Category Archives: Pengawa asal

Iban Ritual Textiles by Traude Gavin

Can read a limited number of pages here. Very good details on gawai ngar.

The Women’s Warpath : Iban Rituak Fabrics from Borneo by Traude Gavin

Iban Or Sea Dayak Fabrics and Their Patterns by Charles Hose

Pua: Iban weavings of Sarawak by Edric Ong

Iban art: sexual selection and severed heads : weaving, sculpture, tattooing and other arts of the Iban of Borneo

Ties That Bind: Iban Ikat Weaving by Margaret linggi

The Sarawak Museum Journal – Volume 40, Issue 1 – Page 93

Fragile Traditions: Indonesian Art in Jeopardy – Page 130 by Micheal Happell

Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan … – Page 230
Eric Kjellgren – 2007 – ‎Preview – ‎More editions
CEREMONIAL CLOTH (Pua’ kumbu’) Borneo, Malaysia, Sarawak, Iban people Probably 18th century Cotton H. 94% in. … the name “skull basket” is probably a metaphorical reference to what was formerly the most important role of pua’ cloths, …

Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – Page 76
Charles de Ledesma, ‎Mark Lewis, ‎Pauline Savage – 2003 – ‎Preview – ‎More editions
Unique to Sarawak is pua kumbu (in Iban, “blanket”), a textile whose complex designs … As animists, Orang Asli artists draw upon the natural world – animals, trees, fish, as well as more abstract elements like fire and water – for their imagery.

Sarawak cultural legacy: a living tradition – Page 82
Lucas Chin, ‎Valerie Mashman, ‎Society Atelier Sarawak – 1991 – ‎Snippet view
The motifs woven into the central part of the pua are unique to the time it was woven, and even perhaps to the weaver; they elude contemporary … On the border (anak) are bird motifs, important in Iban thought, as earthly apparitions of spirits, or augurs of omens, mediating between the … Underneath Nising is the final border design of sepit api, three sets of fire tongs, again the metaphor of the creator god …

6th European Conference on Games Based Learning – Page 211
Patrick Felicia – 2012 – ‎Preview
In particular a game-based learning (GBL) platform to promote the Iban culture is being developed. … one of the indigenous inhabitants of the island of Borneo, and can be found in both states of Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia), and Brunei … five patterned skirts (kain kebat) and five blankets (pua kumbu), all in their original designs (Encyclopaedia of Iban Studies, 2001). … Narrative is not merely a story achieved through analysis and arguments, but through metaphor and connection.

Indonesian weaving between heaven and earth: religious … – Page 7
Itie C. Hout – 1999 – ‎Snippet view
Ikat textiles from the Iban, Borneo Iban ceremonial textiles are known for their intriguing motifs in various tones of beige, reddish and … The majority of the Iban live in longhouses on riverbanks in the interior of Sarawak. … Nowadays, a raid is more a metaphor for acquiring riches, fame and status, instead of enemies’ heads.

International “Ikat” Weaving Forum, Kuching, Sarawak, … – Page 140
1999 – ‎Snippet view
But according to the myth about the start of the ikat technique, Muji Babo’s daughter, Piga Wadu, developped the technique of ikating. She went to the sky … The social structure is often expressed through botanical metaphors. For example the …

Gawai Ngar

Textiles and “Women’s Warfare”

For women weaving constituted the chief counterpart to male warfare. Thus, for a woman, the foremost means of acquiring achieved status was through the weaving of textiles, in particular pua’ kumbu’ or ritual ikat-cloth. While undyed cotton provides the Iban with a metaphor of equality — finished cloth, by contrast, represents the very embodiment of rank and status distinction. Just as men gained and made public display of their standing through their sponsorship and participation in gawai rituals, so too, woven cloth is ranked (be-rintai) — its ranking determined by the nature of its designs, the status of its weaver, and the particular ritual or stage of ritual in which it figures as a suitable object. Pua’ kumbu’ are essentially sacred cloth. They differ according to their ritual use and the significance of their designs and are employed in every facet of Iban ritual life, to define ritual space for example, or to create and bridge boundaries between the human and supernatural worlds (see Empiang 1991:81).

Pua’ kumbu’ designs, in addition to their specific ritual use, are identified by the skill, seniority and expertise of the particular woman who weaves them (cf. Empiang 1991:80). As an embodiment of status, individual cloth designs are graded and each woman weaver is expected, in the course of her career, to progress systematically in her art, stage by stage, being (Empiang 1991:80),

… guided through each stage from the preparation of the cotton …, the tying of threads, the dyeing process and the selection of a design [by more experienced women, with] … each stage circumscribed by ritual.

As in warfare, success is believed to require, in addition to diligence and aptitude, spiritual inspiration and gifts of charms (pengaroh or batu), and through her art a woman is similarly expected, like a successful warleader, to enter into a special relationship with the supernatural. Consequently, like warfare, weaving, too, is also believed to be dangerous. Should a woman breach “the naturally sequenced order sanctioned by the spirits” — attempting a skill or a design beyond her level of attainment — her life is said to be imperilled. Each progressive stage of expertise was marked traditionally by the mastery of distinctive designs and by the increasing width of cloth that a woman was permitted to weave. In addition, in the Saribas, after the introduction of chemical dyes at the end of the nineteenth century, a weaver’s status was also denoted by vertical coloured bands added as side borders, the order of colours being indexical of these stages of expertise.[19] Instruction continued until a woman was acknowledged as having attained the stage of indu nenkebang indu muntang. At this stage, she was free to weave ritually dangerous patterns, provided she was sufficiently ambitious and daring, and to invent new designs inspired by her dreams. The highest level of attainment is that of indu nakar indu gar (or tau’ nakar, tau’ ngar), the phrase meaning, essentially, “women who know how to measure the mordants and perform the rites [with] divine assistance” (cf. Gavin 1991:4).[20] These women are recognized as the most proficient of all weavers and are said to be able to mix the mordant solutions. Completing the nakar process successfully is an extremely difficult undertaking and is called, fittingly, kayau indu, “women’s warfare” (Gavin 1991:5). Nakar is performed ceremonially through a ritual called the Gawai Ngar (see Gavin 1991). Here the ritual mixing of mordants is sponsored by a group of women weavers and is led by the tau’ nakar tau’ ngar. In the sense that it valorizes her status, the Gawai Ngar thus functions like the Gawai Burong, except that the indu tau’ nakar is not the sponsor of the ritual, but its chief officiant.

In the past those women who attained the status of indu nakar indu gar received special honours. Thus, traditionally they received from male warriors the newly-taken heads of slain enemies in their pua’ kumbu’ and at major gawai, including the Gawai Burong, they were called on to sing praise songs to the trophy heads (naku antu pala’) and to receive the pig’s liver for divination by the male elders. Expert weavers were also honoured during other male-sponsored rituals, and upon her death, an indu tau’ nakar could expect to receive the highest adat mati that a woman was awarded, higher than that received by all but the most honoured of Iban men. During the Gawai Antu, she alone prepared the special garong baskets, dyed brilliant red called kebur api, that were used to commemorate the deceased indu tau’ nakar of previous generations.


Cock fighting and headhunting

The Origin and Traditional values of Iban Cock-fighting (English version):

Cock-fighting is another type of culture or recreation which is commonly shared by the Ibans. Their interest for this culture originated from the game introduced by Raja Machan who held a cock-fighting bout with Ambong Mungan. The later lost the contest to Raja Machan and decided to go to visit the supernatural being in the sky to look for a fighting cock. In the domain of the God in the Sky, he met with a Supreme God called Raja Petara who gave him a fighting cock with the coloration of “Tuntong Lang Ngindang Terbai, Biring Belangking Pipit Kechuai”. Raja Petara told him that the fighting cock would never be defeated in the contest. With this prized possession given by the Supreme God, Ambong Mungan staged another cock-fighting session against Raja Machan. With such divine help, he won the contest.

There is another story of an Iban man named Kendawa, who went to the underworld in search for a good fighting cock with the coloration of “Biring Gerunggang”. In the underworld, he met with Ensing Jara who is a deity who looks after the soul of the dead fighting cock. He is also known as God of Cockfighting. These tales goes to show that cock fighting is a serious affair to the past Iban man who went through great length in search for a good fighting cock. Furthermore, they also imitated the game where their fable hero Keling, his friends and Gods of war, Sengalang Burong and his party held a cock-fighting contest against their arch enemies, Apai Sabit Bekait and demon Nising or Beduru in the sky.

The Iban believed that all the fighting cock that the supernatural being (Petara and Bunsu Antu) used in the cock-fighting contest, turned into human warriors. That is why cock fighting is closely tied to intangible qualities of human nature, their spiritual fulfillment and their religious refinement. It signifies a man’s chivalry while fighting enemies during war expeditions. As human beings became the fighting cocks of the supernatural being, they bore many different types of coloration (bulu manok), which is believed to reflect the personality profile of each warrior. The Iban believes that every warrior is born with his or her own “god given” fate (tuah diberi Petara) and destiny (nasib). These fate and destiny can only be seen and read from the scales of the fighting-cock’s leg and in its coloration. The scale is unique to individual rooster reflecting the unique fate given by god to individual warrior. That is why an Iban warrior is called “manok sabong” (fighting cock), spiritually sharing and possessing similar properties and characteristic. Thus, through these supernatural being, the Iban learn how to recognize the different type of coloration of the fighting cock and choose their preferred colorations that fit their personality when they became true warrior. With this traditional knowledge, the Iban learn how to recognize the quality and profile of each warrior and the natural element that influence them.

An Iban man is only a true warrior after he has slain an enemy in a battle. A true warrior will declare to God his praise name (ensumbar) and his choice of fighting cock coloration with the blood of his first slain enemy on their hand, which they tapped on their knees, elbows, on top of their head (bubun) and at the tip of their tongue. The declaration is also followed by swearing to God to abide by the rules of engagement handed down for generations. Once the fighting cock coloration has been declared with an enemy blood, the same coloration fighting cock must be used to honour the said warrior when he is invited to grace any major festival of the Iban people. If he needs to change his praise name later in life, he needs to repeat the same process using a fresh blood of his slain enemy.

The Iban warriors adorn beautiful headgear during major festivals or war expedition. These headgears are decorated with beautiful Angus pheasant feathers to resemble the beauty and grace of a fighting cock. The art of cock fighting teaches them to recognize the vulnerability of individual warriors. This helps the warleader to select individual warriors to perform specific task in a war expedition, which, at times, would include death duel with enemy warriors. That is why cock-fighting is not only a favorite pastime, but it is also a school of thought that teaches chivalrous behavior (courteous and considerate behavior) associated with the spirit of Iban warriors. It also teaches the Iban about the natural behavior, character and instinct of different fighting cock as it’s coloration represented the type of fish, birds, animals and insect living in its natural environment; location of the sun for their active and inactive time, feeding time, playing time, rest time; river tide situation; etc. Cock fighting thus represented the Iban’s religious and personal ideal. It is certainly their unique way of life.

The period when the Ibans normally hold cock-fighting bouts is between the felling season and the time when the burning is approaching. In the past, this was known as the annual cock-fighting Season.

