A 70-year study of our unique communities

Ethnicity should enrich us; it should make us a unique people in our diversity and not to be used to divide us.

– Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian politician

Unlike other states, Sarawak can pride itself of being a community of more than 60 ethnic and sub-groups spread over a sparse and massive land mass of 125,000km which is almost as big as Malaya.

From Tanjung Dato in the south to its northernmost division of Lawas, these tribes can also be found in the nooks and corners of thousands of villages spread along the 5,000-km of rivers and between the central highlands and the coastal plains of western Borneo.

But it would interest you to know that for the first half of the 20th century up through the 1930s Depression, the growth of the natives was stifled because of diseases due to lack of medical and health facilities.

University of Singapore’s YL Lee, in the ‘The Geographical Journal’ Vol. 131, No. 3 (Sept 1965), of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), said that between 1947 and 1960, the increase in indigenous populations was a mere 28.3 per cent. 

The Chinese population on the other hand remained high at 58.3 per cent when compared with the natives.

Sarawak had a population of 862,396 in 1963, as the Chinese continued to be the largest ethnic group with 282,073 people (June 1966 Census).

Five other native groups — Sea Dayaks (Iban) — 253,152, Malays — 154,855, Land Dayaks (Bidayuh) — 70,392, Melanau — 49,921, and Orang Ulu — 43,580.

By the 1980s, the Iban had taken over as the largest native group with a community of 481,755 (1988 Census) followed by the Sarawak Malays with 338,045 (1988) people.

Demographically, the Iban inhabit the four large river systems — Batang Lupar, Batang Saribas, Batang Rajang and Batang Kemena.

Predominantly Christians, they are agriculturists but a small segment of Iban townsfolk has diversified to all walks of life, including the business sector, where they are living comfortably.

An adventurous community, the Iban originated from Upper Kapuas in Kalimantan Barat, migrating across the border 400 years ago before spreading all over Sarawak.

According to Benedict Sandin in ‘Living Legends’, the true Malays are a “mixed stock of indigenous peoples”.

He believes some of the original Malays are descended from the ‘Kajang’ community which is associated with the Melanau and comes from pre-Islam Seru, Bliun, Siteng, Narom, Segan, Preban, Miri and Dale communities.

When Brunei embraced Islam in the mid-1400s, groups from Sumatra, Malaya and West Kalimantan migrated to Sarawak and inter-married with the locals which now represent the current Malay community.  

Bidayuh who comprise 137,177 (1988 census) are the third largest group. They are mainly found on the periphery of Kuching in Bau, Serian, Tebekang, Tebedu, Padawan and Penrissen districts. 

As most Bidayuh lived close to the state capital and administrative centres, they have made use of the vast opportunities available and have improved themselves by leaps and bounds when compared to the other ‘interior folk’.

The majority of the Bidayuh in the towns have abandoned their longhouse lifestyle and now live in modern housing estates while the wealthier community members own semi-detached homes or bungalows.

However, there are still a few villages along the Bau-Kalimantan border which prefer a traditional lifestyle. 

Two distantly-related Bidayuh groups — the Selakau and Lara — live near the Sarawak-Indonesian border in the Lundu district.

Fourth in line, the Melanau numbering 94,718, are a coastal people found predominantly in the Rajang, Mukah and Bintulu divisions.

However, the ancestors of the Melanau have been described as the earliest natives of Sarawak.

Also known as ‘Kajang’, some of their forebears originated from Upper Rajang where their closest relatives are the Sekapan, Kejaman, Sihan, Lahanan, Punan Bah, Tanjong and Orang Kanowit, Baketgan and Ukit.

About a third of the Melanau are Christians or pagans while the rest are Muslims.

The fifth native group is the Orang Ulu or up-river people, predominantly found in Belaga and Baram districts.

Totalling 88,185 (1989 census) the majority of rural Orang Ulu live in longhouses referred to as uma (a Kayan word for longhouse) and clusters of small villages.

According to the Sarawak Museumethnology section’s census of mid-1988, there are more than 20 Orang Ulu main and sub groups such as Kayan, Kenyah, Bisayah, Penan, Punan Bah-Siau-Sama, Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Tanjong, Tagal, Tabun, Ukit, Bukitan, Memaloh, Lisum, Tatau, Lirong, Lun Bawang-Kelabit, Vuhang (fewer than 100) and Sihan (about 150).

Today, Sarawak has a total of 2.9 million people.

Based on the 1988 statistics, the Kenyah were the largest of the Orang Ulu groups with 19,405 people.

They had 13 sub-groups such as the Berawan, Longkiput, Sebop and Seping as well as the Lepo Tau, Badeng, Lepo Laang, Murik, Lelak, Lirong, Batu Blah, Narom, Uma Kelap and Bah Mali (fewer than 20 people).

In 1988, there were only 18,777 Kayan from seven longhouse communities after which the sub-groups are Uma Pako, Uma Pliau, Uma Semuka, Uma Bawang, Uma Aging, Uma Besong and Uma Juman.

By 2020, their population had increased to 40,000.

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.

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