Magahau, or Kaamatan according to the Rungus people


The Kenyah Peselai, and the aftermath of Konfrontasi


A Kenyah peselai group, 1930, with Dutch photographer HF Tillema

Peselai, an ancient ritual of the Kenyahs of Borneo, is a coming of age journey undertaken by men to discover new lands, wealth and trading. It is the equivalent of the Iban’s bejalai.

… peselai is a rite of passage with deep roots to the land; it is the journeying to distant territories by Kenyah men discovering new territories and cultures. Peselai was once large associated with long-distance raids, scouting for new arable lands, hunting  or trading expeditions. The wide array of ancient Chinese jars, Javanese bronze gongs, Venetian nad Mesopotamian beads, batik textiles and even Papuan penis gourds that can be found in possession among upriver kenyah and Kayan communities are ample evidence that central Borneo had been part of an extensive trade network, indicating the importance of mobility.

Before the outlawing of headhunting 1900s, peselai were organised into large group from 50-500 men, led by a paren (aristocrat) to ensure safety in numbers. Rampant headhunting by Iban raiders were always cause for concern.

But nowadays, especially the late 1900s, peselai trips has evolved into migrant labor journeys, where Kenyah men seek work in logging camps in Sabah and Sarawak.

The dynamic fluidity of movement between the Kenyahs of now Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sarawak (Malaysia) resulted in many peselai journeys between the borders, which back then didn’t exist. It all came to an end when the Confrontation happened, and the borders of Indonesia and Malaysia were finally formed.


Peselai expeditions of the Kenyahs between North Kalimantan and Sarawak.

Long Mekaba, a village with four longhouses, sits between Baram River and Silat River, in Miri. It is a sister village of the Kenyah in Apo Kayan (North Kalimantan), and kinsmen remain in contact with each other via peselai expeditions. Garau Dian, who now lives in Long Mekaba and owns a Malaysian IC, was born Eban Dian in the village of Nawang Baru in the Apo Kayan. In 1974, he went on a peselai trip to Sarawak with around 20 men for jobs in logging camps. He and many Kenyah men chose to settle down in Sarawak in the 1970s peselai trips.


PeLencau Bilong

PeLencau Bilong, of Nawang Baru, a paren iut (minor aristocrat) made 11 peselai trips in his lifetime. He rescued Tom Harrison in a parachute incident when Mr. Harrison first landed in Borneo for Ops Semut in WWII. He said,

We used to go to the Baliu (Balui). It was called Malaysia after Konfrontasi. But we are happy; when we travel to Malaysia, we won’t go hungry as our kinsmen are there. Before we were still at war with the Iban, it was difficult to find food.

Knowledge was gleaned from these journeys between the different lands. These men picked up languages like Malay, Kayan, Iban, Penan and even some Foochow. Yet now with the disappearance of this rite of passage, the lingua franca of the Heart of Borneo has devolved to Malay or Bahasa Indonesia.

Pak Ubang Ding, of Long Nawang, neighbouring settlement of Nawang Baru, went on his first peselai trip to Belaga after being recruited by the Sarawak (British) government to build an airstrip there in 1958. Together with his father and 500 Kenyah men, they crossed the non-existent border. In 1960, he was personally invited by Tom Harrison, then curator of the Sarawak Museum in the Niah Caves excavation project.

Families have been sundered across distances that used to be a mere journey into a neighbour or relative’s land. As Pak Ubang put it so eloquently,

Kenapa dulu kita bisa berkumpul dengan saudara kita di Sarawak walaupun harus berdayung berbulan-bulan. Dan sekarang sudah ada jalan, ada mesin, ada outboard engines tapi nggak bisa, karena ada halangan, susah masuk ke Sarawak secara legal.

(Why is it back then we could meet our kin in Sarawak even though we need to paddle for months, yet now we have tarred roads, machines and outboard engines, we no longer could because borders make it hard to enter Sarawak legally.)

wpid-Screenshot_2013-12-25-17-28-20-1.pngLong Nawang, Apo Kayan Plateau

Excerpts taken from “The Malaysian Roadless Trip” by Adeline Ooi & Dave Lumenta, B-Side Magazine Dec 2014

Photo credits belong to The B-Side Magazine, Adeline Ooi and Dave Lumenta.

