Murut heartland
Published on: Sunday, January 16, 2022
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Mt Amin Tuyoh – believed to be resting place of the Murut dead.
EVERYBODY thinks honesty and trust is important. But can we find a theft-free place on earth that needs nobody or any policeman around to punish thieves for non-compliance, except a belief in the punitive power of an unseen force? 

Yes, you can, deep inside Sabah! 

Well, this is the pleasant surprise which inspires this reflective story on the question of trust.  

How safe and secure we can all feel if everybody can be trusted not to steal. Yet, there is such an innocent unsung village in Sabah.

Far from the madding crowd

But to see it, you need to drive far from the maddening crowds of the cities and go deep into interior Sabah where generally poor, looked-down, simple folks still retain control over some of their age old traditional social, customary and cultural space.  

That’s the beauty of going back to travel writing – my original role in the 80s as a “Roving reporter” venturing deep into no man’s land and report back to city folks strange to relate tales and mores or socially approved norms from the heart of Sabah – ha-ha.


Unsung village Kg Sabinait showcases its theft-free inspiration. 

Miles and miles of former logging track without any sign of civilisation. 



The day of discovery 

D-Day – December 3, 2021: Tham YK and son Kim Leng picked me up in KK at 4am, had early breakfast with Chris Lo in Keningau at 6am, then to Nabawan for a rendezvous with Ansom Putiang, President of Murut Tahol Association, Jimmy Robert and Ramlie, who hosted another round of breakfast, Murut style, with staple boiled yellow tapioca thrown in!

After heading into a bumpy and narrow former logging road towards Pensiangan, we drove for miles and miles literally without seeing any sign of civilisation.

Mt Amin Tuyoh – resting place of Murut dead  

However, a very interesting break to this monotonous journey was when Ansom stopped at one spot and pointed to sharp-tipped high mountain in the distance, named Amin Tuyoh, and said that is where the souls of the Murut dead go after death, in contrast to the well-known belief that Mt Kinabalu is where the souls of the Dusun and Kadazan go after death.     

That certainly is a discovery!

Other very cheer-some sights that struck home were pristine rivers roaring with crystal clear water – typical of untouched countrysides that I used to see in the 1980s.  

Stalls full of produce but no hawkers

But suddenly somewhere along the dirt road, we came across two road-side stalls filled with fresh local produce and fruits at Kg Sabinait – but no sign of any hawker, no sight of the village around except a clearly written price list: Nanas (pineapple) = RM3; Labu (pumpkin) = RM3; Timun (cucumber) = RM2.00  and RM1; Tembikai  (water melon) = RM6; Ubi manis (sweet potato) = RM5; Keladi (yam) = RM1; Limau (lime) = RM2 for 10, RM1 for five; Jagung (sweet corn) = RM1 as well as bananas with price per bunch.    

Where no one dared steal 

From our group, Tham YK bought one bottle of preserved nut snacks, dutifully dropped RM2.50 into an open plastic cash collection container, son Kim Leng bought RM10 of the same product while Jimmy Robert also bought RM10 of the preserved nuts. 

Everybody drooped the cash religiously into the box and no one dared to short change a dime.

That applies to everyone without anybody watching, certainly no CCTV around.

One thing is certain – no one dared to steal for fear of retribution from somehigher power!


Jimmy Robert dutifully drops money into an open plastic container. 

Paying into an open cash box. 

Produce and fruit price list. 



Ancient concept of ‘curse’ explained 

Ansom Putiang, being the President of the Murut Tahol Association, would know best the mystery behind this theft-free behaviour.

So I asked him what is the Murut Tahol “adat” or custom that controls this saint-like behaviour.

Ansom said: “Sumpahan, that is, curse.”

“This is something ancient. Traditionally, children were taught from young not to steal so now trust is very important, you steal, you may be cursed to death. So these produce and fruits in the stalls, whatever is the price, you drop the specified amount of money, then you can eat them, no problem but if you don’t, you’ll be cursed. 

“That’s why the curse is very important. It instils fear for wrong doing, even if there is nobody around looking. But not everybody knows how to perform the rites but one you can ‘order’ it, that is, get somebody who knows, to do it. For example, if somebody who has a roadside store but he or she does not have any time to stay around, he/she can ask somebody who knows how to do the curse,” he explained.

‘Things really happened’ – Ansom 

But did things really happen as cursed?

“Yes, there were many cases in the past. For example, years ago in my longhouse up river Saliu, Kg Salinatan, a lady one day found out that her gold chain had gone missing. She asked her grandson if he had taken it, the grandson denied stealing it. Being very angry, she asked a neighbour next door who knows the rite to curse the person who stole it. Tragically, her grandchild died,” Ansom claimed.

Positive fear of invisible power remains strong at village level

Real or unreal, as long as there is belief that that somehow, an invisible supernatural force which can be invoked to inflict harm or punishment for wrong doing, it strikes fear which can scare people to obediently pay up without any visible presence of the hawker. 

The grip of that invisible power on behaviour remains true deep in remote villages but is largely lost in cities, Ansom noted.

Essential role of trust 

Yet trust is essential for any society to function or it would collapse completely without it.

Every ancient society knew trust is important. But what is the mechanism to induce honesty and trust?              

It seems in this case, farmers in the wilderness village of Kg Sabinait don’t have to worry about the intentions of the strangest of people but can rely on the feared power of curse that hypnotise people to behave in a trustworthy manner.

How interesting.


Tham YK and Ansom looking at a rich stock of fresh produce at an unmanned stall then picked and paid into an open cash box!  


Local bananas. 

Ansom Putiang, President of Murut Tahol Association, with brother Robert in Kg Salinatan. 

Cheer-some sight – pristine river. 


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December 20, 2014