Beating the odds

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Dr Elexson Nillian

Armed with knowledge and determination, Elexson Nillian has tirelessly worked to put his ethnic minority community — Cebup, who number fewer than 10,000 now, on the map. He continues to strive to develop and improve the lives of his people.

Making full use of the opportunity given

In 2017, New Sarawak Tribune engaged in a private interview with Dr Elexson Nillian.

Representing the minority ethnic group known as Cebup, he was the only one from the tribe to have a double degree under his belt — a Bachelor’s Degree from Universiti Industri Selangor (Unisel) in 2011 and subsequently, a Master of Science degree from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). He is also the first Cebup to graduate as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD).

Speaking in his mother tongue, Elexson Nillian said, “Hi ngaran ki Elexson Nillian. Lebu Cebup. Muat dalam ki kelu mecan cebup ngai ju ke menen,” which translates to “Hi my name is Elexson Nillian. I am a Cebup. My hope is to see Cebup go far and beyond.”

Elexson Nillian clad in traditional Cebup attire.

Currently, the 34-year-old is a lecturer at the Faculty of Resource Science and Technology in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas). When he is not at work, he has a different goal — to make Cebup better known.

Three years ago, he mentioned how disappointed he was as his group was often overshadowed. Expressing his frustration on the matter then, Elexson aimed to release a Cebup dictionary as a legacy to preserve the culture and values of the minority people.

Most recently, Elexson revealed that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) had published a dictionary on Cebup that he had worked on before. With the dictionary now available for the public, Elexson emphasised on its importance as a platform to spread knowledge about the Cebup.

“It is evident that these days, many native dialects have been forgotten, or is not fluently practised. Especially in interracial marriages, where many children don’t speak their native languages,” he lamented. However, with the release of the Cebup dictionary, Elexson hoped that the identity of the Cebup would not be forgotten.

Elexson proudly showing off the Cebup dictionary, recently published by DBP.

Further elaborating, Elexson disclosed that once the dictionary was published months ago, many had sent him messages on Facebook regarding it. “I have been using my Facebook page to spread awareness of Cebup, and many had come to me saying they have Cebup blood in them. But they don’t know how to speak the language. They were grateful that they were able to learn the words through the dictionary.”

When the opportunity to publish the dictionary came three years ago, Elexson thought it would be as easy as writing a research paper. “Compiling the words took less than a year. However, the challenge was when it comes to publishing, mostly due to budget constraint.”

Nevertheless, Elexson was grateful that after three years, his work come to fruition. “I have to thank DBP as they played an important role in the project. Not just for the Cebup community but also the other majority and minority races.” Elexson also added that DBP had also released few other dictionaries of other races in Sarawak.

Better connection

Hailing from a longhouse in the upper Baram basin, Elexson was born and raised in Long Selapun, by the river of Tinjar, an eight-hour drive from Miri. Elexson said that being a small community of less than 10,000, it is important for every Cebup member to unite.

The new road to his kampung.

“Although we are small in numbers, the Cebup community have equal opportunities. Each of us from different longhouses need to unite for the greater good, instead of just keeping to ourselves.” Elexson said that he realised there were divisions and different opinions between the older and the younger generations, about Cebup traditions and handling modernisation.

Flashback to his first interview with New Sarawak Tribune three years ago, Elexson shared that at his village, there was no proper electricity supply. “We depended on generators for electricity, but fuel can be expensive and at times we lack the supply so we use candles and makeshift lamps. But if electicity is available, there are many things that we can do.”

He also said that in 2017, he was trying to create a workforce as villagers depended solely on oil palm, paddy field and fishing. “In the long term, it won’t be enough to sustain the people at Long Selapun.”

Since then, developments has gone underway in Long Selapun. Updating the news from his longhouse, Elexson exuberantly shared that electricity is available now. “We have solar panels and a great mobile network connection now.”

Recalling the moment when villagers first noticed the network connection, Elexson said that it all started when his uncle received a phone call. “It was unexpected, and they didn’t realise that improvement works had been done at the time. So when my uncle’s phone rang out of a sudden, he called everybody to announced the good news. He was so excited.”

Now, Elexson said that he can video call his mother, even when she is out in her farm. “Even though the internet connection is not as it is in the city, we are still able to video call via Whatsapp, so that’s a huge improvement,” he added.

With modernisation catching up, festive seasons were no longer the same. Elexson shared his observation last Christmas, “The only downside is, usually you don’t see longhouse folk meddling with their phones during festivities. Now, everyone is busy updating on their social media! However, it’s only a good thing as now we can all reach each other immediately when it comes to emergencies.”

Feeling grateful for the developments, Elexson also added that his village is now connected by proper roads. “It’s no longer quiet. As early as 6am, you can hear the sound of motorcycles as the longhouse folks now ride bikes instead of walking to their respective farms. It certainly made life easier for us.”

A huge help

Elexson Nillian clad in traditional Cebup attire.

Passionate in his efforts to help the community, Elexson also disclosed that villagers now an alternative method to earn a living. They no longer put their focus to oil palm plantations.

“I kept thinking of a way for them to sustain their living in a long run. Hence, I made a deal with local coffee companies to sell their seedlings for the villagers to plant.

“It’s a good way to earn, especially for seniors who could no longer perform heavy work. In my opinion, coffee plantation as a socio-economy focus is much easier compared to oil palm and rubber tapping.”

As the Cebup community in Sarawak is gaining ground through the awareness efforts made by Elexson, he is constantly encouraging other minority races to step up and make a name for themselves. According to Elexson, “Success is valued, but contributing to the development of your own people and community is more important.”

In the future, Elexson hopes to publish an autobiography of himself, and also stories about his race in Sarawak.

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