The Bisaya’ of Borneo

The Bisaya’ are one of the minor ethnic groups in Borneo, currently located within the vicinity of Limbang District (Northern Sarawak), Beaufort (Sabah) and Brunei.


They are also known as Bekiau, Bisaya Bukit, Bisayah, Lorang Bukit and Visayak. They are similiar to the Tutong and Belait ethnic groups of Borneo.

The Bisaya’ community used to be quite large in the olden days but now there are approximately 10,000 of them. A big factor was the rising conversion to Islam among the Bisaya’, who changed their identities to Malays and Kedayans so as to assimilate easier. Many Bisaya’ in Sarawak are Christians, whilst their Bruneian and Sabahan counterparts are mostly Muslims.

Some of the older generation of the Bisaya’ believed they came from and are related to the Visayans of the Phillipines. However, there are also theories based on the Maragtas (English: History of Panay from the first inhabitants and the Bornean immigrants, from which they descended, to the arrival of the Spaniards), a book written based on oral and written sources about the Aeta of Panay, by a Spaniard, that the Bisaya’ actually fled Borneo during a war with their A-Liko (Melanau) neighbours.


The Bisaya’ were a powerful people, with a king who ruled what is now Brunei (also called P’oni, Puni, Barunai), Awang Alak Betatar or Sultan Mohamad Shah. They were constantly at war with the A-Liko Kingdom (the Melanau). The A-Liko chieftain, Tugau/Datu Makatunaw, attacked the Bisaya’ who resided in Bintulu. The Bisaya’ community, led by Datu Puti, Datu Sumakwel and Datu Paiburong decided to move to a more peaceful location and ended up in the Visayan Islands where the Aetas were originally the indigenous people there. They purchased the island of Panay from Chief Marikudo of the Aeta. They lived and traded for a living, their people intermarrying among each other. The migrants to the Phillipines were not only the Bisaya’ but also the other ethnic groups who fled to find more peaceful settlements and begin trading.

10 years later, Datu Puti returned to Borneo and killed Tugau, sacking and looting their city, taking the rest of the A-Liko as slaves to Panay island. Thus the Kingdom of Brunei grew after the threat of the A-Liko was eliminated. They began forcing the people of Igan, Kalaka, Samarahan and Sarawak to pay tribute.

Later on some of the Visayans moved back to their homeland in Borneo.


When the Spaniards arrived in the Islands 1521(before named it as the Philippines), they called the Tattooed Natives there Pintados who spoke a distinct Bornean language, During the war between Brunei and the Spanish, the Spaniards recorded that the Brunei Sultan Lijar was hiding in “THE RIVER OF BISAYAN, THE COUNTRY OF MELANO, NEAR SARAGUA”.

Mayhaps they were mentioning the Kemena River, where the Bintulu Melanau and Vaie resided. And the term “Saragua” could be referring to “Sarawak”.

Another version suggested that the origin of the Bisaya’ were from a supernatural being, Dewa Amas who fell down to earth in Ulu Limbang in an egg, and fathered 14 children from 14 native wives. The youngest, Awang Alak Betatar, became the first Muslim Sultan of Brunei, as told in “Sha’er Awang Semaun”.


The Bisaya’ of Sabah’s language has 90% intelligibility with the Dusun Tatana dialect. The Bisaya’ in Sabah also has 58% lexical similarity with dialects of Sarawak Bisaya and 60% with the Brunei Bisaya’ dialect.

The Bisaya’ of Sarawak celebrate teh Babulang Festival in Limbang every year with beauty pageants and water buffalo races.

In between the lines

History under the microscope ~ The Borneo Post

WESTERN historical narratives on the colonised, focusing specifically on the Dayak Ibans of Sarawak under the Brooke regime, are being scrutinised in a book by an academic from UiTM Sarawak in Kota Samarahan.

Associate Prof Dr Bromeley Philip is shedding some light on how history was written to privilege only the so-called ‘white supremacy’ vis-à-vis the ‘savage’ native inhabitants.

Entitled Historical narratives of the colonised: The Noble Savage of Sarawak, one chapter of the book (still in press by Palgrave Macmillan) focuses on how western historians highlighted only the positive image of the so-called ‘paternal’ White Rajahs who were portrayed as bringing peace to otherwise chaotic Sarawak due to strong resistance from the Iban ‘rebels’ (western label), notably Rentap.

