"So to define me as lain-lain (the others), it doesn't determine my success, it doesn't determine how I'm going to live my life." - Merlinda Lawrence
Born to Kadazan parents, Merlinda Lawrence shares her experience of growing up as lain-lain (the others). Recounting her upbringing, the Christian young lady does not shy away from weaving traditional influences from her Kadazan Penampang dad, Kadazan Papar mom, and Chinese (Sino) grandmother into her stories, taking us into a traditional setting surrounded by those who speak Kadazan over a table of delicacies like Hinava, Bambangan and Bosou. In contrast with us, the interviewers, who grew up in the city, Merlinda’s upbringing was something we only had a glimpse of in school textbooks. While interviewing Merlinda, it was apparent that there was a fascinating world, rooted in traditions, extending far beyond the pages of any textbook. As the only Kadazan who graduated from Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP) during her time, she dives into the stereotypes, challenges and aspirations she has for fellow Sabahans.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
We just call it baju Kadazan Penampang, baju Kadazan Papar, or baju Kadazan Tuaran based on the district that we are from.
What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?
We have those bamboo competitions where people will climb on it and walk, similar to when you jump on a karung, but instead with bamboo sticks. And because last time you can find a lot of buffaloes in the kampung, we have buffalo races. But now, it’s rare to see people playing such games, especially since buffaloes are expensive.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
The major one is the Harvest festival, or Kaamatan in local language, which is normally celebrated during the whole month of May. During the festival month, the main events are beauty pageant or Unduk Ngadau, as we call it, and singing competition known as Sugandoi, where these competitions will be held in every district and the winner of each district will then compete at the state level on the 30th and 31st of May. Apart from Kaamatan, we also celebrate other festivals such as Christmas and Chinese New Year.
What are the name of your traditional song and dances? And what is the name of the traditional instruments you have in your community?
There are traditional songs but, if you asked me to sing them, I wouldn’t be able to recall. The famous ones would be those like Jambatan Tamparuli, but those are not purely in Kadazan language. Jambatan Tamparuli is a song about somebody crossing the long bridge in Tamparuli.
For dance, it would be Sumazau. Sumazau is the traditional Kadazan dance. Even with the Sumazau, there are different variations such as Sumazau Papar and Sumazau Penampang, which are totally different. Among our famous traditional musical instruments are Sompoton, Gong, and Kulintangan.
What pantang-larang are still observed in your community and are they shared through the community?
So my family and I are Christians and we don't really observe the pantang larang (taboos).
Last time, people would believe in Bobohizan, they are like high priestesses (mostly female), a ritual specialist and a spirit medium in Kadazan-Dusun pagan rites.
So like when I told you just now about Kaamatan, it is actually a time where everyone gives thanks for the produce of the paddy field throughout the year, but for Christians we don't believe in the spirit of the paddy field anymore, but there are certain people, especially the old ones who will still have this ritual where the Bobohizan will lead the ritual of prayer and thanksgiving.
But, of course, we don't practice that anymore, but some people still do.
For other pantang larang (taboos), my grandma would just say, “Make sure you finish your rice if not the rice will cry.” We take it as how you should appreciate the hard work of your grandparents because both of my grandparents plant paddy, and they have their own grinder and so on, so you see all the sweat and hard work of their labour.
So when they said that, I would just reply, “Okay, I must finish my rice”, but other than that, I don’t practice that as well.
What are the common stereotype(s) said about your community?
I have to be honest. Usually they say Kadazans are very good at drinking (laughs). I guess there's some truth to that in a way. Usually the Kaamatan festival which is in the month of May, is where people gather and drink, then at Christmas time and meeting their family they would drink. I am not sure whether I will offend people but it's known for that.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
For Christians, we have prayers for the newborn baby. For Kadazan itself, it's also like prayer, they would cut a bit of the baby’s hair similar to the Malay culture of cukur jambul, but I don't think it's still practiced right now. But for Catholics, normally after the baby is born, they would usually bring the baby to the church and the priests will baptize the baby. I would say mostly more are now into that practice of really bringing the babies to church.
When there is a death in our community, usually the funeral will be at least for three days. The funeral arrangements would be waiting for everybody to gather and then there'll be prayer at the house for three days.
Some would still practice gathering again after 7 days, 40 days and 100 days after the passing of the person. It’s kind of like commemorating the death anniversary.
How are the weddings organised in your community and what are the activities involved?
Most weddings are now quite modern like how it’s held at the church, wearing the white gown, etc. But sometimes we mix it up by wearing Kadazan attire. Traditionally, they will conduct the wedding at the house, only like lately the trend is going to the hotel so that it’s easy to fit people in, but now different. 30-40 years ago, they would have the family gathering or party at the house itself, then you would change to your traditional costume. And yeah everybody will just celebrate at home with the kampung (village) people.
The activities involved when a person gets married in your community would be the engagement. So, usually when the engagement comes, there will be a discussion among the men and the women's family. So if I want to relate back to how my engagement was done, there'll be a representative from my family, which is not my dad. It cannot be the father or the father of the bride. So it was my uncle. So my uncle will be the spokesperson for my side and then another spokesperson from my husband's side, right. So they would talk during that engagement right there and this can be agreed upon prior to this. Usually during that time, they will discuss how much is the hantaran kahwin (money dowry), who's going to belanja (treat) for the meals. Last time, they went by match stick, each stick represents 1000 and so, 10 sticks meaning RM10,000, but that used to be how the discussion was.