In the past, on the eve of a cock-fighting contest, leaders of the cock-fighting teams would ask two bards to sing renong (folk songs), one after another. The renong that they sang were the ones that were formerly prescribed for war expeditions. They mentioned Keling, Bunga Nuing and party who went on war expeditions against their archenemy, Apai Sabit Bekait. War expeditions are similar to cock-fighting contests. Therefore, whenever the Iban leaders wanted to go on war expeditions, they would ask the bards to sing the renong specifically prescribed for cock-fighting contests, following what Ensing Jara did when he held a cock-fighting bout against Ngerai and Niram from the land of the dead (sebayan). Whenever they sing the renong, mainly for cock-fighting bouts or war expeditions, they must prepare offerings because the supernatural being that used to go on war expeditions or held cock-fighting contests are all mentioned in their songs.

However, to the Ibans who adhere to the old customs, cock fighting does not bring them any harm. It is a traditional sports and if organized professionally, it will be good for the tourism industry which benefits the Dayak people. In the past, the cock-fighting session is the time they exchange views and contemplate various meaningful undertakings with each other. Through their conversation at the cock-fighting arena, a majority of them receive ideas on how to improve their methods of farming, gardening, trading and carrying out activities to raise their community standard of living.

The cunning ones do not indulge themselves too much in gambling and betting during cock-fighting bouts because they remember the advice of their elders on being thrifty. They are aware of the dangers of doing things irresponsibly which will not only reduce their families to destitution but create problems for their children after their deaths.

Nowadays, cocks fighting are being organized occasionally following a major festival, annual gawai Dayak festival and final death rites (ngetas ulit) to mark the end of mourning period. In the headhunting past, death rites was completed with the acquisition of fresh heads. Such practices of blood letting have been replaced with cock-fighting session. This beautiful tradition should be preserved and kept alive in a contemporary Iban society through a better-organized session, proper set of rules and better arena.


Adat nyabong Iban


1. Mimpi rurus – Manah

2. Burong rurus – Manah

3. Bulu manok maioh bunoh – Ngeraup – Siti Bulu

4. Manok manah bintih – Kering sereta Silat

5. Tisik ngemudi ka bulu manok ti manah – Tuah

6. Ngangkat ka manok ngena hari – enggau atur

7. Saa manok enggau chukup – manah intu

8. Taji ka bulih – tajam

Besabong ka manok tu baka pengawa kitai mensia ka bentaruh ka nyawa bebuti enggau pangan diri. Sapa alah, nya mati. Nya kabuah kitai enda tau enda betati ka tiap-tiap rukun sabong, enggai ka alah uti enggau pangan diri. Kelia, enti alah uti enggau pangan diri, ngagai ringka ga pemulai sida. Nya alai rukun sabong enda tau enda dipelajar awak ka enda lebu bebuti enggau pangan diri.


Bansa kitai iban endang udah lama bisi panemu ngelala bulu manok. Ngelala bulu manok tu siti panemu sabong ti nyelai bendar enti dibanding enggau panemu bansa bukai ke sama bekunsi ka uti sabong bakatu. Bulu manok endang dikelala bansa iban nyemaka semua bansa utai ti idup (jelu, burong, ikan, indu utai enggau bansa utai tumboh) baik ka di dalam ai tauka di darat. Lalu pengangkat bulu manok mega ditemu kitai bansa nitih ka ulah, bunyi, gaya, pendiau enggau pemakai utai idup ti sabaka bulu enggau manok nya. Bakanya mega tuah manok ti dipeda kitai ba tuboh enggau ba tisik kaki manok sabong kitai. Tisik enggau tuah manok endang nitih ka pemai enggau gamal utai idup ti sabaka nama enggau bulu sida. Semua ulah enggau pendiau utai idup ti nyemaka enggau bulu manok endang dipelajar ka kitai Iban ngambi ka nemu maia hari sida kering, maia sida makai, maia sida diau, bansa utai di empa sida enggau maia ulah bukai. Semua utai tu endang bisi sangkut-paut enggau maia kitai nyabong manok sereta enggau sapa bulu manok ti disabong kitai nya ninggang pangan diri. Ari tuah enggau bulu manok, orang ke nemu nyabong endang nemu ni bagi manok ke bebintih nya tau dulu datai kaki ba lawan diri.

Bedudok ari pelajar sabong tu anak pungka lelaki Iban kelia endang udah diajar ngelala bulu manok kenyau ari sida iya agi biak. Sida mega diajar ngintu manok sabong ti aroh ati diri empu. Enti sida nyau udah nyadi ka manok sabong orang, sida nemu ngambu bulu manok sabong nyadi ka tanda pemerani sida tauka pengering bulu diri. Pengawa ngambu bulu manok sabong tu dikerja chara besumpah ngena darah munsoh ka udah didengah sida. Bulu manok sabong tu beguna bendar dikena miau enggau niki ka bala Raja Berani enggau Bujang Berani enti sida diambi ngerja pengawa gawai besai kitai bansa. Enti salah bulu manok dikena, pengawa sida tau sabau ngapa laban salah ripih pengawa lalu enda chukup intu. Utai baka tu tau ngemedis ka orang ka bempu pengawa. Nya kabuah ngadu enggau ngintu pengawa ba pengarap bansa kitai Iban pedis bendar enti nadai penemu ti chukup kena ngerja pengawa. Nya alai anak Iban enda tau enda nemu ngelala bulu manok, ukai semina dikena bebuti nyabong aja, tang mega ka penemu kena ngerja pengawa pengarap kitai bansa.


Maioh raup tauka nadai maioh bulu bukai munoh iya enti betul maia nyabong, tuah manah, burong manah enggau mimpi manah. Ngena sabong kemaiatu, manok sabong enda tau enda chukup intu ari segi pemakai, pengerai enggau latih.

1) Tuntong Belaja – Nadai utai munoh semina maia tengah hari nampun, iya deka alah laban Engkechong Kampong.

2) Bangkas Tasik – Semina alah laban Engkechong, Tasau Biring & Enterekup. Bulu manok bukai nadai munoh iya.

3) Kelabu Antu – nadai munoh.

4) Burik Kuang Kapong – nadai munoh.

5) Tuntong Punggok – nadai munoh.

6) Labang Duku Adong – nadai munoh.

7) Ijau Keliu Batu tauka Kelabu Keliu Batu – nadai munoh.

8) Biring Engkeranau Ai disabong ba jam 11.00 pagi, 12.00 tengah hari enggau 1.00 ngalih hari nadai utai nganu.


Nyadi ba pasal tuah manok tu, ukai penulis tu lebih-lebih dulu pansut jako ari Petara. Samoa utai idup bisi Petara nyaga sida lalu enda tau sapeneka ati kitai ngayah tauka merinsa ka utai idup. Nya kabuah kitai iban menya bejimat bendar ba ulah enggau jako diri empu enggai ka salah pengawa dikerja tauka salah jako dipansut. Enti Petara meda ulah kitai enda manah tauka ninga jako kitai nya jelar-jelar, kitai tau nadai berkat diberi iya. Tang enti kitai ngerja pengawa enggau penyiru ati, enggau pengelikun diri, ngena akal, ngena penemu, kitai tau bulih berkat, bulih mudah, bulih gerah, tau bidik lansik ari orang bukai.

Bakanya mega dalam pengawa nyabong manok. Ba pengarap lama kitai Iban, endang bisi Petara Anda Penyabong ke nguasa nengkira pengawa besabong ka manok ke benama Ensing Jara. Nya kabuah kitai Iban tekun bendar begiga, milih serta ngintu manok ka deka di sabong kitai. Ko sema jako kitai kelia, kitai Iban ngintu manok lebih agi ari kitai ka ngintu anak diri empu. Manok sabong kitai endang chukup di intu, di beri makai, di kayam enggau di beri mandi. Endor manok sabong kitai diau tauka tindok pan ba tempuan rumah, sigi semak pendiau enggau kitai sahari-hari.

Nyadi penemu ditulis ditu endang ulih ari randau enggau cherita orang ke tuai ti suah dudok begempuru bakenang ka pasal sabong. Samoa utai ti di tulis ditu mega semina tau ka lalau aja, ukai iya penemu ti nyemetak dikena kitai ngerja pengawa besabong ka manok. Samoa penemu endang neladan enggi orang ke dulu agi ari kitai. Taja pia pemacha anang saru, meda bisi lalau endor bapegai, anang tak lalu mutus arap ka lalau nya. Kadang-kadang lalau ka endor kitai bapegai nya kayu lama, udah burok lalu tau naban ka kitai laboh.

Pemacha mesti deka ingat mega, pengawa besabong ka manok tu bentaroh ka nyawa manok nya empu laban enti manok sabong kitai alah, manok kitai nya mati. Baka bala bujang berani ka nyadi manok sabong leboh orang ka agi mindah bekayau ka munsoh kelia. Nasib siko-siko manok sabong nya bepangai ba Petara magang. Nya kabuah mesti deka siru ngintu ngadu ka diri. Amat ga manok kitai nya terus bulu, manah tisik, enti Petara meri kitai mimpi jai tauka meri burong enda manah, kitai anang majak ka niat kitai. Enti mimpi tauka burong kitai kering, nya baru kitai tau berani ngangkat ka manok sabong kitai tauka nangkup manok sabong orang. Nya alai bala penyabong enda tau enda chukup bejimat enti deka mujur dalam sabong.

a) Manok Burik:

Ba tunjok kaki – beranyam tisik ba pun tunjok ti ari luar. Ujong tunjok luar nya bisi nyelit ba tisik ti kedua. Ujong tunjok rata magang.

Ba pala patong – Tisik mutus tinggi ba pala patong bisi tiga berintai nya ka tanda landik mintih. Manok bukai pan tau mai tisik tu. Enti putus siti, siko ga dengah, enti putus dua, dua ga dengah, enti putus tiga, nyampau nya ga dengah iya. Enti putus maioh ari nya nyau nyabong bulu – pemidik diri.

Enti bisi tisik beranyam samoa ba pun tunjok luar, nambah ka tisik nyelit ba ujong tunjok luar, serta bisi ga tisik mutus tinggi tiga berintai ba pala patong, nya ka tanda iya tau disabong pasang naka iya pemesai – reti nya, betunggang lupong.

Patok iya beturis chelum, Kaki iya beturus mirah, kukut iya chelum. Samoa manok bulu burik, nama kaki iya burak nadai champor, samina beturus mirah, sigi manah. Tang Burik Ensulit nya bulu ka bempu tuah tu. Burik bukai nya lumur dua iya.

Beragum chelum, bejugu chelum lalu nyeriat, tugang burak tauka mirah tauka chelum. Burik mirah betugang burak, burik burak betugang mirah tauka chelum – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga.

Samoa bulu manok ti bisi mai tisik ngilum (tinchin) muak ari kaki taji, nya enda berapa manah – laun nikam kenu ko orang tuai. Iya ti tinchinba timbal kaki taji nya ga manah, kaki jampat sangkai.

Manok Burik ka betisik beranyam ba tunjok belakang – dikumbai “Tisik Peletai”, Enda alah naka sakali nyabong.

