Ethnicity and nationalism among Iban

The mediated production of ethnicity and nationalism among the Iban of Sarawak, 1954-1976 (1). (Research Notes)



Among the recent deluge of anthropological writings on ethnicity (see Levine 1999), J. Comaroff’s (1996) essay Ethnicity, Nationalism, and the Politics of Difference in an Age of Revolution stands as a model of clarity and eloquence. Comaroff sets out to investigate the contemporary upsurge in the world’s “politics of identity.” Why are the politics of cultural identity back with a vengeance when modernity was supposed to erase all differences of origin? he asks. His answer is twofold. First, the theoretical discussions of the past two decades are no reliable guide to a proper inquiry. Ethnicity theorists are still caught up in a fruitless dichotomy: primordialism versus constructionism. Primordialists assert that all peoples have a “primordial” attachment to place, kin and/or language (see Karlsson 1998: 186). “How many more times,” asks Comaroff (1996: 164), “is it necessary to prove that all ethnic identities are historical creations before primordialism is consigned, finally, to the trash heap of ideas p ast?” Most social anthropologists today reject this approach and opt for constructivism, yet, to Comaroff (1996: 165), constructivism is not a theory but “merely a broad assertion to the effect that social identities are products of human agency.” He argues that “ethnic – indeed, all – identities are not things but relations; that their content is wrought in the particularities of their ongoing historical construction.” What we need, he concludes, are studies which situate ethnicity and nationalism “in the broader context of claims of class, race, gender, and generation.” There can be no theory of ethnicity and nationalism, “only a theory of history capable of elucidating the empowered production of difference and identity” (1996: 166).

Second, Comaroff (1996: 168) believes we live in a new “Age of Revolution.” Global communications have eroded nation-states’ control over their own economies and information, giving rise to what Kurtzman calls a global “electronics common.” Following Hannerz, Comaroff (1996: 168-172) maintains that today’s nations have very little say in the global cultural flow. Globalization produces two major local reactions: (a) states try to reassert their sovereignty while (b) within their borders a “dramatic assertion of difference” takes place in the form of an “explosion of identity politics” (1996: 173). In the postcolonial world, he concludes, we have witnessed an “increasing convergence of ethnic consciousness and nationalist assertion” leading to a spread of “ethnonationalism.”

While concurring with much of Comaroff’s argument, I have a number of objections to make. First, although it is necessary to study ethnicity in relation to other forms of identity formation from an historical perspective, we should not forget that ethnicity is “that method of classifying people (both self and other) that uses origin (socially constructed) as its primary reference” (Levine 1999: 166). When gender, generation, sexual orientation, class, etc., take priority, then we are not dealing primarily with ethnicity.

Second, even though it may be obvious to Comaroff that primordialism should be discarded as an “idea past,” people around the world still make use of primordialist notions to advance political and economic causes. As anthropologists, we still need to try to understand “collective identities deeply and sincerely felt” (Hann 1994:22). This does not mean that historical and ethnographic findings ought to be bent to promote “non-Western” historical agendas. Indeed, granted that all ethnic identities are “historical creations,” it is still imperative to determine to what extent historical evidence was falsified or discarded in order to pursue specific political objectives. For example, Peel (1989) maintains that the contemporary Yoruba identity is to a large extent a creation of the modern Nigerian state. Nevertheless, he argues, cultural distinctiveness was also crucial to that identity’s consolidation, in particular the Yoruba language, which the foreign missionaries turned into a written language (in Eriksen 1 993: 92-94). In Sarawak, the ethnic categories “Iban” and “Bidayuh” only replaced “Sea Dayak” and “Land Dayak” respectively in the 1950s. Yet the Iban (or Sea Dayaks), despite being far more numerous and widely scattered than the Bidayuh, share a common language with minor dialectal variations and, until recently, a fairly homogenous lifestyle. By contrast, the heterogeneous Bidayuh, who speak at least four distinct languages, were “lumped together under the colonial rubric of Land Dayak” (Winzeler 1997: 222). One would therefore expect the Bidayuh leaders to face more of an uphill struggle to fill in a “hollow category” (cf. Levine 1999 on Papua New Guinea) with convincing cultural materials. At least one author claims that this has indeed been the case since independence (Winzeler 1997). (2) An even more problematic ethnic category, “Dayak,” has gained increasing recognition in recent decades across Sarawak based on claims of a common Dayak origin (asal) and “cultural heritage” (adat).

Third, Comaroff’s view that nation-states today have little control over the flows of information may apply to the internet and other interpersonal media, but certainly not to radio, television, or the print media, including school textbooks. This is particularly true of authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia and Brunei with servile media organizations. In these countries, the rural populations rely to a large extent on self-censored media products supplied by urban elites. (3) It is important, therefore, not to fall for attractive metaphors of the “electronic commons” kind, Instead we should strive to discern similarities and differences among the various media uses in specific national settings. A second example of the spread of globalist metaphors is provided by Ginsburg (1993) who has adopted Appadurai’s (1990) concept of “mediascapes” to analyze the burgeoning of Aboriginal media productions in Australia. Below I take issue with her view that indigenous media producers everywhere “ente r transnational mediascapes in complex and multidirectional ways” (1993: 562). In the case of rural Sarawak, the flows of media products are often more “unidirectional” than “multidirectional.” The challenge here is not so much to understand countless intersecting pathways, but to explain the prevalence of a top-down, two-step flow of media items from the West, especially the US today, to rural Borneo via powerful cultural brokers in West Malaysia-a massive process I have termed “dual westernization” (Postill 2000: 111).

Finally, I wish to address Comaroffs point that in the postcolonial world there is an “increasing convergence of ethnic consciousness and nationalist assertion” leading to a spread of “ethnonationalism.” This statement distracts us from Gellner’s (1983: 140-143) robust thesis that states seek to monopolize legitimate culture through mass education and a national language. The driving principle of nationalism is “one state, one culture.” A key neglected area of research is exactly how, through which media, postcolonial states seek to transcend their cultural diversity and assumed backwardness and achieve a “literate sophisticated high culture” (1983: 141). Below, I argue that one chief site of struggles between central and peripheral ethnic groups in Malaysia is language, and that the Iban and other Dayaks, who lack the “political shell” of the state (1983: 140), are losing out to the politically stronger Peninsular Malays and their Sarawak allies. We can distinguish two periods of media production impinging upon rural Iban society. First, an early period (1954-1976) dominated not by “global” media but rather by Iban-language radio and books controlled by the Sarawak government and aimed at consolidating its hold across the territory. In this article I dwell on some of the ambiguities involved in the task, for the early Iban producers were striving both to modernize their society and to protect it from the ravages of modernity. In a future article I will analyze a second period (1977-1999) dominated by audiovisual and print media agents from three urban centers (Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, and Sibu). This period was characterized by powerful efforts to exclude the Iban language and culture from the mass media, while all along promoting a colorful, vague Dayak identity in its stead (Postill 2000: 79-112)–a creative process familiar to students of other Asia-Pacific nations (e.g. Sullivan 1993 on Papua New Guinea).

The rise of Iban radio, 1954-1976

Radio Sarawak was officially inaugurated on 8 June 1954. Sarawak was then a British Crown Colony. The Sarawak Legislative Council (or Council Negeri) had finally decided to go ahead with hotly debated plans to create a broadcasting service (Morrison 1954:391). Set up with the technical assistance of the BBC, the service had four sections: Malay, Iban, Chinese and English. The Iban Section broadcast one hour daily from 7 till 8 pm. In the early days the variety of programs was limited to news, information on farming and animal husbandry (betanam betupi), and some Iban folklore, especially sung poems (pantun, renong) and epics (ensera). It was also used in the case of medical and other emergencies in certain upriver areas (Dickson 1995: 137). (4)

The late Gerunsin Lembat (1924-95) from Malong, Saratok, was the first Iban broadcaster. In January 1956 he was promoted to Head of the Iban Service (Langub 1995: 56). He is still remembered by rural and urban audiences alike for his extraordinary voice, command of the Iban language, and knowledge of adat (customary law). Other early broadcasters included Pancras Eddy, Andria Ejau, George Jimbai, and Edward Kechendai. In those days Radio Sarawak was jokingly called “Radio Saribas” owing to the prevalence of broadcasters born or educated in that region. Even today, a strong influence of the Saribas dialect can be detected in standard RTM Iban.

