Saturday, June 2, 2007


The following article is an intuitive look by a well-respected retired former Sarawak DAP MP, Sim Kwang Yang who is presently based in Kuala Lumpur. The report is found in SKY's column in Malaysiakini, the courageous totally independent news portal that publishes news that mainstream media dares not and the only online blog that truly makes one think out of the box.

The Forgotten Gawai
By Sim Kwang Yang
2 June, 2007

Around this time of the year, my Sarawak roots always rumble uneasily. As I write, countless Dayak youths flung far and wide to the four corners of our nation and beyond will now be homeward bound for the land of their ancestors before the Gawai Dayak Day falls on the first day of June.

Throughout the vast Land of the Hornbill, in traditional longhouses and modern villages, the Dayak people will be celebrating this annual festival in earnest, for a week or two at least. There will be great joy in family reunion and meeting of old friends, amidst much drinking, feasting, and dancing.

The Dayaks in Sarawak seldom come into the limelight in our national media, and so Malaysians in the mainstream of things know next to nothing about them. I suppose that within the framework of our official ethnic classification, they will come under the ambiguous and not entirely complimentary category of “others” - after the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians.

In our national narrative, the term “Dayaks” refers loosely to those indigenous people of Sarawak who are not Muslims. Again, power speaks, and the religious divide seems to have been used to determine their ambivalent status as “natives”, as if as an afterthought, and with a vague sense of regret. Then, the national consciousness proceeds to forget about them all together.

Actually, the Dayak community itself is amazingly diverse. Article 161(a) and Clause (7) of the Federal Constitution recognises the following ethnic groups as natives of Sarawak: Bukitans, Bisayahs, Dusuns, Sea Dayaks, Land Dayaks, Kedayans, Kelabits, Kayans, Kenyahs (including Sabups and Sipengs), Kajangs (including Sakapaus), Kejamans, Lahanans, Punans, Tanjongs and Kanawits), Lugats, Lisums, Malays, Melanaus, Murats, Penans, Sians, Tagals, Tabuns, and Ukits.

Disparate bloodlines

From the above list, take away the Malays and about half the Melanaus who have converted to Islam, the rest are all Dayaks.

Actually, the terms “Sea Dayaks” (denoting the Ibans) and “Land Dayaks” (meaning the Bidayuhs) are hangovers from colonial nomenclature. After independence, these terms have lost their currency of usage, and these two ethnic groups hardly ever identify themselves by those names.

All these groups speak very different languages and seem to have disparate bloodlines until inter-ethnic marriages becomes more common recently. They certainly have vastly different religious and cultural practices.

However, they have one thing in common. With the exception of some Penans, who still depend on hunting and gathering for their survival, all the rest of them practise subsistence farming through slashing and burning the forested land, and planting rice and other crops on it afterwards. Therefore, land is essential to their survival, and it is also the source of their religious and cultural myths and social ethos.

Collectively, the Dayaks have always made up almost half of the population of Sarawak. The numerical strength of the Dayaks in Sarawak has always been an uncomfortable anomaly within the Malaysian Federation, which was formed on the race-based so-called “social contract”.

But the politics of race is the politics of counting heads. At the time of independence, which to Sarawakians came in 1963, an uneasy concession was granted to the reality of the Dayaks’ numerical superiority in the state, and the first chief minister of Sarawak was an Iban, Stephen Kalong Ningkan.

It was during his reign of power that the Gawai Dayak Day became an official state public holiday, in recognition of the political importance of the Dayak people in this East Malaysian state.

The idea of honouring the Dayaks on one particular day of the year was first mooted in a radio forum organised by a British colonial radio programme organiser by the name of Ian Kingsley. The proposal generated a great deal of interest among the Dayak community, but it was never accepted by the British colonial government.

