the sticks while the rest of us flew in from Kuala Lumpur for a couple of weeks every month or two.
On this particular evening, we were approaching the culmination of two weeks worth of site visits, training sessions, and stakeholder meetings, and we were all feeling fairly drained. Hence, we set out on a quest for beer.
“It’s OK, Dato’, I recognise that sign up ahead…’Humongous Harvest Plantations’. I also remember that ‘Perpetual Glory International’ gatehouse over there. What a name for a company, huh? Don’t worry la, Dato’, we’ll be there soon!”
The use of the word quest is not as much of an exaggeration as you may suspect. While the production and consumption of alcoholic brews are widely considered to be an integral cultural element by many of Sabah’s 42 indigenous groups, especially during festive seasons such as Kaamatan (annual harvest festival), booze is surprisingly hard to come by in the middle of palm oil country. To a certain extent, this can be attributed to the demographics of the Kinabatangan area.
Although the majority of Sabah’s 3.5 million inhabitants are not of Malay heritage, with approximately 60 per cent being of indigenous descent and close to 10 per cent of Chinese ethnicity, the most common faith within the state is Islam. According to an ethnic profile of Sabah compiled by the Minority Rights Group International in 2018, perhaps more than a million Muslims from the southern Philippines and Indonesia have been permitted to settle there since the 1990s.
It is subsequently argued that this influx has completely tipped Sabah’s ethnic balance. A considerable proportion of these immigrants have entered, and continue to do so, on employment visas provided by palm oil producers. Many of those that entered illegally also found work at one of Sabah’s countless estates, mills and collection centers, and I had had the pleasure of meeting quite a few of them earlier that day.
Furthermore, several of the aforementioned indigenous groups are of Islamic faith as well, including the Orang Sungai (River People) that have traditionally settled along the banks of the Kinabatangan River and other waterways that run through the area.
Tough federal alcohol licensing laws and zero tolerance policies regarding alcohol abuse at estate and mill workers’ housing quarters have also contributed to Kinabatangan becoming somewhat of an alcohol-free zone. Couple that with remote location and you’ve got the type of environment in which you may very well find yourself searching for some random roadside shack with the intent to purchase contraband.
“F*** yeah, they’ve got Red Horse!”
Excuse my French but I was over the moon. Our quest had not been in vain! The shack still stood on the very same spot my colleague had last seen it, months earlier, and there was activity inside. Its proprietors, an elderly Filipino couple, greeted us warmly and nonchalantly uncovered a coolbox filled to the brim with Red Horse Beer.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with Red Horse, it is an extra-strong lager (alcohol content of 8% ABV) produced by San Miguel Brewery. It is promoted as a “deeply hued lager with a distinctive, sweetish taste, balanced by a smooth bitterness” and, in my opinion, this is a fairly apt description. I find it surprisingly easy to knock back in comparison with other strong beers, primarily because its sweetness does not become overwhelming after a few rounds. I also find it to be less heavy on the stomach than a Tripel Karmeliet or La Chouffe, both of which have a similar alcohol content to Red Horse and comparable sweet overtones. All in all, it was exactly what I needed.
Although we were most certainly experiencing a best case scenario, the fact that smuggled Filipino beer was being sold in this section of Sabah was not wholly extraordinary. The law of supply and demand is also applicable to Kinabatangan, after all.
For starters, beers and spirits are generally available at considerably cheaper prices in the Philippines than they are in Malaysia. Moreover, the Philippine archipelago contains islands that are barely 50 km removed from the Sabahan coastline. The combination of these factors has enticed many an entrepreneurial spirit on both sides of the Sulu Sea to invest in a speedboat.
Exact figures are obviously difficult to find but a Borneo Post article published in September 2018 stated that Stephen Wong, the then People’s Health and Wellbeing Minister of Sabah, had announced the national government was losing close to RM 1.2 billion (or over USD 284 million) annually in tax revenue due to illicit beer sales with an estimated volume of 800,000 hectoliters in East Malaysia alone. A hefty loss when one takes into consideration that the Malaysian coast guard has been on high alert ever since the Lahad Datu incursion of 2013. But that is a story for another day.
The Victory Lap
Upon our return to the lodge the four of us congregated on a balcony overlooking the waste recepticles of the cafeteria below, which also happened to be the reception area of our humble dwellings. We had eaten there often enough since our arrival to prevent us from craving anything on their menu and had instead opted to pick up various deep fried snacks and fresh fruits from some roadside vendors in the vicinity of the shack.
With our 0.5 litre cans of Red Horse raised up high, we congratulated each other on a job well done and pledged to refrain from discussing work-related matters for the rest of the evening. There were far more important things to talk about. Local politics, wild nights out, an impending marriage proposal, the places we would dine during Dato’s next visit to K.L., not to mention all of the characters we’d engaged with over the course of the previous two weeks.
The sound of our laughter filled the otherwise silent Kinabatangan night as the rewards of our perseverance dwindled along with our coherence. But that was all part of the plan. A necessary evil to ensure the last night on a flimsy mattress in a double room without windows passes as quickly as possible, if you will.
There was no need to rise before dawn the next day. Dato’ would drive us to the nearest airport in the city of Sandakan, the flight back to Semenanjung (Peninsular Malaysia) usually took just under three hours. It would make sense to take the express train into the city in order to avoid evening rush hour and, with any luck, I would be home around dinner time. On the verge of falling into slumber, I made one last mental note: Find a place in K.L. that stocks Red Horse.