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Indigenous people, the state and ethnogenesis: a study of the communal associations of the 'Dayak' communities in Sarawak, Malaysia.


A voluntary association is an organized group of persons formed for the pursuit of common interests.(1) Communal associations may be defined as voluntary associations which represent ethnic communities and pursue a wide range of issues and concerns on behalf of those communities.

Anthropologists and sociologists have paid considerable attention to the study of associations, especially in urban contexts. Anthropological studies in Africa, for example, have focused on how "tribal associations" help rural migrants adjust to urbanizing and modernizing situations.(2) Political scientists Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have explained caste associations as voluntary associations that grow out of the caste system, bringing "political democracy to Indian villages through the familiar and accepted institutions of caste".(3)

In Southeast Asia there are a number of studies on Chinese associations,(4) but hardly any work has been done on the communal associations of indigenous minorities. This paper therefore aims to do three things. First, it will describe the communal associations of the Dayak communities (loosely and popularly defined as the non-Muslim indigenous communities) in Sarawak, Malaysia. Second, it will discuss their functions of relating to the state and articulating the local interests of the indigenous minorities.

Third, this paper will show the significance of communal associations, at least in the context of multi-ethnic Malaysia, to the ethnogenesis of indigenous minorities. Most anthropological studies on voluntary associations deal with socio-cultural adaptation, but for indigenous minorities like those in Sarawak, communal associations can serve to express as well as define and redefine an ethnic group's identity in the larger nation-state. The study of the communal associations of indigenous minorities therefore contributes to understanding ethnic groups and their changing identities.

In short, this paper will show that "Dayak" communal associations emerged in response to a desire to compete with other ethnic groups in an evolving state as well as the need to deal with the state and the larger society more collectively and formally. The need of indigenous minorities to assert their identities and their presence is especially important in a state which allocates resources according to ethnic categories. Thus this paper relates communal associations to the overall development of the state and its economy, and not just to urban adaptation.

Indigenous Ethnic Categories

The term "Dayak" has a long history of usage in Borneo. Today in Sarawak it has become a convenient label to refer to the Iban, Bidayuh and the Orang Ulu, and the term is also used to provide unity among the various non-Muslim peoples of Sarawak. However, some of these groups, especially the Orang Ulu, do not accept "Dayak" as an autonym, that is, as a label for themselves.

According to the 1991 census, the citizen population of Sarawak was 1,625,599, comprising Iban (483,468), Chinese (447,525), Malays (350,570), Bidayuh (135,595), Melanau (93,721), Other Indigenous (100,088), and Others (14,632).(5) Iban form the largest category in Sarawak although in the context of Malaysia, Iban (as well as other Dayak groups) are really a minority.

Bidayuh were formerly known as Land Dayak, while Sea Dayak referred to the Iban. The Bidayuh homeland in Sarawak is in the First Division (now Bahagian Kuching and Bahagian Samarahan), more specifically in the districts of Kuching, Serian, Bau and Lundu, although the younger people are to be found working in different parts of Sarawak such as Bintulu and Miri. The Bidayuh are divided into four main groups, namely Biatah, Bukar-Sadong, Bau-Jagoi, and Selakau-Lalla,(6) and they are linguistically rather diverse, so much so that Malay rather than a Bidayuh language is used for communication between the Bidayuh of different regions.

The three general categories among the Dayak are Iban, Bidayuh, and the Orang Ulu. Unlike the labels "Iban" and "Bidayuh" which today refer to specific ethnic groups, Orang Ulu is a general ethnic category which comprises various ethnic groups, some of which are still in the process of formation. The Kayan and Kenyah are the largest Orang Ulu groups, but "Kenyah" actually comprise a number of sub-groups such as Badeng, Lebu' Kulit, Uma Bakah, Uma Kelap, Sambop, Urea Pawa, Long Bangan, Bakong and so on. The other so-called Orang Ulu groups include Kelabit, Lun Bawang, Bisaya, various Kajang groups (Sekapan, Lahanan and Punan Bah), Bhuket, Sihan, Seping, Penan, and Punan Busang. In actual fact, in their home territories (for example, the Kelabit in Bario, the Bisaya in Limbang, the Sekapan in Belaga), these people do not call themselves Orang Ulu. It is in the cities like Kuching and Mid that non-Iban and non-Bidayuh Dayak adopt the label "Orang Ulu", literally up-river people, for the purpose of collective identification in the multi-ethnic society, in which the names of smaller groups are hardly known.

The Melanau need special mention. They are not classified in the "Dayak" category since most of them are Muslims, but there are also Christian Melanau and some who follow the traditional religion. Among the Muslim groups, other than ethnic Malays, there are also "non-Malay" groups like the Kadayan and Jatti Meirek, the former found in coastal Miri Division, Limbang and Lawas, the latter in Miri Town and its outskirts. Because of the common identification with Islam, the non-ethnic Malay Muslim groups in Sarawak can in relevant contexts claim to be "Malays". This paper primarily concerns Dayak communities, but will also mention Melanau associations.

Historical Background

In comparison with the Chinese and the Malays,(7) Dayaks were rather late in forming "modern" associations. The first Dayak formal organization appears to have been the Dayaks Co-operative Society formed by the Paku and Rimbas Iban of the Second Division in 1941. Efforts to form this co-operative began during the 1930s, at the time of the depression which affected the returns of Iban rubber small-holders, who were also unhappy with the monopoly of Chinese traders. The co-operative was renamed Gerempong Dayak during the Second World War, and after the war, was re-established as Sea Dayak United Co. It later went into voluntary liquidation.(8)

By the time of the Second World War, mission education had already produced a group of educated Iban and Bidayuh in Kuching. Many of them joined the civil service. This formed the core-group which provided the new leadership in Kuching to speak for the Dayak (Iban and Bidayuh) in the fast changing political scenario of Sarawak. During the Second World War, a Dayak association called Perimpun Dayak was formed on the initiative of the Japanese authorities. The first meeting was held on 17 February 1944.(9) The organization was used by the Japanese for their propaganda, and died with the end of the war.