Rentap was depicted as a rebel, befitting the savage image, accorded by the imperialistic west to any other humans besides Europeans.

“The Ibans were probably fortunate because James Brooke saw the Ibans not just as savages but as noble savages – an opinion shared by Charles Brooke too,” Bromeley quipped.

Based on his research, he said: “In fact, James Brooke did write in his diary that the Ibans were “superior in stature, and better made than any Dayaks I have seen.” And I may also quote what Charles Brookes wrote of the Ibans – “strong in body, a mass of muscle, quick in intelligence and perception.” (source: Crisswell, 1978, Rajah Charles Brooke).

He pointed out that the history of Sarawak during the Brooke regime was written only from the eyes of westerners, adding: “We are in the periphery of history, never central in their historical account. It is their history.”

Bromeley said the natives did not really have their own history – it was always the Brooke’s.

Rentap was recorded in their history only to accentuate their supremacy over the native inhabitants and never was Rentap featured from his or his own people’s perspective, he added.

“During the Brooke’s era, we the local inhabitants were just like ‘Friday’ (a native character) in Robinson Crusoe’s story. What matters were things the Rajah did at that material time.

“Crusoe even gave his native friend the name Friday because he found him on Friday! That was rather convenient but unfortunately disrespectful. Crusoe did not bother to know what Friday’s actual name was. Friday was only mentioned in the story book and he did not have any voice – so much so that what he thought did not matter. Crusoe’s story was just analogical of the Ibans’ story under the Brookes as featured by western writers,” Bromeley said.

English commoner

James Brooke was an English commoner who, like most imperialistic European adventurers then, was looking for opportunities in the East and he saw them in Sarawak. He was also known as the first White Rajah who obtained governorship of Sarawak from the Sultan of Brunei and eventually proclaimed himself Rajah of Sarawak.

According to Bromeley, based on his academic inquiry into a book, written by Robert Pringle (revised 2007), the Ibans were not made aware of the existence of any meaningful central government.

Quoting from Pringle (p59), he said: “Their (Ibans’) lack of respect for the Sultanate was quite obvious when the new European overlords arrived. Charles Brooke related a grim tale of some Brunei nobles en route to the Krian. Encountering some Iban marauders on the coast, the pengiran in command displayed the Sultan’s commission, carefully folded in yellow satin, hoping to dissuade them from attack. But the Ibans replied “we don’t know about things like that” (nadai nemu utai bakanya), and proceeded to take the heads of the entire party.”

Bromeley asked: “If the Ibans did not recognise the Brunei’s sovereignty which ceded Sarawak to James Brooke, how could they even recognise the Brooke family as the Rajahs?”

He said based on Brunei’s Selesiah, the Malacca ‘grant’ of the Sultan of Johore only included Kalaka, Saribas, Sadong, Samarahan and Sarawak (Kuching now) but there was no mention of the Batang Lupar river system, the first river in the now Second Division to be settled by Iban migrants from the Kapuas.

According to him, its omission from the Malacca grant, as remembered in Brunei tradition, may indicate the warlike Ibans were soon living along Batang Lupar and Batang Skrang in sufficient numbers to discourage Brunei interest.

Bromeley also said Batang Lupar was what Pringle declared as ‘the Iban country’ but this was not mentioned in the slightest amount of information available concerning the 16th and 17th century Sultanate.

It was along Batang Skrang that Rentap put up a strong resistance against the Rajahs because Rentap was just protecting his territory from a foreign encroachment.

Indigenous viewpoint

Rentap was pictured as a recalcitrant by western writers – Baring-Gould and Bampfylde. Villain as he might have been portrayed by western writers, Rentap’s struggle to ward off alien encroachment of his native land is clearly very commendable from the indigenous perspective.

Faced with strong resistance from Rentap, the Rajah’s expeditions met with failure twice. While the Rajah’s defeats were not highlighted in published accounts of Sarawak, Rentap’s retreat further into the interior (taken to be Rentap’s eventual defeat), was, however, highlighted.

