Envisioning equality and social justice for all in Sabah. A culturally diverse and resource-rich state with over 3.9 million in population is brimming with potential. The magnificent and expansive landscapes of Sabah is home to 42 ethnic groups and a large majority of Sabahans are indigenous to the land. Every voice needs to be heard, no one left behind and basic human rights must be granted to all who call Sabah their home.

Key Issues Impacting Sabah Today

A closer look at critical issues that affect the pulse of Sabah.

Universal Healthcare For All

Whilst Malaysia’s healthcare system prides itself on its affordable treatments and accessibility throughout the nation, there are still small gaps that need a bit more attention to detail.

Restoring The Identity Of The Stateless

The stateless community in Sabah is far from hidden. They are part of the state’s population, in communities, markets and among us. Their battle for legal rights have been ongoing for decades because recognition of nationality serves as a key to a host of other rights, such as education, health care, employment, and equality before the law.

Equal Education Opportunities For All

With the progress in Malaysia’s education system, there remains gaps for improvement. Education equity is the goal where no child is left behind and the principles of fairness in distributing resources, opportunities, treatment, and success is for everyone.

Closing The Digital Divide

In Malaysia, we are closing in towards universal digital access. There is, however, an existing digital divide between urban and rural households. 88.8% of urban households have access to mobile broadbands, whereas only 80.4% of rural households have access. In Sabah, problems of the digital divide still persist in both domains, especially in rural Sabah.

Better Employment Opportunities For All

In 2019, Sabah recorded 2,025,700 new labourers. Young local graduates prefer to stay in Sabah for work. A study found that 96% of respondents are willing to remain in the state post-graduation and only 3% wanted to seek work opportunities in Peninsular Malaysia. As valuable as Sabah is, the job employment opportunities and advancements especially for the youth and young adults must be enhanced to ensure the future of Sabah’s economy continues to thrive.

Forging Towards An Inclusive Future

The issues raised are aligned with the Global Sustainable Development Goals in order to build a future that is inclusive and sustainable for generations to come.

Fast Facts On Critical Issues In Sabah

Significant data points to clue you in on the current situation

  • Sabah recorded the highest poverty rate in Malaysia with 19.5% of the population living below the poverty line. (DOSM, 2019) 
  • The five poorest districts in Sabah are Tongod (56.6%), Pitas (53.6%), Kota Marudu (46.1%), Beluran (45%), and Telupid (40.7%). (DOSM, 2020) 
  • 2,025,700 new labourers joined the Sabah job market. (DOSM, 2019)
  • Young local graduates prefer to stay in Sabah for work. A study found that 96% of respondents are willing to remain in the state post-graduation and only 3% wanted to seek work opportunities in Peninsular Malaysia. (Sabah Jobs, 2019)
  • Sabah is the 6th largest contributor to Malaysia’s GDP and the labour force participation rate of only 70%. (Sabah Jobs, 2019)
  • The majority of Sabahans hold formal job employments (60.3%), while others are self-employed (31.4%) and the remaining live on current transfers such as donations, aids and grants, official assistance, and pensions (8.3%). (DOSM, 2019)
  • 46.8% of households in Sabah earn below RM4,000. Of that number, 34.3 % of households earn within the RM2,000 – RM3,999 income range. (DOSM, 2019).
  • The cost of living in Sabah is high. The Poverty Line Index (PLI) varies in different states as it is calculated based on the cost of living, purchasing power, income level of households to purchase food and non-food items at minimal level and just enough to survive. Sabah and Labuan had the highest PLI at RM2,537 and RM2,633 respectively. (Emir Research, 2021)
  • Almost two in five rural households in Sabah (37.4%) live more than 9km away from the nearest secondary school. The distance is seven times the national average (5.3%). (UNICEF, 2019)
  • In 2020, 466 out of 1,296 schools (45%) were categorised as dilapidated in Sabah. (Borneo Today, 2020)
  • Despite the state being close to obtaining universal enrolment rates (95%), 23,560 primary school-aged children in Sabah do not attend school. (UNICEF, 2019) 
  • Almost 1 in 10 children in Sabah do not attend lower secondary school. Boys are more likely to drop out of school compared to girls. (UNICEF, 2019) 
  • More than 50% of children with disabilities are not in school for both primary and secondary levels. (UNICEF, 2019) 
  • In Sabah’s case, poverty is the most cited reason behind the lack of participation in schools. About 1 in 3 children dropped out of school (both primary and secondary) because of financial reasons. (UNICEF, 2019) 
  • Huge stateless population in Sabah includes former Filipinos, Bajau Laut, Indonesian plantation workers, as well as irregular migrants from Indonesia and the Philippines who have visited the state and settled here. Despite multiple generations, children from stateless families are not granted the same education opportunities as Malaysians (UNICEF, 2019). 
  • It has been found that stateless children in Sabah are the leading population to be out of school. The lack of documentation denies them the right to education in Malaysia. (UNICEF, 2019)
  • There are 24 state hospitals and 300 government health clinics throughout Sabah to accommodate all 27 districts (MOH, 2018).  
  • Sabah ranked the second highest in the population of doctors in the country, however despite the laudable standing, the doctor to patient ratio stood at 1:865 in 2018. This is much higher than the national average of doctor to patient ratio of 1:454. (MOH, 2019)
  • Peninsular Malaysia had between 3 and 33 times more specialists compared to Sabah across the anaesthesiology, surgery, orthopaedic surgery, medicine, paediatrics, and obstetrics and gynaecology departments. (Code Blue, 2020).
  • The average time to reach a hospital for rural residents in Sabah was 30.65 minutes compared to 16.71 minutes for urban residents Sabah. (MOH, 2015) 
  • The stateless (undocumented) population is large in Sabah. They do not receive the same privilege of basic healthcare as Malaysians. Stateless communities are known to pay 24-100 times more than a Malaysians when using public health services (MOH). 
  • Malaysia as a whole achieved 90.1% household internet penetration in 2019. (DOSM, 2020) 
  • The clear digital divide happens between urban and rural households. 88.8% of urban households have access to mobile broadbands, whereas only 80.4% of rural households have access. (EPU, 2021) 
  • Sabah’s broadband penetration rate is amongst the lowest in the country with only 2.7% fixed broadband penetration rate compared to Kuala Lumpur at 13.9%. (MCMC, 2019)