The Iban were the first Dayaks to have their own radio programs. In 1957 the Iban example led influential members of another major group, the Land Dayaks (today, Bidayuh), to express their “great desire” to have their own radio section (Sarawak Tribune 21/10/1957). Others, like the Kenyah and Kayan, would follow suit in subsequent years. In the intervening years they were avid listeners to the Iban programs. (5)

Let us now consider the second organization ever to broadcast in Iban. In 1958, the School Broadcasting Service (Ib. Sekula Penabur (6)) was set up in Kuching by a New Zealander, Ian Prentice, under the Colombo Plan. Most radio sets were donated by the Asia Foundation and the Government of Australia. A regular schedule of broadcast English lessons began in 1959, designed for native primary schools in rural areas, where most teachers had only a basic education. It was hoped radio would help overcome pupils’ reliance on the English spoken by native teachers hampered by a “limited range of knowledge, ideas, stories and vocabulary.” (7) By the end of 1960 there were 467 participating schools across Sarawak, and 850 teachers had attended 11 training courses. (8) Sarawak was a regional pioneer in radio-mediated teaching and learning. Indeed, Malayan educationalists were to learn from their Sarawak colleagues at a later stage. The response from the target audience was very encouraging. In 1960 the Service received 7 00 letters from Primary 5 and 6 pupils around Sarawak in response to questions set to them. (9)

The service initially broadcast in English only, but difficulties with this language led to the introduction of Malay and Iban programs and reading materials–an interesting example of how the introduction of a mediated oral genre (Iban radio lessons) created the need for a new written genre (Iban textbooks). Michael Buma, another Saribas man and renowned educationalist, was the first Iban officer. He produced three programs: “English Ka Kita” (English For You), “Dictation and Spelling,” and “Ensera” (tales, stories).

Meanwhile, Radio Sarawak was preparing for the country’s independence. From 1961 to 1963 Peter Ratcliffe, an alleged intelligence officer with Britain’s MI5, (10) and John Cordoux were in charge of Radio Sarawak. They were replaced by Charles McKenna, the last expatriate Director, soon before the formation of Malaysia in 1963. With “independence through Malaysia,” Radio Sarawak became Radio Malaysia Sarawak. The inclusion of the term Malaysia signals a shift in priorities for the Iban Section and all the other sections. The first task was to help the new country from the perceived threat posed by Indonesia whose leader, Soekarno, claimed Malaysia was a new form of British imperialism designed to maintain the Malay world divided. (11) In response to Soekarno, a Psychological Warfare Unit (or Psy-war) was set up under British guidance. It deployed tactics already successfully used by Radio Malaya against communist guerrillas in the 1948-1960 period. One weapon deployed was the cherita kelulu (radio drama) which adapted traditional Iban storytelling genres, themes, and characters such as the Keling and Kumang epics (ensera). Other dramas were set in contemporary rural Sarawak and promoted the need for development, religious and racial harmony and loyalty to the new country. The first producer of these dramas (cherita kelulu) was Andria Ejau, who also published a number of them through the Borneo Literature Bureau (see below). Vivid jungle and longhouse sound effects were fundamental to the task of producing compelling drama. Some were borrowed from the BBC, while others were home-made.

Other time-honored tactics included interviews with war victims and patriotic songs. An Iban singer, Connie Francis, sang Tanah ai menoa aku (lit, my country’s land and water, i.e. my Fatherland), the Iban/Malaysian answer to Indonesia’s national anthem, while Hillary Tawan sang Oh Malaysia! This was a time of growth for Iban pop. The I 950s influence of the Indonesian and Indian music industry gave way in the I 960s and 1970s to British and American influences. Pauline Linan was now joined by her sister, Senorita’s Linan, on frequent tours around Sarawak and recorded broadcasts. They were both brought up listening to Western songs. Senorita’s personal favorites were, not unusually, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. In her varied repertoire she sang in Iban, but the rhythms and tunes were borrowed from the West. She knew her twist, rock’n’roll, country and sentimental. In those days Iban audiences lagged behind the more urbanized ethnic groups, says Senorita: “for instance, the Chinese were into The Beatle s but back in the I 960s few Iban were exposed to world music.” (12)

There were other popular Iban singers, including the police constable Eddie Jemat, as well as Esther Bayang, Antonio Jawie, Robert Lingga and Reynolds Gregory–also known as “the Elvis Presley of Sarawak.” Ironically, the fruits of their pioneering efforts to create a “modem” Iban pop scene are now collectively known as lagu lama (lit. “old songs”), as middle-aged Iban look back at those golden days and praise the depth (dalam) and subtlety of the lyrics, to them worlds apart from today’s “superficial” (mabu) Iban pop. Despite the foreign provenance of the tunes, the lagu lama are now regarded as legitimate heirs to the best Iban musical tradition. Why would this be so? According to the media theorist Debray (1996: 177), nostalgia is “the first phase of mediological consciousness.” As a first generation of media producers and consumers reach their middle and late years, their discovery of “a clear deviation from the old norm grasps the new order as a disordering.”

In the early stages of Iban pop, some songwriters and performers straddled both genres. For instance, Lawrence S. Ijau (13) (1966), a teacher and folklorist, wrote a number of pop songs that were broadcast by Radio Sarawak. Another case in point is Senorita Linan herself, who apart from being a pop singer was a traditional dance (ngajat) performer in the I 1960s and I 1970s and currently teaches this art form in Kuching.

With the end of the Indonesian konfrontasi in 1965, priorities shifted from war propaganda to what a veteran Iban broadcaster has defined as the “mental revolution of the people,” that is to education, health and economic development. Or, as a Malay broadcaster put it: “After independence changes were gradual: we broadcast more hours, there was more emphasis on the local dialects, development and racial harmony.”

In 1970, Iban air time was expanded to five hours: one hour in the morning, another in the afternoon, and three hours in the evening. Meanwhile, School Broadcasting began to produce Iban-language programs aimed at lower secondary Iban pupils (Untie 1998: 3), although English remained the medium of instruction and pupils were discouraged from using their mother tongues in school.

From mid-1971 a slump in the international timber market caused the economic situation in Sarawak to worsen, especially in the Sibu area. The combination of a rapid Malaysianization, abject poverty, and chronic unemployment led many Chinese to join the communist guerrillas (Leigh 1974:156). Their Iban support was considerable. The communists used terror effectively by publicly executing informers. They also targeted virtually every school in Sibu with moralistic pamphlets and lectures. Students were urged to “win the victory” and “oppose and stop to wear Mini-skirt and funny dresses.” Teachers were often blamed for the pupils’ decadent ways: “some of them even teach the students how to twist, and thus really lead the students into darkness” (Leigh 1974: 158).

The Iban Section was again enlisted to deploy psy-war tactics against the insurgents. Two 15-minute programs were broadcast daily: “Topic of the day” (thinly veiled propaganda) and an appeal to the insurgents to surrender. In addition, special soap operas (cherita kelulu) were produced by Andria Ejau in order to, in the words of a colleague, alter the listeners’ “mental perspective” and “get the people to report the terrorists” (ngasoh rayat ripot tiroris). In 1975 the gifted Iban storyteller and broadcaster Thomas T. Laka, who is still active today, was trained in drama techniques by a British psy-war instructor based in Kuala Lumpur. That same year television arrived in Sarawak–12 years after it had done so in West Malaysia–and some of the radio staff were “headhunted” into the new medium.

At this point it is pertinent to ask to what extent we can consider the Iban Section part of the growing number of “indigenous media” around the world that have attracted the attention of media researchers (Spitulnik 1993: 303). The anthropologist Faye Ginsburg (1993: 560-2) is one of the better known practitioners in this new subfield (see Abu-Lughod 1997). She argues that two resilient tropes dominate the study of indigenous media. First, there is the “Faustian contract” approach derived from the Frankfurt School. This approach is pessimistic about the possibilities of indigenous cultures to withstand the onslaught of Western media and their repressive ideologies. Second, there is McLuhan’s (1964) “global village” optimism with its utopian dream of a worldwide electronic democracy. Ginsburg (1993: 561-2), as I mentioned earlier, opts for a third trope: Appadurai’s (1990) “mediascape,” a call for “situated analyses that take account of the interdependence of media practices and the local, national, and trans national circumstances that surround them.” In settler nations such as Canada and Australia which practice “welfare colonialism,” she notes, it is ironically the state that has to support these media given the lack of financial and technical resources available to the native populations. Another factor of growing importance is the globalization of indigenous media, arts and activism. Thus, although Aboriginal culture has been continually exploited by the white majority for tourist and political gains, Aboriginal media producers have become more and more active at international film and video festivals and other forms of networking. In order to grasp the significance of these developments, says Ginsburg, we need to study how indigenous media producers “enter transnational mediascapes in complex and multidirectional ways” (1993: 562).

