“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
Loong (mouth of a river)
Initial consonant cluster sound is also very common in the Sa'ban dialect. Some example are such as:
Initial Consonant Cluster sound (Sa'ban)
What types of traditional crafts are produced in your community?
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?
Traditionally, the most common material to make attires was the bark of a type of wild jack fruit tree. The outer part of the bark was removed by using a club like wooden tool. They used this tool to hit on all the bark of the felled log. The side of the club that they used to hit the bark was made thorny like the skin of the crocodile. This will remove the outer skin of the bark as well as expand the bark. Then they used their knives to remove remaining outer skin as well as smoothen it before removing the remaining inner bark from the log. It will be rectangular in shape and the size depend on the size of log. For loincloth, they will need a long log. Cloth for the lower body part was most emphasized on and upper body part was exposed most of the time.
After the peace treaty or ceremony which the Sa’ban took part in at Marudi in October 1908 as stated in the Sarawak Gazette, the Sa’ban started to have contact with the outside world. They started to use cotton or other clothing materials from towns for their attires. At first dressing was still emphasizing on the lower body part but eventually their dressing evolves according to what they see in the outside world. Sa'ban attires are totally westernized nowadays although traditional attires out of tree barks or beads are occasionally worn on top of the casual dress during special festival or meets. The only traditional body attires or decoration that some of the Sa’ban wear frequently are the bead necklaces. The men bead necklace is called ‘ani kabo’ with small red beads weaved together into a lump of beads hanging in the mid front. This weaved oval-shape lump of red beads is called kabo’, thus it is called ani kabo’. The women necklace has no kabo' attached to it.
What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?
Traditional games among the Sa’ban involved mostly men. Among the most popular games were wrestling almost similar to sumo wrestling, lifting and hanging a pig to branch of a pole, cutting the top part of a bundle of sugarcanes. Jumping and sticking a 10-inch bamboo stick to the roof, arm wrestling, smashing pumpkin using the pump, breaking sugarcane by heating the sugarcane to one’s arm, jumping over a stick or spear planted on the ground, target shooting using the blowpipe, jumping out from rolled up mat, climbing a bamboo pole smeared with wild boar fat and playing top. Wrestling involves holding each other in a hugging style. It is called pwaal in Sa’ban. It is a test of strength involving hugging as tide as possible then lifting and throwing one opponent on the ground. The one on top will be the winner. This game was carried out on open ground or in the river. Lifting and hanging pig to a branch of a standing pole was done every time during ceremony. Among popular ceremonies in the olden days were child blessing, sending bones of death ones into a jar shape stone, or ceremony to break mourning period or ceremonies to commemorate their passing parents or members of the family. During these ceremonies, pigs and other reared animals will be prepared for slaughter as food to feed the visitors. Usually a day before the ceremony, a big wooden pole of about 6 feet will be planted in the ground in front of the house. Early in the morning of the big day, the biggest of the pig will be taken to the pole with it legs tied tightly together. While drinking rice wine, the men will be challenged to go and lift the pig and hang it to the branch at the top of the wooden pole. Every able-bodied man needed to go and test their strength of lifting the pig and hang it to the branch of the wooden pole. Those who refused to go are considered as losers. The women will sing traditional song called sariel to encourage the man to do their very best. Those who were able to lift the pig will receive shout and clap of praise from the audience while those who fail in their attempt will be boo and tease with all sort of diminutive or belittling comments but nevertheless, all are done as a joke to make people laugh and thus, make the event livelier. The same happened to the sugarcane’s games. Bundles of Sugarcanes tied tightly together were planted on the ground. These bundles of sugarcanes will be planted standing on the ground in front of the house. There would like twenty bundles of sugarcanes planted on the ground in front of the house. Their height will be about five to 6 feet tall. Round shape fruits such as melon will be put on top of each bundle to make them look like human heads. Then the men will be asked to go outside with there long knives/headhunting knives to cut the part of the sugarcane just below the head-like fruit. The women will also sing traditional song to encourage the men. Like the pig lifting and hanging games, those who were able to cut the sugarcane bundle with one swing (one slash) will receive admiration and loud noises of shout as well as clap from the audience while those who fail will be booed. Climbing slippery bamboo pole is usually done during wedding ceremony. A big bamboo log with the length of about 20 feet is cut. The outer skin of the bamboo is peel of. Branches are put on one