Doing justice to Sarawak’s rich heritage



SARAWAK, with its multi-ethnic society and diverse cultures and traditions, naturally has a rich heritage, both tangible and intangible.

It encompasses a wide range – from buildings, monuments, sites, landscapes and objects to traditional arts and crafts, customs and traditions and food.

This heritage has, by and large, given the state and its people their unique identity. It represents our roots and serves as evidence how our society has evolved over time.

Affirmative efforts, therefore, must be taken to preserve, conserve, exhibit and restore it.

Dr Elena Chai

A senior lecturer at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) Dr Elena Gregoria Chai Chin Fern said this rich heritage was a priceless asset to Sarawak and Sarawakians.

In an exclusive interview with the New Sarawak Tribune (NST) recently, she said serious efforts should be undertaken to study, document and shared the asset.

“This asset should not be regarded simply as old beliefs and practices and left forgotten.”

She also spoke at length about having a Sarawak identity through heritage, which she had also deliberated on during a recent webinar organised by local non-governmental organisation Sarawak Initiative Leadership. Below is the full interview with Elena.

New Sarawak Tribune: You spoke at length about Sarawak Identity through Heritage. Can you explain what is the main purpose behind this quest of “Sarawak Identity through Heritage”?

Elena: My sharing session on heritage and identity was to promote awareness and appreciation of Sarawak’s distinctive identity through her multi-ethnic heritage.

Can you also briefly explain the meaning of Sarawak Identity through Heritage?

Sarawak is a multi-ethnic state with over 30 ethnic groups. All with different cultural practices and beliefs. Therefore, Sarawak’s identity should not limit to a few ethnic groups but should encompass all ethnic groups. Multi-ethnicity is Sarawak’s uniqueness therefore Sarawak should be showcased nationally and internationally.

Does Sarawak Identity through Heritage have any significance to the state’s culture and tourism?

Yes, Sarawak identification with its multi-ethnic heritage can help to promote heritage tourism throughout the entire state.

What are your hopes of creating a strong repository of national ethnicities with their tangible and intangible heritage through serious documentation?

I do not like the idea of ‘national ethnicities’. In Sarawak, all ethnicities should be given the chance to promote, preserve and safeguard their tangible and intangible heritage.

How do you intend to promote and what has been done to promote the Sarawak Identity through Heritage to the people in the state?

Creating awareness that heritage is not something that is of the past, or of nostalgic value only. Heritage is an asset that is passed down to us from our forefathers. This asset should not be seen as something old and reflected as historical. Some may have abandoned the old beliefs, old practices but this is not the reason why one should not acknowledge and identify with his or her heritage. The asset should be studied, documented and shared. Only when people see the value of heritage then it can be safely protected and transmitted to the coming generations.

How do you keep yourself inspired to continue this quest of Sarawak Identity through Heritage to the people? What have you done so far to ensure the success of this quest?

I am very sad when I see people abandoning or forsaking old ritual items, or when people refused to share their old customs by the reason they have to convert to a new religion. I have seen statues of deities being abandoned in the field, by the riverbank, or just thrown away, etc. It is very sad that people forgot how their forebears lived through the uncertainty, challenges in life by practicing the so-called ‘old beliefs’. For example, in earlier days when crops are in harvesting season, certain beliefs, taboos, customs are practiced to ensure a bountiful harvest and minimal pest attack. In those days, there were no government subsidies, no pesticides, etc. People lived through hardship with very little safety net. They used the knowledge they know, the beliefs about their surrounding world to counter the uncertainties.

I feel that there is so much knowledge our forefathers have passed down to us. It is a blessing that should be treasured and appreciated. I am trying my best as a lecturer to share why we should appreciate and respect every culture’s beliefs and practices with my students. I am trying my best as a researcher to share my studies on heritage with the public. This is all an anthropologist can do to help promote the awareness and importance of heritage.

Can you describe how people in the state would be like should the Sarawak Identity through Heritage be upheld?

Sarawakians have lived with different ethnic groups for as long as we can remember. Everyone speaks a few languages and mingle very well. In some towns, Iban is the lingua franca and this has been going on for many generations. In other towns, Kenyah is widely spoken by all including the non-Kenyah. Sarawak is an amazing place. The heritage of all ethnic groups should be given equal treatment and importance. By upholding Sarawak’s multi heritage, we are upholding Sarawak’s true identity.

What are the biggest challenges to promote Sarawak Identity through Heritage?

People’s mindset is that heritage is not important and a thing of the past.

In your opinion, how could these challenges be effectively tackled?

Sarawakians should be exposed to what constitutes ‘heritage’ and how this important asset has shaped Sarawakians to their present self. Only when we start to know what heritage is, how it has shaped and formed us, then only we will start to appreciate heritage. When we start to appreciate heritage, we will try to learn more about it, and try to share it with others. Sharing and expanding it will help to transmit it and it is a form of safeguarding.

Personally, how do you overcome these challenges?

I am not sure how I can overcome these challenges but be invited to share topics on heritage by various agencies in Sarawak means that Sarawak is aware of the importance of heritage. I hope more people will come forward to share the importance of heritage and how it can be protected.

So far, are the people in the state receptive to the quest? What about the younger generation?

So far not many people know what is heritage. They relate it to something historical, something that is worn on special occasions, or something that a certain group of people practices. They don’t see heritage is a living thing. We live with heritage every day. Heritage is within us. We seldom talk about heritage because we don’t really understand what it is. Young and old are the same. Only when people know they are bestowed with such beautiful rich ‘gift’ from generations before, they will start to realise they should try to learn more about it, talk, share and promote to others, including the younger ones.

What could possibly happen in the future should the younger generation not be receptive to the quest or simply refuse to recognise its importance? What is your advice?

We will be losing our heritage if people fail to recognise its importance. We are already losing some of the very precious heritage because people think it is an old custom, and of no significance. Revival is going to be difficult. therefore we should start to make everyone be aware of their own heritage. we should not lose such an important asset. Once gone, it cannot be fully revived.

What’s your future plan for the quest to be successful?

I hope people can be more open-minded to accept that even though we might have converted or belonged to a certain religion now, it doesn’t mean we should reject, study or share about the beliefs, customs, practices of our forefathers. If we have such a mindset, we are shunting off the heritage from being known to the world. We are not doing justice to our own heritage. We should let people around us know our rich heritage, something our forefathers have passed down to us. If we can self-appreciate our own heritage, others will certainly see the beauty of it.

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