Manok Burik mali ngena tauka mai tisik tunsang ari belakang kaki. Manok bukai pan enda mega manah ngundan tisik tunsang. Tang manok Burik tu bangat pun pemali. Itong berapa iti tisik nya tunsang, nyampau nya ga manok kitai alah, enti nyabong baru udah alah manok Burik tu. Tang enti manok Burik tu menang, kitai pan tau terangkat menang sabong udah nya. Tisik bakatu dikumbai “Chelaka Tisik”. Nya kabuah orang ti nadai nasib nyabong, ngintai mimpi enggau burong ke manah enti sida deka nyabong manok Burik betisik tunsang, ngicha ka ngangkat ka nasib diri.

Pia mega, enti manok Burik bisi nipak tisik ba ujong tunjok anak ari luar, ari pun kukut ngagai tiga iti tisik ti tau diguna ari atas nya, manok Burik tu tau disabong dikena muai sial kitai ti udah suah alah nyabong. (Peda cherita ba cherita – Chelaka Tisik).

Manok Burik, enti ditanggong kitai, kaki iya lalu ngengam – nya tau menang.

b) Tasau:

Pala manok tasau tu luchu – dikumbai pala pakai lembang. Bunyi nyawa iya bengih. Tisik iya nipak ari dalam ba tunjok tengah senentang leku ti kedua ari ujong tunjok. Tisik bukai tau ga masok tambah ka tuah iya.

c) Manok Ketupong (nadai Iko):

Tuboh enggau pala iya bediri chekok-chekok. Tisik iya nyelit tiga berintai ba sanentang tada. Tisik bisi nipak tiga iti ari dalam ba tunjok tengah.

d) Biring Sengayan:

Tisik nipak ari luar ba tunjok anak kedua-dua piak nya manah. Enti semina nipak ba kaki sepiak aja, nya pulai ka chelaka. Manok bukai pan, enti bisi tisik bakanya kedua-dua piak sama manah. Enti bisi tisik nyimpan ari baroh patong, iko iya ketupong tunda, kaki iya kuning – nya manah.

Enti bisi tisik beranyam ba pun tunjok enggau ba ujong tunjok, nya manah – lengkas nikam, lengkas maut. Enti ba tengah tunjok, iya deka bepupoh.

Samoa bulu manok ti ngembuan iko rapit, ngepit, belembang nya manah. Semina bulu manok kelabu enggai ka iko lebat, iko rembun.

e) Kelabu Kuchey:

Tada iya meutak-utak, dua puchong minyak, iko nangkup, iko burok tauka enda lebat.

Tuah bulu manok bangkas pan sama sabaka enggau kelabu.

f) Engkechong:

Kaki iya sama tinchin ba kedua piak, iko iya nangkup, ungga iya rapit. Samoa kukut iya burak samina kukut tengah iya chelum. Beragum burak, nya ti manah bendar – dikumbai “Raja Sengkubong”.

Bulu manok Engkechong, enti bisi ngundan tisik renggang baroh tada, baka ti marit, sakali nyabong tentu menang. Udah nya beri ngagai pangan tauka besilih orang bempu tauka disabong orang bukai, nya baru iya tau menang kedua kali. Tang enti disabong orang ke asal bempu manok nya, iya deka alah ti kedua kali iya nyabong manok nya. Orang ka kedua bempu manok nya, enti iya udah menang nyabong manok nya, iya mega enda tau enda meri manok nya ngagai orang bukai awak ka disabong baru, nya baru iya tau menang baru.

g) Engkarong:

Samoa tisik kaki iya nyilup. Kaki iya kuning tauka chelum. Ungga iya rapit. Enti kaki iya burak serta ngundan tisik besai, nya enda berapa. Enti bisi iko nangkup, tau dichabut apin disabong.

h) Bejalak:

Dada iya bekilong, belakang bungkok, Tunjok kaki iya kuku, iko degi-degi. Tisik iya ngilum, bisi tisik kelumpi senentang tada. Manah agi iya beragum ari iya ti bejugu.

Manok Bejalak beragum chelum, bejugu nyeriat, langgai iya bekengkang baka ti burik, nya Raja Manok. Enti manok bukai ditanchang semak iya, sida iya tau alah diri, ngeri enggai ngelaban iya, kapuas ti bepandang enggau iya.

i) Banda Imbok:

Bulu burit iya tumboh ka tali burit ari burit bedinjir ngagai belah antara iko langgai dua iya. Tada chelum, kaki kuning.

j) Adong Ikan:

Iko iya degi-degi, bejugu serta beragum. Enti bejugu – kurang pemanah ari iya samina beragum. Bisi iko nambah tumboh ba entara langgai. Iko numpang baka nya manah ari iya ti nangkup.

k) Enseriban:

Tisik belah ba sanentang tada. Deka mega ninchin. Besapak tada, tada ngelentik ka atas tauka ngelakait. Bejugu enggau beragum sama manah.

l) Engkerasak:

Dua tisik nyilup sanentang tada, bebubu tali burit. Kaki iya semada balu. Manah beragum tang enda manah bejugu (alah disabong).

m) Tuntong:

Tisik nyembayau sanentang tada ari kaki kanan. Iko iya silai ka kanan (anang sakali silai ngagai sapiak kaki taji). Tisik iya nipak ka lima ari ujong tunjok tengah – dikumbai 5 stail.

n) Ijau Kunchit:

Bebiah tisik betis. Nyilup turun tiga ari tada ka baruh. Ayan kuman, nampak mirah.

o) Enterekup:

Pala iya luchu. Tada iya bauh ari kanan. Tada ari kaki taji pandak agi tauka “balu” tada. Gamal iya lingar tak gilik-gilik. Manah beragum.

p) Jelayan Papit:

Tada ngelakait ka atas. Jelayan Enseriban sama baka Jelayan Papit. Sayap ti bisi bernais mirah nya ti manah.

q) Labang:

Tisik nyilup tusun tiga ba sanentang tada. Patok iya besurik chelum. Iko langgai iya chelum salambar aja – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga. Enti dua chelum – kurang pemanah. Batu lapak (tisik besai) sanentang tada. Bulu mit tumboh dalam ujong sayap ti ngebong tauka enti bisi bulu sayap besai ari atas lebih panjai ari iya ti patut – dikumbai Raja Sapati. Kapu (ba gambir baroh pending) iya lanjut. Beragun sereta bejugu, tang iya ti beragum manah agi ari iya ti bejugu. Kaki kuning, patok kuning. Maioh tinchin manah.

Manok labang, ketupong tauka bisi iko, enti bisi salambar-dua tauka samoa tulang bulu sayap iya chelum nya manah – Terabai Besi nama tuah nya. Manok tu deka suah menang nitih ka penyampau tulang bulu iya ka chelum, enda iboh meda tuah bukai tau ka ngintai mimpi.

r) Labang Belansi:

Beragum chelum lalu bejugu, lalu bisi salambar bulu chelum ba jugu iya. Iya ti salambar nya selalu beguyat. Iko iya mega bisi bulu chelum salambar – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga.

s) Bejalak:

Beragum bejugu chelum, lalu ba iko iya nyau ka baka bulu burik – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga.

t) Biring:

Beragum chelum, kaki kuning tauka chelum, iko langgai iya burak – tuah lumur dua aja sama mata sapuloh.

Beragum serta bejugu, dunggul baserak, iko iya betugang labang ngapus ka langgai – tu Raja Biring serta Raja manok ti beragum bejugu.

Samoa bulu manok Biring deka ngembuan tisik beranyam ba pun tunjok anak.

u) Labang Lebus:

Beragum sereta bejugu, dunggul beserak – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga.

v) Kelabu:

Runggut iko, burok pun bulu – tuah lumur satu sama apek tiga. Enda milih iya beragum, bedunggul, luchu tauka bejugu – manah magang. Tau disebut “Kelabu Kechendai burok kain basah bujang juara.”


a) Enti bisi iko manok besrerekang ujong, bejila mulai ka moa, dua iti nyelepak tengah pulai ka belakang – nama nya “Lamjellah” – manah, tau menang.

b) Tisik manok nyelit ba sanentang tada, enda milih bulu, nya manah tau menang.

c) Enti bisi tisik nyembayau ka dalam ba sanentang tada, nya manah, deka menang. Tang enti iya nyembayau ka luar, nya enda manah – dikumbai “Tisik Lilih” ngasoh alah.

d) Enti bisi tisik nyelit keluar tauka ka dalam ba tisik ka enam di tiap ari pun kuntut ba tunjok anak ari timbal kaki taji, nya enda manah – deka alah disabong. Tang ti iya ba kaki taji, nya manah, pulai ka kaki bisa iya, tau menang disabong.

e) Enti manok baru disabong kitai, lalu bakal ba dunggol, lalu iya pan menang, nya manah – ngayu ka tuah iya nambah. Enti disabong baru ila tau menang.

f) Enti manok bisi iko magar rapit, tutup langgai iya buntat, nya pan chukup manah. Nya ka tambah tuah tisik kaki, tuah dunggol iya lalu deka menang disabong.

g) Manok nyerungkong tindok nya manah. Deka menang disabong.

h) Enti bisi tatemu ka jugu manok ti mit, enda milih bulu, nya manah. Tang Burik ti bempu tuah nya ka bendar.

i) Enti bisi manok, tisik ba tunjok anak iya besai terus ngagai tada iya, nya tanda manok nya tau dipasang besai lalu deka suah menang. Nya nyau bepanggai ba nasib orang ka bempu manok nya.

j) Enti lapis bulu sayap manok ari atas tak bisi panjai ari iya ti patut, nya dikumbai “Raja Sapati” – kebal asal manok. Nadai milih bulu, tang manok Labang ti bempu tuah nya. Enti naka sakali kena laban taji, tentu enda parai di midan. Nama enda patah pah, patah sayap, manok tu tau menang.

k) Enti bulu manok ikan, iko iya bisi nangkup, nya enda berapa manah, alah laban iko iya ti numpang.

l) Samoa manok, kaki iya burak tauka kuning, tada iya chelum tauka belah rutan, lalu kaki iya chelum, tada iya burak, nya sama manah, tau menang. Enda iboh meda tuah bukai enti manok nya bungas.


Iban carving

As regards their material culture, they are well known for their textile weaving, woodcarving and weaving of intricate mats and baskets. Their valued creativity and artistic skills in both men and women. A well rounded Iban man would not only be eloquent in argument, strong and courageous in male pursuits like hunting & war, but would also be skilful in the use of adze & knife. With these two implements he is able to fashion wood into all kind of objects and particularly into those which gladden the eye and help to mediate between mortal man & extra-terrestial spirits which bring both harm & good to Iban. Any Iban man possessing all these qualities could be expected to play a major role in longhouse affairs. As a young unmarried man, he would be regarded by both parents and young girls as a very desirable & eligible bachelor.

1. Boys observe older men to learn carving skills.

2. Boys initially carve toys using blunt knives.

2. Talented ones carve boat heads with abstract motifs, paddle handles and armlets.

4. Bachelors make jew harps (ruding) for ngayap courtship.

5. Bachelors etch bamboo containers with flora motifs to store textile weaving equipment.

6. Maidens reciprocate with a small woven blankets to show her weaving skill at the loom.

7. Newly married couples make a set of weaving equipment carved with protective figures such as the spinning wheel and the warp beam, and the important tools namely beater belia, shuttle jengkuan and bobkin for use in sungkit.

8. Couples build own family bilek which need skills at using timber and working woods eg carving walls or beams.

9. Young husbands go on bejalai journey or sojourn or expedition to gain money, ceramic jars and brassware, and before that may need to build longboats or bangkong (sailing boats).

