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Culture (Melanau): Siti Mariam binti Sulaiman

"I’m from Kuching, the city of unity. You can see that people from Kuching can mingle with other people from different races with ease. There’s no weird feelings when you hangout with your friends from other religions, from other ethnicities. You can just be friends with everybody. It’s not weird for Malays to eat at Chinese restaurants. It’s very common” - Siti Mariam
Siti Mariam (wearing the contemporary Melanau cloth) gave a portrait drawing from the Malaysian Exchange Teachers to the Director of APCEIU, South Korea for the Korea-Malaysia Teacher Exchange Programme in 2016.

Siti Mariam is currently based in Cyberjaya, working for the Malaysian Ministry of Education. She is of Melanau-Malay heritage, hailing from the Melanau Igan region in Sarawak. She kicked off the interview by sharing about delicious Melanau traditional foods (a lot of seafood), popular crafts and traditional games of her Melanau heritage. The highlight of her sharing is about Pesta Kaul, which is a Thanksgiving festival that takes place in April every year. Even though the Melanau community were previously pagan people, many now embrace Christianity, Islam or even Buddhism. Let’s read on to learn more about the Melanau culture through the eyes of Siti Mariam.

Can you name of a few of your famous traditional food?


So we have the 'Umai' which is raw fish; one version is eaten with a special sauce (soy sauce with some chillies and onions and another version is eaten with a mixture of onion, lemongrass and calamansi juice).


The second food is 'river larva' from the sago palm tree. Eaten either raw from the trees, with a dip or fried. Then we have 'Linut' which is similar with 'Ambuyat' - formed with hot water is mixed with sago flour, eaten with sambal or vegetables.


We also have 'Sesar Unjur' (smoked prawns) and 'Tebaloi' which is a famous biscuit made with sago flour and sugar.


What traditional craft is your community most known for?

Melanau people are very good at weaving using palm leaves, turning it into baskets and headgear. ‘Terendak’ is a very famous headgear made by the Igan community. They dye the leaves and weave it into a hat.


Some Melanaus still believe in tribal beliefs. Previously, they had this craft made from wood, called ‘bilun’ or ‘dakan’. It is actually a figure or effigies, used for rituals or medical treatments. This is because Melanau people used to believe in spirits in the past. So this ‘bilun’ and ‘dakan’ is actually a cultural object. Pagan Melanus also still believes in healing power by using ‘bilun’ and ‘dakan’.


They recite a chant on the '‘bilun’ and ‘dakan’ and they believe they will treat the patient. If you come across this thing, you better not play with it. Just ignore it because they said the bad spirit is actually transferred to that ‘bilun’ and ‘dakan’ for you to recover from this sickness.


Nowadays, they use it as something that you just have for arts purposes.


What traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?

Ladies wear a one piece dress that black, red, yellow, gold in colour. It is called Baban and also Seraheng. The dress also has some gold ornaments. It is worn during weddings and Pesta Kaul (similar to Thanksgiving, celebrated in April). This costume is worn during the traditional dance performance during Pesta Kaul. It looks very similar to the baju kurung Kedah because of its short length.


For the males, the traditional attire is similar to the baju Melayu. The most distinguished feature about the Melanau male traditional costume is the hat. It is very similar to the batik hat from Jawa.


What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?

The Melanau people celebrate Pesta Kaul. This Pesta Kaul is actually like a ‘Thanksgiving' for the Melanau people. Even though some of the Melanau people are Muslims or Christians have their own beliefs, they sometimes participate in this Pesta Kaul, to keep the Melanau tradition alive. Because the Melanau people have their own calendar (beginning in March/April), they will celebrate this Pesta Kaul normally at the end of April. It is like a harvest festival. Nowadays, it is also one of the biggest events that Sarawak tourism is promoting.


So at the end of April, you can go to Mukah. They will celebrate Pesta Kaul over a 2 or 3 day weekend, by the beach somewhere in Mukah. There are many activities like the tibau. Also, during this Pesta Kaul, we thank the Sea god, and this river spirit, called ‘ipok’.


