Ethnic Groups of Sarawak

Peoples and Traditions/ Contents

Ethnic Groups of Sarawak

Jayum Anak Jawan

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Iban men in warrior customes carry a carved hornbill effigy that will be hoisted on a tall pole during the Gawai Kenyalang (Hornbill festival), in honour of the God of War, Singalang Burung.

Sarawak’s rich cultural diversity reflects its heterogeneous, multi-ethnic population. More than 72 per cent of its population of approximately two million are indigenous peoples, with migrant communities making up the rest. As Malaysia’s largest state, it is home to more than 20 indigenous groups who are collectively known as Dayak, who, in addition to the Malays, are recognized as Bumiputera and enjoy special rights. The non-indigenous population comprises mainly Chinese, many of whom are descendants of early settlers and who have been dominant in the economic sector since the 19th century. The Chinese are largely concentrated in the urban centres.

The indigenous communities—comprising the Malays, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and the Orang Ulu groups—are traditionally rural based. However, since the 1960s migration has resulted in many indigenous people leaving their traditional habitat for the urban centres and other parts of the state. Increasingly, too, they have abandoned the old ways and cultural practices of their forebears as they have modernized. The majority of the Dayaks have also turned from traditional beliefs to Christianity.

The indigenous communities—comprising the Malays, Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and the Orang Ulu groups—are traditionally rural based. However, since the 1960s migration has resulted in many indigenous people leaving their traditional habitat for the urban centres and other parts of the state. Increasingly, too, they have abandoned the old ways and cultural practices of their forebears as they have modernized. The majority of the Dayaks have also turned from traditional beliefs to Christianity.

The Sarawak government takes pride in the state’s diversity of people and traditions, as well as the tolerance and understanding that exists among the various communities towards each other’s way of life, including religious practices. The state government actively promotes the culture and customs of the various ethnic groups. Major festivals are organized at state level, including Dayak Gawai, the Melanau Kaul festival, Chinese New Year and Malay Hari Raya Aidilfitri. The essence and spirit of these occasions have been carefully preserved, although some of the rituals associated with them have been abbreviated for tourism purposes. Gawai, for instance, was originally a three-day affair. While rural Dayak longhouse communities continue to observe their age-old thanksgiving customs, the official celebrations are a shortened form of the original, to cater better for tourism and the state’s urban communities. The rich heritage of the indigenous groups has spurred the growth of cultural tourism in Sarawak. For instance, longhouse living has been successfully introduced in holiday resorts, and ethnic festivities are promoted as tourism attractions. Organized cultural tourism allows tourists to gain an insight into, and experience, local culture without intruding into the lives of the indigenous people.

The task of preserving local customs and traditions is entrusted to the Council of Local Customs and Traditions (Majlis Adat Istiadat). Its functions include recording and preserving the oral traditions of the indigenous communities so that their descendants will have access to such information. In addition, the council has codified the adat (customary law) of the native groups.

Source: http://www.encyclopedia.com.my/volume12/ethnic_sar.html

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