Participants in the Dayaks Co-operative Society included prominent Iban in Kuching such as Eliab Bay, his brother Henry Satab Bay, his sister Barbara Bay, Philip Jitam and his brother Robert Jitam, Charles Mason and others. Dr. Charles Mason was a Balau Iban who had studied at the King Edward Medical College in Singapore and was the unofficial Iban leader in Kuching.(10) These individuals played important roles in the formation of early Dayak associations, in particular the Sarawak Dayak Association (SDA). Barbara Bay, one of the first Iban women to be trained as a nurse (in Melaka),(11) was a major figure in the formation and organization of Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU, formed in 1956), especially its women's section called Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (formed in 1957).

The first truly communal association formed on the Dayak's own initiative was the Sarawak Dayak Association (SDA). It was formed after a meeting at Philip Jitam's house in Kuching on 23 February 1946. Charles Mason was the first President. From the very beginning the association aimed at promoting unity and articulating the socio-economic interests of the Iban and the "Land Dayak" of all Divisions. In actual fact, its influence was confined to the First Division.(12)

SDA was formed at a time when the Kuching Iban and to some extent the Bidayuh felt the need to participate in the wider political arena to ensure that the "Dayak" were not left out of changing political and economic developments, especially in relation to the more organized Chinese and Malays. An important political issue at this time was the cession of Sarawak from the government of Rajah Brooke to the British Crown in 1946. SDA joined the Malay National Union (formed in 1939) in the well-known anti-cession campaign. Both the SDA and the Malay National Union were concerned about growing Chinese influence not only in the economy but in politics as well. Furthermore, as Robert Reece has pointed out, co-operation was facilitated by the personal friendship between Robert Jitam and Mohd Nor of the Malay National Union.(13)

The SDA and its participation in anti-cession activities marked the first serious Dayak participation in the wider political field through a formal organization. Like the Malay National Union, it experienced government suppression, as when the government issued the notorious circular No. 9/1946 which forbade civil servants to associate with the anti-cession movement. After the assassination of the colonial governor Sir Duncan Stewart in Sibu in December 1946 by Rosly Dhobie, the anti-cession movement was suppressed, and the SDA became dormant. Nevertheless, SDA marked the beginning of Dayak (Iban in particular) political consciousness and political participation in Sarawak politics, even though the main actors were mainly educated Iban from Kuching. Michael Leigh writes that for the Dayak, "political activity was a completely new sphere and even in the early 1960s it can be characterized as essentially a reaction to the activities of the other communities".(14) While this is generally true, Iban political activity can be traced to the SDA even though it was not a political party. Before the formation of political parties, communal associations could and often did perform the function of political parties as far as political articulation was concerned, as was true of the Straits Chinese British Associations formed in Singapore and Melaka in 1900 and in Penang in 1920.(15)

Development of Communal Associations

From the 1950s to the 1960s

The first Dayak formal organizations took shape because the educated "Dayak", conscious of their people's marginal economic and political status, were concerned that the "Dayak" might be left behind by the Chinese and the Malays in the emerging new order after the war. This concern with the indigenous people's status and participation in the evolving new state has remained important.

The cession of Sarawak to the British Crown in 1946 and the move towards independence culminating in the formation of Malaysia in 1963 were the major political events during this early period, and would have serious implications for the political and economic status of the Dayak communities. The Sarawak National Union and the Bidayuh National Association were the two early Dayak communal associations in the fifties, and by the early 1960s the Dayak could also seek representation through political parties which had become important in view of the moves for Sarawak to join Malaysia.16

It was natural that some Kuching-based Iban (such as Robert Jitam) tried to revive the SDA, but this effort was not successful as most of the Iban in Kuching were civil servants who were barred from joining political activities. In 1956, a pan-Dayak association called Sarawak Dayak National Union (SDNU) was formed with Edward Jerah as President and Benedict Sandin as Secretary.(17) The aims were and largely still are (as mentioned in the SDNU constitution): to promote and maintain goodwill and harmony with all other ethnic groups in Sarawak; to foster and safeguard the social, cultural and economic welfare of the Sarawak Dayak; to promote and encourage recreational activities and mutual aid; and to promote the "educational progress" of the Dayak.

The SDNU is open to all "Dayak". The present revised constitution (which was awaiting approval by the Registrar of Societies at the time of my research) defines Dayak as "any person of full or part Dayak parentage and any person who has been identified as Native espousing Dayak customs under the process of Law". It defines "Dayak race" as referring to "the Iban, Bidayuh, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Dusun, Murut, Bisaya, Melanau, and any other indigenous persons in Sarawak". Thus SDNU seeks to be the association which represents all Dayak groups. In actual fact, it has been Iban dominated, and is viewed in this light by non-Iban groups. This is to be expected as Iban are the largest group of people in Sarawak and the largest "Dayak" group. Furthermore, the SDNU was formed by Kuching-based Iban and it was in a sense a development from the SDA that preceded it.

While the Iban were the earliest among the Dayak to form an association, in September 1955 the Bidayuh formed a Bidayuh National Association. This organization was inspired by SDA and the Malay National Union which carried out the anti-cession campaign.(18) In 1971 the word "Dayak" was added to the name of the association, which since that time has been known as the Dayak Bidayuh National Association.

As the SDNU aimed to unite all Dayak groups, its early leaders tried to get the Bidayuh National Association to merge with the SDNU, but they were unsuccessful.(19) According to Leo Moggie, in 1964 the Bidayuh National Association agreed in principle to affiliate with SDNU,(20) but this did not come about, and the tendency has been for different Dayak groups to form their own organizations. In 1962, the Iban in Miri formed their own Dayak association called Persatuan Dayak Miri or Dayak Association Miri. In the following year, Serakap Anembiak Dayak Sarawak or Sarawak Dayak Youth Association was formed. This group was closely linked to the SDNU and its official address was at SDNU's Rumah Dayak (Dayak House), Kuching. The Dayak Association Miri was established by the Iban who had migrated from other Divisions in Sarawak, mostly from Sri Aman (especially Saratok and Betong), and its creation shows that SDNU was still not influential outside Kuching.

