What’s your ROOTS man???

The generation of today is living in a world where they are offered a vast array of choices, whether in music, pop culture or dance. With that, comes the decline of interest in traditional arts, culture and music. It’s inevitable, as things are everchanging.


The custodians of traditional culture are gradually declining, as fewer and fewer young people take it up. The great teachers are slowly dying away, bringing their technique with them to the grave. The traditional is often perceived as boring, old and sometimes embarassing. We have begun to be ashamed of our culture, yet we condemn and ridicule others not of our kind who make an effort to learn it.

Unlike our counterparts in Kalimantan who excel and have carried Dayak culture far ahead and established it as a dynamic art form, over here, we are lagging behind, stuck to the old ways, doing the same thing, unappealling to the masses of younger generation.

From my personal experience, I’ve always found traditional dance to be somewhat outdated and reserved for the experts. So I never bothered to learn (and too embarassed to take lessons). My excuses were shame, two left feet and fear. But once I started, I got hooked. It was an incredibly liberating experince for me, even with all the mistakes I made. There’s a whole new world out there that we, as the modern generation, can carry on, make tweaks and still maintain it’s authenticity. What I mean is that on the one hand we have the traditional, slow ones, on the other, the faster, upbeat yet still derived from the orginal steps but improved (purists would not agree, however). Same goes for music.

There’s something about doing something that has been done for generations, slowly refined with the times. With the advent of Malayanizing everything (since it’s Malay-sia), the Dayak culture has slowly been eroded of it’s authenticity (Islamization). We can take a leaf from our incredibly pro-Dayak neigbours, who has stood by their identity with pride.

For example, in most dance competitions held in Sarawak, Malay elements has to be incorporated (to win) which is not only so homogenized, it clashes with the more spontaneous art of Dayak dance. Some competitions require that you do a Malay dance! While in the rampaian kreatif (Creative Dance Medley), the costumes are of the bright, shiny Malayic type, incorporated with many Malay moves. (Imagine someone wearing a chawat doing the joget, urgghh!) If you have the time and opportunity to watch a Kalimantan creative traditional dance, you’d be blown away by how Dayak (and beautiful) it looks.

I’m not just talking about boasting how powerful your ancestors are going mengayau (headhunting), or how good they are at drinking. That is a thing of the past. It’s no longer relevant today. Instead, think of how you can do your part by learning something about the history of your culture and it’s traditions. Part of the reason why our Dayak identity is eroding is because we have forgotten what makes us Dayak. Our language, dance, music, rotting by the wayside while we pursue the modern lifestyle (which is not wrong, not saying you have to hunt for food and wear a chawat). How can you be proud of your identity when you have nothing to show for it but the race stated in your birth cert?

It’s time we remember who we are and be proud of our own Dayak identity.


Indigenous identity in Borneo

There are numerous ethnic groups in Borneo, some say a few hundred. As awareness begins to spread through the different communities on their own unique identity, smaller, minority ethnic groups start breaking away from the major groups they joined. Some have been assimilated (intermarriges), some extinct (wars, diseases).

Before the coming of the European powers, the people of Borneo did not have any problems when it came to who’s who. You neighbours are your neighbours, you marry them sometimes, fought with them and maybe take their heads. But the Europeans, keen on neat categories for the different ethnic groups began to place names like Land Dayak and Orang Ulu. When Sarawak and Sabah joined the Federation, they continued this policy of nine categories (and expanded in the constitution). Major ethnic groups started changing their names to be more indigenous, (Land Dayak – Bidayuh) and an awareness for ethnic identity arose. So no longer are all just Dayak but Iban, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu etc.

Some Orang Ulu, comprising the people of Northern Sarawak, Kayan, Kenyah, Kejaman, Penan, Punan etc. do not identify with the word Dayak, preferring Orang Ulu. Some Orang Ulu leaders even proposed that the name Orang Ulu (people of the inland) be changed because it sounds backward, wanting to change it to Lun Daya in 2009. Many objected, seeing as how the word Orang Ulu is already known, and such perception of primitiveness is no longer relevant.

Many Melanaus are Muslims, but there’s also a sizeable Christian population. Some groups were cut off from the ones on the coast by the Iban and Kayan expansion. The inland ones were becoming more “Kayanized” while the coastal ones adopted many Malay practices. Intermarriage with the Malays, and the Kayan among the aristocracies of the inlands.

The fact is that indigenous identity is immutable, always changing. As populations move across different areas, join together with other groups, they assimilate and become something else. The nomads become settled and adopt a new name. Most groups, being nomads, moved a lot and came into contact with diverse groups, sharing and borrowing cultures and practices. Intermarriage between aristocrats of different ethnicities were common. Slaves of war were taken and assimilated. Since records are mostly oral and does not go that far back, origins can be difficult to prove and always subject to controversy. Even if we were to categorize ourselves based on our origins, we have evolved culturally and linguistically so far from each other.

