Sarawak and Pahang’s royal connection

Since the formation of Malaysia, Pahang has regarded the East Malaysian state of Sarawak as their best friend.

Separated by the South China Sea, both are synonymous especially because they have similar geography — especially the remote and forested region of the Baram district — home to numerous Orang Ulu people with their rich history respect, neighbourliness and decorum.

Even though Pahang is the largest of Malaya’s 11 states covering 32,000 sq km, it is smaller than the 40,000 sq km Baram lying across the South China Sea — a land mass stretching from the Borneo coast to the Central Highlands of Borneo.

Sultan Abu Bakar of Pahang visited the Baram Regatta in 1973.

While Pahang has been ruled by its sultans for 600 years, the Orang Ulu of Baram have their own “Maren” aristocrats going back much longer.

Sultan Abu Bakar Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Abdullah Al-Mu’tassim Billah Shah was the first member of the Pahang royal family to grace the Baram Regatta in Marudi with its renowned “Great Peace Making” ceremony and Baram Regatta initiated by the Brooke government in 1899.

Sultan Abu Bakar who was the fourth modern Sultan of Pahang was an outstanding member of the royalty and was married five times, including one with an Indonesian actress Maria Menado, and in total had 34 children.

Unbeknownst to the Sultan, his visit to Sarawak initiated more visits of the Pahang royal household in years to come.

On his visit, the Sultan was given an Orang Ulu welcome by Kayan Uma Pu aristocrat Stewart Ngau Ding — who became the first Kayan District Officer of Baram after the formation of Malaysia.

Ngau Ding recalled the Sarawak government arranged for the royal visitor to be accorded a cultural treat and the traditional way of fishing using crushed “tuba” roots whose toxic mixture would stun fish along the banks and cesspools.

Malaysia’s 7th Yang diPertuan Agong Sultan Ahmad Shah and the Queen at the royal banquet held in their honour after the 1982 Baram Regatta in Marudi.
Stewart and his wife Magdeline with photographs of the late Sultan Ahmad Shah taken during the Baram Regatta at Marudi 37 years ago.

He added, “In the old days our people would secure large quantities of tuba roots while the families would gather in a remote stream and then pour the contents in.

“We would then wait downriver and after a while the inebriated fish would float down and we would catch them by hand or using nets. If lucky we would get unique fish species like the Empurau, Tengadak and Semah which were in abundance. Today a kilo of Empurau meat can cost RM800.”

Welcomed by Chief Minister Datuk Abdul Rahman Yakub and members of the Baram aristocracy, Sultan Abu Bakar and the Sultanah were received in rich Orang Ulu tradition — a culture which goes back to the days when Sarawak was a colony of the Brunei Sultanate.

Ngau Ding recalled: “At first we had to look for tuba roots in large quantities to use in the wide and expansive Baram River. So I gathered all the Penghulu chiefs to brief them on the Royal visit. I told them about the occasion and they were happily surprised. They brought what they could find and we also purchased a sufficient quantity of the roots from the local natives to ensure the event would be a success. A special committee was formed to oversee the event — a historical landmark.”

Before the start of the Baram Regatta, crushed roots were placed about a mile upriver from Marudi so that the stunned fish would float down the river past the grandstand to enable hundreds by-standers to scoop up the floating fish.

However, it was not to be because due to a heavy downpour hundreds of fish were swept away. Despite this the King and his entourage were able to sample some of rarest river species, including the ‘King of the fish’ known as ‘Tebela’ or Empurau. But still there was enough fish to help make the old King’s visit happy and interesting.

Sadly, the Sultan passed away the following year.

Nine years later on September 20, 1982, Sultan Abu Bakar’s son, Sultan Ahmad Shah who became the seventh Yang diPertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong Sultanah Tengku Afzan returned to Sarawak for a memorable Baram journey.

Reminiscing, Ngau Ding, now 80, said that upon the arrival of the Royal Couple, the airport was packed to capacity by members of the public who wanted to have a glimpse of their King and Queen as they were received by Governor Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub and Toh Puan Normah.

Ngau Ding said: “As they alighted from their special aircraft, the royal couple walked between two rows of “Tawaks” gongs and then onto the red carpet to launch the regatta.

“The Royal Regatta Grand Stand was built in front of Fort Hose, facing the Baram River and when the King arrived, a 21-gun salute from the old cannon at Fort Hose signified the start of the regatta.”

All the 200-or-so Baram penghulus, village headmen and councillors turned up bring along with them their ‘tongkang’ tug boats which was converted into floating accommodations.

Ngau added: “We decorated the boats to look like floating longhouses and with the lighting it was a breathtaking sight that night. Some of the tongkangs were provided by timber concessionaires — Temala camp, Baya Lumber from Long Terawan, Pemanca Oyong Ding Wan of Long Laput and Penghulu Tangah Subai from Long Jegan and Penghulu Lejau Malang from Long Kiput.”

It also marked the first time racing boats were introduced in the regatta.

For the night reception, the district office also built a mini concert hall near the ‘Mini Astana’ at the government rest house where Ngau Ding’s wife Magdeline Belawing, who is a Kenyah ‘Maren’, gathered all Orang Ulu ladies in a mock royal marriage ceremony.

Ngau Ding’s son Hudson played the part of the groom while his ‘bride’ was a relative Molly Bilong. Both were ‘Keta-o Kenyah’ aristocrats.

This was followed by a long dance led by the King who donned a Kayan aristocratic warrior’s head gear called ‘Tapung Sake’ while the Queen and others followed behind in the long procession.

“At the end of the day, after the speeches we hailed the royal couple with a long and rousing Orang Ulu praise song called “Lalo” in a chorus of appreciation,” Ngau Ding added.

The King’s entourage continued with their four-day tour to other parts of the State including Limbang and Miri before returning to Kuala Lumpur via Kuching.