It is not surprising that the Iban and Bidayuh in Kuching were the earliest of the "Dayak" to form communal associations. The education provided by the missionaries created an educated Iban and Bidayuh population in Kuching, and these educated "Dayak" became the core group for the formation of associations, which they realized were necessary to ensure Dayak political participation and to enable them to articulate issues.

The history of Melanau associations can be traced to Kesatuan Melanau Melayu or Melanau Malay Union, an association of both Melanau and Malays formed in November 1954. Popularly known as MMB, which stands for Melanau-Melayu Bersatu (Melanau-Malay Unity), Kesatuan Melanau Melayu is today inactive, although during its earlier days various prominent politicians from Sibu were associated with the organization. In fact it may be regarded as a successor to Pergerakan Pemuda Melayu or Malay Youth Movement, which was formed in 1946.(21) Members of the Pergerakan Pemuda Melayu formed the Rukun Tigabelas (Thirteen Precepts), which planned the assassination of the new governor in 1949, bringing the anti-cession campaign to a climax and an end due to British suppression. The Kesatuan Melanau Melayu was formed four years after the death of the Pergerakan Pemuda Melayu.

What is significant is that the Melanau from early days sought an alliance with the Malays rather than with the Dayak, who were at first still not well-organized politically. The Kesatuan Melanau Melayu was formed earlier than the SDNU, and represented an early attempt by Malays and Melanau to unite politically.(22) Kesatuan Melanau Melayu was founded by a Christian Melanau,(23) but the co-operation between Christian Melanau and Muslims (both Melanau and Malay) did not last long. On 22 October 1958 a new body called Melanau Association Sarawak was formed by Christian Melanau who broke off from the Kesatuan Melanau Melayu.

Although membership of the Melanau Association Sarawak was originally Christian, today it has both Christian (Roman Catholic) and Muslim members. In 1992 the President was a Muslim while both the Vice-President and the General Secretary were Roman Catholic Christians; the organization had branches in the Melanau areas of Dalat, Mukah and Matu, with the headquarters in Sibu, and claimed 680 members. In 1962, the Melanau in Miri formed their own association called Persatuan Melanau Mid. It caters for Melanau who migrated from Mukah and Bintulu. Today it is financially well established, having a three-storey building at Jalan Gartak. This group, too, has both Muslim and Christian members.

In the 1960s, in fact after the formation of Malaysia, various Orang Ulu groups began to form a communal organization of their own. The small body of well-educated Kayan and Kenyah saw the need for an association to represent the interests of Kayan, Kenyah and other non-Iban, non-Bidayuh Dayak groups in the evolving Malaysian state. Stephen Timothy Wan Ullok (now Datuk), who held a law degree earned in the United Kingdom, initiated the formation of the first Orang Ulu association called Kakelmuke Telang Usan Association. This body, which sought to represent the Orang Ulu in Baram, was registered on 20 August 1965.(24) However, in 1966 a group of Orang Ulu working in Kuching, mainly Kayan and Kenyah, formed an Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA) representing all Orang Ulu groups. With the creation of OUNA, Kakelmuka lost its importance and became inactive.

The founders of OUNA, Datuk Temenggong Oyong Lawau Jau (the Temenggong of Orang Ulu in Baram) and his nephew S.T. Wan Ullok, were from the Baram. The former was a traditional leader(25) and the latter was well-educated and familiar with modern laws and the bureaucracy. The Temenggong was the first President of the organization, and S.T. Wan Ullok the Secretary. Of the non-Kayan and non-Kenyah, Matthew Gad (a Lun Bawang), Lian Labang (a Kelabit) and Penghulu Baya Malang (a Berawan) were early leaders.

The label "Orang Ulu" was chosen to cover all non-Iban and non-Bidayuh Dayak. The OUNA constitution defines "Orang Ulu" as comprising a wide range of peoples: "Baketan; Bisaya; Kajang (including Kanowit, Kejaman, Lahanan, Punan, Sekapan, Tanyong); Kayan, Kelabit; Kenyah (including Badang, Berawan, Kiput, Saban, Sabup, Seping); Lisum; Lugat; Murat (including Lun Bawang), Penan; Sihian; Tabun; Tagal; Ukit (Buket)". The largest groups are the Kayan and Kenyah, and OUNA is seen by the smaller groups as essentially an association of Kayan and Kenyah. Furthermore, not all groups in the list identify themselves as Orang Ulu, despite recent efforts by the OUNA and its leaders in Kuching to popularise the term "Orang Ulu", a label that has been in use since the 1950S.(26)

From 1970 to the Present

After Sarawak joined Malaysia in 1963, all ethnic groups and especially the indigenous minorities felt the need to participate in the wider state system to ensure that they would have a fair share of socio-economic opportunities, and more "Dayak" communal associations were formed, particularly following 1970. In a communally structured society, ethnic representation is important, and communal associations are instrumental in projecting an ethnic presence and asserting collective identities. They also create opportunities for the respective ethnic categories in general and for the emerging and growing intelligentsia and middle class.

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which began in 1971 (and continued until 1990), emphasized providing opportunities for the indigenous people. This approach had natural implications for relations between bumiputera (indigenous people) and non-bumiputera, but it also caused each ethnic group within the bumiputera category to assert themselves to secure the benefits that became available. Competition for a "fair-share" within the bumiputera category has been increasing. This is most obvious in Sarawak and Sabah, where most indigenous people are non-Malays who feel that they deserve a greater share of opportunities, be they scholarships, positions in the civil service, or business licences, etc. There has been an adverse reaction to Malay political dominance, especially among the non-Muslim bumiputera in Sarawak and Sabah, who are also rather sensitive to Semenanjung (Peninsular Malaysia) dominance. Smaller ethnic groups, which cannot support their own political parties, find it necessary to articulate their wishes and grievances through communal associations.

