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Culture (Kelabit): Leon Jala

Updated: Apr 10

"I don’t have a solution of how we can solve that, I think that continuing efforts to raise awareness on what different cultures do, what they’re about, what the traditions are and I think what you guys are doing at The Rojak Projek is one example of how we can continue to have these conversations with people and ask them exactly questions like this which is beyond just the surface but also going into the - how does it feel be classified as ‘dan lain-lain’, and to hear what other people have to say and how they feel." - Leon Jala

Meet Leon Jala, a wonderful Kelabit-Chinese man who has spent most of his childhood living in different nations across the globe. A digital marketer, writer and painter, Leon belongs to one of the smallest tribes in East Malaysia known as the Kelabit people. Read on to hear more about this people group, their traditions and some great stories that Leon shared with us.


Can you name 3 of your traditional food?

The most popular one would be Nuba Laya which is "mashed rice" wrapped with 'itip' leaf, Labo Belatuh which refers to smoked wild boar, and Udung Ubi which is pounded tapioca leaves.

What traditional craft is your community most known for?

Some Kelabit women wearing some of the tradition beads and weaved hats.

So there’s weaving, tattooing (although not as big of a tradition these days) and of course music! Fun fact, while we have our traditional folk songs, Kelabits have developed a penchant for Blues and Country music.


What traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them and when was the last time you wore them?


Leon's parents donned in the full Kelabit traditional gear.

There’s some pretty distinct headgear. There’s a hat that’s shaped a little like a baseball cap but with feathers and constructed out of bamboo.

And then you have a more ‘extra’ one reserved for special occasions. You’ve probably seen it in videos of people performing traditional dance or maybe at an East Malaysian wedding (if you’ve ever been to one.) It’s got massive feathers and quite a statement piece! This would usually be accompanied by a large shield, and then there’s a vest that you wear… and if you’re feeling really adventurous and want to do the full look, you’d also wear a loin cloth!


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So the last time that I wore the head piece was at my wedding in 2016. But the last time I wore full gear was a long time ago. It was my late great-grandmother’s 100th birthday and there was a big party we threw for her.


So, some of my uncles had this idea of getting a select group of her great grandchildren (basically the naughtiest ones) in on a special performance for her.


We all had to wear the full traditional gear and perform the ngajat (traditional dance). My uncle, who is a fantastic dancer, choreographed the whole thing. And it was beautiful (in theory). You see, what happened is that the rest of the cousins had spent a few days learning the moves with him. But I was living in the UK at the time, so was only able to fly in the night before the big party. I tried to pull out of doing the dance, but his reply to me was simply, “It’s OK, just follow along as we go.”

Leon's late great grandmother who was 107 at the time this picture was taken.

Fast forward to the big day. It was showtime. I was doing an OK job of “following along”... for all of 60 seconds! It all started to unravel. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and went into a complete freestyle. While my cousins did this perfectly choreographed piece, there I was on a solo performance in the background pretending to be a hunter walking through the jungle with his imaginary blowpipe trying to hunt for dinner. The whole thing became this massive comedy show which made my great grandmother (and the entire family) erupt in a massive burst of laughter. This has continued to be a popular story to tell at family reunions.


What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?


Gawai, which we celebrate across all the indigineous tribes. Gawai basically the indigenous version of Thanksgiving. Celebrated once a year, it’s just really a time to get together as a family.


And then for Sabahans, there’s Kaamatan, which is essentially the same thing.


Other than that, most Kelabits are largely Christians, so we celebrate Easter and Christmas.


My family doesn’t really do anything particularly exciting. It’s usually just an excuse to get together and have a meal together. And for Gawai, we’ve not really done anything big for a long time just because our large family is scattered across different parts of the world. So usually, where we would save the air ticket for a Christmas reunion!


But when we do celebrate Gawai, what we would try to do is gather among our geographical bubbles. So for those relatives in KL, we would try to meet up and have a meal together.


Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?


Sape. I can maybe start with a traditional instrument, one of the main ones is called the Sape, and it’s basically a type of guitar. It's a really nice instrument. It's very melodic and also very easy to play. Partly why it’s easy to play is because while most guitars are tuned to require some skill to produce a nice tune, the sape has a melodic open tuning. This means you could practically strum randomly and still produce something palatable to the ear. Easy is good. Which is why it’s one of the instruments that I play.

My grandma sings some of the traditional songs, and those songs are interesting because they’re a form of freestyle storytelling my dad calls it. There’s this tradition of doing these songs at events or gatherings to commemorate certain things. Typically, one person would start and be the lead narrator. They’ll follow a set rhythm and tell a story (usually freestyle) and then, there’d be a repeated line that everyone else would join in on (almost like a chorus) At some point, someone is going to mess up or break the flow, but that’s all part of the fun!

Do you bring any of your traditional cultures (such as instruments, etc) to the Christianity traditions?


Yes, it’s actually happened before. In 2015, my church in KL held a creative service with a lot of great music performances. They wanted to inject some Malaysian flavour to some of the songs we’d sing at church. So, we got a very accomplished Sape player named Hezekiah Asim to be play an East Malaysian take on a Christian worship song. This led to a beautiful mashup of traditional and contemporary sounds.


How are weddings organised in your community?

