The Dayak dilemma (Part 1)
Sim Kwang Yang | Dec 20, 08 10:24am

There is a rising tide of excitement and euphoria among many politically conscious Dayaks in Sarawak over a series of massive grand dinners held first in Sibu, then in Miri last week, and finally ending in Kuching in the immediate future, to welcome Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim.

anwar and sarawak state electionSince the next Sarawak election is widely speculated to be held next year, the sudden surge of Anwar’s PKR in this East Malaysian state could be a prelude towards an all-out no-holds-barred assault on the Sarawak Barisan Nasional. The prize that PKR seeks will be state power in the Land of the Hornbill, to add to their Pakatan Rakyat stable of state governments, in Penang, Perak, Selangor, Kedah, and Kelantan.

In this ambitious project, the Dayak voters’ support becomes critical, for they constitute nearly half of the total population of Sarawak.

By virtue of the logic of politics of race, which is entirely based on ethnic head-counting, the Dayaks ought to be the dominant community in Sarawak. The chief minister ought to be a Dayak. 

The reality is quite a different thing. The first Sarawak CM Stephen Kalong Ningkan (1920-1997) was indeed an Iban. But he was forcibly removed in 1996 by a federally initiated Declaration of Emergency and a constitutional amendment. Since 1970, the two Sarawak CMs have been Melanau Muslims.

Since then, the Dayak communities have been mired in political marginalisation and socio-economic backwardness that can hardly be imagined by people living in affluent states of Peninsular Malaysia.

Time stood still

Living mostly in the vast rural areas of Sarawak, many still live without basic amenities such as roads, jetties, clinics, treated drinking water, and electricity. Time for them has stood still since independence in 1963.

In most villages that I have visited, young men and women have left their community, to seek work and better prospect in large towns in Sarawak, with increasing number crossing the ocean to West Malaysia and Singapore. Only the very old and the very young are left to eke out a meagre living on their land. The massive exodus of the young has practically emptied the rural communities of the vital force for social and economic renewal in rural Sarawak.

(The think-tank people in PKR should start to think about devising a method to enable these Sarawak diasporas to go back to Sarawak to vote in the next state election.)

Meanwhile, the Dayak people have seen escalating erosion to their land tenure held under Sarawak Native Customary Rights (NCR), from first massive logging, and then giant plantations and dam building have robbed many Dayak communities of their land. Without land, the physical survival and the survival of their cultural traditions and ethnic identity are threatened.

bn supreme council mt meeting sapp sabah issue 190608 taib mahmudIt would be tempting to blame the socio-economic marginalisation of the Dayaks entirely on racial discrimination, but that would be too simplistic. Although many Malay/Muslim politicians and technocrats have amassed fabulous wealth under the patronage of CM Taib Mahmud, the Malay/Melanau people too live in the same kind of socio-economic quagmire that impedes progress in their community.

I have visited the coastal area of Samarahan near Kuching. The people there had been represented by Taib Mahmud in Parliament for decades, and despite some huge drainage and irrigation projects, the Malay people there are still poor. For some fishermen there, they wake up to think of how to find their next meal.

Since the political demise of Stephen Kalong Ningkan, the failure of the Dayak nationalist impulse in Sarawak in presenting a more inclusive Sarawakian narrative is one of the reasons for its failure. 

26 indigenous communities

Even so, the imagined Dayak nation – as a theoretical construct – is an anomaly within the context of the politics of race in Malaysia. 

As an important political category, the terms “Dayak” and “Dayakism” came to prominence only upon the formation of Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) in 1983 as a splinter group from the Sarawak National Party. 

The term “Dayak” is supposed to signify all non-Muslim natives of Sarawak. But by definition in the federal constitution, there are some 26 different indigenous communities in Sarawak that can be regarded as Dayaks. If you include all the sub-groups that fall within any one of these communities, then there are actually well over 40 distinct ethnic groups that could be considered as “Dayak” communities.

sarawak diverse population percentage breakdown of race 160106They are all divided by lineage, language, customs, and religion.  Many of these communities have even fought prolonged bloody wars with one another in the old days.