As a way of thanking this spirit, they will do this one specific event. They call it ‘Seraheng’, if I am not mistaken. So they will put this food in ‘Seraheng’ and then they will put it inside the boat. Then they will just leave it on the river. It’s like giving food to the River God. Of course, there will be some chants.


In modern-day Pesta Kaul, they have beauty pageants for the Melanau ladies. They will also decorate the areas between villages & their booths with woven palm leaves and promote the culture of the Melanau people through exhibitions. What will amaze you is actually the dedication of these people to decorate their booths. Some of them bring real tempayan so they have all these big sculptures at their booth.


I really wish I had the time, I would really love to revisit Pesta Kaul again. Because it’s only like once a year, somewhere in April. I think it’s like the end of April so it will be the 4th week of April. But it’s just to go to Mukah itself. Since I’m living in Cyberjaya, you know. To go to Kuching, to go on a flight for almost 2 hours already. And from Kuching to Mukah, by flight maybe 1 hour. But if you take the road (bus or by car) it may take you around 10 hours. Don’t be surprised. Mukah is in the middle of Sarawak.


Maybe you can experience yourself in next year or 2-3 years when covid is better. I’ve been living for 40 years but I’ve only experienced Pesta Kaul once. But normally they have it like every single year.


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

There are quite a number of famous dances by the Melanau people. The alu-alu dance is actually a dance that uses bamboo. People dance with bamboo by tapping it onto the floor. This is normally danced by the women and also the men. The highlight of this ‘alu-alu’ dance is when one of the males goes to the top of the bamboo. They will use their stomach to spin on top of the bamboo for a few minutes


And then also there’s another dance, called the ‘Seraheng’ dance. This ‘Seraheng’ dance is actually performed during Pesta Kaul. They will give food away to thank the sea god. Before doing so, the ‘Seraheng’ dance is actually telling the stories of this ritual of giving thanks to the god. They will have the seraheng itself. And the movement is also telling stories about the ritual event. So those two are one of the famous dances known by the Melanau people. The bamboo dance and also the seraheng dance.

Most of the traditional instruments do not exist nowadays. One of the very famous traditional instruments that they normally play accompanying the dances is the ‘engkromong’. Engkromong is actually a horizontally laid gong of different sizes. So it is quite very similar to the gamelan. For the Melanau people, they also play the gong and also some gendang. They call the gendang ‘bermukun’.


What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?


When I was young, we normally played with marbles & congkak and swam in rivers in my dad’s village. But for the Melanau traditional games itself, there is a very famous game. Anyone can play it but it is a little bit dangerous for children. We call it ‘Tibau’. They normally have it during Pesta Kaul.

How do they play this game? ‘Tibau’ is actually like a giant pendulum. But you know, it’s a human pendulum. You have two very tall wooden beams and put them together. Then you have one very tall rope as a swing. People will one by one hang on the rope. And then they swing like a pendulum.

Tibau, normally it’s very very high. If you're a primary school kid maybe you can still play it, but you have to be very cautious. When they play it, they play it in an open space. Normally by the beach. Because, you know, Melanau they stay along the river, the beaches area.


Pesta Kaul is usually celebrated along the muara sungai (estuary), along the beaches. Maybe sometimes they have it at a rough open space area in the field, they will just put sand on it. So it is not that dangerous.


How are weddings organised in your community?


I’ve been to a few weddings in my village when I was younger. One good thing about the wedding ceremonies in my dad’s hometown (Kampung Igan, Sarawak) is the event starts very early and it finishes very early as well. It is a kampung area. People are living in a community. So to celebrate weddings, normally they cook together, and they start very early. When I said early, like 9 am, everything will be wrapped up by 11. But unlike here, at 11, people are just about to go for a wedding, but there, by noon, everything is wrapped up. You know, because people come very early, people cook together, they celebrate together.

Sometimes they wear traditional costumes. Sometimes they just use any kind of costumes. Normally family members and your neighbours will come to visit and eat together. Then they bless the couple to get married. And that’s about it. It’s just a very simple celebration. People just come to congratulate you, eat and then after that they go back. It’s less hectic.