While it may be useful in Australia, this approach would be of little use in the case of Iban radio. Here it is not so much “multidirectional ways” we should analyze but rather the unidirectional, collective endeavor of Iban radio producers to spread the dominant modernist ideology. Many Aboriginal producers have shown an active commitment to the romantic, post-industrial ideology of a global brotherhood of “First Nations” or “Fourth World Peoples” defined in opposition to white settler nations (Ginsburg 1993: 558). In contrast, Iban producers have remained committed to redefining, refining, and modernizing “the Iban people” (bansa Iban) within the bounds of an avowedly indigenist, post-colonial state. This trend was reinforced with the advent of print media in the Iban language.

The rise and fall of the Borneo Literature Bureau, 1960-1976

In 1949, John Kennedy Wilson arrived in Sarawak from Scotland to become the Principal of Batu Lintang Training College. The chief aim of the College was to train young Sarawakian teachers and send them to far-flung corners of the new Crown Colony to set up and run primary schools, often under very harsh conditions. Its ethos followed in the Brooke tradition of symbolic respect towards the country’s “native cultures.”

Batu Lintang, with its whitewashed walls decorated with splendid native designs, its encouragement of local handicrafts and interest in the tribal dances, had already set a pattern of pride in indigenous culture and artistic achievement (Dickson 1995: 27).

In November 1952 Wilson attended his last school-leaving ceremony. All students arrived in “traditional dress, bright with hornbill feathers, silver woven sarongs and ivory earrings” (Dickson 1995: 27). Wilson was to go on to found a remarkably successful experiment in what today is known as “sustainable development.” For four years he lived in the remote Budu area to set up a community development scheme from the bottom up, that is building on local Iban skills and cultural resources rather than importing them from the urban areas. Wilson saw this as the creation of new Budu “elites” (Jawan 1994: 82). Alas, when Malaysia was born in 1963, his success was perceived as a threat by the new

Kuala Lumpur rulers and he was eventually “asked to leave Sarawak” (Jawan 1994:121). (14)

The indigenist nature of Batu Lintang’s ethos, or rather its blending of British education and native arts and ceremony, was to have a decisive influence on a core of motivated pioneering Iban teachers who would set out to modernize Iban culture while preserving what they considered to be the best of its heritage. On 15 September 1958 the colonial government inaugurated the Borneo Literature Bureau (Tawai 1997: 6). Like Batu Lintang and Radio Sarawak, the Bureau aimed at reconciling social and economic development with cultural preservation. The three official aims of the Bureau’s publications in English, Chinese, Malay, Iban and other indigenous languages were:

(a) to support the various government departments in their production

of technical, semi-technical and instructional printed materials for the peoples of Sabah and Sarawak (15)

(b) to encourage local authorship and meet local needs.

(c) to help in building up a local book trade (Borneo Literature Bureau Annual Report 1960).

Production started in 1960. The following year, the book of Iban folk stories Rita Tujoh Malam by Anthony Richards (1961) sold the promising figure of 1,765 copies within six months. In the same year the Bureau also published the religious text Jerita pasal Daniel and took over the distribution of Radio Times from Radio Sarawak. The 1962 sales of English and Iban books were described by the Bureau as “encouraging.” (16) Several booksellers reported selling books to illiterate Iban adults who would have their children read them aloud to them. Of the 9 Iban books published, 2 were educational (geography and English), 3 were on Iban custom (adat), and 4 were oral narratives (ensera and mimpi [dreams]). The latter was Benedict Sandin’s important Duabelas Bengkah Mimpi Tuai Dayak-Iban, a collection of dreams by Iban chiefs that had special historical significance. (17) Another prolific author who started publishing this year was Sandin’s kinsman Henry Gerijih (1962) with Raja Lan git, an ensera (18) on Keling and other heroes and heroines from the mythical world of Panggau Libau-Gelong. Finally, A.A. Majang (1962), a former student of Wilson’s at Batu Lintang, published a study on Iban marriage customs entitled Melah Pinang.

In 1963, the year in which Malaysia was created, “[t]he publication of books in Iban continued to play a large part in the Bureau’s activities.” (19) A grant was received from the Asia Foundation and a full-time Iban officer, Edward Enggu, was appointed. Kumang Betelu, a second saga (ensera) by H. Gerijih, and Pelandok seduai Tekura, an animal fable by D. Entingi, were published.

The following year the Bureau celebrated its seventh annual literary competition. Seven Iban manuscripts were sent in, out of which three were accepted. Sandin published Raja Durong, an ensera about the great Sumatran ancestor of Pulang Gana, (20) the Iban “deity of the earth” (Richards 1981: 288) or “god of agriculture” (Sutlive 1994:214). Another previous winner, Andria Ejau’s Dilah Tanah, was published this year. Arguably the first ever Iban novel, (21) the author describes it as an Ensera Kelulu, that is, a “pedagogical story” (tau pulai ka pelajar), which he distinguishes from the traditional genre Ensera Tuai (or Cherita Asal). A more accurate translation might be “morality novella,” from the morality plays staged in England between the 14th and 16th centuries in which personified virtues and vices were set into conflict. (22) Ejau’s characters live in a longhouse situated in the imaginary land (menoa kelulu) of Dilah Tanah. They mean well, but keep running into trouble with the authorities for their re luctance to fully embrace the new adat, the so-called adat perintah (lit. government law), in particular, the new laws aimed at curtailing slash-and-burn hill rice farming. It all ends well after the local councilor makes the locals see the need to follow the learned ways of the government regarding modern agriculture. There are obvious autobiographical elements in the story, for Ejau was a councilor from 1947 to 1956, frequently traveling to remote Iban areas, before he joined Radio Sarawak where he first started writing radio dramas. During his official trips to the backwoods he enjoyed talking to the elders, as he was “seeking knowledge that could benefit my people” (ngiga penemu ke tau diguna bansa diri).

Previously he had been a security guard at an oil refinery in Seria (Ejau 1964). He was therefore well acquainted both with Iban customary law and with the state’s own understanding of law and order. By means of his novellas and broadcasts he sought to bridge the two.

Ejau and Sandin represent two poles of the modernist-traditionalist continuum running through the entire field of Iban media production. Ejau specialized in transforming oral accounts, metaphors, and imagery into contemporary, power-laden narratives that would “benefit [his] people.” He was using old linguistic materials through new media technologies in order to promote “modern” practices. Sandin took the opposite route as he sought to salvage as much of the Iban oral tradition as he could for the benefit of future generations. In other words, he was employing a new media technology to save (selected) “old knowledge” (penemu lama). Their respective 1964 publications exemplify this marked contrast. While Ejau concentrated on modern agriculture, Sandin wrote about the Iban god of farming. Although both authors were undoubtedly the products and producers of a modern Sarawak, the generic divide they bolstered has indigenous, pre-state roots. Jensen (1974: 64) has divided Iban oral tradition into (1) stories abou t “the origins of Iban custom, the rice cult, augury and social organisation” and (2) “legends from the heroic past” whose purpose is to explain Iban behavior and the potential consequences of wrongdoing. Ejau’s contribution was to shift from this “heroic past” to the contemporary Iban world he knew well, but his aim was equally to explain “the potential consequences of wrongdoing.”

In 1965 most books produced by the Bureau sold well, and it was expected that all the English and Iban books would eventually be sold out. The sale of English books increased by 63% and that of Iban by 64%, from 10,233 in 1964 to 16,747 in 1965. The number of entries from would-be Iban authors was twice that of Malay authors and many times larger than that of all other Dayak groups as a whole, as Table 1 shows. That year saw the publication of another book by Henry Gerijih, Aur Kira, a lengthy prose narrative with some poetic interludes on the adventures of Aur Kira, the younger brother of culture hero Keling. This work is a cross between an ensera (epic or saga) and a jerita tuai, that is, a “simple prose tale” (Richards 1981). Another 1965 book was William Duncan’s Anak Bujang Sugi, an adaptation of the bardic (lemambang) epic genre known as ensera sugi. In the first part we witness the life and deeds of Bujang Sugi whom the bard’s tutelary spirit (yang) calls upon to visit the sick. In the second part we l earn about Bujang Sugi’s descendants. (23)

The deluge of Iban manuscripts received in 1965 caused a backlog of editorial work the following year. Six new Iban books were published, and many more were planned for 1967. Three of the six were by teachers who had trained at Wilson’s Batu Lintang in the 1950s: Ijau Berani, an ethnohistorical account set in 19th century Sarawak by Jacob anak Imang, and one ensera each by Norman Pitok and Lawrence Ijau. However, the number of Iban manuscripts sent in declined dramatically from the previous year’s 28 to a mere 10 in 1966 (24):

Table 2

Number of manuscripts by language sent in for the 9th Borneo Literature
Bureau annual competition, 1966.

