"I wish that one day it will change, so that we will not be recognised as 'Dan Lain-Lain' … I think it starts from education. What I remembered in Buku Sejarah is only like 0.5% of Penan, they just showed a photo of a guy with the blowpipe, that’s about it. What do you get from that?” - Frecella J. Lajo
We spoke to Frecella Jane Lajo, or Frecella, as her friends would call her in short. Frecella is a Christian and came from the ethnic background of Penan Selungo. Penan Selungo originated from the reference of the river, which was where most of them called home. Although the natives of Sabah and Sarawak speak different dialects, Frecella is still able to recognise a Penan when she meets one. When it comes to traditional Penan food, she enjoys Na'o, Gerumet, and Anye.
Growing up, Frecella played games in the field with something called Semingak, such as semingak alut and semingak bua pelep. She also shared customs practiced by the Penan community such as festivals and wedding ceremonies, as well as folklore. Lastly, we discussed the challenges faced in her community and her hopes for a better tomorrow.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
Penan community makes basketweaves, mats, rattan bags, and accessories for our traditional costume. Penan is known for their natural patterns because they believe that human or animal-shaped patterns are some kind of worship. So they tend to go for natural patterns such as plants and flowers.
What is your traditional attire like? When do you usually wear them?
We have our traditional pakaian (attire) Penan. We have accessories that go on our head and a bracelet made from black-coloured rattan. There are also other accessories for our hands and legs, so you can recognise a Penan from the patterns on our accessories.
We would wear these during weddings, special occasions when guests come to the kampung (village). They will dance and play instruments. Especially for the Atui, which is a wood that they will hit to celebrate the guests coming to their kampung. The younger generation usually do not wear such traditional attires, but for the eldest in the kampung, the accessories and all that it's kind of like a part of them, so they use it all the time.
What are some of the traditional games that you played when you were young?
During the harvest festival, we would go to this cultural centre called KDCA (Kadazandusun Cultural Association Sabah). We will play games that are not from the Kadazan community, for example we have a Murut game called Lamsaran, where you go into a bamboo house, like a house on stilts. There will be some kind of trampoline made from bamboo, so everyone jumps, and then we give points or some rewards at the top of the room. So the person who can reach the highest gets that reward.
We also have a lot of community games like tug of war, Rampanau, it's like racing on bamboo stilts. We also have games that test your physicality, like Mipolos, it’s an arm wrestling game, and other slingshot games where you aim and hit the target with this thing called Momolistic.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
For Penans, we don't have a specific festival that we celebrate, but we do celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas because we are Christians, and no longer practice any kind of pagan worship. However, in the past, Penans would celebrate when they caught a big animal by dancing in the middle of the fire throughout the night. For example, the badak sumbu (hippopotamus), whereby they kill it to get the oil.It is not an occasional event, but it is part of their livelihood.
We celebrate the new year, where all the family members gather. The core of the gathering is to appreciate each other, and usually we will do a kind of sukaneka (activities), games and all that. There are no specific games, but rather it depends on how they want to conduct it. My family will conduct it and have a gathering where we have a big feast, which is kind of like a thanksgiving.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
Nowadays, we do not really have traditional songs anymore. However, we used to sing a poem called Ngelore. It has a very deep meaning, and thus the younger generations would not be able to understand it. I haven't seen this Ngelore being practised since I was young, however, I heard about it from the stories that my grandmother told me.
We have one dance, which they call it Sayau Titot. Sayau refers to the left and right kind of movement, which is accompanied with the titot, pagang and atui instruments. It is mostly rhythmic, where they will follow the rhythm, which is either fast or slow. The only one that I know has various kinds of patterns, but this also depends on where you're from. For my place, they will do it in a fast rhythm, whereas some other places do it in a slow move. Nonetheless, the instruments used in these dances are still the same, which is the atui and pagang.
How are weddings organised in your community?
For weddings, if you are the groom, you need to come and ask permission from the bride’s parents to marry the bride. And usually, the bride will follow the groom to wherever they want to stay. Also, it’s a very simple agreement between them, if you have agreed to live together, and your parents agree to it, then you can go on. Previously, the marriage among the people was a kahwin adat (customary marriage), where they do not register their marriage. But now they need to do it, so previously it’s just like a ceremony, where the entire kampung will be informed that you are getting married with another person.
They will dance, there will be a lot of food, a lot of laughter, and prayers. The entire family, relatives and extended family will come back to the kampung to celebrate with you. Even though you don’t know that person or relative, as long as you are like a relative or extended relative with them, then they will need to attend the wedding.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
Nope, we will usually just have prayers. From what I remember, we don’t have any ceremonies or practices like you cutting the baby's hair or whatever.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like? Who usually leads the rituals in your community?
In the past, where the mother passed away during child delivery, the baby would be buried together with the mother no matter what (which is a bit cruel). I heard a story that there is one aunty who was against this practice and tried to hide the baby from others to help the baby survive. Gradually, they stopped practicing this ritual.