end of the bamboo. Various things such as food, fruits, various clothes such as shirts, shorts, trousers and so on are tied to the branches. This big bamboo pole will be planted on the ground usually in from of the longhouse. Wild boar fat will be rubbed to the pole to make it slippery. On the day of the wedding, people will gather around this bamboo pole and people are called to climb the pole starting with individual attempt. Those who manage to reach the top of the pole are free to choose one item that are hanging on the branch for himself or herself. If no one can climb the pole individually, then people are asked to form team of not more three or not more then four to climb the pole. Playing top is a popular game among the children. Hard wood is selected to make the top. The top is oval in shape having a head and bottom. The bottom is sharp. A string is used to spin the top. Two types of most popular games involving the top games namely, competing whose top can spin longer and the other game involves hitting one opponent’s top. This one is more interesting. It involves the opponent spinning his top and the other fellow throwing his top to knock of his opponent’s top. Besides, playing top, the children also play hunting games. The boys are divided into two groups namely the hunter and his dogs and the wild boars. The wild boars are given one minutes to run away to hide in the bushes. The hunter and his dogs will hunt and chase the wild boars. When all the wild boars are caught, they will exchange roles. Game of climbing and jumping from trees to trees like the monkeys are also played. However, it is a dangerous game and it is only done without parents’ knowledge. Another popular traditional game among the children is hide and seek in the longhouse. Nowadays, most of these games are seldom played. For the adults, only the top games, target shooting using the blowpipe and climbing the bamboo pole during wedding are carried out occasionally. Children are more interested in modern games such as playing football, badminton, volleyball, basketball, sepak takraw and so on.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
I have never heard of the older people talking about common festivals being celebrated yearly by the Sa’ban in the olden days although there were many ceremonies perform throughout the year for specific occasions. For this, it is easier to explain it in term of their life development from the childhood to his death. The first ceremony was the feeding ceremony. When the baby was about 6 months, before he or she was feed with rice porridge, the feeding ceremony was performed. For a baby girl, she had to be fed by an older woman who live a long healthy and good life. The same went to a baby boy. The food they used were rice and certain types of fish. For the baby girl, it was usually rice and a small species of fresh water suckermouth catfish that live in the rough part of the stream. This type of fish like to stick to the stones in the strong rapid. According to their belief, by feeding the baby girls with this fish, she will grow into a hardworking and loyal wife. For baby boys, they were fed with rice and fresh water catfish or a small species of snapper fish or ikan semah or kelah. This will make the boy grow into a brave, hardworking and adventurous man. The old woman or man will chew a piece of rice together with the fish meat in her or his mouth and then transfer it into the baby mouth from mouth to mouth.
After this, for the boys, when they are about to reach adolescent age, the blessing and strengthen ceremony (Luwa ngaan lesel anak) will be carried out. Luwa was usually done to children from a family of the high status (paren). Preparation started a year before the ceremony. Having knew that their child was about to reach adolescent age, the parents will make a big farm in order to have enough rice for the ceremony. They also rear enough pigs and chickens. A week or two before the ceremony, everybody in the village will help them. Some of the men will help to collect firewood, the women will cook rice to make rice wine and others will prepare places for games during the ceremony. Meanwhile, invitation will be sent to the neighbouring villages. The day before the ceremony, visitors from the neighbouring villages will arrive. Visitors will bring along their children with them. A few meters from the longhouse, the visitors will stop to lesel (bless in strength and health) their children. A circle will be drawn on the ground and the visitors’ children will be asked one after another to go inside the circle for an older man who used to perform this event to do the blessing on them. Lesel anak was only done by visitors. After doing this, then the visitors will approach the longhouse where the guest will welcome them to the house.
Early the next morning, the ceremony will start with the pig lifting and hanging games. After the games, pig will be slaughtered by cutting its neck while still hanging to the branch of the pole. A gong will be put underneath to collect the blood of the pig. Meanwhile the child who was to be luwa will be asked to walk to and fro underneath the spilt blood pig 8 times. After this event, two old women will lift the child up and shouted with joyous sound called wihu. Then one of them will lead the child back to the longhouse while the other woman will get the gong fill with blood and go around to the crowd, smearing everyone with the collected pig blood.