20 English  2 Kadazan
17 Malay    1 Bau-Jagoi
15 Chinese  1 Bukar-Sadong
10 Iban

Source: Borneo Literature Bureau Annual Report (1966).

Another important change, this time qualitative, was the recognition by the Bureau that whereas most previous entries had been first records of “stories handed down orally for many generations,” henceforth, original writing would be encouraged (BLB Annual Report 1966). The scales were therefore tipped in favor of Ejau’s line of work.

George Jenang, aged 19, took up the challenge and published Keling Nyumpit, an original (25) ensera, in 1967. Meanwhile, A.A. Majang chose to publish in a new, para-journalistic genre: Iban reportage. His Padi Ribai deals with the rumors that spread across the Rejang in the 1950s that Pulang Gana, the god of farming, had passed away and his son, Ribai, was sending padi from overseas to grow in river shallows (Richards 1981:289). Also in 1967, Andria Ejau himself published a sequel to Dilah Tanah, his morality novella mentioned earlier. In this new book, Madu Midang, Ejau resumes his preoccupation with social change and its effects on Iban culture. Two of his early themes re-emerge here: (a) the peasants’ need to understand the new laws regulating migratory farming, and (b) their need to modify their customary law (adat) to allow for new developmental tools–in this case the wireless radio. He exemplifies the latter with an episode in which the longhouse elders ban the use of radio for a month in accordance wi th the adat regulating mourning (ulit). (26) Thus, the community fails to learn about a dangerous fugitive presently roaming their land. One day the ne’er-do-well arrives and, posing as a government official, cheats the community out of their meagre savings.

A number of traditional stories were also published in 1967, including H. Gerijih’s Raja Berani, B. Inin’s Bujang Linggang and P. Gani’s Bujang Abang Bunsu. The main event of the year at the Bureau, as far as Iban publishing was concerned, was the launching of Nendak, a magazine intended “for Ibans who are unable to read with facility in any language other than their own.” The target readers were adolescents and young adults, both male and female. In order to attract them, a “[w]ide variety of material” was designed (BLB Annual Report 1967:3-6). Appendix 1 captures some of that diversity. In its 10-year long history, a total of 125 issues of Nendak were published. Besides being a rich repository of Iban lore, Nendak provides us with a privileged insight into the role of Iban intellectuals in state-sponsored efforts to modernize Iban culture and society on a wide front, from customary law through political organization, and from agriculture and health to home economics.

In 1968 Andria Ejau put out Batu Besundang, a morality novella (ensera kelulu) that opens with a government-appointed native chief (Pengulu) instructing the residents of a remote longhouse on the proper way of celebrating Gawai Dayak, the annual pan-Dayak Festival invented by the Iban-led government in 1965 to match the Malay and Chinese festivities. The chief explains to his puzzled followers the meaning of the term “Dayak” by listing 18 groups and comparing their bewildering language diversity to that of the Chinese. The Dayaks needed a longer period of time to recognize themselves as one people (bansa), he explains, because “schooling arrived late to us” (laban pelajar sekula laun datai ha kitai). As this example shows, the early Iban media products served to crystallize and reify what until then had been much more flexible and amorphous identities.

In 1968 a second “original work” was born, Janang Ensiring’s Ngelar Menoa Sarawak, a passionate ode to Sarawak written in the pantun genre, i.e. “a song sung in rhyming pattern” (Sather 1994:60). Ensiring, who was 19 at the time, shows great love for both Sarawak and the 5-year old Malaysia. His pantun traces the history of Sarawak, from the cave-ridden, bloody chaos of prehistory through several stages of increased adat law and order to the glorious cry of Malaysian freedom from British colonialism in 1963: MERDEKA! (Ensiring 1968:32). To the young poet, life before the Brooke Raj was hardly worth living:

Bekereja samoa nadai meruan      Their travails saw no profitable ends
Laban rindang bebunoh ba pangan  For they were busy murdering their
[...]                            [...]
Sida nadai Raja megai            They had no Rajah to rule them
Adat nadai dipejalai             Had no adat to guide them

(Ensiring 1968:2, my translation)

There is no trace in Ensiring of Rousseau’s “noble savage” who lives in harmony with nature, and a great deal of Hobbes’ famous dictum on primitive man’s life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For Hobbes (1651), the emergence of the state’s monopoly of violence is a fundamental step towards peace, social evolution, and prosperity–a view all Iban media producers would readily agree with. The teleological nature of modern Iban ethnohistory is a synthesis of foreign (British and Malayan) and indigenous elements. The foreign component supplies a view of nations as steadily marching along history towards greater unity and prosperity (Anderson 1983:23), whereas the Iban tradition has adat regulating all spheres of life and severely punishing those who threaten the collective harmony.

Another case in point is Sandin’s 1970 ethnohistorical account, entitled Peturun Iban (“Iban Descent”). It recounts the history of the Iban people from their origins in the Kapuas, in present-day Indonesian Borneo, through their migrations into Sarawak, to the long pacification process under the White Rajahs culminating in the surrender of the last Upper Engkari “troublemakers” in 1932:

Nya pengabis pengachau Iban dalam Sarawak. Udah bekau tu nadaf agi orang deka ngaga pengachau ke nusah orang maioh. Ati berani agi dikembuan bansa Iban tang sida enda ngemeran ka nya agi. Sida berumah manah lalu besekula nunda pengawa enggau pemansang bansa bukai ke sama diau begulai enggau sida dalam menoa Sarawak tu.

This was the end of the Iban troubles in Sarawak. Henceforth nobody would cause suffering to the general population. The Iban are still endowed with brave hearts yet they pay little heed to them. They now build good solid houses and send their children to school following the example set by the other (27) races with whom they share Sarawak (Sandin 1970: 123, my translation).

Iban readers are here again given a teleological framework, employed this time by Sarawak’s foremost ethnohistorian who combines oral and written materials in order to prove that the state saved the Iban from themselves.

Other works published in 1968 included Sandin’s Leka Sabak, a complex ritual dirge, various ensera by Andria Ejau and S. Pelima, and a collection of riddles (entelah) by Boniface Jarraw, a BBC-trained broadcaster and ngajat dancer. At the end of the year, officially owing to poor sales results (but see below), the Bureau decided to concentrate on less Iban titles. The 11th competition yielded the following harvest:

Table 3

Number of manuscripts by language sent in for the 11th Borneo Literature
Bureau annual competition, 1968.

22  English
19  Malay
15  Iban
 8  Chinese
 1  Kadazan

Of those 15 Iban books received, only 2 saw the light in 1969: an ensera by Andria Ejau entitled Aji Bulan and a ritual dirge by Rev. Fr. Frederick Rajit entitled Sabak Kenang. This Anglican priest from Betong, in the Saribas, learnt the pagan dirge from his mother–a characteristic example of that region’s fertile syncretism.

The year 1970 was more productive. A set of Iban language textbooks was published, namely Michael Buma’s memorable (28) Pelajar Iban 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 series, based on traditional folk tales–which the Iban leader Sidi Munan (1985:ii) saw at the time as an encouraging contribution to the survival of the Iban language. In addition to Sandin’s aforementioned ethnohistory, E. Kechendai, a broadcaster and regular contributor to Nendak, published a book of animal fables (ensera jelu) aimed at the 10-15 age group, and Ong Kee Bian, a guide to modem pisciculture in Iban translation.

In 1971 Sandin put out a bardic invocation to the gods, entitled Pengap Gawai Burong, J.J. Awell a collection of mostly animal fables with a moral intent (cherita kelulu), and C.M. Liaw an ensera. The following year Andria Ejau brought out his third morality novella, Pelangka Gantong. Again a longhouse community has difficulties coping with modernity, and again the wise local councilor comes to the rescue. The problems are by now familiar to Ejau’s readers: land ownership, new political structures, and literacy.

This year a new author, Joshua Jalie, put out Pemansang mai Pen gerusak, also a morality novella on rural development. Jalie’s peasants have been blessed with a school, a road, and a rubber scheme. Alas, they soon squander their profits gambling at the cockfights. To compound matters, most of them still believe in ghosts (antu). “Since when have the rats run away from our spells?” says an unusually enlightened villager. “The government has already given us poison to kill the rats but the others insist on following the old ways.” (29) In the preface, the author had made a clear distinction between rural Iban “who know better” (sida ti mereti agi) and those who “are still blind, who are not aware of the means and aims of development” (sida ti agi buta, ti apin nemu julok enggau tuju ator pemansang). Finally, also in 1972, W. Gieri had an ensera published on the adventures of a jungle ogre (antu gerasi). Here we have again a contrast of the Ejau-Sandin kind identified earlier. While one author ridicules his rura l brethren’s belief in spirits and ogres (antu), another tries to salvage for posterity a most prominent member of that supernatural family, one whose name was traditionally used in the longhouse to quiet unruly children. Their contrast reveals the contradictory nature of the wider modernizing project embarked upon by the early generation of media producers, caught up in preserving for the future what they, as urbanized literate Christians, had discarded in their own lives.