Another important issue is logging, which by the 1970s had impinged upon the livelihood of Dayak groups all over Sarawak. People staged protests and negotiated for compensation. Opposition political parties and some non-governmental organizations provided avenues for voicing protests, but their strong anti-logging stand limited their effectiveness in negotiating with the state and with logging companies. Indigenous communal associations in Sarawak took up the issue, and it contributed to their growth. One association which emerged from the anti-logging campaign is the Persatuan Kaum Penan Sarawak or Sarawak Penan Association. Its founder and President was himself an anti-logging activist, and the organization's formation in 1988 was assisted by Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth, Malaysia), a local environmental organization which has been involved in anti-logging activities. However, within certain ethnic categories internal divisions over how to deal with the State and the logging companies has resulted in the formation of competing communal associations.

Among the Kayan, who are traditionally stratified into maren (aristocrats) and panyin (commoners), logging has also caused tension between these two groups; the latter see the maren as selling out their interest and monopolizing the compensation paid by logging companies. In 1980, a group of Kayan panyin in Baram thus formed a panyin association in Long Lama, Baram. Called Telang Usan Panyin Association, this was the only "modern" association formed out of the traditional social structure. Nevertheless it did not succeed in mobilizing the panyin or articulating their interests, and was dissolved in 1991.

By 1970, the Iban already had the SDNU as their communal association (even though it was in theory an association of all Dayak groups), the Bidayuh had the Dayak Bidayuh National Association, and the Orang Ulu had OUNA. In that year a group of civil servants and teachers who were concerned with Bisaya economic status, cultural heritage and ethnic representation, formed the Sarawak Bisaya Association (Persatuan Bisaya Sarawak) in their homeland in Limbang. In 1977 the Lun Bawang, who live in both Lawas and Limbang, formed the Lun Bawang Association of Sarawak (in the Lun Bawang language, the Rurum Lun Bawang, Sarawak).

The following year some Kelabit civil servants, mainly in Kuching, founded the first Kelabit association, the Tabung Persatuan Kaum Kelabit Sarawak (TAPEKIT). In 1979, another group of Kelabit, this time in the Kelabit homeland of Bario, founded Persatuan Kelabit Baram or Baram Kelabit Association. The first President was a Kelabit councillor in Baram, and at the time of my research in 1990 the President was the local UpRiver Agent of the Baram District Office. Thus, in contrast with TAPEKIT, the Baram Kelabit Association was founded by local leaders in Bario who worked in Baram (Marudi). Moreover, while TAPEKIT has been led by fairly well-educated leaders, including a number with university education, the Baram Kelabit Association is led by individuals who have a lower level of education and even by farmers with little or no schooling. Owing to a lack of funds and inexperience in dealing with the bureaucracy beyond the district level, the Baram Kelabit Association has been rather inactive and less successful.

The Kelabit in Bario, a highland area only accessible by air, have experienced high levels of out-migration in search of jobs, a phenomenon associated with the relative success of education among the Kelabit, whose educated members seek work in towns. Most of those who have left Bario have settled in Kuching or Miri. In 1980 the latter group formed the Miri-based Kelabit Association of Sarawak, but the organization accomplished little and was perhaps too closely linked to the personality of the founder, who came from a particular longhouse in Bario. In 1983 it was deregistered. However, young people among the Kelabit had begun to form another group which was registered in 1987 with the name Highlanders Sports Club, Miri. Although it is a sports club, this organization provides a rallying point for the Kelabit in Miri, and represents the Kelabit in relation to other ethnic groups. The founder of the Kelabit Association of Sarawak tried unsuccessfully to revive that organization, but later, after becoming a councillor in Miri, he and some friends formed the Persatuan Kelabit Bahagian Miri or Miri Division Kelabit Association, which was registered in 1990. In December 1991, yet another Kelabit organization, the Sarawak Kelabit Association (Rurum Kelabit Sarawak) was launched in Kuching.

In the Baram, the Berawan (included in the OUNA constitution as Orang Ulu) had also formed their own association, the Sarawak Berawan Association (Penipong Melawan Sarawak) which was registered in 1980. Perceiving the Berawan as poor and as relative underachievers in education and economic development, the leaders of the association aim to uplift the standard of living and of education among their people.

While the Iban are part of the SDNU, and the Iban-led Dayak party called Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) formed in July 1983 played a major part in communal politics, the Iban eventually felt the need for an association to articulate specifically Iban interests. The Sarawak Dayak Iban Association was founded in 1984, but maintains a close relationship with the SDNU, and the memberships overlap. In 1989 yet another Iban association was formed in Miri. Many Iban had migrated to Miri to work for the Shell Corporation, and lower-income Iban workers living in squatter areas in and around Miri formed this body, originally called Serakup Kampung Iban Miri(27) to serve their interests. This is an indication of possible future development of indigenous communal associations, that is, as an existing association becomes more elitist, and as more indigenous labourers and technicians settle in urban centres, new associations may be formed to represent the interests of non-elite sections of the population. Such a development could reflect internal communal differentiation and the assertion of leadership by individuals who will otherwise have little chance of becoming leaders in an existing association where key positions are monopolized by professional people, prominent businessmen, senior civil servants and even prominent politicians. Alternatively, friction within existing associations can lead to the formation of new bodies. For example, the Miri Dayak Recreational and Sports Club (Kelab Sukan dan Rekreasi Dayak Miri), registered in 1990, was formed by individuals who split off from the youth wing of Dayak Association Miri. Like the Dayak Association Miri, it is Iban-dominated with participation from some individuals of other Dayak origins.

Like the Kelabit, the Melanau who settle in different regions have tended to form new associations rather than establish branches of an existing one. This tendency is related to the internal differentiation between local communities as well as personalities. For example, a Melanau association was first formed in Sibu, but migrants to Miri established a separate body, and in the late seventies, those in Kuching, mainly professional people and businessmen, set up yet another association. It may be noted that the first Melanau association did not extend its influence beyond the Sibu region, but at the same time the Melanau of different traditional areas (such as Mukah, Matu, Oya, etc.) do have their separate identities.

Thus since 1970, many indigenous minorities have formed communal associations. As members of other groups acquire more education and these individuals join the middle class, still more such organizations are likely to be created.