There still exists many in between groups, who shelter under an official category to make it legally easier. They take one name, then change it and now many use their original names out of pride. The assimilation of many Muslim Dayaks into Malays (taking on their culture and language) have also caused many ethnic groups to disappear. Today, those who claim to be pure Malays, or Ibans, or Kayans might not even be pure, because in the hazy first generations of the Dayaks, intermarriages are rife. I just found out I might have Kejaman blood after all.

“… cannot classify the population (of Sarawak) neatly on the basis of physical characteristics, because of the constant mixing. Cultural criteria are of little help… for they are often of such trivial importance as the presence or absence of tattoos. Linguistic classifications, too have so far had little precision… and the usefulness of classifying peoples, as opposed to languages, on linguistic grounds, remain to be demonstrated, in a situation where there seems to be little correlation between the language and anything else. Classification the basis of origins is equally difficult.”

~ Tim G. Babcock, 1974

Dayak rojaks are easier to find nowadays than pure bloods. For the Dayak mindset, racial lines aren’t that important. Religious are. Many Dayak parents forbid, or frown upon the marriage of Dayaks to Muslims because it usually entails the death of their culture where ignorance breed Arabic names and Malay practices. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Dayak Muslim who isn’t almost 100% Malay. Even the Bidayuh Muslims of Serian wear Baju Melayu and Baju Kurung.

Just like how as opposed to Western countries where asking the race of someone is sensitive, over here it’s the norm, where no one assumes because everyone looks almost like everyone else. You can’t speak Bidayuh to someone who isn’t one (and doesn’t speak it), and even then you have to make sure it’s the same with your own sub ethnic group. (Some people might say Iban is the lingua franca, but hey, I don’t speak it.)

You want to know not out of racism (mostly), but out of affinity.


Ethnologue (Gordon 2005) estimates that there are about 6,900 languages spoken around the worldtoday. It is also estimated that only 4% of the globe’s 6 billion people speak 96% of the world’slanguages (Crystal 2000).

Nettle and Romaine (2000) estimate that about half the known languages in the world have disappeared over thepast 500 years and Crystal (2000) suggests that an average of one language may vanish every two weeksover the next 100 years. This would lead to around half of the languages currently spoken around theworld to disappear by the turn of the next century.

In the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, other languages are also taught. The Iban language catering to the largest group in Sarawak is also a POL in both primary and secondary schools.
However, the reality is rather different as there is a lack of trained teachers. Consequently, few if any secondaryschools offer Iban as a subject (Sercombe, personal communication). In the state of Sabah, also in East Malaysia, Kadazandusun has been taught as a POL in government schools since 1997 (Smith 2003), and the use of Murut has just started according to Kimmo Kosonen (2005).
In West Malaysia an Orang Asli (the indigenous people of West Malaysia) language called Semai, is being used as a POL at lower primary school level in some schools where the community dominates. The use of these minority languages does not mean that minority languages are alive and many languages survive only if they are maintained in the home domain.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on Malay, the National language, and also English, the most widespread international language, are seen as more important than time spent on learning the mother tongue and a number of speech communities who do not see any economic value in their respective heritage languages are shifting away from the habitua luse of their ethnic languages.
In Sarawak, in order to be identified as Malays, the Orang Miriek who also are Muslims have shifted to Bahasa Melayu Sarawak. The issue of being teased by members of the dominant group and the backwardness associated with the minority group not only makes the younger generation of Orang Miriek take on a Malay identity but this is also the case with other ethnic groups who have converted to Islam
As the constitutional definition of a Malay is one who practices the Islamic religion, has a Malay way of life and uses the Malay language, non- Malay Bumiputeras who are Muslims often adopt Malay culture and identity. When this happens, their children will shift language use to Malay because they have taken Malay names and joined Islamic activities where their peers are mostly Malay.
The Bidayuh for instance, who are generally described as “a Christian race” (Minos 2000), have a number who have converted to Islam or “masuk Melayu” (become Malay). According to Chang (2002) there are about 300 families out of 10,750 Bidayuh families in the Kuching Division who have converted to Islam and hence this figure shows that about 3% of the Bidayuh population has embraced the Islamic faith in the Kuching Divison already. Therefore, Bidayuhs who have converted to Islam, mostly through intermarriage with Muslims, adopt Malay culture and identity markers such as wearing ‘baju kurung’, speaking Malay and eating Malay food (see David andDealwis 2008).
Sourced from The Linguistics Journal- September 2009
What have we become? Bowing to the majority because we are embarassed? Let us all think for a moment of the future of our culture, and be proud of our heritage.

The term that is Bidayuh

The term Bidayuh (Bi= people of, Dayuh= land) encompasses the Bukar-Sadong, Jagoi-Singai, Salako-Lara and Biatah. I had a discussion one day with a friend who believes that the term Bidayuh is a misnomer.


