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January 29, 2014

Somerset Maugham's Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah, Part 2 of 2

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah were unique and before the federation, had little in common with the peninsula.

Sabah was ruled for more than a century by a British company while Sarawak was ruled by the White Rajahs, an English family.

But colonization began with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1509, and during the following four and a half centuries the region passed through Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese over lordship. And before the Portuguese, there was influential time: a Malayo-Islamic period.

Marco Polo described Islam as firmly established at Perlak on the north coast of Sumatra in 1292, and when Ibn Battuta visited Pasai in 1345, he considered its inhabitants devout Muslims. A Hindu prince named Parameswara converted to Islam in a place he called "Melaka." And from 1414 until the Portuguese arrived, the sultans of Melaka built social and religious covenants that give Malaysian life so much of its character today.

Iban is the largest indigenous tribe of the island of Borneo and lives in traditional longhouses in Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei and Kalimantan, Indonesian. Today they farm rice, rubber and pepper. The Sarawak Culture Village gives an excellent introduction but visiting their longhouses can be arranged.

A traditional longhouse is a small village of 40 to 100 people. It is built of axe-hewn timber, tied with creeper fiber, roofed with leaf thatch. Visitors climb up a notched log that serves as a staircase into an open space used as a common community room for 20 to 50 private rooms each is a sleeping and living quarter for a family of 2 to 10.

All the families in one longhouse are related. The open space is also used as an indoor village street where seniors and children congregate at daytime while the adult men and women farm the fields. The village uses a common bathroom outside the longhouse.

I asked our tour guide how parents manage to have sex in the single room dwelling they share with the children. The answer was each family has a small hut on their farming property that they use during the day and this is probably where they can do their sex.

Years ago the men of Borneo to increase sexual pleasure practiced Palang, the piercing made at the penis tip. It can also be made through the urethra or above or below it. Ampalang is the name given to the jewelry worn there. Some men have two palang, at right angles through the penis tip. This supposed to add to the sexual pleasure of the women by stimulating the inner walls of the vagina.

The Iban used to be called Sea-Dayaks as they built their longhouses along lowland riverbanks. Those who live more in land were called Land-Dayaks.

In his 1917 book, The Sea-Dayaks of Borneo, The Rev. Edwin H. Gomes writes, “Many, no doubt, have heard of the ‘Head Hunters of Borneo’ and their idea of the Dayak is probably that he is a fierce, cruel ruffian, who spends his whole time in killing his fellow-creatures. But this is by no means the case.”

“It is true that the heads of their enemies are kept as trophies hung up over their fire-places, but it is only in times of warfare that the Dayak shows a thirst for blood,” Gomes continues, “At home and in times of peace, he is a warm-hearted, hospitable, cheery fellow.”

But in his 1984 best selling book Into the Heart of Borneo, Redmond O’Hanlon tried to calm his fellow traveler poet James Fenton:

Fenton: Locals here say that in the middle of Borneo they’re cannibals still. We are going to be eaten.

O’Hanlon: Oh, nonsense. But let’s have a few more drinks, just in case.

In his 1974 book Peter R. Phelan, an Irish resident of Sabah wrote about a report published in 1926 in the British North Borneo Herald: “In the days gone by, when warriors hunted heads, newly taken heads were installed in the family at a feast called mamut. These revels are no more, but heads remain and occasionally, when the kampong feels rich enough, a mail mensilad is celebrated to please the heads and to obviate any mischief that might befall through neglecting them. Large quantities of rice beer are brewed; relations from other kampungs and indeed mere outsiders may join. The houses are decorated, and in these decorations salad grass plays the chief part and from this grass the festival takes its name.”

Phelan comments, “The magang ceremonies indicate the deep religious significance of head-hunting which still lingers in Sabah among some of the descendants of those who formerly practiced the custom.”

Stephen R. Evans in his book Sabah: Under the Rising Sun Government details the history of the Japanese occupation of Sabah (1942-1945), “Sabah was invaded by the Japanese Army on the first of January, 1942. Although Britain was bound to assist and defend Sabah (North Borneo) against its enemies, she found it quite an impossible task to do so, because troops and various military equipment were not available.”

“The North Borneo government was ordered not to fight against the invading Japanese soldiers. The people of Sabah was also advised to keep out of trouble with the Japanese as far as possible, for their own safety and to obey orders of their new Imperial masters,” Evans added.

Sabah’s Kinabalu Park has some 15,000 plant species, including 3000 trees which have been identified. Many are found only on the island of Borneo.

The island is home to more than 50 species of carnivorous pitcher plants – some leaves develop into an extraordinary pitcher-like structure in which insects become trapped and drown into a sap-like liquid contained in the pitcher. Natrients from the decomposing insect’s bodies are slowly digested by the plant.

Last September, Malaysia celebrated the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, which included Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo, and the island of Singapore. Singapore left the federation in 1965 and became independent.

The historic date was marked in grand style with parades and fireworks, with Malaysia's King, Prime Minister Najib Razak and other leaders.

“Sarawak and Sabah must be on par with peninsular Malaysia,” said Sarawak’s Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud during the celebration. He spoke about nationalism from the perspective of Malaysians living in Borneo highlighting the fact that July 22 as Sarawak’s Independence Day, August 31 as Malaya’s and the significance of September 16 as the birth of Malaysia.

“Our destination (to be developed) is near. But we will not stop there because we have a golden dream of Sarawak ‘gemilang’ (glory) by 2030. Whatever challenges the Federal and state governments might encounter, we will strive to solve them.”

Mahmud, 77, and his young Lebanese wife Ragad Kurdi and her two sons are perhaps the most talked about family in the whole of Malaysia. There is a rumor here that he will retire from politics as Chief Minister of Sarawak to be its Governor taking over from the 92 years old Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin.

Last December (2013) while I was touring Malaysia, there was a headline “Unfolding of a new era: friendship Bridge across Pandaruan River in Limbang to Brunei to spur more mobility of people, goods and economic activities.” The $7 million 189 meters bridge is connecting Sarawak to Brunei.

As for food Borneo has 100s of unique vegetables, fruits and dishes. One dish I tried is Ambuyat; a dish derived from the interior trunk of the sago palm. It is a starchy bland substance, similar to tapioca starch. Ambuyat is a local delicacy in Brunei, as well as the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and also the federal territory of Labuan where it is sometimes known as linut.

Ambuyat is eaten with a bamboo fork called a chandas, by rolling the starch around the prongs and then dipping it into a sauce, of which there are many varieties.

Happy returns soon Inshallah to Borneo.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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