TUN Datuk Abang Openg Abang Sapiee was known for his spirit of goodwill, unity and cooperation with all ethnic groups notably the Dayak. This trait had been ingrained in him since he became a Native Officer, a District Officer and eventually Sarawak’s first post-independence Governor for six years until his death on March 28, 1969.
He always felt comfortable associating with the Dayak.
To the Dayak, Abang Openg, who spoke fluent Iban, was a leader always close to their hearts because of his humble nature and his willingness to go to their longhouses to meet them.
This fact came to the fore when he became a Sarawak Council Negri member and supported the motion to make Gawai Dayak an official event and finally declare it a public holiday.
For the record, the motion was tabled by Dayak representative Tra Zehnder several times. When the motion was first tabled in August 1961, it received no support, not even from Dayak leaders.
It was the wish of Dayak leaders and community at that time to see Gawai Dayak recognised and declared as an official festival, just like Hari Raya Aidilfitri — the official festival of the Muslims — and the Chinese New Year festival.
Gawai Dayak is a symbol of unity for the Dayak which consists of various tribes.
In the third meeting of the fourth session of the Sarawak Council Negri from Sept 26 to 28, 1962, Tra once again put forward a motion to declare Gawai Dayak as an official festival and a public holiday.
Tra, a well-known woman leader of the Iban at the time, said: “I have been asked by the Iban to raise this issue which has been in their minds for the past four years.”
She cited four reasons for tabling the motion:
• The passage of the motion will mean recognition for the Dayak, which is the largest ethnic group in Sarawak.
• Gawai festival is the best way to recognise the Dayak.
• The feelings of the other ethnic groups will not be affected as there is no political motive.
• Fulfilling the wishes of the Dayak is proof of the existence of harmonious ties between the various races.
Tra said it was the desire of the Dayak to enjoy something that other ethnic groups had already been enjoying (public holidays and official recognition of their festivals), instead of asking for something extra for themselves.
The motion was deliberated and supported by several Dayak leaders, namely Dagok son of Randen, Buda son of Ulan, Remigius son of Nyangu and John Muda. Tra was disappointed with some Dayak representatives in the House who initially promised to support her motion, but reneged on their pledge when the time came.
She reiterated that the motion was tabled for the benefit of all Dayak — whether Land or Sea Dayak.
Abang Openg — the father of Sarawak’s present Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg — wholeheartedly supported the motion and moved for it to be debated.
He explained that even though Hari Raya Aidilfitri was a religious festival celebrated by the state’s 200,000-strong Malay community — including the Muslim Melanaus — with a public holiday, the Chinese, Dayak and other races also joined their Muslim friends to celebrate the occasion.
“So, Hari Raya Aidilfitri is a holiday not only for the Malays, it is a religious festival for all races in Sarawak. Having said that, I would like to support the proposal by the woman representative (Tra) on the need for Gawai Dayak to be made a public holiday because other ethnic groups have their own public holidays, namely Christians celebrate Christmas and the Chinese have their own Chinese New Year celebrations,” Abang Openg said when debating the proposal.
Abang Openg’s support and debate reflected his caring, understanding and tolerant attitude towards the aspirations of the Dayak in Sarawak. His openness was partly due to his extensive exposure and association with the Dayak.
Nevertheless, there was strong opposition and concern among certain representatives on the grounds that if Dayak were allowed to have a public holiday, then the other ethnic groups would also demand public holidays and official recognition for their festivals.
The motion was rejected following debate and voting by the Council Negri members.
Only after Stephen Kalong Ningkan became chief minister did the motion receive support.
Gawai Dayak was gazetted as a public holiday on September 25, 1964 and the festival was officially celebrated for the first time on June 1, 1965.
The government’s decision received positive feedback from the Dayak.
Abang Openg eventually became Sarawak’s first governor on September 16, 1963. The Dayak recognised his services to them and his caring and selfless attitude is remembered by the community to this day.
While celebrating Gawai Dayak on June 2, Ningkan as the chief minister said: “His Excellency, the Governor Tun Abang Openg, has demonstrated his wisdom in approving an additional day to be included in the Sarawak Almanac for the Dayak to be known as the Dayak Festival Day, for with it, we can now say that the social tradition in Sarawak is not only established but complete.”
Meanwhile, speaking at the same event, and wishing everyone “Selamat Gawai Dayak”, Abang Openg highlighted the importance of unity in Sarawak, stressing it was his responsibility to remind the people of Sarawak to be united, “because only with unity in this country, can we witness prosperity and harmony.”
“I recognise the fact that the Dayak need their festival to be officially recognised by the government, just as Hari Raya for the Malays, and Chinese New Year for the Chinese, among others, are officially recognised.
“For so long in the past, you have all celebrated Gawai Dayak along the rivers and in longhouses, but at different times throughout the year, to mark the beginning of the harvest season, and pray for prosperity and fertility for the rice planting season. Now you have an officially recognised day,” he said.
Abang Openg and his wife also celebrated the festival for the second time, officially, at the Sarawak Union Club in 1966.
The 2,000-strong people event was also attended by Ningkan and Speaker Datuk Dr M Sockalingam, Cabinet ministers and their wives, as well as multi-racial community leaders.
Abang Openg was greeted by organising committee chairman Stephen Wan Ulok. The former also took part in a miring ceremony.
In his 1966 Gawai Dayak speech broadcast on radio, Abang Openg said it was his wish to see everyone — even if he or she was not born in the community — “celebrate the festival in order to preserve and strengthen the spirit of togetherness and maintain their understanding and brotherhood for generations to come.”
He said with the official recognition and declaration of the festival as a public holiday, the government hoped the Dayak would be more united and strengthen their unity with the other ethnic groups to ensure a stronger and united Malaysia.
Said Abang Openg: “We all know the Dayak are known all over the world for their hospitality and friendliness.
“For all of us, this Gawai Dayak will be a happy occasion and a platform to renew friendships and old ties. By having one particular day now to celebrate Gawai Dayak throughout the country, l fervently hope that the Dayak will be more united and enhance rapport with the other communities towards achieving our goal of making Malaysia one strong united nation.”
Dr Jeniri Amir is a Senior Fellow of the National Council of Professors