Mayashanti5282046’s Blog


Remembering the forgotten Dayaks

Posted by mayashanti5282046 于 十一月 22, 2008

Sim Kwang Yang | May 31, 08 1:41pm

Published in

During a recent dinner gathering among some Sarawakians and ‘Orang Malaya” (The name for Malaysians from Peninsular Malaysia among Sarawakians), the talk was on the forthcoming Gawai Dayak celebration in the Land of the Hornbill.


A Chinese friend asked a Sarawak lady of mixed parentage if she was a Dayak. She said no, she was not a Dayak, for her late father was a Melanau, and her mother is an Iban. That reply puzzled and confused everyone.

I had to clear the air. When the Ibans talk among themselves, they often refer to the Bidayuhs as “Dayaks”. In their sense of ethnic identity, they are “Ibans”, which in their language means “Man”. In that ethnocentric context, the term “Dayak” refers to the Other and carries some degree of derogatory connotation.

According to most anthropologists, the Ibans migrated along the Kapuas River from the southern part of the mountain ranges separating Sarawak from the Indonesia side of Kalimantan very long ago. They probably first settled near Batang Ai upriver from what is now the small town of Sri Aman in the Second Division.

These virile, hardy, and restless Ibans survived mainly by shifting cultivation via the slash-and-burn method, and supplemented their food source with hunting, gathering, and fishing. Rapid increase in their population probably laid pressure upon them to migrate elsewhere in search of new farm land. Among all the ethnic people in Sarawak, the Ibans are the ones who can be found in all nooks and corners of that wild and vast territory.

Iban adat and berjalai

gawai dawak 020607 foodThis restlessness also has its root in their cultural traditions.  According to the Iban adat, a young man’s initiation rites include a journey into the unknown jungle. It is believed that during this journey or berjalai, he will acquire the courage, wisdom, and virtue of manhood.

Naturally, as the Ibans moved westward towards Lundu, the western-most tip of Sarawak, they infringed upon the land farmed by the Bidayuhs. War inevitably broke out. I had found Bidayuh old men in remote villages recounting some of their fierce battles with the aggressive Ibans.

(One Bidayuh explained to me why they prefer to live among the hills. It was easier to shoot downwards and defend themselves against the Iban warriors from the advantage of height! )

That kind of deadly enmity is gone nowadays, but the ethnic alienation lingers slightly in their collective memory. Hence, the confusion over the signification of the term “Dayak” caused by my lady friend at the dinner gathering.

This story illustrates just how amazing the ethnic complexity can be in Sarawak.

dayak NCR land 220405 hopefullTake the Bidayuhs for instance. They constitute about 15 % of the population of Sarawak, form the second largest Dayak community, and are concentrated around the First Division near Kuching City.  But this small ethnic community has seven major dialects and numerous minor ones. Sometimes, as you travel 10 or 20 miles down the road, you find the Bidayuhs speaking a different tongue!

As the post-modernist thinker Foucault observed, the naming and categorisation of people are acts of will to power. When the British colonial government was in power in Sarawak between the end of WW2 and our independence in 1963, the non-Muslim indigenous people were largely divided into Land and Sea Dayaks. The Bidayuhs comprising some 15% of our population were labelled as Land Dayaks, and the Ibans who make up nearly 30% were supposed to be Sea Dayaks. Today, with the British long gone, this distinction has become obsolete.

All this confusion about the names of ethnic communities of Sarawak does belie the fantastic diversity that exists among the non-Muslim native population of Sarawak.

The Federal Constitution recognises some 27 ethnic communities as Bumiputras in the state, including the Malays. The Ibans are the largest community, surpassing the Malays and the Chinese. The Penans are the smallest group with a total population of a little over 12,000.

There are many other sub-groups that identify themselves according to language, blood ties, and traditions. For instance, the Punans are a sub-group of the Kenyahs, and they are very distinct from the Penans. Foreigners and Sarawakians alike often make the mistake of confusing the two.

gawai dawak 020607 chickenThe term “Dayak” came to political prominence in the years and days preceding the formation of Malaysia in 1963. During that time, the budding political consciousness of Sarawakians was very much influenced by the racial narrative of the Malayan federation.

