One of Malaysia’s most backward districts is Lawas, Sarawak’s Northernmost region which is home of the Lun Bawang hill people.
The prized possession of Brunei, it was a troubled region because of the constant inter-tribal wars forcing the Sultan to cede the district to the Brooke regime in 1905.
Even though the rest of Sarawak was gradually experiencing greater changes, Lawas languished far behind.
It took 30 years before the Lawas folk accepted the White Rajah as their sovereign “King” but not before Sir Charles Vyner Brooke and his army quelled the rebellious tribes.
With the help of the Malay leaders from the coastal region adjoining Brunei and the Sarawak Rangers, the community finally bowed to Brooke’s authority.
But the vestiges of war took its toll on the pagan Lun Bawang who were reduced to a people prone to alcoholism, sickness and disease in the early 1900s.
Life changed when Christian evangelists arrived in Borneo especially a group of Australian missionaries led by Charles Hudson Southwell who ventured up the Limbang River in 1928.
By now the Lun Bawang had made peace with their Lun Dayeh neighbours across the Indonesian border as well as other “Orang Ulu” (upriver tribes) such as the Kelabits, Kenyah and Kayan from neighbouring Baram.
Retired Pastor Tagal Paran,86, said: “Our ancestors were originally from the Kerayan but over time came over to Sarawak and settled in the Kelalan valley in upper Lawas.
“But we had to go through a period where he had to abandon our old animist religion if we needed to progress.
“With the arrival of the Christian missionaries our people began to change their attitude towards life,” said the former Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) President.
While Southwell spreading the gospel among the “Muruts” (the name used to describe Lun Bawang at that time) of Limbang, the American and Canadian missionaries in Indonesia began to preach among the Lun Dayeh of Kerayan.
Tagal who is the father of two Lun Bawang politicians — former Member of Parliament of Lawas Datuk Mutang Tagal and the late Dr Judson Sakai Tagal — said it was their cousins across the border who first to become Christians.
Born in 1933 in the upper Lawas border village of Buduk Nur in the Ba Kelalan valley, Tagal did not have the opportunity attend school as the Japanese invaded Sarawak eight years later.
Since his father had died, Tagal and his three other siblings were raised by their mother and it was only after he was married that he learnt how read and write.
By the late 1930s Southwell who was fondly called “Tuan Sapu” (the Malay word for preacher with a broom), had swept through Lawas and and neighbouring Bara district and set up a network of churches.
Similarly, an American preacher John Wilfinger had set up a bible college and school at Ba Siuk on the border and sent his students to preach in upper Lawas.
Tagal added: “The people in upper Lawas in places like Ba Kelalan, Long Semadoh and Long Sukang were slow to accept the teachings of the new religion.
“It was our cousins from across the border who taught us how to read the bible in our language and we learn the basics,” he reminisced.
In 1952, the 19-year-old Tagal decided to become a pastor and made the two-week trek from Ba Kelalan to the coast with his pregnant wife Yamuk in 1952.
However, he was forced to stop at Long Luping where Yamu Pengiran gave birth to Judson who rose to become one of the first Lun Bawang medical practitioners.
Dr Judson who later set up a specialist centre in Miri, became the assemblyman for Ba Kelalan and was appointed deputy Speaker of the Sarawak State Legislative Assembly before he was tragically killed in a helicopter cash in 2004.
Another son of a Long Semadoh preacher, lawyer Baru Bian took over as Ba Kelalan’s representative in 2011 before winning in the May 9, 2018 Parliamentary election.
A seasoned Opposition member and chairman of the Sarawak branch of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), he became a member of the new Malaysian government under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Baru, 61, created history when he became the first leader of the Lun Bawang to be appointed as a Federal cabinet Minister and now holds the post of Minister of Works.
An Australian-trained lawyer, Baru is the author of “The Long Awakening” published in 2015, a memoir of his personal journey; a story of a poor preacher’s son who beat the odds and rose to become a special son of Lawas.
Today Lawas has produced dozens of preachers as well as scores graduates and professionals; from trained teachers, government officers, to lawyers, engineers, medical practitioners and businessmen.