10. Carving powerful figures on the door into a bilik. Ends of the beams on the main house post can be carved with a flora motif and the house posts especially on the middle of the house gallery may be carved (diukir).

11. Carving of dibbling stick tugal and harvesting knife ketap.

12. Carving two kinds of figure called agom on sticks on the road to the rice farm and the longhouse loft to guard the stored padi.

13. Concerned fathers carve one or two wooden masks. Known as indai guru (literally, mother teacher), the masks are used to frighten naughty children.

14. Truly gifted artist carve tuntun which essentially are utilitarian and prosaic objects crafted to set the trip wire of a pig trap at the correct height. Perhaps it is also time to make a blowpipe for hunting.

15. Iban carve sword hilts out of the antlers of rusa (sambur deer) for both his straights shafted parang ilang and curved nyabur swords. Also to make terabai shields. Even sarong duku (knife cover) and normal knife handles may be carved and decorated. Can iron smithing (ngamboh) or silver working (nempa) be considered carvings as well?

16. Lemambang often carves a memory board which acts as mnemonic to help him remember the sequence of verses in the journey of the gods to visit the Iban and to etch bamboo tungkat and carve figures on their top-end stick tungkat.

17. Manang requires a lupong (medicine box or rather a bag pack) carved with a pair of squatting figures and sometimes carves small figures (pentik anak yang) to assist him in his search for the errant soul of the sick person he is treating.

18. Any Iban might carve a pentik statue to help stave off some disaster afflicting a longhouse for use in the ngampun rite and langkau ampun (submission hut).

19. In his early forties, an experienced and gifted carver will be commissioned to carve a kenyalang statue, an icon carved to represent the rhinoceros hornbill and used in a festival to commemorate the successful headhunter.

20. Finally, on death, after burial and a period of mourning, a man of note of the kind we have been describing would expect some kind of monument to be erected over his grave. The monuments take two forms i.e. a carved board with nabau or naga, or a sungkup during Gawai Antu.


From frontier region to genturung pendiau: dual residency and the making of new Iban settlements in peri-urban Kapit.

From frontier region to genturung pendiau: dual residency and the making of new Iban settlements in peri-urban Kapit.

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Prior to and during the Brooke era, the Kapit region was one of several frontier areas in Sarawak. For a number of reasons, it seems to have been a magnet in the old days, drawing pioneering Iban from resource-depleted territories (menua kusi or menua lama’) (1) Undoubtedly, such migration was livelihood-related, with its sole purpose being to open and acquire a new territory (mubuk menua baru). Menua baru is a socio-cultural construct referring to a resource-rich frontier region where wildlife, fish and forest resources are plentiful and exist in an undisturbed state that guarantees food security and an assured livelihood.

However, during the Brooke era, migration from one district to another required permission from the Rajah, who, without any hesitation, imposed the Fruit Tree Order of 1899 to discourage pioneering Iban from opening new territories. This law required an out-migrant to relinquish his rights to land and fruit trees in the area he leaves behind. Pioneering Iban from resource-depleted regions of the time interpreted the law as a “penalty” for migrating and opening virgin jungle for establishing new settlements in another district. The Iban community saw this form of penalty as unfair if the original cultivator was not compensated for his efforts and those of his ancestors in clearing the land. For this reason, adat tungkus asi’ was instituted by pioneering Iban communities as a remedy, by compensating the original cultivator upon his move to another district. Such compensation was given in the form of tungkus asi’, a token payment, so that the original cultivator or his children would not go empty-handed.

Adat tungkus asi’ (2) is a cultural construct that is meant to keep inheritable property intact within family circles and/or under the jurisdiction of a longhouse community. Social control is essential for curbing opportunism in resource utilization and agricultural production, and more importantly, to safeguard a family’s estate (including both real and movable property) within a longhouse. Even if an individual or family were to decide to migrate to another place or to a different district, rights of land ownership would be transferred to a close relative or family member who maintained residence in the longhouse. However, in the absence of the latter, such land can be transferred to any kaban belayan (relative) who may not necessarily reside in the same longhouse, but within the same district.

The movement of pioneering Iban from over-cultivated and infertile territories (menua kusi) in the Second Division, regardless of whether such migration was to the Kapit or other regions in Sarawak (such as the Bintulu, Baram and Limbang areas) was commonplace. Scholars writing about the colonial era, like Freeman (1955) and Pringle (1970), echoed much hatred towards Iban migratory shifting cultivation, and even portrayed the Ibans as “forest destroyers” because of the environmental consequences of this farming system. This scenario gives us a glimpse into the collision of two cultures and/or different value systems. Such a farming system was viewed as detrimental to the environment, but pioneering Iban saw it as a cultural mechanism for creating customary rights to land within a longhouse territory. On the other hand, cutting commercial timber could deny the nation-state a huge amount of revenue (in terms of foreign exchange)? These conflicting interests have fueled suspicions, mistrust and ill-will down to the present day.

Employing elaborate rituals unique to traditional Iban agrarian society, Iban migrants established longhouse settlements along the Batang Rajang, Mujong and Baleh Rivers and staked their claims over territorial domains (pemakai menua) in this frontier region. However, establishing new settlements in the frontier region of Kapit was not without conflict; competition for land and forest resources between pioneering Iban and already-present Orang Ulu communities resulted in resource conflicts, compelling the Brooke regime to call for a peace treaty between the communities in 1924. But what is not appreciated by many today is the fact that, as the term “pioneering” implies, the practice of migratory shifting cultivation (pindah) required sacrifice and determination. It was no easy job for pioneering Iban in the past to clear what is now classified as native customary rights land without modern tools. It was a milestone achievement; without migratory shifting cultivation there would have been no customary rights to land in Sarawak today. But this also poses a highly charged, on-going cultural and political contestation between the state and the Dayak community that requires a major overhaul of current agrarian laws, if we are to resolve it once and for all.

From Longhouse to Logging Camp: The Passing of an Iban Agrarian Economy

The Kapit hinterland, with its rugged, mountainous terrain (it is intersected by two major river systems: the Batang Rajang and the Baleh, each with a number of tributaries), has only limited alluvial areas along the Sungai Tunuh, Sungai Melinau, Sungai Tiau, Sungai Mujong, and Nganga Merit. Covering an area of 15,596 square kilometers, it was once labeled as the last frontier region of Iban settlement in Sarawak.

Empirical data on the livelihood of Iban living in this frontier region is almost non-existent for the post-independence era; the only point of reference for examining the agrarian transition in the frontier region of Kapit is Freeman’s (1955) classic study of pioneering Iban agriculture in Baleh. So what I describe in the following section is an overview of what life was like in the past.

Pioneer shifting cultivation was the core economic activity of Iban longhouse communities in the resource-rich frontier region in the 1800s. Virgin lands were still plentiful, rivers and streams were clean, and fish were still in abundance during those pioneering years. Thus, food security was never an issue; subsistence needs were adequately met by forests, rivers and farms, and by and large, people were generally satisfied because longhouse communities were largely self-sufficient.

However, in the early 1900s, pioneer shifting cultivation, i.e., clearing virgin jungle for hill rice cultivation, had already ceased in this frontier region. Freeman (1950) points out that the subsistence economy of the Baleh had already come to be characterized by a forest-fallow farming system. According to Freeman, most families failed to obtain enough rice to meet their needs for food, an important indicator that forest-fallow farmland was being over-cultivated, turning this once resource-rich frontier into menua kusi in the late 1940s.

Occasionally, people from the frontier region traveled to the nearest town, Kapit, in order to get basic supplies such as soap, sugar, salt, cooking oil, kerosene, etc., or even bought their groceries from tugboats plying up and down the Rajang and Baleh rivers. But commerce was mostly in the form of barter, where goods were exchanged for other goods. For instance, rubber sheets were traded for salt, kerosene oil, soap and other necessities. Sometimes, goods (rice, planting materials, etc.,) were exchanged for services rendered during the harvest season.

During the colonial period (1946-1963), i.e., prior to the birth of Malaysia in 1963, like some other districts in the First, Second, Third and Fourth Divisions in Sarawak, the frontier region of Kapit became over-cultivated under shifting cultivation, turning this area from a resource-rich to a resource-depleted hinterland. Traditional cash crops like rubber and pepper were planted by longhouse dwellers on a small scale, with the Department of Agriculture having been instrumental in introducing these crops via its extension services. But deteriorating soil fertility due to leaching and run-off from the steep mountainous terrain where the forest-fallow farming system had been practiced over the years resulted in declining agricultural productivity in the hinterland areas of Kapit.

In addition, mounting pressure on the land had greatly increased due to population growth, while suitable areas for hill rice cultivation decreased substantially due to deteriorating soil fertility. On top of that, restrictions were imposed by the higher authorities to stem illegal encroachment into primary jungle for hill rice cultivation. The situation was further compounded by declining commodity prices for rubber and pepper on world markets, commodities which longhouse-dwellers depended upon for cash. All of these changes led to a decline in hill rice cultivation. The demise of shifting cultivation, in turn, marked the beginning of the end for traditional Iban agrarian longhouse communities in the frontier region of Kapit. Today, many regard this transition as the end of Iban identity; the argument here is that the loss of hill rice cultivation led to a disappearance of farm rituals and/or ceremonies which were central to the Iban rice culture and the very livelihood of people who depended on rice for their survival. When traditional rice farming, which forms the backbone of the subsistence economy, is no longer sustainable, the situation gives rise to the emergence of off-farm economies.

Now, as I attempt to provide a modest analytical explanation for the passing of the remarkable “civilization” first established by pioneering Iban in the frontier region of Kapit in the 1800s, I cannot afford to ignore an analogy from population ecology theory (see Hannan and Freeman, 1989). I concur with that theory that the birth of longhouse settlements along the Baleh, Mujong and Rajang river systems during the pioneering years was linked to the availability of abundant natural resources in the frontier region, which supported the growth of the human population to a certain threshold with a reasonably sustainable livelihood, but as the population grew over time beyond this permissible threshold, competition for the existing natural resources increased, and eventually caused stress among the existing communities living there. In order for communities to avoid impending conflicts, the natural process of selection would have occurred, that is, when population continued to increase whereas all else remained equal, only the fittest would survive, depending on the available pool of limited natural resources, while the weak would naturally disappear. The fate of humanity follows exactly the same route: it grows, matures and eventually dies or becomes extinct; the life cycle begins again in another favorable environment and dies off at a different point in time and space, depending on the availability and accessibility to natural resources. This argument underscores population dynamics and resource relevance.

At a time when longhouse-dwellers were experiencing deteriorating rural livelihoods in the 1960s, logging had already begun in Kapit. Employment opportunities in the logging camps drew surplus rural labor from the longhouses to logging, providing a much-needed alternative source of livelihood, while all else was bleak during this time. The timber economy, which brought great wealth to Chinese tycoons and economic growth to Sarawak from the 1970s to the 1990s, also played an important role in mitigating rural-urban drift. Logging became the main off-farm employment-provider. The booming timber economy acted as a stopgap, preventing out-migration from the countryside to urban centers by creating jobs for workers from various parts of Sarawak in the timber camps of the Kapit Division. So the migration pathway was rural-to-rural rather than rural-to-urban.

