Of names and a mother’s lesson on humility

By Datuk Mohammad Medan Abdullah

MY mother’s maiden name was ‘Ubung Ayab’; ‘Ubung’, Bulan, Dayang, Lipang and Supang are common traditional names for girls of the Kelabit tribe. Soon after her first child and, according to a unique feature of the culture and tradition of the Kelabits, my mother had a name change.

Her name was changed to ‘Sina Maya Ulun’ (loosely translated ‘Mrs Maya Ulun’) to mirror that of my father’s. My father, who was given the name ‘Jalong Langan’ (sounded like a Kenyah name to me) as a young boy, also changed his name on the occasion of his first born, to ‘Maya Ulun’ (loosely translated ‘The Follower of Life’, or ‘Traveller Along Life’s Path’).

Among the men, a popular name change revolves around the word ‘Balang’, the Kelabit term for tiger. Considering that there are no tigers in Borneo now, it will be interesting to trace the origin of the use of ‘Tiger’ in Kelabit names.

The folklores and mythologies have tigers in them. Sometimes when you string all the different tiger names together, you can have a hilarious outcome. For example, one of my uncles was ‘Mayung Balang’ (literally, the One Who Speared the Tiger), another one was called ‘Daraq Balang’ (literally, the Blood of the Tiger), a third was ‘Balang Leminan’ (the Tiger Who Stayed Put), a fourth was ‘Balang Buren’ (the Tiger with the Reputation or Being Talked About), and finally, my cousin didn’t want to be outdone, so he called himself ‘Balang Meput’ (the Tiger who is Everywhere, Ever Present!) and so on.

My own tiger name was adopted from my maternal grandfather, ‘Balang Nadun’ (the Tiger which Sets the Pace or the Criterion to Be Emulated). Coincidentally, I have been adopted by the Kayans of Uma Bawang, Belaga and conferred the name of Avun Ledit, the name of the younger brother of two Kayan mythological heroes.

The Kenyah Badeng of Data Kakus, Belaga also adopted me as one of their own and gave me the Kenyah name of Balang Jalong, a real traditional Kenyah name. So now, I am a man of several names. My adoptive Lun Bawang parents have yet to formally confer me a Lun Bawang name but I am now considered one of Pak Tagal’s sons.

Beautiful, traditional names. And what a huge collection of tigers in the Kelabit Highlands and mythological heroes in the Ulu country.

One of the special characteristics of human beings is that they know the names of all things. Not only do they know the names of all things, they even give themselves different names and, in the case of the Kelabits, often change their names a few times to signify important junctures or events in their lives!

Enough said about the menfolk, who only like to compete among themselves, and in the process engender some form of unease in the jungle with their roars and their scramble for the best tiger names or other. But maybe, none have held that many names all at the same time as I have and also from the different tribes.

The only 1960s vintage photo I have with my mother.

Now, let’s move on to more important stuff, and talk about the womenfolk. I consider my mother, Sina Maya Ulun, as my greatest teacher. She was illiterate but smart. When she was growing up in Pa’ Umor, there were no schools for longhouse kids to attend.

But then, we don’t need to go to school to learn life’s valuable lessons, especially if they come from our parents, particularly from loving mothers, and if these lessons relate to matters of the heart, life and humanity.

Mothers teach us compassion, love and patience. They are the epitome of these lovely qualities and, in my case humility, too. After going to school and being able to read and write, I later came to know of this passage from the Scriptures which is quite apt for this current narration: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” – Proverbs 29:23. I once had a powerful lesson on humility and below is the story.

I often topped my class in examinations when I was a Form 4 and Form 5 student in SMK Marudi, Miri Division in 1974 and 1975 respectively.

My only competitor for the top slot in class then was Idris Jala (Datuk Sri Idris Jala), one of my cousins. In fact, as classmates from Primary 1 onwards, we were in perpetual battle to outdo each other in examinations but outside the classroom, we were buddies and the best of friends.

When I was a teenager, I was always in top form physically. It must have been due to the endless walking in the highlands and the iodine packed Bario salt which prevented us from getting muscle cramps from all the exertions.

In secondary school, my friends and I were always hungry. The daily three meals in the boarding school were not enough for physically active and growing up teens.

We always felt that we could eat a horse. Since there were no horses in Marudi then and now, some of the more adventurous boys became very creative. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Soon, the stray dogs around the school became scarce until one day, they disappeared altogether. Years later, some of my classmates told me how they caught the dogs, took them to the bushes and secondary forest around the school to cook.

They have been eating the dogs, my classmates! My stomach was too squeamish for dog meat, so I did not join those surreptitious forays into the secondary forest over the weekends.

When I grew up and after I was working, I visited China and Korea and understood that dog meat is considered a real delicacy for some people in Northeast Asia. Maybe, way back in time we could have come from China or Korea or maybe the migration was vice versa.