The culture and language is different from each of the groups in varying degrees (the Biatah sitting between the Bukar-Sadong and Jagoi-Singai). But the Bukar-Sadong cannot understand the Jagoi-Singai’s language, and vice versa. The bridge would be the Biatah. For the Salako-Lara, their language belongs to the Malayic branch, under the Austronesian languages, categorized with the Iban and Malay languages.

So how did this term came to be? Political reasons. The Salako Lara joined in the 1970s due to their location and minority (although in Kalimantan they have huge numbers). Even the term Bidayuh is a Bukar-Sadong word. It doesn’t mean anything in Jagoi-Singai (not sure about Biatah). Strength in numbers kan?

**Update (6/1/14): The Jagoi-Singai/Biatah equivalent to the term Bidayuh would be Bi-Doyoh in their own dialect.

The friend mentioned that the word Bidayuh could be applied to the Bukar Sadong, but the others should be called by their own names eg. Dayak Biatah, Dayak Jagoi, Dayak Salako etc. Over in Kalimantan, the term Bidayuh doesn’t exist as an umbrella term, instead the Dayaks (who are most like their Sarawakian Bidayuh counterparts) call themselves based on geography like Dayak Sekeyam, Dayak Sontas etc.

There has been calls by some quarters to create a single lingua franca among the “Bidayuhs” so as to turn it into formal education easier. The choice is usually Biatah as it shares commonality with the other 2 groups (exception being Salako-Lara). Maybe I’m being ethnocentric, but I do find making another group’s language as the titular language a bit hard. Plus the fact that we aren’t all ‘Bidayuh’ in the first place.

Any thoughts?

The old and incontinent

The Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA) decided to host a Gawai celebration of sorts at its newly built hall near Jln. Ong Tiang Swee.

When? 1st June, 2011.

Now how dumb is that?

There you are dragging all the Dayaks involved to the city, preparing this ‘festival’ for the benefit of a few, depriving them of time to spend with their families at the kampung and the Gawai mood. Taib doesn’t celebrate Gawai so it doesn’t matter to him. Some of my relatives had to go all the way down to Kuching from Serian, on Gawai itself until close to midnight to perform etc.

Why can’t they do it say a week after Gawai, maybe a weekend when many have returned? Like Gawai REDEEM in Singai, a big festival held in the middle of June.

Which brings us to another matter. Dayak and politics.

Culture and politics should be separate. But the reality is that DBNA, supposedly to uphold, promote and help the Bidayuh are so entwined with politics, it’s survival and activities depends solely on the Government. How many programs have been launched to promote the Bidayuh culture and language among its youth? How many youths even know what the word ‘Bidayuh’ means?

Even I speak in Bidayuh mixed with words that aren’t even Bidayuh to begin with like nyadong (Iban) and bayam (Malay).

They are too complacent, and populated with old people whose ideas are no longer relevant. This is too hard, that’s impossible. Bah! If you check out their website, they have no new programmes and their Literature section has 3 articles. The man that did research on the origins of the Bidayuh and it’s migration patterns, the kampungs and it’s movement, has been done, by a Chinese. Now how embarassing is that? Where are all the Bidayuh Graduates? What’s the point of a Bidayuh Graduates Association? I don’t even know what it’s for. And then when they read the books he published they scorn and ridicule it, saying what does a Chinese know? They don’t even want to make an effort to do anything about it and casually criticize someone who does just because he is not one of them. (Like how the Orang Ulu make fun of a non-Dayak playing sape’. Excuse me, he can, what about you?)

Within the DBNA itself there are factions, where certain groups dominate. The Bukar Sadong group is grossly underrepresented, with the Jagoi Singai Biatah group dominating proceedings and are adamant with using their own dialects. How’s that for equality?

Outreach and charity programmes are mostly done by Christian groups and other NGOs. It’s time the Bidayuh youths stepped up and take control. We should create an entity that is dynamic, active and passionate.

Who wants in?


Sarawak is the land of my birth, where I grew and lived. I’m always amazed when I look down and see rivers curling like ribbons all over the plains and hills, between thick lush forests and the gentle cry of the gibbons. It is a land I am proud to be a part of.

I am what some people would call Anak Borneo.

Contrary to popular belief, Anak Borneo not only means natives or indigenous people of Borneo, but whoever is born and raised in Borneo, or has made Borneo their home. There is no barrier of race or ethnicity but loyalty to the land.

Sarawak has seen many changes, rising from a backwater nation into a slightly more modern state in the Federation. But these developments are few and far in between, although the authorities love slinging new projects which ultimately ends up as white elephants or become chronically exorbitant.

The new generation of Sarawakians are now finding their voice. And I am one of those voices. I am of mix native parentage, and I am always curious to learn more about my cultures. This blog is the view of my generation, as we traverse the fine line between modernity and culture, identity and change. It is about life, and the future of the state.

I am The Dayak with Golden Hair.

I am Sarawak.