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

For the tribal Melanau people, they might have a very specific ritual like for the newborn baby, and also for the death of people. But being a Muslim myself, most of my family members don’t belong in the tribal community. Basically we don’t really practice any specific newborn rituals, or death ceremonies. Normally it is just according to the religions instead of the normal way of the tribal rituals. So, on that part, I don’t really have much knowledge on it that I could share with you. But let’s say for the Muslims, they will do the Islamic way -- they will bury the body and then for other religions as well. Some of them bury it. Some of them will cremate it. It really depends on the religion.

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

There is a legend of one strong, famous warrior in the Melanau community. His name is Tugau. They said that Tugau is like a demigod. He’s very tall and very strong. When he existed, people said that he emerged from an egg alone.


But there are also saying that Tugau is an ordinary human. He was found by this childless couple. He has this warrior-ish kind of spirit. So during that time, he dared to challenge the Sultan of Brunei.


Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei stay in the same ‘pulau’ (island). And at that time the Brunei Sultanate was very strong. So this Tugau picked a fight with the Sultan of Brunei to claim the territory of the Melanau people.


There’s a specific Sultan of Brunei at that time. His name is Alak Betatar. So this folklore is about the dispute between Tugau and Alak Betatar. At the end of the story, I think, Tugau was killed. Maybe he was deceived and backstabbed by his people. So, he finally lost his life.


That’s also what inspired the name of the big swing, Tibau. So, this is what I heard about Tugau: a very strong warrior and very daring. Maybe that’s why some of the Melanau people have the spirit of Tugau. They are very daring even though they’re the minority group of people. Nowadays also, they’re leading the state. You can see that our TYT (Tuan Yang Terutama) is a Melanau. Most of the very well-known people leading the state are Melanau people. Maybe they have the Tugau spirit.


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

The common stereotype about Melanau people is that they are smart and very good at Mathematics. If you find university students from Sarawak who are very good at Math, then try asking them: “are you Melanau?”. 99% of the time the answer is yes. So I think that's a very good stereotype that Melanau people face. It is not a very typical stereotype that you might have heard, but I think those are the stereotypes that I have been growing up with.


If you go around the Melanau villages, it’s hard to find youngsters because most of them migrate. They will go anywhere across Malaysia or across Sarawak. But the bad thing about it is, when they migrate, they normally marry people from other religions and Melanau themselves are the minority, right? So it is very easy for the traditional custom of the Melanau people to be forgotten. The best evidence is myself, I think, because my dad married to my mom, and my mom is a Malay. And I’m more influenced towards the Malay culture because my father migrated to Kuching. So, there’s a moment in life where we were unattached with the culture. We are very unfamiliar with the culture, but of course, with some education and with some exposure, we also have the very basic knowledge about our own heritage.


But particularly if you want to get a job in the Peninsular, I think being indigenous Sabah and Sarawak is an advantage. Let's say, if you go for a job interview, maybe there are 100 Malay people there. There are maybe 70 Chinese, maybe 20 Indians, and probably only 2 from Sabah and Sarawak. Maybe you could be hired to bring diversity in the working environment. And like I said, the stereotype - Melanau people are very smart, so it’s very good to hire Melanau people, you wont regret it.


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


Personally, I don't really feel offended in a way being classified as a ‘lain-lain’. Maybe some people would find that annoying, to be called ‘lain-lain’. If you ask my personal preference, I don’t mind if forms have a list of ethnicities, or maybe at least acknowledge us as the indigenous Sarawak. That is even more preferable compared to just ‘lain-lain’.


I think if we just name it as ‘lain-lain’, people wouldn’t be bothered to know what is ‘lain-lain’. Even though they are a minority of people, there are still people who build the nation. So, if this ‘lain-lain’ group of people have to learn about the Malay, the Chinese, the Indian, why not the other races try to dig for more information about this ‘lain-lain’ group


I think if we put it as ‘lain-lain’, people will receive it as ‘lain-lain’. But if we introduce a new term, people might be curious and want to know more about these people.