Today, we follow the normal funeral ceremony, where the deceased will be buried in the burial grounds.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
One that I remember is that when you are about to go somewhere, like out of your house, you cannot say “I want to eat this but did not eat it”. It is a kind of pantang (taboo), which has become what the Ibans refer to as Punyit, and in Bahasa they call it Darif. The belief of this pantang-larang is that if you do not eat the food you want, something bad will happen to you.
Another pantang-larang is when you are going to the river, you cannot mention the name of the crocodile because they believe that the crocodile will come after you. They recognise the crocodile as Amam, which means grandfather in my language as a means to respect it, so that it won’t disturb us.
These pantang-larang are verbally shared, so if a person doesn't know, the others may remind them like, “hey you cannot say like that, later you kena (get) this (consequences)”, and then it becomes something they fear. They don’t investigate the truth behind these myths and beliefs, so people will just blindly follow. That is how it is being done until now.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
It is called Po Ungor, which is about how the Selungor, the river in my kampung, got its name. This story is told from a grandmother called Ungor, and it is one of the folklores that I know about.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
Man, at first when I saw that I felt like I am not important? But I know where it's coming from, so I do not blame anybody, but rather I blame the system. Personally, I wish that one day it will change, so that people won’t be recognised as dan lain-lain (others). Because it is as though only the 3 main ethnicities are important, and the rest is like a minor only, and I do not think that it is an honouring culture. For example, whenever I visit the clinic, I see that they tick me as dan lain-lain. At the same time, people will always confuse us Penans with Punans. Basically they are totally different, like Malay and Chinese. Even though it sounds similar, it’s actually a completely different tribe. People always do not know the difference between Penan and Punan, and I feel angry to be honest. Why are people so reckless and are not aware about this? My knowledge of your ethnic is more than your knowledge of my ethnic. So for me, the issue of dan lain-lain does not honour our culture, and I don’t agree with it.
What are the current challenges faced by your community?
It is known to Sarawakian that most Penan people are backward and very low in the community. This is the stigma that people have over us. They also say Penan is the anak emas (golden child) of the state government, that’s why they can get this. I feel like we are just the same, but yet there are biases and racism as well in Sarawak.
I think that there are lots of areas where the Penan community needs help. Penan people planted the pipe by themselves with the help of NGOs because the kampung is too far, and the hose to provide electricity and water is costly. Not only Penan, but mostly Sarawak, as we do not even have internet access during the pandemic. How are they going to survive, and even in KL, there is a kampung where there is no internet coverage. All in all, I think that it is not that we don’t have the resources to help, but rather it’s just how the leaders use resources that we have.
What are your hopes for your community?
I hope that there can be greater awareness in terms of education. They don’t have the platform, like a proper school for them to attend. Besides that, they lack amenities like a clinic to go to when they are sick, and when something happens, they would need to travel for hours to reach the closest clinic. By the time you reach the clinic the person might not be able to survive it, so I hope that there is a change on this.
In addition to that, the authorities shouldn’t just recognise the problem, but they should also come up with a solution to it, as the issue on education, electricity and many more have been existing for far too long. I truly hope that real action will be provided so that the community, not only the Penans, but the minority in the kampung and the rural area will be able to move forward like the other tribes as well.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
I think it starts from education, for example when it comes to teaching history lessons, the information on Penans in the history books is only approximately 0.5 percent. All they did was show the photo of a guy with the blowpipe, and that’s about it. What do you get from that? If the government is caring enough to put this into the education system as one of the major subjects and not just an elective, the education will be better. This way, there will be greater awareness and the people will be able to recognise each other more often. To be honest, I don’t recognise every tribe as well, but I do know the ones that I’ve met. What about people we didn’t meet at all? We don’t even know their existence, and it’s kind of sad. Therefore, the education system must be changed from there, if there is unity, we can do much better.
How would you want me to remember you or your community?
You can remember us as the people of the jungle. Let me tell you the story where my grandfather, uncle and the elders in the 90s went through. They went to do the blockade because the logging company came to the jungle where the Penan people lived, and they were taking whatever they wanted. The jungle has been the source of their food, and the logging companies are attacking their place. Therefore, they did a blockade in 1989, and if you’ve ever heard of Bruno Manser, he’s a Swiss that helped the Penan community to do the blockade against the logging company. I hope that you remember that we are the jungle people, and we protect and love the jungle. The jungle and the forest are part of us.
I do believe that one of the ways to have a better understanding of other ethnic groups is through education, which sadly made me realise that the Malaysian education system is indeed in need of changes if we are to make a step towards unity and more comprehensive understanding of other ethnic groups. Talking to Frecella made me realise that as a Malaysian, there are still many things that I don’t know about other Malaysians as well! It is true that we live in the same country, share the same food and language, but we might only know less than 10% about each other’s culture.
It also hit me that whining about small little things like my phone or computer being old is insignificant, when there are people in rural areas without even having Wi-Fi? Gratitude is what we need in our lives, compassion towards others is a blessing that we can perform in our everyday lives, and changes are needed in the way our system is being operated to overcome the stigma and misconception towards not just the ethnic minorities, but towards the general Malaysian population.
___ Interviewer: Liew Kang Xuen & Lim Yuan Theng, supported by Faye Lim and Masturina Hani Mansor (Wafa) Written by: Liew Kang Xuen & Lim Yuan Theng Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza