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How can you tell if someone’s Sabahan? It’s what they say bah

Published on 11 December 2017|
1 min read

by Olivia James, Carrybeans

As a Sabahan, I’ve often been mistaken as Indonesian or Filipino because of the way I look and speak. Do we really sound alike? Are our word choices exactly the same as our fellow neighbours’?

If you are a Sabahan yourself or have been living in Sabah for a very long time, you would know the answer to the questions above.

To our West Malaysian friends, you may at times find it hard to distinguish East Malaysians from other nationalities. If that’s you, fear no more because in this article, you will learn 3 phrases that Sabahans use pretty much every day. Hopefully, next time you’ll be able to tell whether a person is Sabahan or not.

If you have Sabahan friends, practise these words/phrases with them and they’ll help you perfect it!


The number one word that is commonly used by Sabahans (that is a guarantee!) is “bah”. Although this word only consists of 3 letters, be prepared because it has a tonne of meanings, each determined by the context in which it’s used. Mainly, it’s used to convey the following meanings:

1) It means “OK” 

“Can you please mail the letter after you’re done?”

Bah, can!”

2) It is used to emphasise something

“You try this bah. I spent 2 hours cooking it, you know?”

Remember, bah cannot be simply placed in any sentence. You will just sound awkward but cute to us Sabahans if you use it wrongly. But we’ll just laugh it off and help you; A+ for effort and the willingness to learn though! 🙂


“Boleh bah kalau kau”

Another commonly uttered phrase in Sabah is “boleh bah kalau kau”. When translated directly, it means “can bah if you”. When translated appropriately, it simply means “anything for you”. So next time someone says this phrase to you, you should feel honoured!



It is a form of expression for “Oh, crap!” or “Oh, no!”, and is a variation of the Bahasa Malaysia word, “mati” meaning “to die”.

Imagine you accidentally drop your phone into the pond. If you’re a Sabahan you’d say, “Matai!”

It can also mean “You’re/we’re in deep trouble”.

“Did you submit our project proposal? The submission deadline was at 10am.”

“Ah, matai kita.”


So there you have it, some of the many phrases commonly spoken by the people of the Land Below the Wind. Do you have any unique words or phrases from your state/country that you would like to share?

Please share in the comments section below.

Can bah, right?

Did you know Sabah’s illegal bush meat trade is once again on the rise? Learn more here.

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