Employment opportunities in the timber camps had spin-off effects with the expansion of logging, especially in the 1980s. Demand for household goods, services and food increased as a result of the influx of cash associated with employment in the logging industry. Men brought along their wives when they worked in the timber camps, while women became entrepreneurs by selling food items (vegetables, fish, fruits, etc.) to timber workers, giving rise to an informal market economy. Before the coming of a cash economy, the products of hunting and gathering had been shared, but with the emergence of a market economy, this “sharing culture” suddenly became obsolete.

Both the physical and cultural landscapes of this frontier region underwent an unprecedented transformation as a result of logging commencing in the 1970s. Although retaining the same name, some longhouses shifted location more than once over these years. Demographically, the landscape of the frontier region has changed, and not surprisingly, boundary lines between longhouse communities have been redrawn due to the expansion of logging. Between the 1970s and 1990s, the logging industry created employment for idle farm labor and generated substantial rural savings, which, to a certain extent, temporarily improved the standard of living. But this positive economic impact was short-lived due to the following reasons:

First, in the 1990s, the declining timber resources due to over-exploitation began to have both economic and demographic impacts. Surplus labor in the timber camps was pushed back to the longhouses. But the traditional sector, which was once the mainstay of the rural economy, had been unable to sustain rural livelihoods even before the expansion of logging in Kapit. Hunting and gathering became increasingly difficult due to the disappearance of wildlife resulting from deforestation and river pollution. Again, clearing primary forests for farmland had become an offence, while shifting cultivation was no longer economically feasible due to a necessarily short forest-fallow period due to land scarcity and could no longer provide a sustainable food supply.

Second, during the peak of logging in Kapit, schooling was not a priority to most parents. They did not see the need to send their children to secondary school, let alone to a tertiary education. Primary school dropouts could get jobs as tractor or truck drivers, or chainsaw operators and get paid higher salaries than most senior civil servants. But when these parents were retrenched from timber camps, they suddenly realized that they could not survive without cash. Now they had to send their children to school, but with no means of getting cash, and poor agricultural commodity prices, the desire to stay put in their longhouses diminished. So the only option available was to leave their longhouses, whether temporarily or permanently, and seek jobs in town.

From Logging Camp to Peri-Urban Settlements in Kapit

Migration of Iban from the upper Baleh River to Kapit town can be traced back to the 1940s. At first, the number was small and insignificant. When the present survey was conducted in 2008, there were 1,383 migrant households residing in 46 settlements in Kapit town, of which 79% were from Baleh (Sut, Batang Baleh, Mujong, Gat and Merirai), 16.5% were from Batang Rajang, 3% were from various longhouses in Kapit district, and the remaining 1.5% of these migrants came from Kanowit, Baligian, Sibu, Song, Tatau, Sri Aman and Serian. However, it should also be noted that the census did not cover individuals or families who rented upper floors of shop houses. Based on the survey data from 2008, more than 10,000 Iban were then residing in Kapit town, which accounts for about 75% of the town’s total population. About 3% of the total migrant households moved to Kapit before 1970. Between 197 land 1980, the number increased to 4.3%, after which the flow of migrant households reached almost 10% between 1981 and 1990. Then there was an upsurge: 83.1% out of 1,383 households migrated to Kapit town between 1991 and 2008 (see Table 1).

According to some officials in the Kapit District Council, the number of households continues to grow, but unfortunately no hard data is available at the moment, apart from the above estimates. Some longhouses in the hinterland are now empty. If there are residents who stay in the longhouses today, they are mostly old folks and families with small (pre-school) children.

For Iban in Kapit town, migration from Ionghouses to the urban area is a phenomenon of the 21st century, in contrast to the narrative of Iban migration or belajai in the Second Division where this movement began earlier (Padoch 1982; Kedit 1993; Sandin 1994). The bottom line is livelihood and economic rather than culture (Ngidang 2008). As I have stated in the previous section, during the pioneering era, Iban mobility was related to shifting cultivation and was in the direction of the frontier regions. But today, the migration of 21st century Iban apparently goes in the opposite direction, i.e., from frontier regions to urban centers. For modern Iban, the city has become their “farm” as Aronson (1980) has put it for Ijebu Yoruba migrants in Nigeria.

In order to explain this phenomenon of longhouse-urban movement, we need to go back to the issue of surplus labor that we discussed in the previous section. This surplus labor involved able-bodied young men, some of whom were married, while their spouses and their parents continued to carry out traditional farming in their longhouses. Savings from logging were used to buy land and/or houses in Kapit town. When logging declined in the 1990s, this surplus labor was not redirected back to longhouses. Instead, it dispersed into various non-farm economic sectors such as off-shore employment, more lucrative jobs in the private sector, and self-employment such as small businesses, while the fortunate few were able to secure contract work provided by the government through political connections. However, mobility of surplus labor from subsistence agriculture to the logging industry and from logging camps to peri-urban Kapit town is only part of the story. About twenty years later, in the 1990s, after leaving their longhouses, their primary focus now has shifted from living their traditional rural lifestyle to concerns about the future of their children. People who were involved in the logging industry had already changed their mindset; the timber economy brought a new outlook and different ways of thinking. As some have explicitly said, “There is a limit to what we could achieve with our physical strength or efforts as workers in the timber industry. Without education, our children will have no future. So we decided to move to Kapit so that we could send our children to school.” This is a major paradigm shift for rural Iban in the Kapit Division.

However, it is important to state in passing that some Iban who had worked in logging camps for ten to twenty years were now reaching retirement age. For younger Iban, employment in the timber industry was a stepping stone to participation in other off-farm economic activities, while for older Iban, residing in Kapit town was a better option than going back to retire in a longhouse. They were no longer fit enough to undertake shifting cultivation or farming. This is true not only for older loggers, but for their children too, because most young school dropouts are not used to farming; they were not trained to be farmers. It was not only the loggers and young people who exited their longhouses, but many others too.

It is noteworthy that the influx of Iban migrants to Kapit town is rather unique. The survey data indicate that 68.5% of the men who moved to Kapit left behind their spouses and children in Kapit, while they worked elsewhere, outside Kapit town. Only 31.5% of the migrant households actually both live and work in Kapit town. Officials may perceive it as rural-urban migration, but upon close examination, it is not exactly an urban environment in which they now reside; it is a familiar village or longhouse environment within the vicinity of town. Instead of becoming squatters, they acquired and/or purchased native customary lands from host longhouse communities (4) located on the periphery of Kapit town and built their own individual houses or constructed longhouses together. At the time when the survey was done, a total of 46 settlements were established by these migrants (see Table 2). If we look at these migrants positively, they are a creative lot with an entrepreneurial spirit, forging ahead without external assistance. But what they have accomplished as migrants is a challenge to local authorities in Kapit. Their settlements are not under the purview of urban and town planning; lands where they have built their houses are the untitled lands located along Jalan Lepong Balleh, Jalan Selirik, Jalan Bukit Guram and Jalan Yong; there is no proper drainage or sewage system, although they have water and electricity, and some settlements even have rubbish collection services provided by the local council.

The findings of the present study lead me to rethink whether the narrative of bejalai is the right term to describe Iban voluntary relocation from the frontier region to Kapit town. Anthropologists like Freeman (1970), Kedit (1993), Sather (2004), and even other scholars such as Jensen (1974), Sandin (1994) and Pringle (1970), seem to define bejalai as a culture-based form of mobility for male Iban, an adventure for knowledge and prestige, in short. In the 21st century, it is not only male Iban, but also women, who exit their longhouses for a variety of reasons, such as economic necessity, to further their education, seek alternative livelihoods, etc. For the Iban diaspora in Johor, it is opportunity lacking in Sarawak that compelled them to migrate across the South China Sea to work in Johor (Ngidang, et al. 2012).

Prime Driver of Out-Migration: An Alternative Explanation

In Section 2, I highlighted a population ecology analogy to explain how rural deprivation that I term “hollow-core” (5) evolves over time, and then propels poor longhouse dwellers to seek employment in logging camps. In this situation, the booming timber economy of the 1970s and 1980s provided a viable alternative source of livelihood for people in the Kapit Division; the industry played an instrumental role in mitigating rural- urban migration during that time. But this is only a partial explanation of the problem.

Another main driver of out-migration of Iban from the frontier region of Kapit has to be examined: the hollowing effect of a development deficit. No one can ignore the fact that development is an industry. Commitment to development is manifested by two important elements: policy and practice. Policy is a blueprint, while practice includes a budget allocation for project implementation. We have seen very little of either of these in Kapit since 1963. This leads me to conclude that development is a failed industry so far as the Kapit Division is concerned and implies that the state has ignored this region for a long time, creating a “hollow-core” situation without viable economic activities to support a sustainable livelihood. For survival, the most pragmatic option is for poor people to move from the region in search of a better living. In this case, rural-urban migration becomes an escape route from poverty.

Kapit was one of three districts of the Third Division before it was officially elevated to an administrative division (Kapit Division) in 1973 with three districts: Kapit, Belaga and Song. More that forty years after independence, Kapit remains the only divisional administrative center in Sarawak that is not connected to any other major towns by road. In the absence of road connectivity, physical mobility and the movement of goods and services are largely dependent on river transportation, with the implication that were it not for the existence of a mighty Rajang waterway and express boats plying between Sibu and Kapit, Kapit town and Kapit district would be totally isolated. The perceived high cost of road construction leads to an argument that it would be better to leave Kapit as it is, because express boats are still the cheapest means of travel. While this might be so for tourism and leisure activities, it is not necessarily the cheapest means of delivering goods and services in the 21st century. The debate can go on and on in the absence of common sense.


However, if we are to take seriously what Datuk Seri Idris Jala, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and CEO of Pemandu (Performance, Monitoring and Delivery Unit), has said that, concerning the Government Transformation Program and the Rural Transformation Program, the principal issue is social inclusion. In other words, we cannot afford to put the moral side of development aside. Idris Jala is certainly right if the logic of accountability to the masses is weighed against a policy of equitable development and reducing regional disparities. All this boils down to another glaring historical fact that many would prefer not to talk about, but which is nonetheless apparent to the Federal Government and parliamentarians alike, that Kapit was the birthplace of the late Tun Jugah anak Baring, the paramount chief of the Iban people, who together with Tunku Abdul Rahman, planted the seeds of independence and put his signature to the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Is acknowledgement not long overdue to the people of Kapit?

Not only is Kapit town isolated, but none of the longhouses in the Baleh, Mujong and Ulu Rajang river systems has a road connection or outside access. The cost of river transport is exorbitantly high between Kapit and longhouses, for which a return trip can run into several hundred ringgits. Consequently, residing in Kapit allows people access to government facilities and services, healthcare, water and electricity supplies, which are non-existent in the interior. Living in Kapit allows some to enjoy dual residency, by keeping their longhouses intact in the interior.

Now, let us look at the following narratives for further analysis. In the 1800s, Iban pioneers were shifting cultivators, hunters and gathers, a mobile people, in short. In the 1900s, they became sedentary subsistence farmers; they had worked the soil, roamed the jungle, cleared the forest and traversed the hills and mountains, rivers and streams. Now these pioneers are long gone. In the past, they were remembered for their pioneering spirit and determination to move forward, leaving behind, when they died, one of the most valuable resources on earth, native customary land scattered across a vast area in the frontier regions in Sarawak. In the 2000s, many of their descendants are now migrant workers and wage earners far from their homes; no longer do they subsist by working the land, in complete contrast to their forefathers. Living in the city does not necessarily mean that they have a better life; maybe for some, but not for everyone. But for migrant workers, the probability of losing their dignity is high, because in capitalism nobody respects the poor.