The only Iban-language book published in 1973 was a collection of short stories translated from Kadazan, a major Sabahan language. In 1974 two ensera by G.N. Madang and K. Umbat and a primary school textbook by C. Saong were brought out. Another two ensera, by S. Jawan and T. Geboh, came out in 1975.

The Bureau ceased to exist in 1977 when it was taken over by the Federal body Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. In its last year of existence, B. Sandin (1976) put out Gawai Pangkong Tiang, based on a bardic invocation (pengap) recited during the festival of the same name; A. Joseph published an ethnohistory (jerita tuai), and T. Geboh an ensera. Finally, Andria Ejau brought out another morality novella: Tanah Belimpah. It contained episodes on the advantages of modem medicine over shamanic (manang) rites, on those of wet rice over hill rice cultivation, on the commendable efforts of the school authorities to create a Malaysian people (bansa Malaysia), and on the great potential of a newly arrived technology called “television” to bridge the gap between rural and urban schools. We shall understand shortly just how tragically ironic Ejau’s patriotic optimism would prove to be.

The significance of the Borneo Literature Bureau

To the literary scholar, the Bureau’s books are an “excellent source” for the study of Bornean languages and literatures (Steinmayer 1990: 114), a study still in its infancy. As Sutlive (1988: 73), an authority on the Iban language, has remarked:

Thirty-one years ago… Derek Freeman told me that Iban folklore “probably exceeds in sheer volume the literature of the Greeks.” At the time, I thought Freeman excessive. Today, I suspect he may have been conservative in his estimate.

At a time when much of the oral tradition has disappeared, Iban books provide “unparalleled insights into Iban social philosophy and epistemology.” They are “instructive about Iban values of achievement and self-reliance, of discretion, of restraint, of self-effacement and understatement” (Sutlive 1994: xxii). They also teach us about an under-researched area of study in Borneo: gender (see Appell and Sutlive 1991). Traditional Iban society was undoubtedly male-dominated. All the most venerated activities-pioneering, farming, headhunting-were the prerogative of men; they were designed to enable a man “to become something else” (Sutlive 1977: 158). A close reading of the Bureau’s stories on Keling and Kumang reveals how trouble often starts when a woman breaches a taboo, forcing Keling or another male hero to intervene and restore order. We said earlier that in modern Iban ethnohistory the White Rajahs “saved the Iban from themselves” by restoring order. Similarly, Sutlive (1977: 164) concludes that in Iban na rratives women “must be saved from themselves,” from their jealousy and naivety-by men. (30)

At any rate, thanks to the unrelenting work of Benedict Sandin, Henry Gerijih, and other Bureau authors, Iban oral literature is today far better recorded than that of any other Bornean ethnic group (Maxwell 1989: 186, Sather 1994), even if some scholars have doubts about the usefulness of the Bureau’s books, in which the oral accounts have been “abridged and edited making them almost unreliable for serious studies” (Said 1994: 58). One neglected research area, however, has been the significance of the Bureau’s books not for posterity but rather in terms of the 1960s-1970s attempts to develop a modern, literate Iban culture. This was precisely my aim in the preceding pages: to situate the books in relation not to a timeless past or a scholarly future, but in the contemporary flux of a rapidly modernizing Sarawak. Three concluding remarks are called for:

First, the vision driving the Bureau’s editors and authors was to modernize the native societies through social and economic development while preserving what they considered to be the best of their rich oral traditions through literacy. At the same time Sarawak had to be protected from the related threats of racial conflict, a belligerent Indonesia, and communism. We have seen some of the ways in which the Bureau’s authors, notably Andria Ejau, served their government. In all cases they were animated by the paradoxical project of having both to change and to preserve Iban culture. What Iban culture did they draw upon? Not a wholesale “pristine Iban culture” (Freeman 1980: 7) untouched by modernity, but rather, local oral fragments of an eroded “tradition” (adat Iban) that Ejau and others reconstructed piecemeal as they went along. Yet salvaging a story in print is a radically different action from telling a story in the semi-darkness of an ill-lit and illiterate longhouse gathering. It is part of the collect ive “objectification” of Iban culture undertaken by these pioneering media agents. Writing about the Bidayuh, formerly known as Land Dayaks, Winzeler (1997:224-5) applies Wagner’s (1981) notion of “objectification of culture,” a process whereby implicit practices are rendered explicit as “custom” or “heritage.” To Wagner, such processes are part and parcel of the inventiveness of all human societies. Other anthropologists, however, have considered them to be unique to Western modernity. Winzeler seeks a middle ground. He argues that Southeast Asian societies adopted cultural objectifications of Indic and Islamic origin (notably ugama or religion, and adat or custom, respectively) well before the arrival of Europeans. Yet the tendency “to turn native lifeways into matters of objective contemplation and selection of ethnic traditions” was greatly intensified under colonial and post-colonial governments.

Among the Bidayuh, for instance, the male ceremonial house (baruk), a strikingly designed building where enemy skulls were kept, has emerged in recent times as the “ethnic emblem” par excellence. Winzeler (1997: 223) maintains that this choice of emblem results from its architectural beauty and from its being uniquely Bidayuh, for this multilingual group has little else other than architecture to distinguish it from neighboring groups. Unlike the Bidayuh, the Iban have a common language with minor dialectal variations, a language with a long and rich history that is often invoked as the bedrock of the Iban culture. The Iban language was not only a means to the “objective contemplation and selection of ethnic traditions,” the print media turned it into an object of study, contemplation, and culturalist devotion in its own right. Indeed, language has remained the most powerful emblem of Ibanness to this day (see Masing 1981), far more powerful than any item of material culture or architecture could ever be.

Second, as Appendix 2 shows, there was a predominance of authors from the Saribas-Kalaka belt, and in particular from Benedict Sandin’s Paku River-an area noted both for its early economic and educational achievements and its love of Iban tradition (Sather 1994: 71-72). The Saribas was a curiously modernist-traditionalist crossroads whose leading families were well aware of the economic advantages of a Christian name and education, and yet had retained a deep respect for their own cultural heritage. Sandin and the other Bureau authors created a cultural feedback loop: they acquired oral items in the rural areas, processed them in Kuching, and “fed them back” to the rural areas in a new, literary form. In the process they were adding symbolic and market value to their stories, for the written word carried immense authority among illiterate and semi-literate longhouse residents. It was a classic center-periphery relationship whereby raw materials from the economic margins were manufactured in the urban centers and sent back to their places of origin. In so doing, the Bureau was also standardizing “Iban culture” through the systematic use of orthographic, generic, and rhetorical conventions. Moreover, after 1963, its authors “updated” Iban ethnohistory with the incorporation of Malaysia into their developmentalist accounts.

Finally, King (1989:243) understands ethnic categories as “part of wider taxonomies and sets of social, economic, and political relations” and urges researchers in Borneo to relate ethnicity to other “principles of social organization.” Similarly, Eriksen (1993: 12) notes that “ethnicity is essentially an aspect of a relationship, not a property of a group.” In the context of Iban ethnicity, we have to stress a sub-ethnic domain: one’s river of origin. Class, education, and geography were inextricably conjoined in the making of the early Iban media producers. These pioneering authors were not only the products of a region, their talents were fostered and channeled in a few educational institutions, which favored the social and cultural development of the Iban. Appendix 2 demonstrates how nearly half the authors sampled obtained their secondary schooling at St Augustine, in the Saribas. Additionally, a sizeable number of authors trained as teachers at Wilson’s Batu Lintang in Kuching. Virtually all were, or ha d been, rural, schoolteachers. Four authors (Ejau, Jimbai, Kechendai and Jarraw) were also broadcasters with Radio Sarawak, another nativist institution. The exclusion of women from the new field of cultural production was a hidden, taken-for-granted principle of social organization at work in this process. Very few women in those days had access to a secondary school education, let alone to further training in the capitol. Besides, storytelling had always been yet another male Iban prerogative. (31) In sum, our authors were mission-educated men from economically progressive yet culturally conservative areas, bent on developing their careers in a new field of cultural production while developing their people.

From the above discussion, it may appear as if there were no resistance to the modernizing drive of these media producers. A closer reading of their texts, however, suggests a constant struggle to persuade reluctant rural Iban to modernize their ways, particularly in Ejau’s educational work. Elsewhere (Postill 1998 and 1999, chapters 5-6), I argue that their efforts, at least in the Saribas and Skrang rivers, have paid off, This is born out by a history of ideas and media practices in these areas I have written from the perspective of local media consumers. Today, there is little resistance to “development” (pemansang) in its myriad institutional forms, from Christianity through agriculture to health and education.

