Tabuan Dayak — bastion of Dayak pride

In the enclave, the strong and the physically perfect survived, but if you were strong, you protected the weak until they had an opportunity to grow into their own power.

—  Ann Aguirre, American author

Long before Sarawak became independent, landless Dayaks from the interior flocked to the wetlands of Tabuan Dayak in search of their livelihood.

The original pioneers who were predominantly Iban, grew padi, vegetables and fruit to feed their school-going children.

Sarawak’s first chief minister Stephen Kalong Ningkan was among the first to establish Tabuan Dayak as a native base for migrant native communities such as the Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu.

Others who joined the long VIP list were former deputy chief minister Datuk Seri Daniel Tajem Miri, Datuk Amar Dunstan Endawie, Datuk Celestine Ujang Datuk Seri Kenneth Kanyan Temenggong Koh and Datuk Ramsay Jitam.

Originally, Anglicans who studied at the St Thomas’ School in Kuching, the inhabitants came from the city’s suburbs as far as Kapit in the middle Rajang enclave.

Over the past 35 years, I have had the honour to spend many leisurely hours with the Iban community while making Tabuan Dayak my second home.

Two unforgettable Iban leaders who were my mentors were Alfred Mason, the second son of Singapore-trained ‘Doctor’ Charles Mason whose influence on the Iban intelligentsia had a profound impact on the Dayak mindset.

A Sarawak administrative officer, Alfred was originally co-opted by the government to become secretary to a Malaysian founder member Datuk Bandar Abang Mustapha.

In the 1970s, he was seconded to the office of chief minister Tun Abdul Rahman Yakub as one of his political secretaries.

In the early days of Sarawak’s cloak-and-dagger politics, the mild-mannered grandfather was caught in a power struggle between Abdul Rahman, who was leader of the state BN, and SNAP, the powerful opposition under Kalong and his fiery deputy Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min.

 Another Iban of Scottish descent was Betong-born Reynolds Gregory, a civil servant who was passionate about bringing glory to Tabuan Dayak, and who had a great influence over me.

The late Reynolds was leader of Sarawak’s Elvis Presley impersonator group which performed all over town.

As fate would have it, Reynolds and I were parishioners of St Faith Church where he preached during the Iban session.

The first major event I was involved in was a church gathering of 10,000 at the Dewan Perpaduan Indoor stadium in Petra Jaya where I was lead singer.

After my introduction to Reynolds, I joined his group and often performed Tom Jones hip-gyrating songs and I was fondly teased as the Tom Jones of ‘USA’ or Ulu Sungai Apong, a poor enclave not far from Tabuan Dayak.

As chairman of Tabuan Dayak’s fund-raising events, Reynolds once invited me to be the guest of honour of an event at a notable hotel where I sponsored RM3,000 for the main table.

During the Christmas season, Reynolds and his Christians comprising St Faith members, would decorate their homes and then go carolling around the village.

The church choir group of guitarists and singers also visited natives who had yet to become Christians.

After 20 years, Reynolds’ group managed to raise enough funds to refurbish Tabuan Dayak’s All Saints Church which has now grown two-fold.
 A second major project that I was involved in was the proposed Tabuan Dayak community centre which is still a pipedream.

Sadly, the project never took off because of infighting between perennial foes, namely SNAP and PBDS.

One day, 10 years ago, during a drinking session at Reynolds’ home, we agreed to celebrate the annual Dayak new year on June 1 on a make-shift bamboo stage in the middle of a road as a show of protest.

Attended by headmen and community leaders, the event was dubbed ‘Gawai Atas Jalai’ or ‘Gawai on a Road’.

Several years later, disaster struck when during a performance with his ‘Elvis’ group, he collapsed while singing ‘Can’t stop falling in Love’ at a fund-raising event at the Pullman Hotel.

Hosted by deputy chief minister Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr James Masing, I was at home when I received a call that my friend had a heart attack.

I rushed to the emergency ward and was just in time to hold his hand before his final breath.

As a mark of respect, Reynolds ‘Sarawak Elvis’ successor Wilfred Ragam and I agreed that I would sing the ‘King’s’ favourite song — How Great Thou Art — at All Saints Church during the funeral.

Last week, another God-fearing man residing at Tabuan Dayak, retired Anglican Bishop Datuk Bolly Lapok, offered to serve the community in the coming state election.

Can Bolly bring about change which the Kuching Dayak community has been forlornly waiting for?

It appears that not all is lost!

But even Bishop Bolly will find it hard to ensure that the natives of Tabuan Dayak can continue to be a political bastion for the government.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.