Contrary to most civil societies across the globe where pioneering ancestors are honored and remembered for their deeds, here in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, the latter are being forgotten and allowed to disappear into oblivion. Rajah Brooke recognized their customary rights to land, not because the regime liked it, but for fear of rebellion. When the colonial government ruled Sarawak from 1946 until 1963, it, too, abandoned its obligation to carry out land adjudication. Just prior to the departure of the colonial masters in 1963, they pretended to show some concern for the natives by commissioning the Land Committee Report of 1962; not only was it too late, but it continues to perpetuate a legacy of legal pluralism, leaving the priceless land resources inherited by the descendants of Iban pioneering ancestors without codification; thus opening a floodgate for contention, legal challenges and endless conflict.

We pride ourselves upon our adat, but the one part that is central to our existence, we allow foreigners to define. Then we put the blame on our elders like Ningkan, Jugah and Tawi Seli for their lack of education and our present-day misfortune. Yes, no Iban had a degree in 1963, but that was by colonial design. Now we are not short of people with degrees, but still almost half a century after independence, we cannot even create a thinking Iban community. We prefer to stifle the voices of the younger generation and instill a culture of silence and denial in order to disconnect them from the thinking community. The above narrative illustrates how a “hollow-core” phenomenon has been created in the frontier region of Kapit with far-reaching implications that most people cannot imagine.

Place-Making Adaptation Strategy in a Peri-Urban Environment

Based on the logic of the argument for a better life that I have stated in the previous section, we can understand that their decision to exit the longhouses in the frontier region was pre-planned and well-executed with thoughtful considerations in mind. But the question is, how well have these Iban migrants adapted to the new settlements in the peri-urban environment of Kapit? To answer this, we need to examine the following place-making adaptation strategy used by Iban migrants to reconstruct alternative livelihoods in order to enable them to be integrated into the urban environment of Kapit. As we shall see in the subsequent discussion, these strategies include purchasing native customary land from host communities; building their own houses instead of squatting on state land; practicing dual residence and enjoying the benefits of both worlds, and small and/or non-formal economic activities and employment opportunities outside the longhouse territories.

Purchasing Native Customary Land from Host Communities

The establishment of 46 new Iban settlements, or genturungpendiau, in Kapit mimics a voluntary resettlement exercise in peri-uban Kapit (Ngidang 2008a). This is a new phenomenon of place-making in the 21st century undertaken by descendants of pioneering Iban from the frontier region of Kapit. What is unique about this internal migration from a resource-depleted frontier region to the periphery of Kapit town is that most of these migrant households took a bold step of purchasing native customary land from host communities in Kapit prior to the establishment of genturung pendiau. I call this a new place-making adaptation strategy. This strategy is, of course, a prerequisite for the construction of new houses or homes in the genturung pendiau, which 1 shall discuss later.

But now, let me discuss the evolution of a land market as a direct consequence of demand for native customary land for residential purposes. This land market did not exist prior to the 1970s because during that time it was a common practice for earlier migrants to build their bilik by joining the existing longhouses of the host communities. Beginning in the 1990s, the influx of Iban migrants from the frontier region of the Baleh river system and other tributaries of the Rajang river created an internal market for native customary lands in the periphery of Kapit town. Out of the total of 1,383 Iban migrant households in Kapit, about 42 households migrated to Kapit prior to 1970, of which only 0.3% of the total number of migrants purchased land from the host community, including the late Tuai Rumah Dana, who was known to have bought a piece of land from Amang for a longhouse at Sungai Sesibau. In fact, the earlier migrants were given land for farming by the host population.

The current informal land market is a new socioeconomic phenomenon connected to a rising demand for land for residential purposes, but it has nothing to do with town planning and/or the expansion of Kapit town per se. Rather, the customary land market evolved because of the demand by Iban migrants from the hinterland for land on which to construct new houses in the periphery of Kapit town.

However, the latter group of Iban migrants, which constitutes 67% of the total of 1,383 migrant households in Kapit in 2008, bought house lots. Most of them had migrated from the frontier region of Baleh in the 1980s or later. About thirty-three percent did not purchase any native customary lands from the host communities, of which 26 percent bought houses, and, as I have stated earlier, some of the earlier migrants (7.8%) built their bilik by joining an existing longhouse; 16.6% of migrant households were tenants; and only very a small number (2%) were squatting on state land on the bank of Sungai Kapit. Not only did this 67% buy land on which to build their houses, but they also acquired land for a variety of other purposes such as for rice cultivation, rubber and pepper planting, vegetable gardening, and fruit-tree cultivation (Table 3). As the data indicate in table 4, most of these migrants (81.2%) purchased native customary land from the host population between the 1990s and 2000s (Table 4).

In the past, buying and selling land for profit was an uncommon practice among the host communities in Kapit. That practice, and the perception of the monetary value of land changed in the 1980s because of the rising demand for land, as a result of an influx of migrants from Baleh. This also affected the sharing culture that had existed since time immemorial among longhouse dwellers; now it is not uncommon for people to view the value of land as an economic asset and to perceive ancestral land as a commodity that can be traded for cash and profit.

There were two modes of land transaction between Iban migrants and host communities in Kapit: group and individual purchase. It should be noted that a group purchase of land may not necessarily have been intended for longhouse construction, and the whole piece of land was subdivided into residential lots for individual houses, rather than for building a longhouse. There were also cases where settlers came from the same area in the Baleh and grouped together to purchase a whole piece of land for the construction of a longhouse.

For instance, 45 acres of native customary land which belonged to
Tukau anak Nyipa, Rumah Bundung, were bought by a group of 270
retired military personnel at the cost of RM 180,000. Land owned by
Unggat anak Sampang of Rumah Bundung was bought by a family of
five. Illi anak Japit from the same longhouse also sold about half
an acre of land at Sungai Yong to family members for RMI 6,000.
Sanggau Anak Iruk sold 4 pieces of his ancestral land of
undisclosed size to migrating Iban from the frontier region of

Gawing anak Adong and Tuai Rumah Unjah from Rumah Ungul Ulu
Merirai moved to Kapit in 1996 and bought 4 pieces of land for RM
18,000. They bought another piece together with Sulau anak Jalak
for RM9,000. Gawing also purchased two residential lots (40′ x
50′), one of which cost RM4,000 and the other RM2,000. Then, he
bought 5 acres for farming from a relative for RM1,000.

In the case of individual purchase, some well-to-do individuals
made their own land deal directly with landowners. Jalak anak
Ngerubong, who came from Entuluh, Merirai, now residing at Rumah
John, Sungai Sesibau, bought several pieces of land, of which four
acres had belonged to Langgung from Sungai Amang for RM2,500
another 2 acres for RM2,000 for a temporary longhouse site (dampa).
Jalak also bought 4 acres for RM 19,000 from Angga along Selirik
road, and bought another 7 acres for farming. He was also given a
token piece of land for free from Tuai Rumah Rawing from Sungai
Amang, which is rather rare today.

An emergence of a land market in Kapit apparently follows neoclassical theory that a market for native customary rights land only evolves among people of the same ethnic group, simply because native customary lands lack tenure security in the absence of documents of title. Such lands are also devoid of economic power, in so far as financial institutions are concerned, because they cannot be mortgaged, used as collateral for a loan and/or as an instrument for investment. So the transfer of proprietorship is based on mutual trust, most of which requires an endorsement by community leaders at a mutually agreed price. Such land transactions defy adat tungkus asi’, which states that it is illegal to buy and sell native customary land other than transferring land rights to close relatives in the event of out-migration, as stipulated in the Fruit Tree Order 1899. There are legal implications associated with the buying and selling of native customary land, but generally most people are either ignorant of adat pindah or simply ignore this outdated adat which creates more problems than benefits.

Although the willing-buyer and willing-seller concept in this informal land transaction is no different than in the formal marketplace, such transactions operate outside the boundary of formal land law, as these land dealings are not registered in the Land Office. Only a handful of these migrants purchased titled Native Area Land (NAL) on a group basis, where undivided shares were officially registered with the Land Office. This land market operates in the context of an informal economy, which is analogous to barter trading during the Brooke and colonial eras, where goods and services were exchanged. Also, it was commonplace for people to exchange native customary lands for gongs and other valuables during that time without involving a cash transaction. Given that these settlements are perceived as “rural” by the local government, they pose no policy threat to the Land Office’s interest, at least at the present time, so long as buyers and sellers honor such transactions in good faith.

As summarized in Table 4, demand for native customary land in Kapit town shot up from the 1990s, which strongly correlates with the growing number of Iban settlers in Kapit in recent years. In the 1960s, a residential lot cost less than RM 500. Some settlers still could get that bargain price in recent years if they bought lots from their relatives. The price went up between RM1,000 and RM5,000 per lot in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the price gradually increased to between RM 10,000 and RM 15,000 per lot and in the 1990s onwards, the price surged to RM 20,000, depending on the size of the residential lot.

However, the increase in price of residential lots does not mean that land is in short supply in the periphery of Kapit town. In fact, as we travel along Selirik road, Jalan Bukit Goram and Anataroh, Sunggai Sut, we notice vast areas of uncultivated temuda land on the horizon. What is in short supply is land accessible by roads, and it is this land which has experienced such a price hike. The desire for accessibility has caused most of the Iban settlements to be located near or along access roads: Jalan Selirik, Jalan Bukit Goram, Jalan Sunggai Yong, but the supply of accessible land along these roads is limited at the moment. Apparently, most settlers were willing to pay an extra premium for residential lots that are close to the road rather than buying land that requires construction of an access road. So it is a question of accessibility rather than supply that determines the price of NCR lands in Kapit.

Irrespective of ethnic background, longhouse communities in rural areas will face even greater challenges in the near future, especially with respect to the legality of rural settlements. From time to time, we see provoking statements being echoed by public officials that land without title belongs to the state, and that occupiers of state lands are merely licensees, which is just short of saying that all longhouses are illegally built on state land. And for that matter, how many longhouses have been built on titled land? So rights of ownership and/or proprietorship remain problematic, although in theory customary tenure is a component of the legal pluralism of current agrarian law in the Sarawak Land Code.

Building Individual Houses and Longhouses

The second place-making adaptation strategy used by Iban migrants was constructing either individual houses or longhouses in the new settlements or genturung pendiau. The size of housing lots purchased from house communities varied from 30 by 40 feet to 60 by 80 feet. In these settlements, the types of houses built by migrants ranged from a single or double storey detached house to longhouses similar to those they had in the interior (Table 5). The cost of construction varied with settlement areas, or genturung pendiau, ranging from as low as RM 10,000 to as high as more than RM 100,000 per unit, but the majority of these houses cost between RM30,000 to RM70,000 per unit.

About ninety-eight percent of migrants built their houses using personal or family savings, and very few (0.6%) of them took either government or bank loans, while 1.6% have free housing provided by their employers. In other words, they were well-prepared because they already had savings in hand, as many of their family members were working at timber camps, either locally or in other parts of Sarawak, with some working overseas (Papua New Guinea, Africa, and Latin America). Why so many migrants resorted to personal savings for constructing their houses was not totally by choice, but out of necessity because they did not have any collateral for bank loans.

