Borneo Culture, Sabah


© david meyer

Sabah, Malaysian Borneo – A Cultural Melting Pot

Sabah’s Languages

One of the most definitive aspects in identifying a culture is language, and with some 55 major languages, Sabah is a particularly interesting field for those linguist who have conducted their studies over the past 40 years here. Besides the many languages, Sabah has also a variety of over 80 dialects! It is now commonly accepted that 32 of Sabah’s languages are indigenous to the State, associated with the 32 major ethnic entities. The languages comprise the Dusunic, Murutic and Paitanic Families of the Bornean Stock of the West Austronesian Superstock of Austronesian languages, and are quite closely related. Then there are the many Chinese languages that have come to Sabah with Chinese settlers and immigrants. However, even though the Chinese are Sabah’s largest non-indigenous group, they are not discussed in an in-depth manner in this paper.

The Dusunic Family is the largest of these, much as the Kadazandusun are the main indigenous group of Sabah. 14 distinct languages are recognised, whereby the central Kadazandusun language is the largest in the State with chains of dialects spreading from Papar in the south to Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, Tambunan and Ranau in the interior, and Tuaran and Kota Belud in the north. 

The Murutic Family is found in southern Sabah, and in northern parts of Sarawak and Kalimantan. There are a total of twelve languages including Timugon Murut, which is spoken in Tenom, and Tagal, which is the most widespread.

The languages of the Paitanic Family are found along the eastern rivers such as the Paitan, Kinabatangan and Segama Rivers. Already in ancient times Chinese traders visited these rivers, and in the 15th century the first Islamic missionaries made their way along the Kinabatangan into the interior of Sabah. Many peoples of the Paitanic group have converted to Islam then, and they call themselves the Orang Sungai – the River People – like the inhabitants of Sukau and the surrounding area.  There are other Austronesian languages represented in Sabah, some of which are indigenous to other parts of Borneo, and some that are indigenous to the southern Philippines, and to parts of Indonesia. Malay, which is also an Austronesian language, has been brought to Sabah by the Bruneis, who once ruled over much of Borneo.  Although Borneo has been inhabited since at least 40’000 years, it is believed that the Austronesian ancestors of Sabah have only come here over the past 5’000 years. They were probably originally from Taiwan and came via the Philippines. Language affinities, and similarities in dresses and rites make this theory most probable.

The various Bajau groups belong to those immigrants who have settled in Sabah over the past three hundred years or so. They were originally seafaring people and originate from the southern Philippines, much as the Iranun (from the Lake Lanao and Illana Bay in Mindanao), and the Suluk (called Tausug in the Philippines). The descendants of these settlers are now counted amongst Sabah’s indigenous ethnic groups.

Non-Austronesian peoples have also settled in Sabah, especially the Chinese: it must be presumed that the Chinese have long ago, maybe as far back as 2’000 years, established firm trading routes to Borneo. The wealth of Sabah’s jungles was famous for products highly esteemed: rattans and bamboos, feathers for fashion, bezoar-stones and deer horn for medicines, rhinoceros horn as an alleged aphrodisiac, the casque of the huge Hornbill birds (prized as ‘golden jade’ by Chinese carvers), camphor and other woods, honey bees, wax, sago. From the sea came tortoise shell, coral and shells for decorative purpose, shark-fins, sea slugs (or sea cucumbers), dried squids and jellyfish and other special foods and medicine. From the caves came gypsum and birds-nests. The Brunei Annals of about 1410 AD mention a Chinese settlement in the Kinabatangan area, and we know of Portuguese records that mention Chinese building junks in Brunei in 1512.  In 1882 the Basel Mission began bringing large numbers of Hakka from southern China to Sabah to work in the newly established North Borneo Chartered Company. Land was opened and tobacco was planted, together with rubber, coconuts, and some spices. Then, North Borneo also produced a lot of sisal, which was used in the shipping industry for ropes. More Chinese immigrants came to Sabah to work in the plantations in the early 20th century. Most of them were Hakka, but there were also the Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese. The descendants of these immigrants still maintain their cultural identity in Sabah until this day.  Other Austronesian immigrants include the Javanese, who were brought here during the Chartered Company time. Today, many Filipinos and immigrants from Sulawesi and other parts of Indonesia come to Sabah in search of temporary work. Sabah’s cultural history as a melting pot is still being written!

Sabah’s Major Ethnic Groups

The Kadazandusun make for Sabah’s largest ethnic entity. Traditionally, they are rice farmers, whereby the Kadazandusun of the west coast, and the Dusun of Tambunan and Keningau cultivate wet padi. Other groups in hilly areas plant so-called dry padi.  The longhouse was the preferred traditional settlement pattern for most of Sabah’s peoples, and villages were often composed of two or three longhouses consisting of many ‘apartments’. Village and kin systems, with the nuclear family at its centre played and continues to play a paramount role, even though the longhouses have been replaced over the past couple of hundred years by family homes in most parts of Sabah. Only the Rungus, and some Murut still do live in their traditional abode.  The Dusunic groups form largely egalitarian societies, unlike other ethnic entities in Borneo that have highly stratified social structures, such as the Kelabit, the Kenyan and Kayan, and the Iban of Sarawak and Kalimantan. Each village has a headman, usually elected, and he is skilled in adat, the native law. The position of the headman, or ketua kampung, has been recognised by both, the British administration and the present government system since the formation of Malaysia. In the past, it was often a warrior who headed the village. These men of bravery and wisdom were called ‘Huguan Siou’, which designs a leader with supernatural prowess. This non-hereditary leadership position involved heavy responsibility rather than privileged status! In to-day’s Sabah, there is only one Huguan Siou, and he is recognised as the paramount leader of all Kadazandusuns.  The Kadazandusun have complex, ancient religious systems. Religious rites were presided over by the Bobohizan, the shamans of Sabah. Those ritual specialists were usually female. It is interesting to note that even though the ceremonies vary from one village to another, the underlying basic belief is the same throughout all Dusunic groups: one sole Creator only is recognised. However, being an animistic religion there are also the spirits of the dead, the living, and the demons. An especially important spirit is Bambaazon, the rice spirit. Annual elaborate ceremonies (called kaamatan) have been performed since times immemorial to honour Bambaazon after each bountiful harvest. This practise has evolved to the present-day Pesta Ka’amatan, and a two-day State-wide holiday each 30th and 31st May marks the occasion. 