During my Auntie's time, they look at how many tiang (poles) you have at a house. So each pole represents RM1000 each.
But of course now it’s modern already which means both sides will share the funds. Last time, usually, we get satu ekor kerbau (one buffalo) they will say. When it comes to the day itself it's just like a normal church and wedding.
And even let's say you don’t want to marry for whatever reason, there is like a penalty. Whoever decides to withdraw, has to pay maybe like RM1000 or whatever it is agreed upon.
And they also discuss how long is this engagement going to be? All this has to be discussed early on and has to be agreed by both the men and the women and they will say, “Okay, our target is within a year or two years.” There's a signing on paper and it will be witnessed by the ketua kampung (village head), this is like a more traditional kind of Kadazan engagement.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
In terms of ghost stories, they are mainly now passed down that usually people will say after somebody has passed away, and on the seventh day, that person’s spirit will come back and all those kinds of things.
Of course, for myself, I don't believe in those, but there are other folklores that are more related to the paddy plantation. There are certain pantang larang (taboos) that they want you to observe for you to appreciate the food like how we should watch out for our language (no cursing) when you are planting the paddy and so on. I think I would say not not just pantang larang, It's just manners to me, to put it that way.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
Well, personally, there's this feeling of, “Oh, I don't belong in the main ones.”
But of course, I don't believe in just falling into this category because whether you're going to be successful or not, it doesn't mean that you must come from one category of race.
So to define me as lain-lain (the others), it doesn't determine my success, it doesn't determine how I'm going to live my life. Of course I would feel irritated whenI’m Malaysian and then I’m called a ‘lain-lain’ (others). But yeah, I don't dwell on that negative feeling to feel like I'm inferior because I think personally, it all depends on how you build up your success, your career and also how you work your life.
What are the current challenges faces by your community?
To be honest, I would say that development is not just in the Kadazan community itself, but in Sabah overall. The development in Sabah is way behind in comparison to the states in Peninsular. I'm not sure whether you've seen a viral video recently about road conditions in Sabah - there's this pothole that caused 10 cars to be stranded and they’re rims were broken. The road infrastructure is still very bad and way behind. In terms of electricity and in terms of water itself, we could have it better. Growing up, I could recall the many times we had electricity disruption that was so frequent, this was when I was still at primary age. It happened so frequently, until I myself called ACSB which is equivalent to Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB). I called and asked, “When is the electricity coming back?” The electricity breakdown was so frequent and it will break down for a whole day or half a day. So imagine as a kid making that phone call because it was so irritating. But now, I think it has improved, but we still do face that and I'm not sure if it's because they don't view us as the main race because they don't really look into our social economy kind of development. So basically, in terms of development, we are way behind, which I think a lot more should be done because in terms of natural resources that we are giving a lot to the overall country right? But sadly, it doesn't come back as much as we contribute towards the overall GDP of Malaysia. I think there's a lot more to be done.
My hope for my community, of course, is to progress more than what we are today. If I may put into a context, when I went to university last time, out of 200, I was the only Kadazan when I went to Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP), then there were a few but very handful that you can count.
So of course now it's good that we have Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) as well. So of course my hope is for the community to progress more, to climb up in career as well in the corporate ladder. Now if you see in terms of the salary scale between Sabah, Sarawak and Kuala Lumpur, you can still see the basic salary for them at RM800 versus RM1000 versus here. Fresh grad, you will be paid at least RM2,500 right? So that's what I would see the progress whereby my fellow Sabahans will be paid equally as well with us here in Semenanjung. That will be my hope.
What is your vision and wish for Sabah? And what are your hopes for Malaysia?
I want to see progress in the infrastructure, politics to be better and not just siding with a certain group of people. I don't mind any political parties leading as long as the development of electricity, internet, and roads is really being done. I wish to see that happen.
My hopes for Malaysia of course, political turmoil. Yes, to put all the greediness and cronyisms aside and to have a fair opportunity for everyone regardless of race.
When you talk about ‘lain-lain’, I wish that it's just called 'bangsa' Malaysia (the Malaysian race) . I guess when they put ‘lain-lain’, it is because there's so many, so why not put 'bangsa' Malaysia because we are all born in Malaysia.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
Through your social interactions, one good way of course is through schools, workplaces, which is to not just focus on one race. And of course through celebration of festivals, like back in Sabah, during festivals, we will visit one another during open houses but I don't see that happening much here though.
Back there (Sabah), you will be able to just go makan at kedai kopi. Whether you're Muslim or not, you'll be able to seat together, there's no judging whatsoever. I think the way to do it is through our social interactions, and less stereotyping and being judgemental.
How would you want us to remember you or your community?
I would want to see a progressive Malaysia, not just from me and my community, but for everyone.
While Merlinda talks about the struggles of underdevelopment among the Kadazan community and those in Sabah, she still holds on to the hope for progression in various aspects, pointing towards Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS), a vision of equal pay for Sabahans, and in terms of infrastructure. She believes that social interaction will be the key to a more progressive Malaysia.
Ultimately, Merlinda leaves us with how she wants to be remembered as a Kadazan lady who wants to see a progressive Malaysia. As Malaysians, this sentiment is a familiar one. Looking back, her idea of social interaction, reducing stereotypes and judgment through understanding, was something we were experiencing through the interview. We left with a sense of unity in seeing Malaysia progress despite being from different races and hope to pass this vision on.
___ Interviewer: Lee Jasen & Mohamed Akmal Ali Bin Jahaber, facilitated by Faye Lim
Written by: Lee Jasen & Amalin binti Norman