Communal Associations: Some Features and Issues

As formal organizations, all communal associations have registered members, as required by the laws of Malaysia. Nevertheless, as communal associations, they claim to represent all members of an ethnic community.

Almost all communal organizations have branches. The general communal associations like the SDNU and OUNA have many branches, while the communal associations of smaller ethnic groups which concentrate in certain areas, have fewer. Most associations' constitutions specify that a branch may be formed in any area where there is a certain minimum number of members. Each branch has its own committee, and can elect a specified number of delegates to the association's annual or triennial general meeting. The parent body has an executive committee which governs the affairs of the whole association.

Most associations have youth wings and women's sections. The youth wings organize and promote sports activities, while most of the women's sections prepare receptions, or organize cooking and dance classes. Women also play important roles in raising funds and organizing welfare activities. The SDNU and the OUNA have particularly active and assertive women's sections. From the very beginning the women's section of SDNU, called Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak, has been led by influential Iban women like Barbara Bay, Temenggong Datuk Tra Zehnder and Datuk Paduka Empiang Jabu. While Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak organizes handicraft and dance programmes for women, it also promotes education among the Iban. Kaum Wanita Orang Ulu National Association, the women's section of OUNA, provides the opportunity for Orang Ulu women in Kuching, whose homeland is in the interior of Sarawak far away from the city, to meet and to organize activities. In 1992 it sponsored a seminar on women's leadership and in 1993 it organized a trip to the Indonesian city of Pontianak where the twenty-one Orang Ulu women on the trip visited local women's organizations.

All the associations have similar aims, expressed in their respective constitutions, which are to preserve and promote their cultural heritage, to cultivate unity and self-help among the people, to advance educational and economic achievement, and to organize and encourage social, recreational and sporting activities. The leaders and the older members also feel a need to encourage traditional music, dance and handicraft, as the young people who go to formal schools where local cultural traditions are not taught tend to lose interest in traditional arts. Because cultural traditions become crucial symbols of identity as autonomous or semi-autonomous communities are integrated into the multiethnic state, there is a particular need to preserve some traditional practices. In multiethnic Malaysia, national and state celebrations often call for each ethnic group to contribute a cultural performance, and communal associations are instrumental in organizing these activities. Examples include the annual Pesta Miri and the Dayak festival called Gawai, which takes place on June 1st.

Education is seen by all association leaders as the best avenue for indigenous peoples to achieve upward mobility. With education, people are able to work as civil servants or teachers, or in the professions, penetrating sectors which are dominated by non-Dayak people, especially the Chinese. University education is the surest way to achieve middle-class status in Malaysia. With the experience and contacts gained through working in the civil service or as a professional, and with savings or access to loans, a "Dayak" can go into business. The alternative for those with less education is usually to work for non-Dayak employers. It is therefore obvious to indigenous people that education is a means of getting higher paying jobs, and of gaining access to better economic and political opportunities. It also promotes integration into the larger economic and political system. For this reason, associations which have sufficient funds provide scholarships and incentive awards to students of their respective communities as a way of promoting educational achievement. The Dayak Bidayuh National Association is active in this respect, as is the Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak, the women's association of the SDNU. Communal leaders (for example, of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, the Lun Bawang Association and the Persatuan Bisaya Sarawak) have also called upon the government to provide more scholarships for their respective communities.

On the economic front, the associations call upon the government to give their people more of the opportunities (such as business licences) allocated to the bumiputera. As noted earlier, there is concern over the existence of haves and have-nots within the bumiputera category.(28) Some associations, such as the Sarawak Dayak National Union and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association - whose leaders were associated with the PBDS (at the time of research an opposition party) have been very vocal. Others, realizing their limitation as rather small minorities, have sought to gain assistance from the government through their leaders and politicians. The communal leaders have also called for more economic development in their traditional areas (ethnic territories), for example by introducing agricultural projects and providing better roads and modern facilities like water and electricity supplies.

Another important issue is compensation for logging. For example, all of the Kelabit associations were formed at a time when the Kelabit already felt the threat posed by logging to their traditional territory in Bario. In fact, one activity of the Tabung Persatuan Kaum Kelabit (TAPEKIT) was to work together with local leaders in Bario to protect the Kelabit sacred mountain called Batu Lawi, in the Kelabit Highlands. They successfully called for the declaration of a national park in the area, with the name Pulung Tau (which in Kelabit means "Our Forest"). At the second Annual General Meeting of the Miri Division Kelabit Association, held on 23 March 1991, the association also specifically addressed the issue of logging, seeking to ensure that the Kelabit received compensation and work opportunities.(29)

The effectiveness of the associations depends not only on good leadership and organization, but also on funding. This is one reason why associations which are based in rural areas or in very small towns, like the Persatuan Kelabit Baram and the Sarawak Berawan Association, are not so active or successful. Those in bigger towns have access to sources of donations from outside their own communities (such as Chinese businessmen or commercial firms), while those with politically influential leaders can get funds from the government. For example, the President of the Dayak Bidayuh National Association is a prominent member of the ruling Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), and the group has been able to obtain grants from the government to promote education among the Bidayuh.

This raises an important point, the question of the relationship between party politics, political power and communal associations. Communal associations represent ethnic communities, and because communal politics are important in Malaysia, both government and opposition political parties have an interest in influencing if not controlling communal associations. Politicians and would-be politicians also find it politically useful to be leaders of these associations in order to gain or consolidate influence within an ethnic community, something which translates to political influence in the eyes of political parties and the government.

The ruling parties and the government in Malaysia have the power to give or to block grants to associations, and to speed up or delay various kinds of applications, including those submitted to the Registrar of Societies to approve an amended constitution. All communal associations have to work within these constraints, the more so if they need government grants to run certain projects (like providing educational funds for members). There is considerable tension between the government and associations viewed as anti-government. Factionalism sometimes emerges when a "pro-government" group tries to challenge leaders who are linked to an opposition party.