Due to the sense of power and optimism we felt about the future, after being the selected ones to attend the best secondary school in the district, we felt real good and thought that the world was not only literally (the ground) at our feet but also, metaphorically, was wide open for future exploration and conquest. 

At least, the mindset that prevailed seemed to tell us so. The possibilities in life appeared to be unlimited and doing well in class somehow did wonders to the ego.

At that age, I felt like I was like a hero character from the many stories I read. One who could do no wrong and will always succeed in the things that he did.

I guess my friends and I were carried away by the tales of ‘Jason and the Golden Fleece’ or ‘Robin Hood of the Sherwood Forest’, ‘Hercules’ and his feats and so on — stories which we hungrily gobbled up in the school library in record time since there were not that many books available. 

A peek into the Bario Valley. Photo: Datuk Ose Murang

When I returned home at year end to my idyllic village surrounded by the lush rainforests and tall mountains, I was excited to talk about my achievements in school. I was anxious to share the good news with my parents. Especially my mother.

Back then, students were collected from all over the Baram district and put into a government boarding school in Marudi. Those who came from the remotest parts could only go home once a year because of the great distance from the town to their villages. Also, our parents could not afford the return airfare from Marudi to Bario.

I had these feelings all pent up and bubbling inside me, waiting to be released until year end.

“Mommy, mommy, I am very proud I did very well in my examinations and I am so happy to tell you this!” was the first important thing I said to my mother when I saw her.

I guessed she was thrilled but she did not betray any visible signs of excitement. She was calm and composed. In fact, her reaction was wholly unexpected and very puzzling to me.

Mo, doo’ doo’ adat narih anak, benah-benah niat narih amaq” was her calm and measured response. No excitement, no emotional response. But that calm reaction from her was like a bolt of lightning from Mt Olympus (animagery from one of the many story books I read as a kid) and a massive downer and an anti-climax to my childhood exuberance.

What she said is translated as follows: “Son, just be good (and be well behaved) and be humble, just be humble”. That was all she said.

Looking straight into my eyes, my mother gave me a calm and loving gaze. That image and how she uttered those few words, still remained with me to this very day.

Just two words and they have stayed with me for life, like a magic talisman, reminding me from time to time to be truly grounded, to keep myself in check. The words were “doo’-adat, benah-niat.” (lit, be of good character and be humble). 

A powerful lesson was given me that day — “Just be a good person and be humble” was all that she had asked of me. No false pride, no pretences and no cravings for worldly riches.  As if all she wanted was for her beloved son to go placidly into the big wide world with a quiet dignity and a sense of humility in his heart of hearts. That to her, was sufficient. Her platinum standard. Indeed, she herself lived the values she preached.

Understandably, at that time, I was disappointed and a bit angry at her response, wondering what kind of advice she had given me — a young man, the apple of my mother’s eyes, who thought that the world was there for my taking.

The reprieve coming from her was just be “benah-benah niat” (just be humble, just be humble) was the perfect antidote.

Now that she has been long gone, those words still resonate in my mind, etched on the walls of my innermost being. I now know the true wisdom in those words. In fact, she was giving me the key — the golden key of wisdom in the words “the meek shall inherit the world!” Not literally but spiritually.

She was giving me a lesson, not of this world but for the spiritual one. Of course, she wanted the world for me, just as any mother would for their child, but in her eyes, the main prize — one that truly mattered was something to do with the hereafter.  

She was talking of the subject of true love and humility. Of true faith and in being always in awe of The Lord of the Universe, the Creator. To her, these were what really mattered. She saw the grave risk of her son wanting or thinking himself to be the hero character of ‘He Man and The Master of The Universe’ and I was quickly and lovingly ‘checkmated’ right on the spot, and at the most opportune of moments.

Talk about the coincidental intersections in one’s life. Such power and insight that could only emanate from a mother’s deep sense of love. From all mothers, I’d like to believe. Simply amazing! And blessed assurance, in hindsight.

So, if I did not inherit the riches of the world in this life, it was not her fault. Anyway, to her that was not important, not her sense of what was real value. But if I didn’t book a better place in the next, it would be because I did not heed her loving advice to set out there into the world with humility in my heart of hearts. To try to show and live the values of love and compassion.

The climb to Bued Mein Beruh village, Bario.

In other words, just be a true human being. For indeed, this world is but a temporary sojourn, a passage to the next, and my mother, didn’t want me to ever forget that fundamental point. She had the key, you see. And she wanted her son to have it, too.

As I step back and reflect, I am forever grateful to my mother for her timely and powerful lesson. God bless your loving heart, mama. I had never seen you angry or crossed in anyway. You were always calm, composed and didn’t say a lot. And you had lived what you preached. Thank you, mom, I love you.

The writer is the chief executive officer of Bintulu Port Holdings Berhad (Bintulu Port).