The pig will be brought down from the pole and it stomach will be cut open. An experience old man will then check the gallbladder. If the gallbladder was full, then it was a good sign. If it was half full or less, they have to kill another pig and check it gallbladder. This will continue on until they found a full gallbladder. If there was no pig left, then they have to slaughter chicken. After finding a full gall bladder, they will kill another one to pair them up. After this was done, the animals will be cut into pieces to be cooked as food for everyone. Meanwhile, drinking rice wine was served all the time. After all the food were cooked, everyone will gather in the common room of the longhouse for the feeding ceremony of the child. The child will sit on a gong in the middle of the room and a skull that had been taken by his father will be placed in front of him. An experience old man will perform the feeding ceremony. He will first feed the child with a piece of rice and then put a piece of rice into the mouth of the skull. Then he picked a pig fat and fed the child. He then put a pig fat into the skull mouth. After that he fed the child some rice wine and then do the same to the skull. While doing the feeding, he will recite blessing of healthy life, long life, strong, hardworking, good manner, bravery, hardworking and so on to the child. After he finished the feeding ceremony, then everyone will start eating and drinking. This will be accompanied will all sort of activities such as long dance and nkuei, ngajat or solo dance sariel and so on. The celebration continued on until all food and drink were finished. This can take between two to five days.
When boys grew into young man and start to join headhunting. Every time the men of the village came back successfully from headhunting trip, there will be a grand celebration of dancing, singing traditional songs such as nkuei and sariel and drinking. On the day the men left for headhunting, the women will brew rice wine and stay at home waiting for the men or their husbands to return. When the men returned, they will stop about 50 metres from the longhouse. There, they will shout and the sounds of their shouting will alert the women of their arrival. The women will bring food, rice and rice wine to meet their husbands. The wives will shout and sing praise when seeing their husbands returned with heads. They will hug and kiss their husbands and feed their husbands with rice, food and rice wine that they brought alone. After that, everyone returned to the longhouse singing and dancing. The women will bring more rice wine and food to the common room of the longhouse and everyone share their food and rice wine. They will do the long dance accompanied with the nkuei and sariel (types of traditional songs) throughout the night. Meanwhile, the heads that had been taken were hung and smoke on the fire. They celebrated until the food and rice wine were finished.
Whenever someone died in the village, the whole villagers will be informed by beating the gong. Everyone who heard the sound of the gong will stop working immediately and hurried back to the village. The villages will organize work as preparation for a ceremony called reek ruel. For this ceremony, the women will prepare rice wine while the men will go into the jungle to make a coffin. This will take about two to three days. Meanwhile, messengers will be sent to all the nearby villages. When the men arrived from the jungle with the coffin and visitors from neighbouring villages arrived, everybody will mourn the deceased. The next day, everybody will start drinking the rice wine that had been prepared by the women. While drinking and mourning the dead person, the villages will take turn to bring food, rice wine and seed of plants and placed them near the deceased body. These things were for him or her (his or her spirit) to bring to their relatives who had died before this. Meanwhile, some of the men will decorate the coffin with designs. After that, the coffin will be brought up into the house and the body will be placed into the coffin. Then they will send the coffin to the jungle not too far away from the village. A hut will be built and a platform was built under the hut where the coffin will be placed. After that, everybody will go back to the village. Upon arriving at the house, they will continue drinking and eating until all the food and drink were finished.
About a year later, the family of the deceased will perform another ceremony which they called reek nnou. During this ceremony, the coffin will be opened and the bones will be collected into a sack. These bones were then brought to the rivers and washed and put back into the sack. After this, the sack of bones will be sent by the young men to the family burial jar called binatau, which was made of stone. Each big family or family of the same ancestor had their own stone jar. According to the older people, to make this stone jar, they perform a specific ceremony and ritual to call the eagle to locate the stone for making the stone jar for them. Through this special ceremony, the selected stone will be soft and easy to cut into the cylinder shape and dug hole into them. They also cut a disc-shape stone as a lid for the jar. The stone jar was about the size of the barrel (drum minyak) and as tall as five feet. This stone will be carried and panted standing with half part of it in the ground at a suitable place selected by the family. The stone lid was put on top to cover it. During this reek nnou ceremony, bones that had been washed and put into the sack will be brought back to the house. The young men of the village will be asked to send the sack of bones to the binatau. Sending the bones to the binatau was a competition involving running and seizing the sack from each other in their attempt to be the person who placed the bones into the stone jar. The first two persons to reach the binatau with the sack of bones will help each other, that was, one will open the lid of the jar and the other one will pour the bones into the jar. Upon returning back to the house/village, these two will be welcomed as heroes. They will be seated on a gong at the middle of the common room and served with rice wine before the others and then these two persons will in turn distributed drink to others. Like in the other ceremonies, this ceremonies will end when the food and drink were finished.
Besides this, every son will have to make a ceremony to commemorate their deceased parents. Those who were unable to carry out this ceremony will be looked down on by their other siblings.
However, all these ceremonies were not practice anymore. As Christian, the Sa’ban have stopped doing all traditional practices and ceremonies that were conflicting to the teaching of the Bible. Blessing of child, married and burial are all conducted according to the Christian ways. Festivals that are celebrated in the Sa'ban community nowadays are Christmas and New Year and Harvesting Thank Giving celebration after harvesting season.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
a) Dances Traditionally, the Sa'ban performed dances such as ngajat and Long dance. Traditionally, they were many different variations of movements of the ngajat such as warrior ngajat, hunting ngajat and so on. The Sa'ban traditional long dance was called nkuei and it was accompanied with songs that they called kuei and sariel. Nowadays, ngajat and long dance are still practice during festivals and ceremonies but not accompanied by kuei and sarie anymore. The Kenyah long dance which is called tiang is more popular among the Sa'ban nowadays. Besides kuei and sariel, other traditional songs were nngeeng, layout and layaan. However, very few people can still sing these traditional songs now. b)Traditional Instruments Traditional musical instruments are lotong, leduei, lenyuet and sape’. Lotong is made of bamboo with string attached to it. It was the traditional version of the sape. Leduei and lenyuet were mouth and nose harps respectively while sape’ is a guitar shape instrument popularly played to accompany the ngajat and long dance.
How are weddings organised in your community?
Traditionally, wedding was organized during the reek nnou or luwa anak ceremonies. These ceremonies were carried out by other families and the couple who wished to be married will take the opportunity of the crowd gathering during anyone of these ceremonies to perform the marriage ceremony. A gong will be placed in the middle of the common room/middle of the crowd and the couple with a young man will be seated on the gong. An older person who was having experienced in conducting the marriage ceremony will be requested to conduct it. He will feed the couple and the young man sitting in between them with rice, pig fat and rice wine while reciting blessing words to the couple. After the marriage ceremony, the couple will go and stay with the lady’s parents. Within the first few days of staying together, no one should sneeze near them or no sound of omen animals such as the peacock, civet or barking deer was to be heard or none of the omen animals such as snakes, lizards or any of the nocturnal animals were to be seen by close family members. After the couple pass this test, then they can stay marriage permanently. If any of the above-mentioned event took place, then the couple had to be separated for a month before they were to restart the observation process of ‘no sneezing, no sounds of omen animals and no sight of omen animals’ again. If the failed the second time, they have to be separated for a year before the observation process were to be restarted again. If they failed the third time, then they were permanently separated.
Nowadays, weddings are celebrated in the Christian way. Before wedding, the couple have to be engaged for at least 3 months. The engagement period is the opportunity for the couple to get to know each other better besides being as a trial of how committed are they couple to keep the engagement holy. After the engagement, then they can proceed with the wedding. There are attempts to involve some of the traditional wedding items in organizing engagement and wedding such as giving bead bracelet as an engagement item and wearing traditional clothes, sitting on the gong, exchange of traditional gifts such as decorated parangs, bead necklaces and other traditional items during the wedding ceremony. When the couple fail the engagement, the church will not be able to perform the wedding ceremony. In such a case, the wedding will be performed by the headman of the village but still according the Christian way, with marriage vows and marriage promises based on the Christian scripts.
