Sarawak has more than 40 sub-ethnic groups, each with its own distinct language, culture and lifestyle. Cities and larger towns are populated predominantly by Malays, Melanaus, Chinese, and a smaller percentage of Ibans and Bidayuhs who have migrated from their home-villages for employment reasons. Sarawak is distinctive from the rest of Malaysia in that there is only a small community of Indians living in the state.
Sea Dayaks (Iban) women from Rejang, Sarawak, wearing rattan corsets decorated with brass rings and filigree adornments. The family adds to the corset dress as the girl ages and based on her family's wealth.
The Ibans comprise the largest percentage (almost 34%) of Sarawak's population. Formerly reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo, the Ibans of today are a generous, hospitable and placid people. Because of their history as pirates and fishermen, Ibans were conventionally referred to as the "Sea Dayaks". The early Iban settlers migrated from Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo south of Sarawak, via the Kapuas River. They crossed over the Kelingkang range and set up home in the river valleys of Batang Ai, the Skrang River, Saribas, and the Rajang River. The Ibans dwell in longhouses, stilted structures with a large number of rooms housing a whole community of families.
An Iban longhouse may still display head trophies or antu pala. These suspended heads mark tribal victories and were a source of honor. The Dayak Iban ceased practicing headhunting in the 1930s.
The Ibans are renowned for their Pua Kumbu (traditional Iban weavings), silver craft, wooden carvings and bead work. Iban tattoos, which were originally symbols of bravery among Iban warriors, have become amongst the most distinctive in the world. The Ibans are also famous for a sweet rice wine called tuak, which is served during big celebrations and festive occasions.
The large majority of Ibans practise Christianity. However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still observe many of their traditional rituals and beliefs. Sarawak celebrates colourful festivals such as the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Gawai Kenyalang (hornbill, or the god of war festival), penuaian padi and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead).
Chinese people first came to Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th century. Today, they make up 26% of the population of Sarawak and consist of communities built from the economic migrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The first Chinese (Hakka) migrants worked as labourers in the gold mines at Bau or on plantations. Through their clan associations, business acumen and work ethic, the Chinese organised themselves economically and rapidly dominated commerce. Today, the Chinese are amongst Sarawak's most prosperous ethnic groups.
The Sarawak Chinese belong to a wide range of dialect groups, the most significant being:
- Puxian Min
Whereas Hakka is spoken predominantly by the farmers in the interior, Hokkien and Teochew are the dominant dialects spoken within the major trading towns and among early traders and businessmen. Hailam were well-known as coffee-shop operators, the Henghua are famous as fishermen. The notable difference between those who presided in West Malaysia is the common use of Cantonese. Mandarin however was and still is the unifying language spoken by all the different dialectic groups in both East and West Malaysia. The Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all the major cultural festivals, most notably Chinese New Year and the Hungry Ghost Festival. The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and Christians.
The Malays make up 21% of the population in Sarawak. Traditionally fishermen, these seafaring people chose to form settlements on the banks of the many rivers of Sarawak. Today, many Malays have migrated to the cities where they are heavily involved in the public and private sectors and taken up various professions.
Malay villages, known as Kampungs, are a cluster of wooden houses on stilts, many of which are still located by rivers on the outskirts of major towns and cities, play home to traditional cottage industries. The Malays are famed for their wood carvings, silver and brass craftings as well as traditional Malay textile weaving with silver and gold thread (kain songket).
Malays are Muslim by religion, having been converted to the faith some 600 years ago with the Islamification of the native region. Their religion is reflected in their culture and art and Islamic symbolism is evident in local architecture – from homes to government buildings.
The Melanaus have been thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak.
Originally from Mukah (the 10th Administrative Division as launched in March 2002), the Melanaus traditionally lived in tall houses. Nowadays, they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in kampong-type settlements. Traditionally, Melanaus were fishermen and still today, they are reputed as some of the finest boat-builders and craftsmen.
While the Melanaus are ethnically different from the Malays, their lifestyles and practices are quite similar. This is especially the case in the larger towns and cities where most Melanau have adopted the Islamic faith.
The Melanaus were believed to originally summon spirits in a practice verging on paganism. Today most of the Melanaus community is Muslim whilst some remain Christians, though they still celebrate traditional animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.
5. Dayak Bidayuh
Concentrated mainly on the West end of Borneo, the Bidayuhs make up 10% of the population in Sarawak are now most numerous in the hill counties of Padawan, Bau and Serian, within half an hour drive from Kuching.