The Murut live in the far interior of Sabah, and were once reputed to be intrepid headhunters. Indeed, the Murut were the last in Sabah to abandon this typical Bornean custom. While the Dusunic groups generally only took heads during inter-tribal warfare and to defend their villages, the Murut youths needed to prove their prowess by taking a human head to be able to get married! The Murut people practise shifting cultivation, and are skilled hunters with the blowpipe. Fishing in the rich rivers of the interior provided additional food, and some ethnologists suggested that the Murut were semi-nomadic until not so long ago (Sabah has no true nomads, such as the Penan of Sarawak). To-day, some Murut still live in their traditional longhouse, and many, even though converted to Christianity, still perform lavish wedding ceremonies. A Murut wedding is a highly complex affair, and the bride price (berian) a young Murut man has to come up with is often so exorbitant that he has to pay for his wife over years! A popular misconception is that of ‘berian mati’: when you get married to a Murut girl, you pay until you pass away… this is not correct. The bride price is agreed on during the engagement ceremony, and once it is paid off there is no more ‘hidden cost’. However, marrying into a Murut family brings along many responsibilities, and amongst them is the duty of the husband to give the family of his wife a hand during planting and harvesting rice, attend family gatherings and help during rites of passage (births, marriages and deaths). It is the most complete form of what the Dusunic groups call ‘gotong royong’, or community work, and it really only ends in death. However, everything is reciprocal, and the man is assisted and supported by the family of his wife as well, and later by the families in law of his own children. Many Murut still practise this custom, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as the Murut, too, have taken up skilled and remunerated work far away from their villages, and from where they are not able to take leave for extended periods several times a year. Nevertheless, the Murut remain an utterly hospitable people, and if one is invited to a traditional wedding, one should by no means decline. In such cases, the Murut celebrate proudly an ancient and vibrant cultural heritage that is their very own. 

The Paitanic group of peoples is found along the rivers that feed Sabah’s east coast. They have many common traits with the Murut, and they also practise swidden agriculture. They have come under the influence of Islam in the 15th century, and as a river-people have adopted themselves to the new religion. Those who are Muslims are often simply called Orang Sungai – the River People. They have a rich oral literature in which historical events and facts are confused, overlapping with the first written documents in Sabah. The Idahan, who own bird-nesting rights in many caves on Sabah’s eastern coast, claim that they first traded them to a powerful Chinese group further north across the Sulu Sea, just about the time that Islam was introduced here, which, on their reckoning, is 1408 AD. The royal annals of Brunei of the 16th century corroborate some of the legendary stories, and identify a great Chinese voyager, Ong Sum Ping, on the west coast of Sabah. Ong, Like Cheng Ho, the famous seafarer (who some believe to be one and the same person) was a Chinese Moslem, and he may well have had to do with the expansion of Islam in Borneo, particularly in Brunei and in the Kinabatangan area. Fact is, that with the advent of Islam also writing and mathematics came to Sabah’s shores, and with the many traders and the resulting cultural exchange the Orang Sungai have enjoyed earlier literary education than many other of Sabah’s ethnic entities, though all the wile maintaining their own cultural traits an blending them with the new influences. 

The Bajau were once known as the sea-gypsies, and indeed, they used to live their entire life on boats, the Lipa-lipa. They were true nomads, and extremely skilled in navigating the seas even though they had no compass on their small, richly decorated boats. The Bajau only came to land to collect fire wood, to get water, and to bury their dead. However, over the past few hundred years some Bajau have settled on the main land, particularly along the west coast of Sabah. And while the sea Bajau families tend to be small, the land Bajau have enlarged their families. Even to-day, a Bajau house tends to be large and spacious. They are still mainly fishermen, and often build their houses on stilts into the sea or rivers, such as the Bajau of Kg Mengkabong. Having had long contact with Chinese traders, but also with European merchants, the Bajau have evolved particularly colourful costumes, with elaborate accessories. A Bajau lady in her full ceremonial dress cannot but move extremely graceful! The Bajau have been Moslems for a long time, and through intermarriage with the ruling Bruneis the settled Bajau have adopted many of their cultural aspects in dance and music. In Kota Belud, the Bajau are also famous for being skilled horsemen, and for being the only ethnic entity in Sabah to have horses for that matter. The annual Tamu Besar in Kota Belud pays particular homage to the colourful Bajau culture on the west coast of Sabah, and if you happen to be in Sabah during that time make sure not to miss out on that opportunity! 




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