Ohh Cap Apek

My family and I celebrated Gawai early this year. Yesterday to be exact. Together with my Mum’s birthday, we decided to do an informal Gawai gathering. Partly for my bro who couldn’t take leave for Gawai this year, and also missed Gawai last year. So we cooked Gawai food.

So on my off day, it felt like another working day. Started cooking from lunch all the way till night. The antidote? Booze at the end of the night. Which accounts for my lack of energy going to work today.

Instead of the usual family dinner this year, I secretly asked her secondary school friends to join as a surprise. Watching them talk and laugh was priceless.

Funniest thing? Almost half her presents were tuak/liquor. And when they drank, damn we kids couldn’t beat how loud and raucous they got. I was worried I’d have to mop up urine on the floor because they were laughing till they were crying.

You graduate, from school or university. You get married, have kids, and settle down into a routine. Your only friends will be your colleagues, your life revolves around your family. And reunions have to be planned way in advance because someone’s kids will always be needing something suddenly.

When we were young, we promised each other, friends forever. Somehow we only realize how far away we are from the best of them when we wake up one day and realize we’re 40. Where have they all gone? On with their lives, busy with family and work. Priorities change, people change, life changes.

It got me thinking. How will I react one day when I meet old friends after 20 years? I take it for granted that I am always in contact, we keep each other updated. But surely they will get married, have a family and move on. It’s sad, but it’s a fact of life.

Maybe one day my kids will plan a surprise party for me. Hah!


A Bidayuh history

The Bidayuh constitute about 8% of the Sarawak population, numbering about 200,000 people.

What are the Bidayuh?

“The humanists of the Dayak world, Bidayuh are tolerant of human idiosyncrasies and occasional excesses, most of which they realistically assess as absurd but harmless, seeking the peacemaking and healing course through the despairs and abrasions of this world…. Social aggressiveness is not looked upon with favour. A sense of humor, however, is a social asset; self-important folk are not taken seriously.”

~ The Honey Tree Song, Carol Rubenstein

Well, in away that sums up what the Bidayuh are. Mild, pacifist, relaxed people. My blood is mixed with the Kenyah so that explains my occasional swings from passive to aggressive.

Anyway, the British called them Land Dayaks. Don’t call us that.

The Bidayuh ancestors first came from Kalimantan Barat. Sungkung, Bugau and Sungai Selakau (origins of the Salako-Lara) between Sambas and Sengkawang, are among the places where the majority resided. Gradually they migrated inland towards the hills and mountains, trying to escape the barbarities of the Skrang Iban and Malay pirates, and the oppressive Brunei nobility.

However, most of them migrated into Sarawak before the boundary between Kalbar and Sarawak was created. So in a sense they aren’t migrants from another land. But there are more Bidayuh in Kalbar. The difference being that the groups that are related to the Bidayuh of Sarawak aren’t called Bidayuh there, rather they group themselves based on localities, like Dayak Sungkung and Dayak Sekeyam, not having an umbrella term for all.

Before we go any further, like the Chinese (Hakka, Hokkien etc.), the Bidayuh are also divided into sub-groups (by geography). And under each main groups are more specific groups, where by eventhough they speak the same language in a main group, there is always a slight difference in slang and tune.

There are 6 main groups.

1. Bisadong (Batang Sadong and it’s tributaries and Gunung Sadong, Serian)

2. Bibukar (Batang Samarahan and Batang Bukar and it’s tributaries, Serian)

3. Biatah (Siburan, Padawan, Kuching)

4. Bijagoi (Gunung Bratak, Gunung Jagoi, Bau)

5. Bisingai (Gunung Singai, Bau)

6. Selako-Lara (Lundu, Bau)

After exploring new lands and settling down, they moved away from each other and gradually became isolated. Thus the language and culture evolved exclusively off each other, creating marked differences even though certain groups aren’t that far apart.

It’s okay, it’s alright, it’s enough

What is a modern Dayak?

In the minds of many, it’s a contradicting phrase. The word Dayak tend to conjure up images of preliterate people, living in the hinterlands, practicing shifting agriculture, living off the land. The Dayak philosophy of being in harmony with nature, body, mind and spirit.

The word modern denotes higher standard of living, in concrete houses, with cars, in suits and dresses, Starbucks and McDs.

I guess the modern Dayak is straddling the line between it’s rich heritage and the pull of the capitalistic modern lifestyle. Some straddle the line well, incorporating what can be and preserving it. Some get folded into the seductive pull of a more ‘civilised’ lifestyle, away from their ‘barbaric’ past.