This situation occurred in the SDNU during the 1980s when the association was dominated by leaders who were prominent figures in the Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak. The antagonistic attitude of the government towards SDNU became more pronounced after the 1987 state election, in which PBDS and its allies lost to the ruling coalition, led by Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu. There was an additional source of tension, for the PBDS leaders were formerly with Sarawak National Party (SNAP), which enjoyed considerable Iban support. The rivalry between SNAP and PBDS was thus carried over to SDNU. This was most obvious in the 1985 SDNU election when the SNAP faction tried unsuccessfully to challenge the leadership of the SDNU President who was a prominent PBDS politician.(30) Because of the perception that SDNU allied itself with the opposition, the association has been unable to get funds from the government since the 1980s, with the exception of its women's section (whose chairperson at the time of research was the wife of a senior government minister) and certain local branches which were not seen as "anti-government". As a result, the parent body of SDNU has not been active in organizing economic and educational programmes.

The SDNU and the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association are examples of communal organizations which made critical statements and whose leaders were involved in opposition politics. Leaders of most other communal associations try to maintain access to the government by being less confrontational. Given the growing dominance of the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu-led ruling coalition, many leaders have, since the 1991 election, joined the party. As long as they can bring some benefits to the community which they represent, the leaders' connections with the ruling party do not affect their leadership within the association, although some members complain that they are too "progovernment". After the only Dayak party (PBDS) rejoined the governing coalition after its defeat in the 1991 election (it was readmitted in May 1994), internal factionalism along "pro-government" and "anti-government" lines has decreased.

Communal Associations and Ethnogenesis

Communal associations play important roles in organizing ethnicity and provide a formal basis for relations between the indigenous people and the state. The process defines the identity of an indigenous minority, and projects it in the public arena of a nation-state. In the case of communities which are still forming an ethnic identity in response to the state system, a communal association can help to define and organize the group through direct articulation of an identity or by organizing communal activities. The names of associations also help publicize the names of the people. For example, the Lun Bawang Association, Sarawak has successfully called for its people to adopt the name "Lun Bawang" in place of "Murut", historically a label used by outsiders to refer to the Lun Bawang and a number of other small minority groups in the interior of Sarawak and Sabah. As a result of the request of Lun Bawang Association leaders to the government and to the public, today "Lun Bawang" has been generally accepted as the respectable label for the people. In the past the Kelabit were also referred to as "Murut"; now they are known as "Kelabit", but continue to use "Murut" in referring to the Lun Bawang.

In the language of the Lun Bawang, lun means people, and bawang means "place" or "region", hence the label literally means "People of the Region" and is itself "arbitrary". In fact, the Lun Bawang in the past identified themselves according to their respective local communities, and there was no single term for the group now identified as Lun Bawang. For example, "Lun Dayeh" (meaning "interior or upriver people") was (and still is) a popular label for those who lived in the interior, while the people living nearer to the coast referred to themselves as Lun Lod (meaning "downriver people").(31) The need to relate to the state as well as increases in the ease of communication among the people themselves (both within and between different communities) in recent time have contributed to the Lun Bawang's stronger identification of themselves as one people, as an ethnic group. The Lun Bawang Association as a communal association has without doubt contributed to the formation of the Lun Bawang ethnic group, that is, to the ethnogenesis of the Lun Bawang. Appeals for Lun Bawang unity, for the use of "Lun Bawang" as the standard label, and for the government to pay attention to the needs of the Lun Bawang, have all contributed to raising ethnic consciousness and to Lun Bawang ethnogenesis.

Since 1985 the Lun Bawang Association has been organizing an annual Pesta [Festival] Persatuan Lun Bawang Sarawak (Pesta PLBS) on 1 June. This date is a state holiday to observe the Dayak Gawai festival which is mainly an event for the Iban and Bidayuh. Since the Lun Bawang do not celebrate Gawai, the Lun Bawang Association decided to stage an event of its own, and this celebration has become a major cultural activity, bringing together Lun Bawang from all over northern Borneo. While the Lun Bawang Association has failed to get the Lun Dayeh living in Sabah to adopt the label "Lun Bawang", many travel from Sabah to Lawas (where the festival is now held) to take part. The festival has become a symbol of cultural unity, and for the Lun Bawang in Sarawak, it promotes the collective sentiment of being "Lun Bawang".

The Lun Bawang Association illustrates the role played by a communal association in projecting and focusing an ethnic identity. The same is true of other ethnic organizations. The Dayak Bidayuh National Association contributes to the strengthening of the Bidayuh identity among the various Bidayuh groups, which speak different isolects (dialects/ languages). The Berawan, who have been classified officially and by people at large as Kenyah, project their preferred identity through their communal association, the Sarawak Berawan Association. Similarly, the OUNA seeks to unify all non-Iban and non-Bidayuh Dayak. Although this goal has proven elusive, the organization has made the label "Orang Ulu" more widely known, to the extent that it is used by the government. Furthermore, the OUNA still represents all the Orang Ulu, even though some of the Orang Ulu groups also have their own separate communal associations.

We have seen that the label "Dayak" has achieved respectability. This has to do with the need for a label to "unite" all non-Muslim indigenous people in Sarawak. The power relations between the Muslim dominated government and the non-Muslim indigenous peoples (perceived as relatively disempowered) no doubt contributed to this felt need to unite politically. The pan-Dayak SDNU, and the Dayak Association Miri, contribute to this "Dayak" consciousness by labelling activities as "Dayak". The political party PBDS of course has sought to be the champion of all "Dayak" groups. At the University of Malaya, there is a student society for "Dayak" students, called the Dayak Languages Society (Persatuan Bahasa-Bahasa Dayak, Universiti Malaya). There is a separate Sarawak Muslim society (Persatuan Mahasiswa Islam Sarawak) and a pan-Sarawak student society (Persatuan Mahasiswa Sarawak, Universiti Malaya) whose membership is open to all students from Sarawak irrespective of ethnicity and religion. In 1988/89, the President of the Dayak Languages Society was a Lun Bawang student. Among themselves, in Lawas or Limbang (the Lun Bawang homeland in Sarawak), the Lun Bawang do not consider themselves "Dayak", but they are willing to be identified as "Dayak" in a "larger" or situational context. Thus at Universiti Malaya, where it is rare to have a Lun Bawang student, one joined a "Dayak" society and even became its leader.