Out of the 1,383 migrant households, only 17.4% were without their own houses, of which 15.4% were renting rooms or houses from friends or relatives, while 2.0% were squatting in temporary houses built on government land or land belonging to local land owners. For this group of migrants, moving out of their longhouses to settle in Kapit town, whether because of poverty or other reasons, confronted them with other life-challenging situations–rights to shelter and human dignity–implying that a struggle to improve oneself economically in a new unfriendly urban environment could lead to other undesirable consequences.

Conditions in the surrounding areas of genturung pendiau are far from satisfactory from the local council standards for a number of reasons. But from a practical viewpoint, these settlements are far better than squatter settlements. The establishment of genturung pendiau is a byproduct of voluntary resettlement, using personal initiative and resources to solve socio-economic difficulties in rural areas; as the data indicate, most migrants were not aware of the negative consequences of disorganized settlements constructed without proper planning. Settlements were constructed through mutual understanding among the migrants themselves. Houses were built too close to each other. Most of these settlements lack a proper drainage system and road access to their individual houses. More than 50% of the migrant families did not have proper drainage within their settlement area. As a result, disposal of rubbish within certain areas was difficult, and sanitation could become problematic and/or a health hazard.

There are two possible explanations for prevailing conditions in these settlements. First, longhouses and/or individual houses were built without the purview of town planning by local authorities, and houses were constructed purely according to the migrants’ choices and initiatives. Local authorities, on the other hand, somehow have to respond to the need for services and facilities after settlements, or genturung pendiau, have been established.

Second, there is a lack of public policy to deal with rural-urban migration. Since such migration was not initiated by the government, officials tend to perceive planning for such settlements as a non-issue. Most houses were constructed too close to each other and some are without an exit road in front of the houses, and without proper drainage and with poor sanitation. Only 36.9% of the migrants claimed that their houses were properly constructed.

Dual Residency

The third place-making adaptation strategy being practiced by Iban migrants from the frontier region of Kapit is dual residency. The term “dual residency” in this paper refers to a socio-cultural construct, depicting what I call crafting a niche in an urban environment while maintaining a bilik-family in a longhouse in the hinterland. This makes it very difficult to invoke adat pindah because they did not abandon their longhouse territory when they moved to Kapit. Interestingly, such a strategy seems to be their preferred choice for several reasons.

In the 1960s, Iban coming from the hinterland slept in the 5-foot passageway of Chinese shops with their goods piled up around them if they could not make a day-trip back to their longhouse. So their new homes in Kapit served as a convenient accommodation for parents or family members while seeking medical treatment, meeting with government officials, requesting assistance and services from local authorities and, of course, getting their supplies from Kapit, so that they would not have to stay in hotels or lodging houses.


However, most importantly, as the data show, maintaining dual residency seemed to be closely tied to a deep-rooted cultural attachment to their longhouses (Table 7). The strategy is a practical way of maintaining family bonds. Each longhouse community has its own social controls to ensure that it is mandatory that bilik families go back to their respective longhouse during specific rituals and community activities: Gawai Dayak (63.6%), funeral rites (56%), Christmas (37%), planting rice (20.5%), and nungkun dapur (10.4%).

For some, dual residency is used to keep bilik-family-based resource stewardship active in their former longhouses. It serves as a social mechanism for protecting their rights of access to ancestral lands, existing farmland, rubber gardens, tembawai buah (orchard grove), etc., especially when family elders have passed away, and also when no family member is left to look after their bilik in the longhouse. These migrants realize that one of the biggest threats to their resource stewardship is the lack of a formal title, where claims of rights to customary lands are based on social narratives in an inheritance system based on adat, making these lands an easy target of encroachment by outside interests or land grabbing. Thus, one important distinction that we noticed about these Iban migrants in Kapit is that they do not want to be called migrants. In short, the logic of cultural and economic arguments related to resource stewardship is best expressed in the following manner in the Iban language:

Kami enda pindah; reta tenkira enggau tanah buah kami di ulu
magang. Kami semina berumah di Kapit ukai ninggal ke menua di Baleh
ngambika bisi tempat endur diau, awak enda nyua hotel enti kami
bisi pengawa di Kapit. Enti lebuh bumai kami pulai ka rumah panjai,
enti engkabang bebuah, kami pulai ke rumah, … Di Kapit kami
semina meli lot tanah endur ngaga rumah dikena nyanguala ka anak.

We are not migrating; our properties including our land and fruit
trees are left in the interior. We only built houses in Kapit so
that when we come down and have something to do in Kapit, we do not
have to stay in a hotel; we are not abandoning our homes in the
Baleh. During planting season, we go back to the longhouse; when
illipe-nut trees are fruiting, we go back home … In Kapit, we
bought house lots for building houses for our children’s
accommodation while they are schooling in Kapit.

The usefulness of dual residency can also be seen from the economic perspective. In this case, the process of place-making via dual residence not only involves reconstructing their social space, but also allows them to respond positively to both farm and off-farm economies while attempting to keep their culture and family bonds intact. For instance, some migrants went back to plant hill rice, tap their rubber trees, and continued to maintain their pepper and cocoa gardens. Hunting and gathering activities and collecting durian, langsat, dabai, and other local fruits from their gardens, which were once part and parcel of the subsistence economy, are now being integrated into a market economy. On top of that, 16% out of the total 1,383 migrant households were actively engaged in farming and/or market gardening and also trading at the farmers’ market, or tamu, in Kapit.

Empathic and Reciprocal Responses From the Local Council

The local authorities’ response to these unplanned or ad hoc peri-urban settlements in Kapit is very commendable. They have provided basic infrastructure needed for facilitating the place-making adaptation strategy employed by the migrants as a means of adjusting to and/or coping with, as well as integrating into the urban environment in Kapit. As we see it, there is no existing government policy failure to address the unexpected influx of rural-urban migration like this, but because all houses in the settlements are located along Selirik, Bukit Gurom, and Sungai Yong roads, it makes it easy for local authorities to provide assistance. Ninety-four percent of these settlements are located within 10 kilometers from Kapit town center. Only a small percentage (5.9%) of these settlement areas are situated more than 10 kilometers away from the town center.

Road Connectivity

At the time when this survey was conducted, 69.6% of roads from the settlement areas to Kapit town were tar-sealed; 15.2% of settlements have only a dirt road; 8.7% of settlements have a gravel road, whereas only 6.5% of settlements were still without any road. However, public transport was non-existent. Travel between the settlements and the town center, and physical mobility from one place to another, for that matter, is problematic in the absence of public transport. Seventy-three percent of migrants at various settlement areas relied on private vans for transport, and only 27.0% of the migrants have cars. The cost of travel from various genturung pendiau to Kapit town, depending on distance and type of transport, ranges between RM 1 to RM10.00 per trip.

Electricity Supply

Again, despite living in ad hoc and unorganized settlements, 95.7% of migrant households receive a supply of electricity from the Sarawak Electricity Supply Corporation (SESCO). Only 4.4% of households did not have access to electricity from SESCO, of which 0.4% relied on community generators, 0.6% depended on their neighbors and/or friends’ generators, while the remaining 3.3% had purchased their own generators (Table 8).

Water Supply

About seventy-nine percent of the migrants have access to a treated water supply from the local water board (Table 9). The remaining 21% obtained their water supply from various sources such as gravity-fed water supplies, wells, river, or rainwater.

Rubbish Collection and/or Disposal Service

Most settlement areas have rubbish disposal facilities. The survey data show that 82.6% of the migrants reported that rubbish was regularly collected by the Kapit District Council (KDC) from their compound. The other 0.9% reported that they have to send their rubbish to the rubbish collection centers provided by the authorities.

However, for the other 17.4% of the migrants who have no such facilities, their methods of rubbish disposal are a cause for concern. For instance, they just throw their rubbish in nearby rivers, bushes, valleys, and also into rubbish pits.

Type of Facilities available within or near the Settlement Areas

With respect to important facilities such as clinics, public telephones, community hall and wet market, these are non-existent within or near the settlements. Migrants still have to travel 10 kilometers or more using private transport to get to the town center where these facilities are located, which may cost between RMI to RM10 per trip depending on the distance. So accessibility in this case is not without cost, but certainly it costs much less compared to the cost of travel from the interior to Kapit town. There are 20 kindergartens located within or near the settlements where settlers can send their preschool-age children. Migrants are also able to send their children to the seven primary schools and three secondary schools within or near the outskirts of Kapit town.

Final Remarks

I would consider that the success story of the place-making adaptation process of Iban migrants to Kapit can be attributed to an interplay of two main factors–thoughtful preplanned individual initiatives of the migrants themselves; they are people who have long suffered from rural poverty, but through hard work in the logging camps over the years are able, by means of savings, personal sacrifice, and determination, to reconstruct new bilik-families and alternative livelihoods in an urban environment. It is a journey from a faraway frontier region in the interior of Kapit with one ultimate goal: to move out from a “hollow-core” development-deficient situation to a place where they can provide a good education for the future of their children. These individual initiatives are complemented by the local council in Kapit providing basic amenities, facilities, and road access to new Iban settlements, which seldom was done by local authorities in other parts of the state to assist Iban migrants. What usually happens is that migrants are left to live as squatters for a long time, such as occurred with Iban migrants in Sibu (Sutlive, 1992; Soda, 2007) and Kuching city (Ngidang, 2008b), and even in Bintulu and Miri, before they were relocated to new resettlement areas or bought low-cost houses. One important point that needs special mention here is that, as I see it, the reason why assistance was readily forthcoming in the new settlements is because Kapit’s town council is an Iban-controlled local authority, which is self-explanatory.

Thus, voluntary urban migration, in the case of Kapit, may not necessarily be bad, after all, if seen from a critical mass argument. Such debate started in the 1960s when the notion of involuntary resettlement schemes was mooted and later implemented for both socioeconomic and security reasons. Central to the policy debate is that scattered settlements in the interior should be resettled so that modern amenities, roads, infrastructure, and government services can be provided to the rural population in a designated development area. That critical mass theory, unfortunately, is now overshadowed by the current high-powered Government Transformation Program with high income and economic growth for some as its main agenda. On the contrary, that critical mass ideology can also be perceived as an excuse for abandoning socio-political obligations to the masses in the frontier region, as demonstrated by the hollowing effect of a developmental deficit situation in the Kapit hinterlands. In fact, based on state-wide observations during the past 50 years since independence, one would be quite right to say that give the Iban a good road and some economic opportunities and they can take care of themselves.

In examining the dynamic and key drivers of agrarian transition in the frontier region of Kapit, we cannot separate two groups of people–migrants and in situ residents–both of whom are descendants of Iban pioneering ancestors, who are directly affected by the hollowing effect of a developmental deficit, a “zero” development situation in the now resource-depleted frontier region of Kapit.