There are many Dayaks who are ashamed of their roots. They don’t want to be associated with the primitives, so they abandon their origins and adopt a new culture, the culture of materialism. I don’t judge those who do so. It is their right to do what they want with their life. I am but a young man who still ponder at the relevance of an increasingly obsolete way of life and mindset. To some, abandoning their culture is like opening up to new possibilities. To some purists culture must be maintained at all cost, hence the prehistoric mindset as well.

I believe that the arts can be preserved and maintained, but the mindset must be left behind. The complacent, it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s enough mindset. Why do you think there are so many Dayaks who are still poor and left behind?

Their sense of entitlement, perception of being victims of higher powers and change, their over-glorification of the irrelevant past makes them both proud and scared. Scared of change, of failure, of shame. The cycle goes on, from one generation to the next.

Then generation Y comes in. Gen-Yers are the new breed of Dayaks, usually of mixed parentage, who accept modern norms easily, born into relative comfort, distanced from their original cultures. Theirs is the culture of contemporary music, art, selfish materialistic individualism trumping all else. Community is ones’ friends.

Of course not everyone is the same. There are those brought up in households that expose their children to their original culture (and I’m not just talking about Dayaks only). But with modernity some parts of the past has to be sacrificed.

I listen to some people speaking in their native tongues, and it has lost it’s purity. The modern version has been contaminated by foreign words that never existed before. It’s okay if there is no substitute for a particular word, but some words which already exist and then get replaced by a foreign word because everyone uses it seem pointless. Like the Malay word alamat (address), there’s a substitute for it, spelled ‘addres’, and pencuci mulut with ‘desert’.

So there now exists multiple mindsets. The old who live in their comfortable bubble of complacency, the baby boomers who feel entitled and victimised, and the Gen X’s and Y’s, who dive headfirst into the modern lifestyle.

So what is a modern Dayak?

A Bidayuh Legend: Origin

(Photo source: Mattias Klum)

You can find many texts on the migration of prehistoric humans across early landmass. So instead of going into the boring hypothetical assumptions that litter other anthropology books, let me tell you a story.

In a remote corner of the world, an island lie quietly among the seas and oceans. It was lush and green, great rivers snaking all over its land, high mountains running down its middle, like a very dry and old backbone. Deers, pigs and beast of many kinds roamed the thick forests. Birds flew the air, cruising in the wind that came down from the mountains. No one lived there but the animals, except for one man, the first Land Dayak.

His name is Tenabi. He lived at the foot of Bukit Suit and Baru. He had a wife named Kitupong, but she died during childbirth. Yet, tenabi conceived a child in the calf of his leg. When it matured, his calf burst, and a baby girl was born. When she became a woman, Tenabi married her and had three children.

They had a daughter named Timuyau, a son named Padat and another named Tiruah. When the grew up, the moved out of the family home and ventured to find a place to call their own. They finally settled at Sinyang and Bukit Saki. They both got married and had children. All seemed well.

One day Padat’s son walked by Tiruah’s sugarcane field. He felt hungry and stole some. Tiruah’s son was furious when he found out that someone stole the sugarcanes his father planted. So he set a trap. Padat’s son came again the next day to steal some more, not knowing of the trap that lay in wait. Just as he was about to get to the sugarcane, he got caught in the trap and beheaded.

Padat was both sad and angry, desiring for revenge. He moved his family to Sikangan and launched an attack on Tiruah and his family. Tiruah, managing to escape in time, didn’t want to fight his brother, moved away and settled at Inikabut, on the right branch of the Sarawak River.

There, Tiruah’s son, Sikaya, fell in love with a spirit named Sekama. They both got married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Soon their children grew up and got married. They were blessed with many children, Bena, Bungu, Bibawang, Biatah, Singai, Bikirup, Baang, Bratak, Peninjau and Puruh.

Based on an article by Dr. John Hewit (The First Land Dayak).

For the unfamiliar, the grandchildren of Sikaya and Sekama is the ancestors of the Bidayuh. Some of the names are based on real places where many Bidayuhs came from.

“Bi” means “people of” and Dayuh, “land”. The British termed them Land Dayaks, but upon the Amendment of the Constitution, it was changed to Bidayuh.

Bidayuh is not pronounced as Bi-da-yooh. It should be Bi-da-yeh  (uh as in urn/learn). That’s how the natives pronounce it. A dead ringer for who’s one and who’s not.

Dayak tu ape?

To the average Malaysian (by that I mean the ones from Lepehland), Dayak means natives who still live on trees and ride turtles to Malaya (yes, some people still call it that). Actually, they generalize. If you’re from Borneo, oh well, it’s so green. There can’t possibly be cars right?

(Sourced from Wikipedia)

 At risk of turning this post into a long preachy piece on the stupidity of our western cousins, better move on.

