Are Sabah natives ready for a Dayak nation?

The recent inaugural Dayak International Justice Congress in Keningau organised by Borneo Dayak Forum (BDF) raises several questions.

Are the Kadazandusuns and other natives in Sabah ready to be clumped under a single grouping of “Dayaks”?

The congress went one step further by passing a motion to look into re-naming Borneo Island as Dayak Island. While BDF appears to be a pan-Borneo socio-cultural body aimed at uniting all Dayak tribes in Borneo, including the Kadazandusun and Murut people in Sabah, some suspect it has political intentions.

It was reported that there was strong opposition to the event, and rumours of potential violence and near cancellation due to suspicion over the organisers’ intent.

Organising chairman Jalumin Bayogoh reportedly admitted that the actions by some people, including those who claimed to be supporters of the event, had almost resulted in the cancellation of the three-day programme.

In March 2017, BDF president Jeffrey Kitingan, who is the current Sabah opposition leader, was barred from entering Sarawak. He said he was there to chair a meeting between Dayak leaders from Kalimantan and Sabah in Kuching. It is unclear whether the ban has been lifted.

Jeffrey said Rumpun Dayak are indigenous people who inhabited Borneo island in the past, which was also known as Dayak Island. He said this meant that the Kadazan, Dusun and Murut (KDM) communities in Sabah belong to one stock or clump as the Dayak communities in Kalimantan, Brunei and Sarawak.

Although that may be the case historically or culturally, the big question is whether the natives of Sabah are willing to commit themselves under the grouping of Dayaks.

One political scientist commented that the Kadazan leadership is already badly fragmented and BDF is another body that will widen the cracks.

“I am very sure that the people who identify themselves as Kadazandusun, Mamasok, Momogun, etc, would oppose to being clumped under Dayaks. We have fought for our ethnicity when the federal government ticked Sabah natives as ‘dan lain-lain’ in the government forms – why should we now be lumped together as Dayaks?

“Jeffrey cannot even unite his own Kadazandusun people and now he wants to unite the ‘Dayaks’ of Borneo under one roof,” he said.

There is no evidence that Kadazandusuns are in favour of being clumped under Dayaks. They had their own identity crisis in the past and the Dayak grouping promoted by BDF adds to the confusion.

In the 1960s, chief minister Donald Stephens used the term “Kadazan” as the official assignation of non-Muslim natives, sparking opposition from the Dusun side. This hotly debated identity crisis slowly settled down after the two sides agreed to use the term “Kadazan-Dusun” or “Kadazandusun”.

The unified term “Kadazandusun” was unanimously passed as a resolution during the 5th Kadazan Cultural Association’s Delegates Conference in November 1989, where “Kadazandusun” was adopted as the best alternative generic identity as well as the most appropriate approach to resolving the “Kadazan” or “Dusun” identity crisis.

In August 1961, the first Kadazan National Congress debated and voted to resolve that “Kadazan” be the generic identity of the numerous Dusunic, Paitanic, Idahan, Murutic ethnic and numerous other sub-ethnic and speech communities.

This was the basis for the re-formulation of the KCA/KDCA Constitution, hence Article 6 lists all ethnic, sub-ethnic and speech communities under Kadazan/Kadazandusun.

When the Kadazandusun, the largest native group of the Sabah Bumiputera, are being challenged by illegal immigrants issues, state rights under Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63), freedom of religion, native laws and customary rights, the conflicts over identity will further weaken the native community in resolving these issues.

In April, the proposed amendment of Article 1 (2) of the Federal Constitution failed to rename the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak as a different entity in relation to the 11 states of Peninsular Malaysia.

Now, we have a new proposal to rename the whole of Borneo Island as Dayak Island. Does the renaming of Borneo Island as Dayak Island serve any purpose?

Kadazandusun Cultural Association member Benedict Topin, who was the first president of the Dayak International Justice Council, said the council was tasked with documenting all written and oral native laws from all Dayak groups in Borneo. The collected laws would be used as the basis for a common native law for all Dayaks.

On a proposal for an International Native Court for the Dayak indigenous people in Borneo and some parts of Indonesia, Sabah Assistant Law and Native Affairs Minister Jannie Lasimbang said in January she was not dismissive of the idea. However, she questioned the viability of implementing the judgments made by this court.

How do you get Sarawak, Sabah and Indonesia to agree on one common native law under the clump of Dayaks? If it sounds ambitious, it is.

Sabah and Sarawak are not on the same page when it comes to MA63, and the Dayaks in Kalimantan have had several violent uprisings in the past against the central government.

Each state or country like Indonesia has its own constitution, native laws and customary rights, and it’s a tall order to have these united and codified under one written law.

In Sabah, we have not yet settled on the definition of natives. Unlike in Sarawak, the term “natives” in Sabah is not clearly spelt out.

Lasimbang said a proposed amendment to the Sabah Interpretation (Definition of Native) Ordinance 1958 was among a few important issues on the ministry’s agenda but that it was not considered urgent enough to be looked at immediately.

The ordinance explicitly mentioned five ethnic groups as natives: the Suluk, Kagayan, Simonol, Sibutu and Ubian, all of whom are found mainly in east coast areas.

Other natives in Sabah, particularly the Kadazandusun and Murut people, are not listed under the definition of native.

There are many benefits for those listed as natives, such as land ownership and the right to claim certain lands under native customary rights.

At present, the Kadazandusun, Murut, Bajau, Bisaya, Rungus, Lotud and many other groups are lumped into two sub-clauses under the Interpretation Ordinance but the names of their particular ethnic groups are not mentioned. This anomaly on the definition of Sabah natives is likely to be prolonged unless there is a concentrated effort to amend the status of the largest native group.

The pursuit of Dayakship and the land of the Dayaks does not help the Kadazadusun cause; it just adds to existing complications.

One senior Kadazandusun leader said it would be better if the likes of Jeffrey and Benedict Topin concentrate on amending Sabah native laws rather than promoting the land of the Dayaks.

The concept of the greater Dayak does not benefit Sabah natives directly except in the area of cultural exchange, and time and energy should be spent on Sabah-centric issues which have yet to be resolved.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.