In population ecology terms, Iban migrants who could not survive under resource constraint and a “zero” development (6) are labeled as the “weak,” but they have gained access to economic opportunities outside their longhouse territories for the better for some migrants, but it can be for the worse, too, as many migrants are subjected to a wide range of vulnerabilities in the town. For instance, in terms of personal dignity, one is only respected when one is in one’s territory, but one automatically becomes an outcast in another territory. Those longhouse dwellers who stay put in their present longhouses are viewed as the “fittest” because they have managed to survive even under resource constraints, in the absence of economic opportunities, and “zero” development. However, who stays and who exits the longhouse is part and parcel of the natural selection process.

Nonetheless, as far as the Rural Transformation Program (RTP) is concerned, regardless of whether they are “weak” or strong, dealing with the two groups poses a tremendous challenge to the authorities. If we take social inclusion seriously, then the plight of migrants in peri-urban Kapit should be an important matter for urban planning and development, while those who still reside in longhouses are also entitled to social justice, to say the least, if RTP makes sense.

Again, a “zero” development scenario is also very worrying, because it can trigger a domino effect, which has the potential for aggravating rural hollowing further. Moreover, the proposed construction of a Baleh hydropower dam in Kapit may sound like social inclusion, but in reality, this is not so. The Baleh Constituency may perceive it as a threat to the livelihood of longhouse-dwellers, who have been subject to “zero” development for a long time. Although the proposed dam will be located in the upper reaches of the Baleh, we should also remember that there are 49 longhouse communities located below the proposed dam site, representing about half the Baleh Constituency. The electricity generated by the dam will be channeled to heavy industries in Semalanju in the Bintulu Division, Tanjung Manis, or elsewhere outside of the Kapit Division. Undoubtedly, cheap energy will benefit many industries, but none of these industries will be sited in Kapit. The Government Transformation Program (GTP) no doubt will achieve its target objective–a high income economy for the corporate sector, for the nation-state, and for the highly skilled foreign and/or local workers, but it is doubtful whether tangible economic benefits will trickle down to the poorly educated and unskilled longhouse dwellers who are directly affected by the dam’s construction and the absence of any specific economic packages specifically designed to benefit local people there.

Last, but not least, I can foresee that with the construction of the dam in Baleh, sooner or later, road connections between Kapit town and the longhouses in the frontier region of Baleh, Mujong and Rajang will be built. And once the road linking Kapit, Song and Kanowit is completed in the near future, this will further facilitate the opening of the hinterland for potential agricultural and tourism development, which can create entrepreneurship among the younger generation of migrants. Those Iban migrants with dual residency tend to benefit from both worlds, living in the town, but having access to economic opportunities that come with improved infrastructure and roads in the frontier region. This scenario leads me to highlight how crucial development leadership is for people in Kapit. It can serve as an anchor for integrating policy and practices and for mobilizing human capital for empowering rural people at the right time and place, which is crucial if the social inclusion policy of the GTP is to be realized.


I must acknowledge, with much gratitude, the Tun Jugah Foundation for funding the field survey on depopulation in the Kapit Division on which much of this paper is based. Very special thanks goes to Professor Clifford Sather and his wife, Louise, for reading through earlier drafts and editing the present article. Dr. Robert Menua Saleh, the Director of Research, Tun Jugah Foundation, dealt with the cultural practices and traditions of the Iban migrants. I thank, too, Dr. Peter Kedit Mulok, an expert on bejalai, and Associate Professor Dr. Madeline Berma, who labored a great deal with the gender dimension of migration in Kapit.


Aronson, D.R 1980 The City is our Farm: Seven migrant Ijebu Yoruba families. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books, Inc.

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Dimbab Ngidang

Professor of Development Studies

Faculty of Social Sciences

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

Kota Samarahan, Sarawak


(1) Iban mobility within Sarawak during the pioneering era was resource-driven, i.e., movement was from resource-depleted areas such as Simanggang, Lemanak, Skrang, Batu Lintang/Undup and Saribas to resource-rich frontier regions like Kapit, Bintulu, Baram and Limbang.

(2) See Ngidang 2012. In the 21st century, this adat is now viewed as absurd, irrelevant, and a liability to the community for the following reasons:

First, adat tungkus asi, whether directly or indirectly, freezes native assets. Retention of tungkus asi stereotypes the present-day [bans as being basically unchanged in their economy and culture from their 19th century ancestors. It does not take into account differences between pioneering migration during the Brooke era and economic migration in the 21S’ century, nor the evolution of a dynamic land market and land use in a highly interconnected global economic system.

Second, the prohibition against buying and selling land not only for cultural purposes but also for profit is not only illogical but absurd. Continuing the paternalistic protectionism of the colonial era in the modern Malaysian state of Sarawak denies contemporary Iban opportunities for dealing and/or transacting in the NCR land they inherited from their ancestors. If such transactions involving native customary rights land are illegal, this effectively excludes the Iban from the market economy, which many Iban see as contradictory to present rural transformation programs.

Third, it is only too apparent that tungkus asi’ no longer serves its original purpose, but rather, renders possible exchanges within the market economy dysfunctional by making such land a dead and frozen asset. Land transactions are locked between political policy and the interpretation of current agrarian law to the disadvantage of the community that depends on land for its livelihood and very survival.

(3) Even today, many people still have the same colonial attitude towards shifting cultivation; they fail to distinguish between pioneer shifting cultivation (clearing virgin forest) and clearing forest-fallow land (temuda).

(4) There are nine original Iban longhouses on the periphery of Kapit town, which I define as the host communities. These longhouses are located in the Sungai Kapit area, which includes Rumah Bundung, Rumah Ebung, Rumah Madang (formerly Rumah Jelani), Rumah Chambuk (comprised of some families who are migrants from the ulu), and Rumah Nuang (also comprised of some families who are migrants from the ulu)], and in the Sungai Amang/Selirik/Lepong Baleh areas [Rumah Achan, Rumah Engking, Rumah Ganya, and Rumah Gawan in Lepung Baleh (formerly Rumah Tuan)].

(5) The term “hollow core” was used by Professor Richard C. Jones, University of Texas at San Antonio, to describe the economic backwardness of north-central Mexico, for the desert region between Sierra Madre Oriental and Occidental (refer to: cummiskclasses/new.htm.). Also Jones 2009.

(6) As I have pointed out earlier, shitting cultivation can no longer support an adequate livelihood in the interior if people do not also engage in off-farm economic activities.

Table 1. Year of Migration to Kapit Town

Year Number of Percentage (%)

1940 – 1950 5 0.4
1951 – 1960 7 0.5
1961 – 1970 30 2.2
1971 – 1980 59 4.3
1981 – 1990 133 9.6
1991 – 2000 510 36.9
2001 – 2008 639 46.2
Total 1,383 100.0

Table 2: List of New Iban Settlements on the Periphery of Kapit Town

Year No. Percent

1960-1970 3 0.3
1971-1980 27 3.0
1981-1990 144 15.6
1991-2000 512 55.6
2001-2007 236 25.6
Total 922 100.00

Table 3. Land Transactions between Iban Host Communities and Iban
Migrants in Kapit

Category of Buyers (N=1383) Percent (1)

Did not buy any native customa land 461 33.3% (2)
Tenants (housing provided by 229 16.6%
Squatters 28 2%
House lots 922 66.7%
Rice cultivation 30 2.2%
Rubber and/or pepper 13 0.9%
Vegetable gardens 3 0.2%
Fruit trees 22 1.6%

(1) Percentages are non-additive due to multiple responses.

(2) A total of 351 migrant households (26%) bought houses
and the rest joined existing longhouses.

Table 4. Year of Purchasing Ancestral Land

Year No. Percent

1960-1970 3 0.3
1971-1980 27 3.0
1981-1990 144 15.6
1991-2000 512 55.6
2001-2007 236 25.6
Total 922 100.00

Table 5: Type of Houses owned by Iban Migrants in Kapit

1. Bungalow/double-storey detached 222 16.1
(cement/wooden/mixed timber-cement structure)

2. Double storey semi-detached (cement/wood/mixed 160 11.6
timber-cement structure)

3. Double storey intermediate (cement/wood/mixed 121 8.7
timber-cement structure)

4. Single storey detached (Cement/Wood/Mixed timber- 364 26.3
cement structure)

5. Single storey semi-detached (Cement/Wood/Mixed 133 9.6
timber-cement structure)

6. Single storey Intermediate(Cement/Wood/ 21 1.5
Mixed timber-cement structure)

7. Longhouse 105 7.6

8. Squatter house 28 2.0

9. Renting, and accommodation provided by employers 229 16.6

Total: 1,383 100

Table 6: Cost of Building Houses in Kapit Town *

Property value/cost of No. Percentage
construction (RM) ([dagger])

<10,000 345 25.5
10,000 – 30,000 406 30.0
31,000 – 50,000 327 24.0
51,000 – 70,000 184 13.5
71,000 – 90,000 63 4.6
91,000 – 100,000 13 0.9
More than 100,000 23 1.7

Total: 1,383 100

* It should be noted that,
as indicated in Table
3, 922 of the migrants
bought house lots
for constructing their
houses; out of 33.3% of
the total number (461) of
migrant households who
did not buy house lots,
26% of them bought
houses, while the rest
built their bilik by joining
an existing longhouse.

([dagger]) The value of property here refers to the estimated cost of
constructing the houses and/or bilik. But it should be noted that
about 32 migrants did not remember the cost of building their houses,
which was treated as missing value in this study. Nonetheless, all
houses built in the 1960s and earlier cost less than RM 10,000.

Table 7. Maintaining Family Bonds, Resource Stewardship, and Economic
Linkages to the Original Longhouse

1 Socio-cultural Percentage (N=415)
Going back for Gawai 63.6%
Going back for Christmas 37.0%
Attending funeral rites 56.4%
Observing the nungkun dapur ritual 10.4%
Sending remittance home 3.4%

2 Economic dependency
Tapping rubber 12.8%
Planting rubber 3.4%
Planting pepper 2.8%
Collecting engkabang 11.3%
Planting rice 20.5%
Middlemen 0.7%
Transport business 0.2%
Aquaculture 1.9%
Tourism 0.2%

3 Resource stewardship
Land and non-landed properties 5.1%
Both parents are still living in the longhouse 14.5

4 Other reasons
Children's education 38.1%
Medical reason 15.7%

Table 8. Electricity Supply for Migrants in Kapit Town

Type of Supply N Percent

SESCO 1323 95.7
Community generator 5 0.4
Personal generator 47 3.3
Temporary supply from generator belonging to 8 0.6
neighbors or friends

Total: 1,383 100

Table 9. Water Supply for the Migrants in Kapit Town

Type of Supply N=1383 Percent

Gravity-fed water supply for the whole settlement/ 215 15.6
Gravity-fed water supply for individual family/house 49 3.5
Local water board 1091 78.9
Dug individual well 34 2.5
From the river 101 7.3
Rainwater 90 6.5

Note: Some households have more than one source of water.

Table 10. Rubbish Collection within the Settlement Areas

Availability of Service No Percent

Yes 1142 82.6
Carried out by local council (KDC) 1129 81.7
Rubbish disposal center is looked after by 13 0.9
migrants themselves

No 241 17.4
Thrown into the river 116 8.4
Thrown into nearby bushes 11 0.8
Burning 39 2.8
Thrown away into a valley 31 2.2
Thrown into a rubbish pit looked after by migrants 14 1.0
Burned and thrown into the river 18 1.3
Burned and thrown into a pit 12 0.9

Total: 1,383 100.0

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