Making lesser known districts in Sabah more visible



Poorest district in Sabah



Poorest district in Sabah


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Volunteer your time and skill to research on 'Spotlight' districts in Sabah. Contact us here indicating you would like to contribute to 'Spotlight Sabah'


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Universal Healthcare For All In Sabah

Equal Education Opportunity For All In Sabah

Better Employment Opportunities & Advancement In Sabah

Challenges In Restoring The Identity Of The Stateless In Sabah

Closing The Digital Divide In Sabah

Development Policies & Aid In Sabah

State governments and local changemakers play a significant role in transforming the economic and social landscape of the place, especially for the marginalised and underprivileged communities. Below is a list of some key Sabah policies, plans and programmes that are currently in place:

Sabah Maju Jaya

Launched in March 2021, the Sabah Maju Jaya (SMJ) five-year development plan is aimed at growing Sabah’s three main economic sectors; agriculture, industry and tourism. SMJ will be driven by five enablers; fiscal sustainability, financial facilities, effective and efficient delivery, excellence in integrity and governance, and digital government. The state plan is in line with Malaysia’s Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 development agenda. 

12th Malaysian Plan For Sabah (2021 - 2025)

A total of RM5.01 billion has been allocated for 1,039 development projects in Sabah under the 12th Malaysia Plan’s (12MP) when it was announced in early 2021. Among the major development projects being implemented are the Sabah Pan Borneo Highway project, upgrading of the Sapangar Bay Container Port, upgrading of 50 dilapidated schools via the industrialised building system, the Sabah village road connectivity project and overall improvement on internet connectivity throughout the state. 

Among other things included into the 12MP are: RM369.8 million for housing for the poor and RM800 million allocated for Supplementary Food Assistance and the Per Capita Grant Assistance for one million children at Kemas childcare centres from this year until 2025.

MESEJ (Mini Estet Sejahtera) Project

MESEJ is a state government initiative to address pockets of poverty in prevalent areas in Sabah. The idea is to develop rural land into agricultural plots in order to yield a harvest. Communities involved in these projects will receive wages based on the yield and harvest of the land. MESEJ was initiated in 2004 starting with a 300 hectare landscape along Sungai Laba, Sebatik Island in Tawau among the hard core poor. It has since expanded into other areas in Sabah developing land for oil palm and rubber plantation, aquaculture, micro-agriculture and integrated farming.

EKasih Database

eKasih is a National Poverty Data Bank system that contains information on poverty starting from individual profiles, programs / assistance received by Heads of Household (KIR) and Household Members (AIR) from aid agencies to aid applications and program effectiveness monitoring. / assistance received. eKasih is not an assistance program, but it is a database operated by the Implementation Coordination Unit, Prime Minister’s Department (ICU JPM) that contains data on poor and hardcore poor households. EKasih data is used by ministries/agencies that provide assistance through poverty eradication programs. Those from low income families should register here.

Digital Divide

In order to resolve digital poverty in Sabah, the state government has to fulfil its Aku Janji Pledge and utilise the estimated allocation of RM2.45 bil National Digital Network Initiative (Jendela) project to transform Sabah’s digital infrastructure under the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025).

This includes building 50 telecommunication towers, supplying 4G and 5G bands by 2022  and expanding fixed line fibre optic coverage across 251,166 premises.

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