Usually, the church wedding ceremony is performed in the church by the pastor of the church during the day time. Basically, it involves sharing words from the bible, stating the marriage vows and promises as well as exchange of wedding rings. This will be followed by blessing prayer and then toasting and cake cutting. After the church wedding ceremony, during the night, the villagers will celebrate with the couple in the longhouse common room, eating and drinking accompanied by speeches of advises from elders in the village followed by exchange of gifts between families and relatives of the bridegroom and bride and then various types of traditional social activities such as ngajat and long dance. Sometimes family members will sing songs to make the event more memorable. They even try to get older people to recite older songs as well.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
Whenever death happens in the village, the gong will be beat to inform the people in the village. Then messengers will be sent to nearby villages. Close family members who are away from the village such as working in towns will be informed as soon as possible. Everyone in the village will gather at the house of the deceased to pay their respect, to comfort close family members of the deceased as well as to help with whatever arrangements are needed. The youth leader or the headman and JKKK will organise work for the burial preparation among the villages. Usually, villages will donate rice and food to the deceased family. The women will prepare food and drinks for everyone while the men will prepare coffin and prepare hole at the graveyard to bury the deceased. While waiting for close family members to arrive from wherever they stay and work, everyone will stay with the deceased family and no one is allowed to do their work at the farm. Usually, the waiting process will take one or two days the most. Meanwhile, prayer services will be conducted to keep those in mourning strong in this moment of sadness. These services will be conducted by the church leader, usually a pastor who can be a man or woman. After all close family members arrived at the village, before the body is carried in the coffin to the graveyard, a short prayer service will be conducted. Then everyone will accompany the coffin to the graveyard. At the graveyard, the church leader will carry a prayer service before the coffin is put into the prepared hole in the ground.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby? Also, who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
Nowadays, as a Christian community, every new born baby is blessed in the church on Sunday church service. The church leader, usually a pastor who can be a man or a woman will lead the blessing ceremony. The parents with the newborn baby will go in front and the church leader will lead the blessing ceremony by sharing words from the bible and blessing prayer. During this blessing ceremony, the name of the newborn baby will be made known to everyone.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
Traditionally there are so many pantang-larang because all these pantang-larang were related to their animistic beliefs. First, when you woke up in the morning, you need to cool down your body before going out from the house. If you go out straight away out of bed, the spirit (of the jungle) be angry. You will get sicked and died. Besides, you must not bring food that were still warm with you when you go out to work outdoor such as to the farm or going hunting. To avoid this, the women will wake up in the middle of the night to cook so that by day light, all the food were not hot or warm anymore. According to my late parents, in those days, breaking any of these pantang-larang can cause critical unknown illness and death. When going out hunting and camping in the jungle, there were a lot of pantang-larang that need to be observed. They were strictly prohibited to dry their clothes under the sun or put personal belongings that they have with them such as their clothes, parang (knife) above the fire to dry. Besides, bones of frog and skins of fruits were also not allowed to be put into the fire. When looking for a land to farm, if they saw a toad on the piece of land, they will have to build a small fence very tight around the toad, with top of the fence tightly covered as well and no hole in the fence for the toad to escape. A few days later, they will come and check if the toad was still inside the fence. If the toad was not inside the fence, then they can continue farming the land. If the toad stayed in the fence, they have to abandon that land and look for a new land to farm. If someone ignored this pantang-larang, the whole family members can get ill and died. In the process of farming, whenever they saw snake or any of the nocturnal such as civet, if it was at the start of opening the land for farming, they have to abandon the land and look for a new land. If the incident happened after some months of opening the land for farming, they have to take a week or two weeks break before continue on their farming activities on the land. Besides these, whenever they want to go hunting or fishing, they have to go quietly without announcing it loudly to other people. If the talk a lot before going hunting or fishing, they will come back empty handed because the spirit will tell animals or fish to go hiding if the spirit knew about their plan to go hunting or fishing. Nowadays, none of the above mentioned pantang-larang are practiced any longer. However, there are some individuals whom I came across who have their own superstitions such as going hunting or fishing quietly or not to be boastful about their catch or achievements in their farming or hunting.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
There are many stories from epic stories in the Sa'ban community. They are usually recited using classic Sa'ban words and these words are very difficult to understand by even the younger Sa'ban who are not used to these words. These stories take a few settings to be completed. They are usually recited during night time when people gather together or during certain gotong royong activities such as harvesting and camping in the jungle. Among some of these famous stories are Ketareeng Bliin, Kaleeng Wan Hroong and Kalibet Ttueng. Based on my personal understanding of these stories, they seem to be related to the Hinduism influences as in stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. The heroes have supernatural powers, have various supernatural weapons, can fly, brave, caring, honest and just as compared to their opponents (antagonists) who own supernatural powers of their own but have evil intentions, selfish, cruel and were ready to use whatever dirty and cheating tactical warfare to win the fight.
