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The Sarawak Connection


Sarawak, or “Land of the Hornbills”, is a place which evokes romance and adventure. The White Rajahs, Borneo headhunters, nipah lowlands, Niah and Mulu caves, are pleasant reminders of a vast green country. On the downside are the displaced peoples, the destruction of the rainforest and oil palm plantations stretching into the horizon. Sarawak is where several indigenous people come from, but few realise that Ipoh is also home to around 500 Sarawakians.

The Ibans
The Ibans are very hospitable and fearless. They are simple, yet adventurous, and the males pursue the tradition of bejalai – a walkabout or ‘travelling long distances in search of work and adventure’. Back in the longhouses, Ibans lead a democratic life based on communal sharing and a noble tradition of kinship. They have deep respect for the jungle, the land and supernatural forces.

In Ipoh, the Ibans belong to the Ranger battalion at Camp Syed Putra, the ancillary units of the army brigade and the General Operation Force Northern Brigade in Ulu Kinta.

Ujang was born in Ipoh, twenty three years ago.

His father was an Iban commando with Vat 69 (Very Able Troopers 69) of the Northern Brigade.

VAT69 is modelled after the British Special Air Service Regiment and formed in 1969 to counter the communist terrorist threats prevalent then.

Apart from 5 years, when his father was transferred back to Sarawak, Ujang has been in Ipoh all his life. He received his primary schooling at Sekolah Chung Hwa and speaks the Iban language, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

Ujang’s fondest memories are of life in Ulu Kinta: “My friends and I would explore the countryside, setting traps for birds or small animals. Sometimes, we’d fish. Hunting reminded us of the jungles back in Sarawak.”

He compares his outdoor thrills with the children of today, who prefer computer games and are missing out on the best years of their life.

The Future
As a young adult, he worries about his future: “Life is difficult in Sarawak. Ibans are not business minded. After toiling in the fields, I cannot understand why we exchange our home-grown padi for the one the Chinese trader sells in his shop. Isn’t our own produce superior? Why not exchange our crops for essential goods instead?”

Other young Ibans, he claims, share his views, “There’re few jobs in Sarawak. The wages are low. A day’s work at the sawmill will bring between RM8 and RM12. There are few opportunities available and so we migrate to Semenanjung.”

Ipoh is Home
“I was born in Ipoh. My friends are here. Ipoh is my home. The older people may miss Sarawak, but the younger Ibans love it here.”

Ujang remembers the Sunday services at St. John’s Church in Jalan St. John and the Iban community spirit of his childhood: “We looked forward to Sundays. The Iban would berkumpul for a big makan, after church. The family unit is very important.”

“Nowadays, we hardly mix. People keep to themselves. The young ones refuse to speak Iban at home. We are losing our kebudayaan.”

Lack of an Iban voice
Ujang has another reason to be sad: “There is no Iban voice in Ipoh. Even if the Iban population is transient, our children must not forget our traditions.”

He brightens up, remembering how Sarawakians from the army and police camps used to (but no longer do) interact during Gawai celebrations. “There was plentiful tuak and bamboo chicken pansuh to feast on. The highlights were the ngajat (ceremonial warrior dance) and the kumang gawai (beauty contest).”

He looks into the distance and says, “Like most Ibans, I am musically inclined and play the guitar and drums but not the traditional instruments. My warrior spirit is still with me but I have modern skills in taekwondo and muay thai.”

Calling All Ibans
This young man, who also excels in rugby and football, asks, “Do you think an enterprising Iban might form an association so young Ibans can be in touch with their roots? If we don’t do something soon, I fear our social values and culture will become extinct.”

Mariam Mokhtar