(I once asked a Jagoi Bidayu from the Bau area why the Bidayuhs had chosen to live mostly on high grounds up on the hillside, thus earning them the name of “Land Dayak” under the British administration, in contrast to the Ibans who were called “Sea Dayaks”.  He said that in the old days, it was easy to shoot down at the enemies during wars with the marauding Ibans.)

The Bidayuh is an interesting case in point. Though lumped together as a single ethnic group, this small community comprising some 8% of the total population of Sarawak has seven major dialects, and countless sub-dialects. Sometimes, when you travel 20 kilometres down the road, you find another group of Bidayuhs speaking another dialect. 

Such ethnic diversity may be a gold mine for cultural anthropologists, but it must be a nightmare for politicians to try to forge a Dayak nation, without recourse for appeal to a single language, a single religion, and a single history.

Fortunately for them, all the Dayaks of Sarawak are united in two things.

With the exception of some Penans, they all depend on shifting cultivation as their traditional way of life. Land is more than a piece of property. Their land is the source of their immediate sustenance, the bosom of the gods that protect them, and the burial ground of their ancestors. 

an old dayak warrior pondering on the past gloryTheir land, their rivers, and their forests are all alive with mysterious forces that interact with them in their daily lives. They will never harm the land which is like a mother to them. To fault shifting cultivation for deforestation is the paragon of cynicism. To deprive their land rights through legislative and administrative fiats is the apex of injustices.

Secondly, all Dayak communities have their own set of internal rules called adat, handed down from generation to generation through word of mouth and daily practice. They even have their own tiers of native courts to trial offenders and settle disputes. In the hearts of many natives, these rules and these courts have greater force than the laws of the state and the Borneo judicial system.

Limited political horizon

Unfortunately, in recent decades,the state appointed judges of these native courts, the Pengulus and the Temengongs, have often sided with the state government when it comes to disputes between Dayak villagers and timber companies.   

It is this common self-identification of all Dayak communities to their extraordinary tie with their land and their common cultural heritage of living by their adat that allows the nationalist idea of a “Dayak nation” to flourish for a while.   

dayak NCR land 220405 hopefullThen again, Dayak nationalism could not be sustained for long because they simply do not have an alternative mass medium of communication, for them to imagine themselves as a single nation.  According to Benedict Anderson, print capitalism was one of the vehicle for nationalist sentiments to grow. 

Living in scattered far-flung and sometimes very remote jungle communities, the Dayaks depend heavily on word of mouth, personal contact, and the government controlled radio for their information. Newspaper delivery would be impossible for most long-houses situated a long way from towns. Many are poor by the standards of modern cash economy; it is unlikely that they can afford the newspaper subscription fees. Without a viable market, there is no chance for an Iban or a Bidayuh newspaper to survive. Naturally, the Internet Is a different universe for them.

Therefore, the political imagination of the rural Dayak voters seldom extends beyond their part of the river or mountain. I have all too often heard Dayak political and community leaders talk about “my people”. What they mean is their folks and kin living in the few villages surrounding their own. This limited political horizon is not conducive towards creating a state wide national consciousness, and it creates ample opportunity for opportunism for the Dayak ruling class at the highest level. 

Having been exposed to massive money politics for many decades past, voting means very different things for the Dayaks. The vote is often seen as a currency of exchange for tangible immediate benefits like cash and gifts. I have witnessed how Dayak communities that had protested vehemently against logging voting consistently for the BN during subsequent general elections. They have yet to link democracy with changing their own collective fate.

So now the Dayaks are looking to PKR as another political vehicle to regenerate and revive their political fortune. PKR is a multiracial party, and that means the Dayak leaders should aspire towards a more universal inclusive and enlightened discourse, to educate every Dayak voter on the meaning of democracy first.

Meanwhile, the PKR leaders in West Malaysia must also realise that they should take a crash course in Dayak culture, if they are to campaign effectively in Sarawak. Like Sabah, Sarawak is a cultural universe unto itself. Outsiders wishing to help the disenfranchised people of Sarawak will have a thing or two to learn from Sarawakians first.