Ethnic group formation is closely linked both to incorporation and integration of minorities into a state. The increasing contact between "similar" people in a state helps to bring about and consolidate a common ethnic identification. Thus the improved infrastructure and communication facilities brought about by development, as well as the geographical mobility resulting from educational and job opportunities, contribute to ethnic group formation and consolidation. Thus the formation and development of ethnic groups can be seen as a by-product of the process of state development and nation-building, while communal associations - themselves a product of ethnogenesis contribute in turn to the ongoing process of ethnogenesis by articulating communal interests and identities. It is useful for an ethnic minority to have a communal association in an emerging and evolving larger political unit which is ethnically stratified, even if the association's ideas are articulated by a small section of an ethnic community, the intelligentsia.


This paper shows that Dayak communal associations are closely linked to the Dayaks' perceived marginal status in relation to other peoples, to the development and formation of the Malaysian state, and to the nature of nation-building which reinforces a sense of competition between and within ethnic categories. Certain kinds of "development" activities like logging, which impinge on people's livelihoods, have also contributed to the felt need to participate in formal organizations along communal lines. In a sense, the formation of communal associations is a form of grassroots participation in the democratic process, albeit mediated by individuals from the emerging middle class. For the indigenous people, communal associations are not just a means of ethnic expression and a way to deal with other communal groups, but also a channel for dealing with the state, especially in projecting their presence in nation-building and requesting the government to pay attention to their socio-economic needs. They are new and formal organizations and are led by indigenous leaders of a new kind - educated men and women who know the laws of the country and how to deal with the state bureaucracy and the government in general.

Initially "Dayak" communal associations were formed and led by teachers and civil servants who were the first to receive education, but as more individuals from particular ethnic communities graduated from universities and colleges, the leadership shifted to professionals and others with a tertiary education. Some of these highly educated individuals, especially the professionals, are involved in business and have access to loans and political contacts.' Others participate in politics. Their takeover of the communal associations in some cases has led lower-income groups to form their own associations which represent more specific interest groups within the population.(32) This pattern differs from that of Chinese communal associations in Southeast Asia, which from the very beginning were established by influential businessmen and continue to be dominated by them, with members of the professions playing a secondary role.

For the indigenous minorities, communal associations can be important vehicles for economic and political participation in the larger society and for expressing ethnic identities in a multi-ethnic state. Without a vehicle for collective representation, marginal minorities are often represented by others, especially the government authorities, in ways which misrepresent both their identities and their situations. Committed leaders of the communal associations highlight both the misrepresentation and the actual state of their people.

Due to political and economic constraints, associations of indigenous minorities have to work out strategies to deal with the state. Given their minority status, the leaders of small groups generally approach the state through negotiation rather than confrontation, at least, they do so as long as there is sufficient democratic space for the minorities to articulate their interests. Under these circumstances, communal associations actually help to promote national integration by ensuring that minority voices are heard, and members of minority groups are given opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of the nation-state. This is particularly true for those minorities which do not have the numerical strength to form their own communal parties and participate in the communally-organized political system of a multi-ethnic state like Malaysia.

The "Dayak" communal associations are new organizations established by new leaders (the intelligentsia) who organize ethnicity in a formal way to relate to the state, to articulate overall communal interests and the interests of the emerging indigenous middle-class, and to assert the community's presence and identity. The functions of these new associations both complement and supplement the roles of traditional leaders (such as the village headmen) in adjusting to the state and to the market economy, both of which are impinging more and more on the lives of the indigenous people. Communal associations are convenient and indeed necessary new organizations for enhancing group formation (ethnogenesis) and articulating communal interests in a communally stratified nation-state.

The following abbreviations are used in this article:

OUNA: Orang Ulu National Association PBDS: Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak SDA: Sarawak Dayak Association SDNU: Sarawak Dayak National Union SNAP: Sarawak National Party TAPEKIT: Tabung Persatuan Kaum Kelabit Sarawak

This is the revised version of the paper originally presented at the Fourth Malaysia-Singapore Forum: National Identity and Nation-building, 8-11 Dec. 1994, Kuala Lumpur. This revised paper was presented at the Institute of Advanced Studies Seminar (University of Malaya) on 24 Oct. 1995. The data used in this paper are derived mainly from interviews and association documents. For details on each association, see Tan Chee-Beng, Communal Associations of the Indigenous Communities in Sarawak: A Study of Ethnicity and National Integration (Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Malaya, 1994). The fieldwork was conducted during university vacations from 1990 to 1993. The research was funded by the IRPA Programme of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment, Malaysia, via the Ethnic Relations Project of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Malaya. I am grateful to both the institutions.

1 Cf. Michael Banton, "Voluntary Associations: Anthropological Aspects", and David L. Sills, "Voluntary Associations: Sociological Aspects", in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, vol. 16, ed. David L. Sills, pp. 357-62 and 362-79.

2 Cf. Kenneth Little, West African Urbanization: A Study of Voluntary Associations in Social Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965); Kenneth Little, "Urbanization and Regional Associations: Their Paradoxical Function", in Urban Anthropology: Cross-Cultural Studies of Urbanization, ed. Aidan Southall (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 407-423; Donald N. Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965).

3 See Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, "The Political Role of India's Caste", Pacific Affairs 33,1 (1960): 9. See also their book The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967).

4 See for example, Maurice Freedman, "Immigrants and Associations: Chinese in Nineteenth Century Singapore", Comparative Study in Society and History 3,1 (1960): 25-48; Cheng Lim-Keak, Social Change and the Chinese in Singapore: A Socio-economic Geography with Special Reference to Bang Structure (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1985); G. William Skinner, Leadership and Power in the Chinese Community of Thailand (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1958).

5 See Population and Housing Census of Malaysia 1991: State Population Report - Sarawak (Kuala Lumpur: Department of Statistics Malaysia, 1995), p. 23.