Iban print media: from boom to bonfire

According to Leigh (1983: 160), the three key political issues in the decade that followed independence (1963-1973) were federal-state relations, the opening-up of native land to commercial exploitation, and the debate over whether English or Malay was to be the medium of instruction in Sarawak. The first Chief Minister of an independent Sarawak “through Malaysia” was an Iban, Stephen Kalong Ningkan. He was seen in Kuala Lumpur as a confrontational Dayak, especially because of his strong defence of English as the language of instruction and government and his reluctance to take on Malayan civil servants. In fact, like many other Sarawak leaders at the time, he considered the union with Malaysia as a “treaty relationship between sovereign nations” (Leigh 1983: 162).

In 1966, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, made use of emergency powers to remove Ningkan from power. (32) Instead, he installed a more pliable Iban: Tawi Sli. The Tunku was a firm believer in the need for a strong national language, “for language is the soul of the Nation” (Leigh 1974: 88). He was convinced that under Tawi Sli “there was a much better chance of the people developing a Malaysian consciousness” (Leigh 1974: 105, fn 79). The language issue was finally settled under the following Chief Minister, Abdul Rahman Yakub, a Melanau Muslim, in favour of Malay (33) (Leigh 1983: 163). With Ningkan went the political support needed for the development of modem Iban-language media. Appendix 3 shows how the golden period of new Iban titles at the Borneo Literature Bureau came to a sharp end in 1968. Allowing for the backlog created by the deluge of new manuscripts reported in 1965, it is safe to assume that the drop was linked to the new, unfavorable political climate.

From the mid-1960s, the Iban (and other Dayaks) increasingly lost political ground to the Malay-Melanau Muslim elites. The only outlet for Iban discontent with the slow pace of rural development, the opposition party SNAP, was financially weak and finally joined the government coalition in 1976. All through this period there were token Iban/Dayak representatives in the state cabinet, but the real power always resided with the Melanaus and their Malay allies (Jawan 1994: 124).

Radio Sarawak (later RMS and RTM) and Borneo Literature Bureau producers and authors were struggling to preserve a language and a culture that in the mid-1960s lost out to the new national language imported from Malaya. Iban-language radio and literature were complementary media: the former used oral/aural means, the latter, visual means to achieve the same goals. Their target audience was in the politically weak rural areas, away from Kuching’s corridors of power, increasingly linked to those of Kuala Lumpur. The cultural system from which the authors of books and scripts drew oral knowledge and to which they contributed literate knowledge was rapidly becoming a subsystem within an expanding national polity.

Twenty-seven years ago, Leigh (1974:94) predicted that “the Iban school teachers may yet prove to be a politically pivotal group.” That appears to have been the case, to some extent, in the 1987 elections (Leigh 1991). I now turn to the abrupt end of the Iban medium with which those teachers were most actively involved. This event arguably thwarted the development of Iban as a language of high culture and social critique. (34) Oral tradition in Kuching has it that soon after Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), Malaysia’s language planning and development agency, took over the Borneo Literature Bureau in 1977, they had all the books in Iban and other Bornean languages buried. Shortly afterwards, the mass media grave was discovered by a reader who rescued some of the books. To prevent future finds, my informants allege that the new cultural authorities resorted to a traditional agricultural practice known as “open burning.” If this is true, what in the 1960s had been a modest literary boom, ended up feeding a bonf ire.

DBP officials appear to be nervous on the subject of Bornean languages. For instance, Z. A. Zulficly (1989) has stated that the role of his agency is to publish works “in the national language or other vernaculars” (my emphasis) and that it “does not disregard Sarawak’s principal aspiration in relation to its literature and local socio-culture, most importantly, its oral tradition in the form of folklores in order that such folklores will not be obliterated thus” (1989: 159). Soon after, however, he reveals the post-1977 function assigned by Kuala Lumpur to the local languages: to supply the national language with new words, a role he deems “immensely significant for the purpose of fostering national integration.” Indeed, he says, “[h]itherto, 50 words in various regional languages have been officially assimilated in the bahasa Malaysia word vocabulary” (35) (1989:159). He concludes that DBP cannot publish books in regional languages “because this would inadvertently contradict its policy and an apparently m ediocre market” (1989: 161), thus inadvertently contradicting his own opening statement on the agency’s role in publishing works in “other vernaculars.” The truth is that the protection and development of “minority languages” (36) appears in Article 152 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees “the right of all ethnic communities in Malaysia to use, sustain and develop their mother tongue” (Tawai 1997: 18). In practice, however, the sustained aim is to create a Malay-based national language and culture. Thus, in 1988, to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of Malaysia, the Sarawak government ran a number of workshops on each of the state’s major ethnic groups in order to determine “what to discard in the interest of ‘development’ and ‘unity’ and what to preserve and incorporate into a national (Malaysian) culture” (Winzeler 1997: 201).

Well-placed Dayaks aid this process of linguistic and cultural assimilation. Another DPB official, Jonathan Singki, the editor of the Iban-language magazine Nendak from December 1975 until its reported cremation in November 1977, offers a different explanation for the insignificant output of Iban books under DPB. Singki, who now devotes his energies to Malay-language texts, argues that Iban authors, and in particular the committee set up to publish Iban textbooks, are not sufficiently professional. Instead of sending Camera Ready Copy (CRC) manuscripts, says Singki, (37) they send in crude printouts in need of a great deal of editorial work that causes huge delays.

Other urban Iban I talked to privately suspect that there are political reasons behind these “technical delays.” A case in point is Andria Ejaus manuscript Layang Bintang, a morality novella on rural development he wrote in 1972 in which he warns rural readers of the perils of sheltering communist-terrorist (CT) guerrillas. This ensera kelulu won a 1973 BLB award, yet the Bureau never printed it. It was only in 1984, after a hiatus of 11 years, that Ejau learnt that his manuscript would not be published by DBP because it had been originally sent to the Borneo Literature Bureau,38 an organization no longer in existence (Ejau 1985:5). DBP were willing, however, to return the original manuscript to Ejau. Fortunately for him, that same year (1984) the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA) was founded. One of their very first tasks was to publish Layang Bintang, which finally came out in 1985 (by which time the anti-communist message was somewhat dated!). The rationale behind such an expenditure was enunciated in unequivocal terms by the Chairman of SADIA, Sidi Munan (1985:3): “For if we LOSE OUR LANGUAGE, we will LOSE OUR PEOPLE,, (39)–a slogan tellingly reminiscent of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister’s aforesaid “for language is the soul of the Nation.”


Ernest Gellner (1983: 140-143) has famously argued that the origins of nationalism in Europe lay in the rise of industrial society. The requirements of a modern economy that aimed for sustained economic growth led to a new relationship between state and culture. Such an economy depended on a “literate sophisticated high culture” in which members could communicate precisely both face-to-face and through abstract means. European states came to monopolize legitimate culture via mass education and a national language. The driving principle of nationalism, says Gellner, was one state, one culture. Across Southeast Asia, this principle is being relentlessly pursued today, in spite of the ubiquity of “unity in diversity” symbols and slogans. For instance, the Thai government “actively discourages attempts by foreign missionaries to provide its hill-tribe minorities with their own transcription-systems and to develop publications in their own languages: the same government is largely indifferent to what these minorit ies speak” (Anderson 1991: 45). Similarly, Iban radio posed less of a threat to the fledgling Malaysian nation-state than Iban print media, so it was allowed to live on. Provencher (1994:55) overlooks this crucial distinction between orality and literacy when he states that the official policy is to teach the standard language (bahasa baku) to every Malaysian citizen “and to officially criticize those who continue to speak and write in regional dialects.”

Eriksen (1993:128) maintains that literate minorities have a better chance of surviving than illiterate ones. He adds: “Groups which have ‘discovered that they have a culture,’ who have invented and reified their culture, can draw on myths of origin and a wide array of potential boundary-markers that are unavailable to illiterate minorities.” That was precisely what was at stake when DBP took over the Borneo Literature Bureau.

Ethnicity studies within social anthropology since Barth (1969) have tended to focus on how cultural differences among ethnic groups acquire “social significance.” Anthropologists who adopt this “constructivist” approach are not overly interested in the actual cultural differences that may separate one ethnic group from another, but rather in how those differences are constructed. Yet there are anthropologists with an historical bent who maintain that cultural features matter a great deal. For instance, Peel (1989) has insisted, as I mentioned in the introduction, that cultural and linguistic distinctiveness was central to the strong consolidation of the Yoruba identity within the Nigerian state.