According to the Kalimantan Review (Nov 1999), Dayak is the collective name for around 405 ethno-linguistic groups of the Borneo Island. One common feature is they live (or used to) along rivers, mountain tops and highlands, practise paddy shifting cultivation, and collect jungle produce.

Interesting fact. There’s a Dayak King, in Kalimantan Barat, named Singa Bansa, the 6th ruler to sit on the Hulu Aik throne at Menyumbung Village, Sandal District, Ketapang Regency (Chang Pat Foh). Not many people know this. I don’t.  Apparently the Hulu Aik Kingdom was established around the year 700 at Krio River. Anyone from Kalbar can verify this?

Considering the size of Kalimantan, it’s not surprising that they contain more diverse Dayak ethnic groups compared to Sarawak or Sabah. Sadly, efforts to truly document all the ethnic groups are sometimes conflicting, sometimes missing. There has not been (as far as I know), any written, current record on all the ethnic groups. Only the bigger, major groups are researched/documented while the minority slowly dwindle or assimilate into the nearest group.

Sarawak Museum (formerly the best ethnography museum in SEA), as everyone knows, lies quietly near Padang Merdeka, collecting dust. Researches are being done and carried out by foreign researchers. No new exhibits (more like rotating old stock), the same old thing lying within it’s empty halls. Sad, that we’re slowly losing our cultural heritage, dying with the old because the new ain’t that interested. And the people who are supposed to do something about it, is sitting in their air-conditioned offices pushing pencils (pens, whatever).

Yeah, why not build an aluminium smeltering plant which would never pollute the environment because we don’t have enough money to fund and promote our own culture?

Religion is all right, it’s the people.

To address the comments of one of my readers on the identity of the Jati Miriek, whom I mentioned termed themselves Melayu Kedayan, is that they used to call themselves that, but now are tyring to preserve their identity. Linguistically and culturally they are more akin to the Lakiput, Lun Bawang or Kajang, but because most of them are Muslims, they term themselves (or used to) Melayu. Why Kedayan? Because most of the Kedayans are Muslims (and among the few Dayak groups to be mostly Muslim) thus they generally regard themselves akin to them.

Taken from National Geographic.

Which brings us to another issue. Islamisation.

One of the reasons the Dayak identity is gradually being eroded is because of Islamisation. Before I go any further, I have no problems with Muslims. I have many friends who are Muslim. My father is a Muslim (I am not). I am blessed with many Muslim friends, both in Borneo and Lepehland, who are open minded and understanding. Many people accuse Muslims (because they are the majority) to be narrow-minded, over-privileged, and wants to impose some sort of superiority control over the general populace, thus eroding all other identities.

The thing is, the majority of Muslims I met are casual, free spirited and open minded people who embrace and acknowledge the differences yet embracing everyone. It’s the fringes of the majority, those supremacists like UMNO and PERKASA who dictate and sway public sentiment (using Utusan Malaysia). But non Muslims associate these over zealousness with all Muslims. As usual, politicising everything is the order of the day.

Let me set things straight. Being Muslim does not mean you are Malay. Religion and race is intertwined, but not mutually exclusive. If you think only radical Muslims wants to erode all cultures un-Islamic (allegedly) like wayang kulit, look at some of the Christian evangelists. No offence to our Christians brothers, but these ideas of burning traditional artifacts, fabrics and crafts just because it seems to promote idolatry and spirit worship is ridiculous. Just because the Pua Kumbu sometimes have human motifs on them doesn’t mean we worship it. I once knew someone (a Christian) who, upon his death, had his house purged of all traditional crafts and tapestries because it had evil spirits in them by these charismatic religious.

So it’s not just Islam. It’s the people who interpret religion. The dominant ideology will always try to prevail, like how Christianity slowly wiped out the cultures and traditions of the Orang Ulu. Now of course they are gradually reviving these lost traditions, but the damage has been done. It’s the whole yoga thing all over again.

There is nothing wrong with retaining your identity as a  Dayak if you embrace Islam. The Muslim Chinese still call themselves Chinese, not Malay. And by the way, the whole Abdullah and bin/binti you apparently must insert into your name once you convert? Nonsense. There is no provision in Islam that says you must. My father still maintains his Dayak name, without a bin or Abdullah. Why do you need an Arabic name? Are you an Arab?

I think some converts relinquish their identities as Dayaks is because of the privilege that entails being called a Malay.

So please, keep an open mind. Being pro-Dayak is good for our identity and culture, but always remember there are two sides to everything. Pride is one thing, zealotry something different altogether. Some people become so taksub with the idea of Dayak identity, they condemn everything else. Everyone else is not as good as we are because we have more unique cultures, exotic dances and diversity.

Isn’t that the same as Malay supremacy?