6 See Stephen Jussem, "Bidayuh Language and Dialects: Problems and Possibilities", in Dayak Bidayuh National Association 30th Anniversary (Souvenir Magazine) (Kuching: DBNA, 1989), pp. 56-61, reprinted with minor changes in Sarawak Museum Journal 40,61, Special Issue No. 4, Part 2 (1989): 407-413. While the DBNA includes the Selakau as members, the Selakau or Salako belong linguistically to the Malayic-Dayak group rather than a "Land Dayak" linguistic group. Cf. K. Alexander Adelaar, "The Relevance of Salako for Proto-Malayic and for Old Malay Epigraphy", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 148,3 & 4 (1992): 381.

7 For a description of Malay and Chinese associations in Kuching, Sarawak, see C. A. Lockard, "The Southeast Asian Town in Historical Perspective: A Social History of Kuching, Malaysia, 1820-1970" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1973). See also Craig A. Lockard, "Voluntary Associations and Chinese Society in Sarawak, 1870-1941", Journal of the South Seas Society 32,1 & 2 (1972): 1-29.

8 See R.H.W. Reece, The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp. 137-38.

9 See Reece, The Name of Brooke, p. 145, and Hj. Mohd Hasbie Sulaiman, Perjuangan Anti-Cession Sarawak: Peranan Utama Persatuan Kebangsaan Melayu Sarawak (Sarawak Anti-Cession Movement: Roles of Sarawak Malay National Union) (Kuching: PKMS, 1989), p. 40.

10 Ibid.

11 interview with Datuk Tra Zehnder at the District Office, Kuching, on 19 May 1993.

12 Reece, The Name of Brooke, pp. 210, 253, 276.

13 Ibid., pp. 248-49.

14 Michael B. Leigh, The Rising Moon: Political Change in Sarawak (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1974), p. 7.

15 See Tan Chinese Peranakan Heritage in Malaysia and Singapore (Kuala Lumpur: Fajar Bakti, 1993), p. 63.

16 The first political party in Sarawak, the Chinese-based Sarawak United People's Party (SUPP) was formed in 1959, followed by the largely Malay party, Parti Negara Sarawak (PANAS) in 1960. The Iban formed their political parties, Sarawak National Party and Patti Pesaka Anak Sarawak in 1961 and 1962 respectively. For a study of political parties in Sarawak, see Michael Leigh, The Rising Moon.

17 Cf. Leo Moggie, "The Sarawak Dayak National Union", The Sarawak Gazette XCVI, No. 1344 (1970): 28-29.

18 This point is mentioned by Robert Sulis Ridu, Secretary of the Bidayuh association (195870, 1972-74), in his "Brief Historical Background on the Formation of Dayak Bidayuh National Association", Dayak Bidayuh National Association 30th Anniversary (Souvenir Magazine) (Kuching: DBNA, 1989), p. 75.

19 See Lockard, "The Southeast Asian Town in Historical Perspective", p. 607.

20 See Leo Moggie, "The Sarawak Dayak National Union".

21 Noor Tahir the patron of MMB mentioned that the association was established by people who wished to continue with the struggle to free the motherland. See 20 Tahun Usia Kesatuan Melanau Melayu, 14.11.1954 - 14.11.1974 (Kesatuan Melanau Melayu 20th Anniversary Publication), 1974, p. 2. Encik Jamal bin Hj. Dris (of Kg. Hilir, Sibu), President of MMB when he was interviewed on 27 Mar. 1992, joined the Pergerakan Pemuda Melayu when he was 18 years old.

22 The Sarawak Dayak Association, like all other organizations involved in the anti-cession campaign, was suppressed by the British authorities.

23 Interview with Encik Jamal bin Hj. Dris.

24 The organization derived its name from the ethnic categories Kayan (Ka), Kelabit (Kel), Murut (Mu), and Kenyah (Ke), hence Kakelmuke.

25 He was the only prominent traditional leader to play an important role in forming a communal association. The leadership of the Temenggong was obviously crucial to get the rather heterogenous Orang Ulu groups to support the idea of a common communal association. The educated and politically involved "Orang Ulu" individuals were keen to unite the diverse small groups of Orang Ulu into one entity.

26 For example, see Sarawak Gazette 14,9 (1959).

27 The name was changed to Serakup Raban Bansa Iban Miri, or Miri Iban Association, in 1991.

28 For example, the Lun Bawang Association had called for bumiputera quotas to be allocated in such a way as to ensure that a small community like the Lun Bawang would get their fair share in the distribution of opportunities and resources. See "Proposals under the 6th Malaysia Plan for the Lun Bawang Community in Lawas and Limbang Districts", 27 Jun. 1989 (LBA document).

29 See Minutes of the PKBM second AGM, held on 23 Mar. 1991 in Miri. See also The People's Mirror (2 Apr. 1991): 4.

30 For details, see my analysis in Tan Chee-Beng, Communal Associations of the Indigenous Communities in Sarawak.

31 For a good description of Lun Bawang labels and identities, see Jayl Langub, "Ethnic Self-labelling of the Murut or Lun Bawang of Sarawak", Sojourn 2,2 (1987): 289-99.

32 In this analysis of Chinese voluntary associations, Freedman ("Immigrants and Associations", pp. 47-48) concludes that "the associations which in a small-scale and relatively undeveloped settlement express social, economic and political links in an undifferentiated form tend, as the scale and complexity of the society increase, to separate into a network of associations which are comparatively specialized in their functions and the kinds of solidarity they express". Nevertheless, we should note that the Chinese community in each town was already internally quite differentiated even before more separate associations were formed, that is, the bases of forming separate associations (e.g., speech groups, surname "groups", occupational diversities along speech group lines, etc.) already existed. In the case of the indigenous people, professionals can join existing non-communally based societies and clubs which cater for specific needs and affiliations. The case of the Iban in Miri shows that the tendency is to form separate communal associations or other organizations due either to the need to represent a less represented section of the population and/or leadership competition in an existing communal association.

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Author:Chee-beng, Tan
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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