“When I tell them about my ethnic group, Sekapan. They look shocked and they think that I’m lying that this ethnic group exists. If they explore more, they would find that there are so many different cultures here. ... We need to get to know our country better because it’s a multicultural country and we can learn a lot from the different communities.” - Nazrin Syah
We had the opportunity to interview Nazrin Syah, who shared with us about Sekapan culture. He is of mixed heritage, whereby his father is Sarawakian Sekapan while his mother is a Malay. Sekapan is a sub ethnic group of the Orang Ulu, which is a small group with only 2 longhouses in Belaga, Sarawak. He is a Muslim.
He also shared some of his traditional food such as Linut, Pansuh and Linu. He mostly speaks Sarawak Malay now but Sekapan falls under Bahasa Kajang which encompasses the different ethnic groups in that area (such as the Kejaman, Sekapan, Punan, Lahanan, Sihan). It uses the same dialect but with different slangs.
We’ve learned that the Sekapan community has its own unique traditions, customs, and beliefs - from crafts to festivals and wedding rituals, but also faces stereotypes and lack of visibility as a small community in Sarawak. More on this in our interview below.
What traditional crafts is your community most known for?
Salong or Kelirieng is the most famous one in the Sekapan Kajang community. It’s a pole for burial purposes. If you visit Museum Negara in Kuala Lumpur, you’ll be able to see a Kelirieng made by the Sekapan people at the entrance.
What is your traditional attire like?
For the male attire, it is called Selazua. Meanwhile, the female attire is called Libun Ma.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
We only have 1 festival that we celebrate although nowadays, it’s not celebrated as frequently anymore. It’s called Savaek. It’s similar to the Gawai festival celebrated by the Iban community. It's a thanksgiving ceremony for blessing and prosperity from deities & ancestors.
Some of the activities we do are praying and giving offerings to the spirit. However, now that many have converted to Christianity, they bring that into the culture. Before, we would call the shaman to bless everyone in the house, but today it is replaced by the priest or father. The culture is mixed now since they will call the father to do the prayer and bless everyone in the longhouse, but they are still giving offerings to the spirit.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practices in your community?
Our community practices a dance called Ngajat Leleng. Nowadays, the melody of Leleng has been combined with Nasheed (which is a muslim religious song or praises that carries with it Islamic beliefs, etiquettes, lessons, etc.) because they enjoy the melody of it alongside Nasheed. Thus, they go into competitions performing this new type of ngajat combination.
We have a traditional instrument similar to Sape’, which is influenced by the larger ethnic groups of Kayan and Kenyah. The Sekapan have their own version of the Sape’ but it’s also called Sape’. There’s no special name for it.
Are there any traditional games you played when you were young?
We played traditional wrestling but I don’t know the name anymore, it’s been too long. Afterwards, we would make those that lose pay the penalty, like paying money or doing a specific thing that the winners ask of them. Nowadays, the games that are played in the community are modern such as futsal, badminton, etc.
How are weddings organised in your community?
Status plays a part in what sort of marriage it is, such as if a noble known as the Maran wants to marry into those in lower classes, like the commoners that is the Panyin. My brother wanted to marry a girl from the Panyin family, so he had to bring or convert her into the Maran family. The noble will have to search and purchase an authentic gong, which is very expensive. They may also have to provide fabric, cloth, beads and other items. The noble family may also have to provide a copper cannon, though not a large one; just a small one. We will slaughter a pig and serve it as food for the people in the longhouse. Meanwhile, the gong will be placed in front of the house to say that the girl has been converted to this noble family.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
Most of the Sekapans are Christians so typically the newborn babies will be baptised. With the conversion into different faiths, the special ceremonies of old have been lost.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funerals arrangements like?
We will play poker and drink, to accompany the deceased. Meanwhile, the arrangements differ between the status of the deceased, whereby the aristocrats or nobles will be accompanied for 2 or 3 weeks while the commoners will be accompanied for a week. The people who accompany them don't need to be from their own family, both commoners and aristocrats will accompany the deceased. If a person does want to sleep or stop, they must have another take their place, like a shift.
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community, is it the men or women?
The men usually lead the ritual as most of the shamans are men, but there are also a few shamans who were women. Nowadays, the 2 shamans that I knew have passed away, so usually the head of the village or the chief leader of the longhouse will perform the rituals when asked. We call them laja-levouk.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
Do not point at the rainbow or your finger will be cut off; when you go out during sunshower, pluck a leaf and place it on your ear to stop ghosts from stealing your spirit. I don’t know if these have been mixed with the local place, are part of malay culture or universal belief, but my friend from the longhouse also said that they have these taboo.
Another one is after we’ve buried the deceased, we have to entertain them for a week, but we cannot pass by the burial ground during that time. It used to be a month but nowadays, 1 week is good enough
What are the common stereotype(s) said about your community?
The common stereotype is that the Sekapan are drunkards. You might find them lying around because they like to drink.
How does it make you feel to be classified as a 'lain-lain'?
It feels quite strange as I am mixed, so I feel like I do not belong amongst society. I feel as if I’m an alien. I have hands and I’m a human so why do people classify me as such. In the end, I feel like I am being discriminated against.
Can you share the current challenges faced by your community? What are your hopes for them?
The current challenges faced by my community is the lack of knowledge that others have of our community. I still find that many Sarawakians that I meet do not even know what Sekapan is.
My hopes are for my community to be exposed to more education. They can do village work, but it will not bring them anywhere. However, nowadays, my community is quite open to enrolling in education. A lot of them are going out of Sarawak to get the best education possible. I hope that it will be good for my community. It will also help to break the stereotype that the Sekapan are drunkards.
What is your vision and wish for Sarawak?
My hope for Sarawakians is to be more aware of what is happening in Sarawak as well as the ethnic groups that are here. I have talked to many activists and they are talking about all sorts of different stuff, but when I ask them about the ethnic groups in Sarawak, then they can only list the major ones. When I tell them about my ethnic group, Sekapan, they look shocked and they think that I’m lying that this ethnic group exists. If they explore more, they would find that there are so many different cultures here.
What are your hopes for Malaysia and how can Malaysians get to know each other better?
We need to get to know our country better because it’s a multicultural country and we can learn a lot from the different communities. Please don’t ban mixed marriages as well.
Mixed marriages can help to branch different cultures together. More cultural events should also be held so that everyone is given more engagement to other communities. It will be good to engage with different cultures, and this should be done progressively.
How would you want us to remember your community?
I just want people to remember that we exist in Sarawak. I want them to know that we have 2 longhouses in Belaga. It’s named Sekapan Panjang (which means long) and Sekapan Piit (which means short).
It was disheartening to find out that many within Sarawak itself were unaware of the Sekapan, with some even doubting its existence. His hopes to make the existence of the Sekapan be known to people in Sarawak as well as in Malaysia is a dream that we wish to play a part in. We need to be aware of other cultures and communities that exist alongside us because Malaysia has a plethora of different cultures with varying traditions that have fallen under the radar.
Furthermore, we share the same sentiments that we need to learn more about the various cultures that are in our country because our country is teeming with different cultures to be explored. To allow ourselves to only mix within the community we were born into or the ones we are living with will only bring about a narrow-minded perspective that does not take into account the personal feelings or thoughts of another community.
___ Interviewer: Muhammad Thaqif and Venus Choo Jia Qian, supported by Masturina Hani Mansor (Wafa) Written by: Muhammad Thaqif and Venus Choo Jia Qian Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza