New Generation Finds Strength in Borneo’s Past

New Generation Finds Strength in Borneo’s Past

By BARBARA CROSSETTE, Special to the New York Times
Published: October 18, 1987

For more than a century, since explorers and missionaries first ventured into the interior of Borneo, outsiders have been captivated, awed and not infrequently humbled by the Iban people, who dominated millions of acres of tropical rain forests on one of the world’s largest islands.

The Iban, or Sea Dayaks, were a complex society: Fearless headhunters in war, they lived in peace humanely and, in some ways, democratically in longhouses along the rivers of Sarawak, a former British colony that is now part of Malaysia. Individualistic, egalitarian, adaptable and honorable were all judgments made of the Iban during the hundred years that Sarawak was ruled as a private fiefdom by the ”white rajahs” of the Brooke family.

A Briton, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, wrote in the 1860’s, ”The quietly watchful eyes which the Dayak chief turns upon every speaker, though the language employed be unknown to him, are so shrewdly intelligent that one longs to dive into his mind and ascertain what his thoughts can be.”

Today, a new generation of Iban, increasingly conscious of their ethnic roots after almost a quarter-century within the Moslem Malay-dominated nation of Malaysia, are themselves diving into Dayak minds to re-examine their strength and expand their political power. Their success or failure, they say, will define the future political map of northern Borneo, and possibly influence people like them who live across the border in Indonesia. Recent Political Awakening

Borneo, a sparsely populated island, is rich in resources over which its native people have very little control. Restless Iban, educated in American or British missionary schools and Western universities, speak of creating a sense of ”Dayakism.”

The political awakening of Borneo’s people is a recent trend, said James Masing, a social scientist and politician who was the first Iban to earn a doctorate in anthropology.

”There is a growing awareness that we must have a place in history,” he said. ”Our priority now is to organize the Dayak community and make them a strong political force.”

Mr. Masing, a state assemblyman who belongs to a Dayak-dominated coalition that almost brought down the state government in elections this spring, said in an interview that 46 percent of Sarawak’s 1.4 million people are Dayaks or other non-Islamic native peoples related to them. About 26 percent are Moslem Malays and Melanau; most of the rest are ethnic Chinese. ‘The Wild Men of Borneo’

In neighboring Sabah, also a Malaysian state since 1963, ethnic Kadazans – another group of traditional headhunters once labeled ”the wild men of Borneo” by Europeans – now head the state government under Joseph Pairin Kitingan, the first Kadazan to be educated as a lawyer. The example of Sabah made a big impact in Sarawak, Mr. Masing and other Ibans said. Among the lessons drawn from the Kadazan experience, Mr. Masing said, was the importance of an alliance with the ethnic Chinese, who control much of local commerce and banking. In Sarawak, however, such an alliance seems a long time away.

The strength of Iban society, people with roots in their communities say, derives from the society’s own culture and from the years Sarawak’s people spent under the rule of the Brooke Rajahs – James, Charles and Vyner. The Sultan of Brunei ceded Sarawak to James Brooke, an Englishman, in 1841; the Brooke family did not relinquish control of Sarawak to the British Crown until after World War II.

”It is part of our culture to meet challenge,” Peter Mulok Kedit, an Iban ethnologist at the Sarawak Museum, said as he explained his people’s adaptability in meeting the modern world with little apparent social trauma. ‘We Know How to Adapt’

”In our oldest traditions, in our folklore, we have always had mythological heroes who go out to conquer demons,” he said. ”Our horizon lies beyond our river systems, our valleys.”

”Historically, we have been exposed to Western culture and Western ways of doing things,” said Mr. Kedit, who does not count himself among the Dayak nationalists. ”We know how to adapt ourselves to life beyond the tropical forests in which we find ourselves.”

Mr. Kedit, who has traced his ancestry to a pirate chief who led a band of marauders along the coast of the South China Sea, recently completed a doctoral dissertation on what he considers an Iban tradition crucial to the group’s development: ”bejalai.”

In the Iban language, bejalai means ”to walk away.” It is used to describe the journey into the unknown every young Iban man was expected to make before attaining responsible adulthood.

Traditionally, this could be a headhunting expedition – later translated into joining the military or the police. It could be a search for work: ”Bekuli” – ”be a coolie” – entered the Iban language to describe those on contract labor. Other Iban became collectors for European hunters or museums. They were soon labeled ”Museum Dayaks,” Mr. Kedit wrote.

Bejalai continues, in the oilfields off the Borneo coast and in timbering concessions – both money-earners for the young man’s longhouse – and, more negatively, in ”urban drift” from the forest to towns, where young men are sometimes drawn into drinking and gambling. Enrollment in the universities of foreign lands can also be a bejalai.

When missionary scholarships became available to boys, and a few girls, barely out of a preliterate age, they went along happily to try out a new form of an old tradition. They were sent off to academic life with songs, dances and feasting not unlike the accompaniment that once dispatched pirate crews.

”Whatever people say about Christianity, it brought us education,” said Mr. Masing, who was born in a longhouse near this Rajang River town of Kapit, attended a Methodist mission school and won a church scholarship to a university in New Zealand.

Christianity also gave the Dayaks what Michael Buma, a retired educator and Iban Anglican lay leader, calls ”an alternative to our tradition that changed our way of living.” Omens Cause Changes of Plans

Both Mr. Buma, who writes a newspaper column on Iban culture, and Mr. Masing said that there was much in Iban ritual that was unwieldy and awkward in a developed society – like not going to work after a bad dream or altering plans because of omens. The Iban, Mr. Masing said, have not lost these beliefs, but instead have become selective in choosing a course of action from one system or another. He called this a ”utilitarian” approach to religion.

”The Iban accepted Christianity not because of the promise of life after death,” he said. ”They accepted Christianity because they can increase their economic and social standing while alive.”

Iban youths, taught to be individualistic and egalitarian at home, say they can take foreign education in stride. Sometimes, however, they have been surprised to discover that Western customs were not quite what they had expected.

Joseph Sibat, a graduate of DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., who works for the Sarawak state electric company, is the son of a headhunter from Kapit who was converted to Christianity by American Methodists and later decided to give his children the first higher education their longhouse – a communal Iban dwelling -had ever experienced.

At DePauw, the younger Mr. Sibat says, he was the appalled to see students showering naked in a group. Students also hit each other over the head with books, a custom he found barbaric. An Informal Welfare System

Mr. Masing, who abandoned a civil service career to fight for the Dayak cause in and out of government, is regarded by Ibans here in Kapit as a future political leader. Mr. Masing has strong ideas about what Dayaks need: A share of the civil service and other government jobs more in line with their proportion of the population, and economic policies intended to serve the interior, not the commercial interest of the coastal towns.

Above all, he and other Iban – some of them his political enemies – would like to save the Iban longhouse, the village system of connecting homes with shared work and leisure space that has contributed to social development through democratic decision making and an informal welfare system.

”In a longhouse, people cared for other people,” said Leonard Linggi Jugah, secretary general of the governing party, who opposes Dayak nationalism. ”Loneliness does not exist, though privacy does not exist either.” ”

To save the longhouse, Mr. Masing said, the opening of large plantations must stop, and traditional slash-and-burn farming must be modernized.

”The longhouse has strong social values,” Mr. Buma said. ”Once you lose your social values, you have lost your identity.”

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