What are the current challenges faces by your community?


I believe that being a minority is always a challenge. The main challenge is to make yourself visible. The greatest challenge is losing our own heritage, knowing our own heritage, knowing our own ethnicity.


It’s a concern for Melanau people because when we migrate, we’re surrounded by other cultures. Even thinking of me at this age, I'm also not very fluent in knowing my culture and my own customs. So what would happen to people--my nieces, my nephews who are only 4 or 5 years olds? What would they know about this culture?


So I think the challenges is losing our own identity. If you don’t have something that is documented, or is not accessible, it will be gone. People wouldn’t know. I really hope that in 2000 years of time, people will still know that the Melanau people exist and it is not extinct.


We have many ethnicities in Sarawak. I really believe that each and every ethnicity from this group of people-- the minority, we also have the same hopes and dreams, you know. To be known. The important thing is to accept the differences. Like for us, we might be different. People don’t know the very basic things about Melanau culture, and that there are also Melanau people who are not Muslim. So, that is the thing I really hope is to be remembered and to be known by Malaysians.


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


I’m from Kuching, the city of unity. You can see that people from Kuching can mingle with other people from different races with ease. There’s no weird feelings when you hangout with your friends from other religions, from other ethnicities. You can just be friends with everybody. It’s not weird at for Malays to eat at Chinese restaurant. It’s very common.


What I really hope is for Malaysians to really unite and embrace the differences. You have to accept that there are other people with different kinds of customs and beliefs. Being open minded is very important.


I actually work with the Ministry of Education. Of course, we put a very high hopes in our children and in our future Malaysians. I really hope, not only for the Sarawakian, but for Malaysians themselves to be more open. We have to start changing our attitudes. We believe that Malaysia has a lot of potential but we have to put aside the social tension among the differences. I really hope that we have the opportunity to be more visible in the international arena, be that in sports, in arts, just anywhere.


But we can only achieve it if we try to live as one. Try to respect each other, you know. And recently, the slogan, the concept of ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ was introduced by our Prime Minister. So, I really like this concept of ‘Keluarga Malaysia’ because we should treat ourselves, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbours, as a family. Even though you have different ethnicity, different religion, you cannot hate your family. You have to love your family. We should love each other, embrace each other, accept, learn, and relearn to respect each other.

How can Malaysians get to know each other better?


I think, first we should start communicating. With technological advancement nowadays, people are less physically communicating with each other. Not only between friends, even family members, fathers and children, mothers and daughters, son and grandfather, you know. Maybe we should encourage people to open up about themselves.


We have to create a platform or venues. When you start to see people with different looks maybe you can start asking, “You have a very different facial feature, where are you from?” We should start initiating this kind of conversation. I think by knowing someone then you can know more about Malaysia.


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


My famous stereotype tagline: remember Melanau people are smart people. We are very good at Math because we eat fish. Of course we always want to be remembered as a group of people who bring good to the nation.


You can start with building your own community, family, or your district. And then later on, together we will build the state. After we building the state, we definitely build the nation.


You have to remember the Melanau people for their contribution as well. And not only just the Melanau people, but also for the other races. That is how I like to be remembered. Someone who does good and serves good to the nation.


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The interview with Siti Mariam really provided valuable insight into the Melanau culture and showed how important the Melanau contribution is towards the governance of Sarawak. Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has made it hard to witness a Pesta Kaul in person, the warrior-like spirit of Tugau does live on in people and continues to inspire everyone to power through for a better tomorrow. Her insight as someone who works in government gives us hope that the future of a more united Malaysia lies in developing the mindsets of its young people. Through the conversation with Ms Siti Mariam, it is really a great session to learn more about the Melanau culture and its people. #KeluargaMalaysia

Interviewing Siti Mariam with the help of Violacea Low and Amalin Norman, facilitated by Faye Lim.

___ Interviewer: Violacea Low Yin Hui & Amalin binti Norman, facilitated by Faye Lim Written by: Violacea Low Yin Hui & Amalin binti Norman

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