Historically, as other tribes were migrating into Sarawak and forming settlements including the Malays from the neighbouring archipelagos, the Bidayuhs retreated further inland, hence earning them the name of "Land Dayaks" or "land owners". The word Bidayuh in itself literally means "land people" in Biatah dialect. In Bau-Jagoi/Singai dialect, the pronunciation is "Bidoyoh" which also carry the same meaning.
The traditional community construction of the Bidayuh is the "baruk", a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground. It serves as the granary and the meeting house for the settlement's community. Longhouses were typical in the olden days, similar to that of the Ibans.
Typical of the Sarawak indigenous groups, the Bidayuhs are well-known for their hospitality, and are reputed to be the best makers of tuak, or rice wine. Bidayuhs also use distilling methods to make “arak tonok”, a kind of moonshine.
The Bidayuhs speak a number of different but related dialects. Some Bidayuhs speak either English or Malay as their main language. While some of them still practise traditional religions, the majority of modern-day Bidayuhs have adopted the Christian faith.
6. Dayak Orang Ulu
A young Sarawakian playing the sapeh
The phrase Orang Ulu means upriver people and is a term used to collectively describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak's vast interior. Such groups include the major Kayan and Kenyah tribes, and the smaller neighbouring groups of the Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, and Penan. Nowadays, the definition also includes the down-river tribes of the Lun Bawang, Lun Dayeh, "mean upriver" or "far upstream", Berawan, Saban as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabits. The various Orang Ulu groups together make up roughly 5.5% of Sarawak's population. The Orang Ulu are artistic people with longhouses elaborately decorated with murals and woodcarvings. They are also well-known for their intricate beadwork and detailed tattoos. The Orang Ulu tribe can also be identified by theirunique musical sound made by a sapeh, a stringed instrument similar to a mandolin.
A vast majority of the Orang Ulu tribe are Christians but traditional religions are still practised in some areas.
Some of the major tribes making up the Orang Ulu group include:
There are approximately 15,000 Kayans in Sarawak. The Kayan tribe built their longhouses in the northern interiors of Sarawak midway on the Baram River, the upper Rejang River and the lower Tubau River, and were traditionally headhunters.
They are well known for their boat making skills. The Kayan people carve from a single block of belian, the strongest of the tropical hardwoods.
Although many Kayan have become Christians, some still practise paganistic beliefs, but this is becoming more rare.
- Lun Bawang
The Lun Bawang are indigenous to the highlands of East Kalimantan, Brunei (Temburong District), southwest of Sabah (Interior Division) and northern region of Sarawak (Limbang Division).Lun Bawang people are traditionally agriculturalists and rear poultry, pigs and buffalo. Lun Bawangs are also known to be hunters and fishermen.
With a population of approximately 3000, the Kelabit are inhabitants of Bario – a remote plateau in the Sarawak Highlands, slightly over 1,200 meters above sea level. The Kelabits form a tight-knit community and practise and practice agriculture methods used for generations. Famous for their rice-farming, they also cultivate a variety of other crops which are suited to the cooler climate of the Highlands of Bario. The Kelabits are closely related to the Lun Bawang.
The Kelabit are predominantly Christian, the Bario Highlands having been visited by Christian missionaries many years ago.
With the population about ~22,000, the Kenyah inhabit the Upper Belaga and upper Baram. There is little historical evidence regarding the exact origin of the Kenyah tribe. Their heartland however, is Long San, along the Baram River and Belaga along Rajang River. Their culture is very similar to that of the Kayan tribe with whom they live in close association. The typical Kenyah village consists of only one longhouse. Most inhabitants are farmers, planting rice in burnt jungle clearings. With the rapid economic development, especially in timber industry, many of them work in timber camps.
The Penan are the only true nomadic people in Sarawak and are amongst the last of the world's hunter-gatherers. The Penan make their home under the rainforest canopy, deep within the vast expanse of Sarawak's jungles. Even today, the Penan continue to roam the rainforest hunting wild boar and deer with blowpipes.
The Penan are skilled weavers and make high-quality rattan baskets and mats. The traditional Penan religion worships a supreme god called Bungan. However, the increasing number who have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle for settlement in longhouses have converted to Christianity.
One of the least known tribes in Sarawak and can be found in upper Tinjar river. Sebob are the first Tinjar settlers along the Tinjar river and it is said that others migrated at a later date. The sebob/chebob tribes occupies up to six longhouse in Tinjar including Long Loyang, Long Batan, Long Selapun, Long Pejawai and Long Subeng. Amongst the longhouses, Long Luyang is the longest and most populated Sebob/Chebob settlement. It comprises almost 100 units. Most of these people have migrated and found work in the cities.