When independence came through the formation of Malaysia on 16 September 1963, and with an Iban chief minister at the helm of state power, the idea was revived. It was gazetted on 9th September, 1964, that a Gawai Dayak Day was to be celebrated on the first day of June every year. The first Gawai Dayak Day was celebrated state-wide in 1965.

Unfortunately, Stephen Kalong Ningkan was removed as the CM of Sarawak in 1967, via a constitutional amendment in Parliament. After a stop-gap measure, the now Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub returned to Sarawak from KL as the CM of Sarawak in 1970, and the CM’s post has always been in the hands of the Malay/Melanau since.

Umno coming!

Now, with the current Sarawak CM Abdul Taib Mahmud contemplating the possibility of his retiring from office, the hottest news on the grapevine is not whether, but when Umno will go into Sarawak in a big way.

This is more bad news for the Dayak of Sarawak. As any educated Dayak will tell you, the NEP purporting to fight for the rights and interests of the Dayak is fine and dandy. But the Dayaks consider themselves as second class natives only, and they feel like third class citizens, after the Chinese and the Malays/Melanaus in Sarawak.

Unfortunately, the political vehicles of the Dayaks have been in shambles in recent decades.

The Sarawak National Party, the once premier party of Stephen Kalong Ningkan, is now no more in the forefront of Sarawak politics. There was an upsurge of Dayak nationalism through the formation of the PBDS (Parti Bangsa Dayak Sarawak) in 1984. That movement to restore a Dayak Chief Minister to the fore-front of Sarawak politics too died off, and the party soon rejoined the BN. Today, PBDS has been de-registered, and the splinter groups thereof across the political landscape of Sarawak means that Dayak unity for the Dayak people has become a lost dream forever.

Today, the Dayaks in Sarawak face an uncertain future, and their present predicament is not all that satisfactory either.

There is a growing Dayak middle class in the towns, though their size and influence have yet to be felt. In the countryside, the situation is not rosy at all.

Young people who have gone through the grind in our educational system no longer regard agriculture as a viable option in life. Those few who can do so have gone on to join the professions and the civil service. Those who cannot have left home for a better life elsewhere, to Singapore and West Malaysia, where hunger for raw labour is ferocious.

In many longhouses and villages that I have visited in my time, I was saddened to see that only the aged, the women, and the very young have remained in the villages, to continue working on the land, and pass on their indigenous way of life the best they can. You can hardly find any man and women at the prime of their life there. It gives you an eerie ghostly feeling, and it is a heart-breaking sight to behold.

Many reel under the impact of invasive forces of modernity. Their land tenure depends on the legitimacy of their adat istiadat, their customary rights handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth alone since the dawn of their histories.

Hardy and resilient

But under the laws of modernity, their claims to their ancestral land have been eroded by powerful logging companies, as well as plantation conglomerates that just steamroll into their traditional domain. Many state-sponsored land development projects have simply made coolies out of the Dayaks on their own land.

I have learned from personal experience how hardy and resilient these Dayak brethrens are. I have learned – against the grain of racial prejudice – the goodness of the hearts of the Dayak people.

This year though, I have heard some good news about them. The prices of commodities are a source of joy, especially the price of rubber. Many of these small-holders are now making a killing on the market. With their new found wealth this year, they can afford to improve their dwellings, buy a new four-wheel drive, and perhaps save a little money. They have more reasons to rejoice in the Gawai Dayak Day this year.

Whether the next Gawai will be just as good as this year is entirely out of the Dayaks’ control. Most things happening to them are generally out of their control. What is within their control is their proud honest hardiness in the face of adversities, their rock solid sense of community, and their independence of spirit. Thy may be poor in cash, but they are certainly wealthy beyond measure in matters of spiritual, cultural and religious values.

The Gawai Dayak celebrates all that is good in Dayakness, and so in keeping with their festive spirit, we wish them Gayu Guru, Gerai Nyamai (Long life, Good health and prosperity!) The national media may have forgotten the Gawai Dayak, but you and I have not.

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