An example of a large community-led feast taken from Leon's last trip to Bario in 2014.

As a Christian community, wedding ceremonies would follow the same traditions or liturgies as the respective church or denomination one is attached to. However, if we were in Bario, the wedding reception dinner is noteworthy. There would usually be a large feast prepared by the community – including freshly slaughtered meat, and a whole load of traditional dishes. It would essentially be a massive community-led pot luck!


Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby? And when there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?

Kelabits today are mostly Christian, so the only tradition which is still observed is what we call the Irau, which is a name-changing ceremony. How this works is when a child is born, his/her parents receive a new symbolic Kelabit name.


In terms of funerals, we would follow the Christian rituals, but with a greater focus on storytelling during wake services to celebrate the life of the deceased. Kelabits have a knack for storytelling so this is usually very touching and really brings the family together.

Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?

This one isn’t folklore but something really pivotal for the Kelabit community called the ‘Bario Revival.’ In short, this was a huge movement of Kelabits rediscovering their Christian faith. It was a time filled with many miracles. Convicted by all the miraculous things that were happening, school children (of which my dad was one of them) went out to through the rest of the village to preach to and pray for people. What was funny was that this happened shortly before school exams were about to start. So the teachers were a little worried that the studnets wouldn’t perform well since they were spending so much of their time walking to different villages to share about all the amazing things that were happening.


But the incredible thing was that to this day, the exam results for that year continue to the best ever recorded in that school – a testament to the whole village of the goodness of God. This continues to be an event that many Kelabits of that generation are fond of retelling.

What are the common stereotype(s) about your community?

One stereotype is that Sarawakians like to drink. I don’t blame people for thinking that because alcohol is sort of ingrained in our culture – we’re known for brewing really great Tuak (rice wine).


Another thing (which is probably less the case today) is this impression that all East Malaysians still live very rural lifestyles or that we live in treehouses – I had a lot of comments like that as a kid.


Then there’s some stereotypes which are quite positive ones. Like associating East Malaysians with creativity. Sure – why not!


How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?


Maybe I’m a little weird – but I personally embrace this ‘otherness’. I like being different from others and in the workplace, this translates to finding ways to do things differently for the greater good or coming up with creative solutions to problems.


So for me, I kind of say, ‘yeah I am ‘dan lain-lain’ (the others), so what?” I’m different and I celebrate that, but I think I can also completely understand how other people might feel about it.


I don’t have an immediate solution for how we can solve that. The key is increased awareness of different cultures – which is exactly what you guys are doing at The Rojak Projek. To continue to have open conversations between cultures and learn from one another.


What are the current challenges faces by your community?

i) Brain drain – most of the youth just want to leave Bario in search of greener pastures (ironically) in the city. It’s a tricky one because naturally people would aspire to build a life where there are more resources or better infrastructure. But at the same time, we do need to ensure there is good talent remaining in Bario to serve the local economy and community.

ii) I just hope that we don't lose out on some of those traditions. The last time I was in Bario, which was maybe about three or four years ago, I could see an aging population. Many of the old legends of the community were no longer. So there’s always this question I ask myself - with all these people passing on, what will the implications be on our traditions and culture?

That said, I am encouraged to see the like of Alena Murang breathing new life into these age-old traditions and finding ways to bring international interest! I mean, she played the sape’ at the Paris Fashion Week – I think that’s pretty cool!


What is your wish for Sarawak? What are your hopes for your community?


This may sound counterintuitive, but while I’m all for change, there are some things that I hope will always stay the same. For both Sabah and Sarawak, it’s the sheer tolerance and openness towards different cultures.


As a hybrid of East and West Malaysian, I hope that all Malaysians will continue to press into that sense of togetherness. We are definitely making progress in the West of depoliticising race and religion, but there is a long way to go. So let’s continue to keep the conversation open and let’s press on!

How can Malaysians get to know each other better?


I think it’s a simple mindset shift that needs to happen (and I’m speaking to myself here too!). But I think we all recognised and embraced the fact that we don’t know everything, we’d be more inclined to learn from other cultures.


When we realise that we function as a team, each with their own skills and nuances, we’re better able to leverage on each other’s strengths. And that’s how progress is made. Less competing, more collaboration.


How would you want us to remember you or your community?


Good question. I think to remember Kelabits as people who will choose to see good and beauty in every situation – whether celebrating new life or mourning the loss of a loved one. That we are a people that takes any occasion as an opportunity to embrace, sing a song and tell a great story.


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Interviewing Leon was a great adventure. To spend our lives in such a way that we prove ourselves and others around us; beauty should originate from within rather than from external sources, worldly pleasures. Leon made us realise that seeing the beauty in everything is vital when living in a multicultural country. Each of us could come to love and respect one another as a result of this. Apart from that, Leon emphasises the need of having positive attitudes and perspectives toward others. Mindset matters as with a good mindset, one will be able to tap into the potential that has never been expected before. Looking back, Leon's perspectives on people and different cultures showed us that while everyone develops cultural competence differently, everyone is capable of becoming so through engaging with others.


___ Interviewer: Lee Jasen & Mohamed Akmal Ali Bin Jahaber, facilitated by Faye Lim Written by: Lee Jasen & Amalin binti Norman

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