According to Baring-Gould and Bampfylde (1989: p184), “Rentap will not be noticed again. Broken and deserted by all, he retired to the Entabai branch of the Kanowit where he died some years later.”

The writers picture Rentap’s retreat (as viewed by the Rajahs)
as being tragic – that he was broken and deserted. However, there was
no evidence to corroborate that Rentap actually suffered a tragic defeat.

As much as western writers tried to show how successful and effective Brooke’s Rule was against the Iban warrior-chief, what came to light was the fact that Rentap was a force to be reckoned with indeed.

Despite his lack of modern arms and ammunition and small band of followers in contrast to the Rajah’s force, he defended his fortress at Bukit Sadok against two separate attacks by the Rajah. It took three expeditions (June 1857, July 1858, and August 1861) by Charles Brooke, the Tuan Muda, to finally dislodge Rentap from his fortress. Rentap however, evaded capture.

“It was Rentap who actually showed bravery and resilience against the formidable White Rajah,” Bromeley noted.
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The Bidayuh of Serian: Sambat group

One of the 15 subgroups under the Bukar-Sadong Bidayuh of Serian, Samarahan is the Sambat group. The Sambats are one of the smaller groups among the Bidayuh.

Like the rest, they came from Tembawang Tampun, and passed through Tembawang Rutoi (the main original Bidayuh settlement for all Bidayuh Bukar-Sadong between the border of Sarawak-Kalimantan), settling at Rawan Mountain. Later on they moved to Tembawang Sambat, between Bukit Bukeng and Mapu Kejabu in the 1600s. They began calling themselves the Sambat Bidayuh. In 1820s, they abandoned the settlement and began migrating to find new ground.

Bunan Mawang – abandoned in 1964.

Terbat Mawang – Named after Sg. Terbat.

Tong Nibong – Named after Lubok Nibong.

Bunan Gega – Gega means bamboo bridge. Moved out after their conversion to Roman Catholicism because the pagan elders of Bunan Mawang didn’t want to offend their gods.

Bunan Punok – Moved due to the Indonesian Confrontation. The last group from Bunan Mawang.

Mapu Mawang – Legend has it that their ancestors came out of a hole in the ground. The hole still can be seen in the village.

Mapu Kejabu – Named after Sg. Kejabu. Moved out after their conversion to Roman Catholicism because the pagan elders of Bunan Mawang didn’t want to offend their gods.

The Urakng Banuak’a (Maloh) of Kalimantan Barat


Maloh is a term widely known in Sarawak and in much of Kalimantan Barat. They are known as the Urakng Banuak’a (people of the land), divided into a few groups;

~ Tamanbaloh who live in Batang Embaloh

~ Tamankapuas who live in Putussibau and Medala

~ Kalis who live by the Kalis River

~ Dayak Lau’-Palin of Manday River.

Tamanbaloh, Tamankapuas, Kalis and Dayak Lau’ Palin are commonly used names in Kalimantan Barat, but the general term Maloh has been used by the Dayaks of Sarawak to describe these people.

Those “Maloh” who travel far all the way to Sekadau and cannot return back (or decide not) to their village of origin are called Tamansesat (lost Taman people), or Tamansekado. However, they accept the term “Maloh” from outsiders. Today, the Maloh can be found in some longhouses in Sarawak, especially Lubok Antu, Katibas River and Kapit.

The Maloh are good craftsman and traders. They became trading middlemen between Malays and other Dayaks. At one time, “Maloh” blacksmiths frequently crossed over into Sarawak from the “Maloh” heartland in the Upper Kapuas. They would usually stay in Iban longhouses, making silver and copper adornments and also beaded clothes made from small cowrie shells. In return,they received food and accommodation while working, and final payment in hulled rice or woven pua by the Iban. With the rice and pua, they exchange these items with the Malay Sultanate for gongs and other important items. Some Malohs settled down in the Iban and Kayan longhouses in Sarawak.

Linguistically, the Maloh language falls under the Benuaka category or Tamanic, which is very different from their Iban, Kantuq and Kayan neighbours.

The “Maloh also has a stratified society. They are divided into the Samagat (nobility), mostly the headman or medical/ritual expert, the Pabiring (middle class) traders, the Banua (commoners) and Pangkam (slave). Maloh villages are called Banua and may consist of single longhouse called Sau.