In this essay I have adopted a “culturalist” and historical approach centered on language, emphasizing the importance of the Iban language during the first phase of media production (1954-1976) and the uniqueness of the re-invented cultural heritage preserved through it. I will be analyzing the second phase (1977-ongoing) in a future piece (see Postill 2000 chapter 2). This early phase gave new opportunities to a generation of young Iban men who had acquired literacy skills at the mission schools and were eager to build, to quote Gellner again, a “literate sophisticated high culture” combining cultural materials from their colonial masters and longhouse elders. Their project was remarkably similar to that embarked upon by late 19th century Norwegian and other nationalists in Europe (cf. O’Connor 1999 on Ireland). The Norwegians, too, traveled to remote valleys in search of ancient words, stories, and artifacts from an “authentic culture”–a culture they believed distinct from that of their Swedish rulers. The yoo, selected items from the peasant culture they studied to create a coherent ethnogenesis back in the urban areas that was then re-routed to the countryside (Eriksen 1993:102). The crucial difference was that the Iban teachers lacked an Iban state, for a literate culture “cannot normally survive without its own political shell, the state” (Gellner 1983: 140-143). It is one thing to incorporate the state into a minority’s ethnohistory and drama, like Sandin and Ejau did. (40) It is quite another to create a truly multilingual nation, like the anomalous Swiss have done.


A breakdown of 7 issues (41) of Nendak magazine (1968-1975) by general
(folklore vs. educational) (42) and specific subject matter.

Penemu lama            Iban folklore (43)

7 ensera               fictive narratives, usu. epic sagas
6 cherita lama/tuai    "factual" ethnohistorical accounts (44)
2 cherita mimpi        dream narratives
2 ensera anembiak      stories for children
2 entelah              riddles
2 adat Iban            Iban custom pieces (45)
1 cherita kelulu       morality tale
I pantun               sung poem
1 leka main            propaganda poem
1 jako kelaung enggau  proverbs and parables
    jako sema
1 ngalu petara leboh   Dayak Day ceremony to welcome gods (46)
    Gawai Dayak
1 lumba enggau main    traditional Iban games

27 sub-total items
Penemu baru              Educational material (47)

2 betanam betupi         agriculture and animal husbandry (48)
2 ungkop sida ka indu    home economics (49)
2 ajar pengerai          health advice (50)
2 jako melintang pukang  Iban crossword puzzle
2 belajar Bahasa         national language lessons
1 pengawa kunsila        the office of councilor
1 tuai rumah enggau      the office of headman
  anembiak iya
1 rumah panjai           the longhouse [in a modem society]
1 ajar lumor             algebra lesson
1 main sains dunya &     geography quiz
  gaya pengidup
1 sekula di menoa        the school system in Malaysia
1 Bujang Berani          pro-Malaysia propaganda article
  Anembiak Malaysia        [Malaysian Heroes]
1 Taun Baru China        Chinese New Year [feature article]
1 gambar tuai perintah   photographic report on Sarawak leaders
1 gambar Taun Baru       photographic report on Chinese New Year

20 sub-total items

47 total items

Profiles of 17 Borneo Literature Bureau Iban Authors

   Name            Origin       Secondary       Training        Other

1962 Sandin     Paku, Saribas  St Augustine   Sarawak       tukang tusut
1962 Gerijih    Paku, Saribas  St Augustine   Batu Lintang  lemambang
1962 Majang     Kalaka         St Augustine   Batu Lintang
1963 A. Ejau    Kalaka         St Augustine   Councilor     Radio
1965 Duncan     Saribas        St Augustine   Batu Lintang
1966 Pitok      Simanggang     Simanggang     Batu Lintang
1966 Imang      Simanggang     Simanggang     Batu Lintang  craftsman
1966 Guang      Paku, Saribas  St Augustine   Agric. Dept.
1966 L.Ijau     Paku, Saribas  Paku, Saribas  Batu Lintang
1967 Inn        Kalaka         Saratok        Lubok Antu
1967 Nyangoh    Kanowit        Julau          ?
1967 Gani       Balingian      Kapit          Methodist
1968 Pelima     Rimbas         Debak          trader, Paku
1968 Ensiring   Saratok        Saratok        Rajang TTC
1968 Jarraw     Kanowit        Kanowit        Radio         BBC
1969 Rajit      Saribas        St Augustine   Anglican
1970 Kechendai  Paku, Saribas  Debak          St Augustine  Radio


Table 1

Number of manuscripts by language sent in for the 8th Borneo Literature
Bureau annual competition, 1965.

32  English  1  Bukar Sadong
28  Iban     1  Bau Jagoi
18  Chinese  1  Biatah
14  Malay    1  Kayan

Source: Borneo Literature Bureau Annual Report (1965).

(1.) This article is adapted from the first part of Chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation (Postill 2000). The doctorate was with the Anthropology Department at University College London and was supervised by Dr Simon Strickland and Professor Chris Tilley. The thesis was based on research I carried out in Sarawak for some 17 months in all: in June 1996 and from December 1996 to April 1998 (with a short break). I was officially attached to both the Majlis Adat Istiadat and the Sarawak Museum. Field research was supported by the Anthropology Department and Graduate School at University College London, the Evans Fund of Cambridge University, and the Central Research Fund of London University. I am most grateful to these institutions and to others such as the Iban Service at RTM, Bahagian Teknologi Pendidikan, Tun Jugah Foundation, Betong District Office, the Sarawak State Planning Unit, as well as to countless individuals, families, and longhouses in the Betong, Skrang, and Kuching areas for their generous support.

(2.) Both Clifford Sather (personal communication) and an anonymous reviewer, however, dispute this point. Sather mentions the regional cleavages to be found amongst the Iban, and the fact that many Iban from the Saribas basin (including Benedict Sandin, see below, until late in his life) preferred to retain the term “Sea Dayak.” On the other hand, says Sather, the Melanau are “as heterogenous as the Bidayuh” and yet they have held the reins of state politics for nearly four decades.

(3.) One anonymous reader asks whether this is any less true of, say, England. It is–England has a range of mass media under varying degrees of government control, from tight to minimal. Outspoken critics of the government of the day, including the opposition party, citizens’ groups, and religious organizations, are allowed regular access to the media. This does not occur in Malaysia or Brunei.

(4.) The development officer John K. Wilson (1969: 163, see below) was a pioneer in the use of radio for development purposes. His first development center was at Budu, near Saratok: “That the people used the radios to listen in to organised programmes forwarded to Radio Sarawak either by tape or letter was of course encouraged to the limit. Budu news and educational features were a mainstay at Radio Sarawak in the early days. So if it happened that we were in Kuching and wanted a canoe to meet us anywhere, this was just very easy now. A telephone call to Radio Sarawak and that night the news had reached the longhouse.”

(5.) One well-traveled Iban informant told me that his language was much more of a lingua franca in Kayan-Kenyah areas in the late 1950s and 1960s than it is today, thanks to the popularity of the Iban-language service. Yet even today some Iban programs are popular with other ethnic groups. An elderly Malay man from the Saribas assured me that he finds the Iban-language news programs easier to follow than their Bahasa Malaysia equivalents, as he had no schooling. The Saribas Iban dialect is more familiar to him than the relatively new Standard Malay imported from West Malaysia.

(6.) The term penabur is a metaphorical neologism derived from the Iban farming term nabur (to sow or scatter).

(7.) Sarawak Education Department (SED) Annual Reports 1958-1960: 34.

(8.) SED Annual Reports 1958-1960: 35.

(9.) SED Annual Reports 1958-1960: 34.

(10.) I obtained this information from a reliable source.

(11.) There is a sizeable literature on Confrontation (konfrontasi). For Mackie (1974: 33) Soekarno was no great believer in “Malay brotherhood.” He only used this notion for propaganda purposes. After having acquired West New Guinea from the Dutch by force, and subject to official indoctrination for years, the Indonesian people, says Mackie (1974: 326-333), were predisposed towards Soekarno’s slogans. His millennialism–a sophisticated version of a cargo cult–struck a chord with Indonesians and scared other governments in the region. According to Poulgrain (1998) it was not Soekarno who started konfrontasi but rather British and American intelligence agencies seeking to further the aims of their respective states. Jones (2002), who has studied recently declassified British documents, provides us with yet another picture; one showing the Commonwealth powers and the US entangled in a hostile nationalist and anti-imperialist environment. In this account, Britain was largely led by regional politicians througho ut the process of the formation of Malaysia.

(12.) Interviewed on 1 July 1997 in Kuching.

(13.) The Borneo Literature Bureau (see below) published three folklore books by Lawrence Sanoun Ijau in the 1960s. Like many other folklorists, Ijau was from the Paku area and trained at Batu Lintang Teachers Training College.

