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Culture (Sa'ban): Cikgu Paulus Balan

“Lain-lain simply indicates being not important. Maybe for those who come with the term ‘lain-lain’ to classify some of the minor races, they don’t have any negative intention but for races that are in that category, the feelings of being categorised as ‘lain-lain’ is very disturbing, sad, unimportant, frustration and marginalized." - Cikgu Paulus Balan

We were honoured to talk to Cikgu Paulus Balan, a Sa’ban from Sarawak. Aged 55, Cikgu Paulus is a Christian Protestant who is still teaching in SMK Lutong, Miri. During this interview, he shared with us his in-depth knowledge about his community and the difference between practices of the olden days and how these practices have slowly changed over time. This ranged from traditional games to folklore passed down through generations.

Cikgu Paulus vividly described the many pantang-larang (taboo) one had to abide by, especially when going out to hunt or farm. From traditional crafts to how wedding proceedings were done, we were able to discover much more about the Sa’ban community.

What are some of the traditional foods in your community?

For the Sa'ban community, their main sources of food are their farms, the jungle and the rivers.

The farms supply them with rice, which is their staple food and various types of food crops such as tapioca, tapioca, sugarcane, banana, corn, pineapple, leafy and fruity vegetables such as cucumber, watermelon, water gourd, bitter gourd, spinach, local mustards, chili, tomato and pumpkin. A very common and popular local mustard grown by the Sa'ban is Ret Abei’. It has a mild bitter taste when cooked fresh. The leaves of this vegetable are also plucked and dried for storage and can be consumed all year round.

When the land has been cleared and burnt for farming, first, vegetables are planted on the cleared land. A few weeks after this, then the padi will be planted. A few months after planting the padi, the vegetables will be matured for consumption. Thus, on a Sa'ban’s farm, padi is the main crop planted alongside various other types of food crops as supplement.

The jungle and rivers supplement their protein need. Therefore, hunting and fishing are as important as farming to sustain their daily needs for survival. To depend only on their farms for survival is not enough as protein is one of their main food intakes. Domesticated animals are usually difficult to look after because the more animals you have, the more mouths you need to feed. Therefore, hunting and fishing are more suitable to supplement their protein need. Wild boar is the most popular and common animal hunt for food because of various reasons such as being tasty, the fat can be turned into cooking oil, they are available in large numbers and the need to control the population of the wild boars as they can be very destructive to the farms if their population are not controlled (by hunting). There were various types of traditional cooking of the meat such as boiling, frying, cooking in bamboo and roasted. The meat can also be preserved by smoking on fire as well as by way of salted-paste meat (Kasam). Besides this, they also hunt other animals such as the deer family, they monkey family and various big birds. In fact, after converting to Christianity, the Sa'ban can eat any animals’ meats as compared to their forefathers who were prohibited by their traditional belief (animistic belief) in eating most of the omen animals, especially nocturnal animals.

Besides these, the Sa’ban community who live in the villages also depends on jungle products such as bamboo shoots, rattan shoots, wild ferns and wild fruits as food. Besides, of course the jungle is their source of wood for building houses, huts, boats and various types of crafts.

Like other communities, ways of cooking have gone through a dynamic progress, more so now with their exposure to the outside world where new cooking styles, menus and recipes are adopted and adapted from other communities that they live with. However, some of the most common traditional cooking are still practiced such as roasted meat, rice porridge with various type of minced meats, fish and/or vegetables, cooking using bamboo and eating boil preserved salted-paste meats.

Generally, starvation is unheard of among the Sa’ban community since the 20th century or since leaving their old traditional customs, belief and practices especially headhunting, animistic belief and excessive drinking. In the olden days, enemies’ attacks can cause destruction to their houses and rice huts or prevent them from tending to their farms, while animistic belief can force them to abandon their farms and excessive drinking can deplete their supply of rice.

Nowadays, the Sa’ban community are adapting well to their new environments and lifestyles. Most of the families are divided into two living environments, namely those who stay in the villages and those who work outside the villages, especially in the urban areas. These two divisions complement each other in term of basic needs. Family members that live in the villages provide rice, meats, vegetables and fruits for family members work in the urban areas while those working in the urban areas send town products such as sugar, salt, cooking oils, household utensils and clothes to their family members who live in the villages.

Can you tell us more about your dialect?

Many researchers or book writers categorize the Sa’ban dialect to be part of the Murutic-Kelabit language. Some of the Sa’ban words seem to be a shorter version of the Kelabit and Murut words. The following are some examples:


Kelabit and Lun Bawang











The glottal or schwa sound in the Sa’ban dialect. The followings are some examples.







Good or fruit






Long vowel sound is also very common in the Sa'ban dialect. The followings are some examples.

Long vowel sound

Short vowel sound

Ataau (grasshopper)

Atau (stone)

Taam (we)

Tam (black)

Nnaau (steal)

Nnau (think)

Loong (mouth of a river)

Hlong (alone)

Initial consonant cluster sound is also very common in the Sa'ban dialect. Some example are such as:


Initial Consonant Cluster sound (Sa'ban)













Go away








What types of traditional crafts are produced in your community?

These are tools they used to cut big trees and make boats, planks etc.

Traditionally, being isolated as well as due to hostility among the races or tribes because of headhunting practice, opportunity for interaction or get whatever they need from the outside world was very limited. Therefore, craftmanship was a skill that everybody had to master. Traditional crafts ranged from all things that they need to build their houses such as making post, planks, tying leaves together in roll on bamboo strips as roofing, making all the different knives such as axes, long knives, weeding knives, harvesting knives and so on, making spears and shield and war attires, making boat and paddle, making blowpipe, blowpipe arrows and the arrow containers, making all the different types and sizes of backpacks from rattan including the strap to carry the backpacks or baskets on their back for hunting, carrying firewood, carrying rice or for keeping things such as smoke meat, rice and vegetable at home, weaving different types of mats to cover the house floor for sitting or sleeping including to put on them as blanket, and making kitchen utensil such as ladle, ladle containers.

Stool for sitting down in the house, various types attires such as cloth to cover the lower body part for woman and loin cloth for man which they get from a particular tree bark, headgear out of animal skins as cap for man or a weave cap out of rattan or certain plants for man and women or making umbrella shape sun hat from leaves of certain plants for working under the sun or bead necklace and headgear and making all sort of hunting and fish trap tools and traps.

Nowadays, most of these craftmanship skills are lost with the available of many things needed in towns. Only the older people and a few of the younger generation, particularly those staying in the village still involve in crafts making as part time job. Among the most popular crafts among man in the Sa’ban community nowadays that I can see are making boat and paddle, making ladle, making handles of various tools such as the long and small knives, weeding knives and making fish trap which is known as bubu in Malay (beu in Sa’ban) and making casting and drifting fishing nets as these items are still much needed. For the women, among the most popular crafts still practiced by the women are mats and baskets weaving, bead-work which include making all sort of decorative traditionally design attires such as dress, headgear, necklace, wristlet and different types of baskets, handbags or containers and so on.

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