Besides these, they also have a lot of other short bedtime stories to entertain the children ranging from human to animal characters.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
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. Sa'ban is one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak, having a population of about 2000 people. We need to struggle very hard to be known and recognised. We need to form an association and form a special committee to bring forward the recognition of our existence to the government. It is a long struggle and even up to this day, after more than 50 years of independence, we are still kept waiting to be recognised as a race as well as a native of Sarawak. A caring government should go all out to help the people without waiting for the people form association and/or committee to bring their matters to them, regardless races and religion, regardless of being minorities or majorities, regardless of being educated or uneducated, regardless of being poor or rich and etc. We are born and have been living where we are. The place where we live happen to be part of Sarawak, Malaysia, and automatically we should be recognised as Sarawakians or Malaysians and we don’t need to struggle to be recognised. Migrations and making new life in new places have been part of human history in the past and still going on until today and in the future. Thus, to me personally, the terms bumiputera and non-bumiputera is out of tune and selfish motivated term. This is one of the country concrete walls against development, justice, unity and patriotism.
What are the current challenges faces by your community?
Number one, I would say, is politics particularly because being naïve and ignorance, politics is bound to cause conflicts and disunity in the community. The older generations have the tendency to think that whatever the government says is right, and there’s no argument. That’s why the term “jangan lawan perintah” (don’t disobey the government) is really observed by most of the older generations. They are ignorance about their rights to voice their problems and their rights to protect their lands, their tradition, culture and beliefs. To most of them, people who voice their rights which are against the government are bad. What more to say about those who choose to side with opposition parties in their political struggle. These people are considered to be out of their minds. Traditionally, the people used to have share in electing their headman but now it is politically appointed. There seem to be no protest at all as most of them think, what ever the ruling party says is always right. It is very important to educate the people about politics, about their rights so that they will be more open minded and have the right mind and knowledge to decide the best political party that represent want they really want and need. Number two, with access to town through the timber road, more new challenges are facing the community. I don’t deny the positive influences brought about through this access road, but there are also many very negative influences creeping into the community such as drugs, alcoholism and social problems.
What are your hopes for your community?
My number one hope is of course, education. It’s the main thing that can change people's mindset, make them open-minded, make them understand reality, and know their rights. Number two hope is to revive the dying Sa’ban language, customs, tradition and culture. These are their identities that they need to preserve and protect. Number three hope is their knowledge and commitment toward the religious teaching of Christianity. I really believe that knowledge and commitment toward religion can keep the community unite as well as protect them against negative influences.
What is your wish for Sarawak?
I would really love to have Sarawak belong to all Sarawakians regardless of races, religions and cultures. The terms bumiputera and non bumiputera as well as ‘lain-lain’ should be abolished and only the term Sarawakian should be recognised. Everybody should be treated equal. The government should be transparent and fair to everybody. Everyone should be free to practice their own religions. That is my hope for Sarawak. That Sarawak belongs to everybody where everybody can work together, help each other, and live together peacefully.
What are your vision and hopes for Malaysia and how can Malaysians get to know each other better?
I hope that different races will be able to respect and live peacefully with each other. Malaysia should be seen as one family. All the different races are brothers within that family. Being the majority race, the Malay should be looked upon as the eldest brother in the family. The other small races are younger brothers. Being brothers or siblings of one family, everyone treats each other with respect, love, care and kindness and is always ready to help and protect each other. All the common people should unite against racism in politics. The parliament should propose for more stern actions against racism and religious critics. Religions in the right sense should bring about peace and harmony and not conflicts and hostility. as something that separates us, but think about religion as a means to make us one. The basics teaching of all religions should be taught in school so that everyone understand the teachings of all the different religions and thus will be able to appreciate each other better.
We were lost for words at how eloquent and knowledgeable Cikgu Paulus was about his cultural heritage. It made us reflect on ourselves as we questioned whether we know our own ethnicity and community. We were also impressed at how detailed his insights and explanations were and how passionate he is about educating Malaysians about other cultures. The teacher in him shows as he emphasised the importance of knowledge for youths to make better decisions and be more aware of what’s happening in Malaysia. His remark about racial-based political parties also got us thinking more about how we can shape the future of our country.
It was definitely a memorable interview and we’re glad to have spoken to Cikgu Paulus about his identity and vision.
___ Interviewer: Evelyn Chen Siaw Yin & Gan Zhi Xuan, facilitated by Masturina Hani Mansor (Wafa) Written by: Cikgu Paulus Balan, Evelyn Chen Siaw Yin & Gan Zhi Xuan Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza & Faye Lim