(14) One reader has suggested that it was not only Kuala Lumpur rulers who had a hand in Wilson’s expulsion, but also Iban leaders such as the Tun Jugah. This reader believes the rivalry between influential Iban from the Rejang and other rivers may have played a part. I have not been able to pursue this matter. See also Wilson (1969).

(15) Although based in Kuching, one interesting geopolitical anomaly of the now defunct Bureau is that it catered to the whole of Malaysian Borneo (Clifford Sather, personal communication). A much shorter-lived attempt at establishing an East Malaysian media organization was television. As I explain in Postill (2000: 106): “In their television history, the Bomean states are again a special case. Transmission commenced in Sabah in 1974, eleven years after it had done so in West Malaysia. From 1975 Sarawak was allowed to use the Sabahan facilities. Various cultural, musical and religious programmes were produced and broadcast by the two states over a joint channel known as Channel 3. However, in 1985 Channel 3 was closed down following directives from Kuala Lumpur–predictably, it was seen as a threat to national unity. Programming was taken over by the centre, with which airtime was now “shared.” Non-Muslim religious programmes were never again broadcast.”

(16) Total sales in all languages rocketed from $38,739 in 1960 to $171,157 in 1961 to $348,528 in 1962. By contrast, Chinese books were selling poorly. The reason adduced was that neither Chinese adults nor children had much interest in books with Bomean themes (BLB Annual Report 1962).

(17.) Traditionally, Iban have relied on dreams (mimpi) as much as on omens (burong) for guidance (Richards 1981: 220).

(18.) An ensera is an “epic or saga sung in poetic language with explanations and conversations in prose” (Richards 1981: 87).

(19.) BLB Annual Report (1963).

(20.) According to Richards (1981: 288), Pulang Gana “[r]epresents Indian Ganesh (Ganesa, Ganapati, lord of the troops accompanying (sempulang) or attendant on Siva) whose ‘vehicle’ is the rat (cit) from whom the Iban obtained PADI [rice].”

(21.) Otto Steinmayer (personal communication, January 1999).

(22.) Collins English Dictionary (1994).

(23.) Also published in 1965 were Peransang Tunang by A.K. Mancha, four English translations and an English-Iban, Iban-English phrase book which sold very well (BLB Annual Report [1965] and Steinmayer [1990]).

(24.) No explanation for this fact is given in the Annual Report.

(25.) Jenang was born in Sungai Assam, Krian, Saratok. He learnt the art of storytelling from his father. A precocious author, Jenang wrote this ensera at the age of 16 “all by myself,” it did not follow from “ancient stories” (ensera tu ukai nampong batang ensera tuai tang iya empegal digaga aku kadiri). Unfortunately, this was to be, to the best of my knowledge, his first and last published work.

(26.) Accounting to Paku custom, during the mourning period people are not allowed to “make music, shout and put on flowery and red clothes” or cut their hair (Sandin 1980:71). In my 1996-98 fieldwork I found that rural Iban, at least in the Saribas, have bent their mourning adat to accommodate radio and television (see Postill 2000, chapter 4).

(27.) I have translated the word bansa as “race” here in line with the English usage prevalent at the time of Sandin’s writing. It is still widely used in the English-language press and everyday conversation among urban Sarawakians. Another commonly used term equivalent to the current academic term “ethnic groups” is “ethnics.”

(28.) I myself found them very useful and enjoyable as a gentle introduction to the intricacies of the Iban language prior to fieldwork.

(29.) In the original: Dini chit tau ran ka puchau kita? Perintah udah meri rachun dikena munch chit tang sida agi majak ka penemu sida nya (Jalie 1972).

(30.) There is an important exception, however: the comic character Father-of-Aloi (Paloi), a mischievous old man eternally rescued from his self-inflicted miseries by his wife and son. Then again, comic fables “satirize everyday life,” while the heroic sagas of Keling “celebrate Iban ideals and dwell in particular on wars, travel and romance” (Sather 1984:ix). Hence one could see the hen-pecked Paloi as the moral antithesis of Keling-a model of aborted manhood not to be tried in one’s longhouse rooms. See Sather (2001) for a collection of comic tales in one of which Paloi challenges Keling and his followers to a cockfight. The agreement is that the loser becomes the slave of the winner. The heroes lose and their wives have to save the situation by trouncing Paloi and winning their husbands back. For once, it is not Paloi who has to be rescued (Sather 2001: 60-66). For a very British version of Paloi, see Tom Shame’s (1976) farce, Wilt.

(31.) With the exception of the sabak (dirge) genre. Recall that Rajit (1969), the Anglican priest mentioned earlier, acquired his sabak knowledge from his mother.

(32.) A move applauded at the time by Malaysia’s current Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir bin Mohammed, then a backbencher. According to one biographer, Mahathir already held “a dim view of democracy” in the early years of independence (Khoo 1995: 275).

(33.) Malay was accepted as the official language in Sarawak alongside English until 1985, when English was finally dropped (Zulficly 1989: 159).

(34.) It remains to be investigated whether the internet is aiding the creation of such a critical space.

(35.) Including the Iban terms berandau (to converse, to chat) and merarau (to have lunch).

(36.) Ironically, in numerical terms, Malay is more of a “minority language” in Sarawak than Iban. The Malay population stood at 330,000 in 1988 (21% of the total), compared to 471,000 Iban (30%), the largest ethnic population in the state. Together, the Dayaks made up approximately 50% of the state population (Jawan 1994:24).

(37.) Interviewed on 30 July 1997 in Kuching.

(38.) John Lent (1994: 94), a media researcher, claims he was the victim of a different kind of restriction. His book manuscript on mass communications was banned from publication owing to “a few timidly-critical points about Malaysian mass media.” The official line was that the manuscript had not been written in Bahasa Malaysia.

(39.) “Laban enti kitai LENY AU JAKO, reti LENYAU BANGSA.”

(40.) As Clifford Sather (personal communication) has rightly pointed out, the broad socio-economic and geopolitical factors that I stress in this essay should not make us lose sight of “the agency, the dogged determination, passion, at times even literary brilliance, of the Iban actors in this story.” Often we are dealing with “creative and imaginative works, some of them quite moving, funny, etc.” Benedict Sandin, adds Sather, had to struggle throughout his life with both Sarawakians and foreigners hostile to his “old fashioned” line of work (witness, for instance, Freeman’s 1980 dismissal of Sandin as unscholarly in his adherence to “Iban tenets”). Since the demise of the BLB, Sandin’s memory “is all but gone” in Sarawak, yet “he loved what he did, thought it mattered enormously, and most of all he simply loved the language.”

(41.) Some parts were missing in two of the photocopies I was able to inspect, and I could not date another two of them.

(42.) The division of the items into two broad categories is mine. No such division is apparent in Nendak. Items from both categories are jumbled together in all issues examined. Furthermore, some of the “Iban Folklore” items are also meant to “modernize” the readers’ supposedly traditional worldview.

(43.) Literally “old knowledge,” including recent innovations, e.g. Gawai Dayak (Dayak Festival Day) ceremonies, and pro-government morality tales (cherita kelulu).

(44.) See Sather (1994) for a learned discussion of Iban ethnohistory.

(45.) One contribution by Benedict Sandin on longhouse basa (etiquette, good manners), the other an interview with Tunggay anak Mulla, also from the Saribas, on ngetas ulit (rite to end a period of mourning) and serara bunga (rite to “separate” the dead from the living).

(46.) A newly invented rite to receive and introduce to the longhouse the Petara, or heavenly guests (Richards 1981: 7), during the Gawai Dayak festival, adapted from Iban custom. Gawaf Dayak was invented in 1965, three years before the publication of this issue of Nendak (see discussion of Ejau’s novella Batu Besundang above).

(47.) I am following the Bureau’s terminology here. In some items, e.g. “Bujang Berani…,” read propaganda.

(48.) Prepared by the Agriculture Department.

(49.) Idem.

(50.) Prepared by the Health Department.

N.B. I have included authors on whom information is available and arranged them by year of first publication, indicating place of origin, secondary school education, training and other relevant information where applicable.

Sources: Borneo Literature Bureau publications and Steinmayer (1990).

Key: St Augustine = St. Augustine School, in Betong, Saribas; tukang tusut = genealogist; lemambang = bard; Batu Lintang = Barn Lintang Teacher Training College, in Kuching; Rajang TTC = Rajang Teacher Training College.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Borneo Research Council, Inc
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.


Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Please bookmark with social media, your votes are noticed and appreciated:…-a093533245


2 thoughts on “Ethnicity and nationalism among Iban

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s