The politics of race is the politics of counting heads. It was more or less agreed that since the Dayak were the majority people in Sarawak, the chief minister ought to be a Dayak. There was also a tacit agreement that the Governor would then be a Malay.

Upon Independence on September 16 1963, the first chief minister was indeed Stephen Kalong Ningkan, an Iban.

Twisted political logic

Further recognition to the political importance of the Dayaks in Sarawak arrived with the designation of one day in the year, the First of June, as Gawai Dayak Day. This decision was gazetted in September 1964, and celebrated for the first time in June 1965.

Unfortunately for the Dayaks, Stephen Kalong Ningkan was booted out of office in 1967 in a crisis engineered from Kuala Lumpur and necessitating a constitutional amendment. Another Iban, Penghulu Tawi Sli, took over as CM briefly before a Malay-Melanau chief minister came into office, to defy the BN logic of communal politics until this day.

All through those four long decades, Dayak discontent with this twisted logic in the state’s political life has always festered beneath the surface. Any member of the Dayak intellegentia will tell you that the Dayaks are the fourth class citizens in their homeland, after the Melanaus, the Malays, and the Chinese – in that order. Indeed, as an ethnic community, they have been very much marginalised by the mainstream socio-economic development programmes launched at the federal and state levels.

mahathir global perdana war crimes forum 050207 leo moggiedaniel tajemThis discontent surfaced in 1983 with the formation of Parti Bangsa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) by people like Leo Moggie and Daniel Tajem.  Their dream was to regain political prominence through their nationalist ideology of “Dayakism”. That was the time when all members of the Non-Muslim population rallied to be a single ethnic entity.

After the infamous 1987 Ming Court coup (an unsuccessful attempt to oust Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud), the PBDS found themselves in the ambiguous position of being in the opposition in the state while still remaining as a member of the BN at federal level. After attempts at the poll failed, they rejoined the Sarawak BN.

Nevertheless, the Dayaks have embraced this new political festival of Gawai Dayak Day on June 1 every year with great enthusiasm. It is a public holiday in Sarawak, and celebration usually begins in earnest even before the actual date itself, with much feasting, drinking, dancing, and visiting.

Today, the Dayak people do face an uncertain future. The once powerful and influential PBDS has been deregistered because of intense factional fight following the retirement of its president Leo Moggie. The splinter groups that emerged in the aftermath of PBDS infighting have now repackaged themselves as various new political parties with names and acronyms that defy memory. The dream of Dayak unity conceived by the founding fathers of PBDS has been shattered beyond measure.

Life’s still a struggle

Socio-economically, some Dayaks have benefited from the state development programmes. There is now a growing Dayak middle class in Kuching City and major towns of Sarawak, working in the civil service, with some gainfully engaged in business and in the professions.

In remote rural areas of Sarawak though, there are still pockets of abject poverty. The educated young people now no longer look to farming as a life long occupation. Most of them have packed up and left the longhouses and headed to the towns in Sarawak and West Malaysia in search of a better life. In some areas, the problem of alcoholism is severe.

As the Gawai Dayak Day approaches, those far flung youths would be looking forward to the day of home-coming. They will take leave from their employer, book early for their airline or bus ticket, and use their hard-earned cash to buy a present or two for the folk at home. Their mouth will water at the prospect of feasting on the chicken cooked in bamboo called pansuh, as well as the newly brewed rice wine called tuak.

Life is still a hard struggle for our Dayak brethrens, but at least they still have this day all to themselves, called Gawai Dayak Day, affirming again their place on this good earth. On this day, their heart will be filled with goodwill for one and all, and hope for prosperity, good health, and good luck in the future.

I can go on and analyse how the non-Muslim natives of Sarawak and Sabah can end the political future of Umno, but on this joyous occasion, we may as well forget the dirty business of politics for once.

So, in the spirit of Gawai Dayak, I wish all my Dayak friends, Gayu



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