The Brunei Malays are found along the west coast of Sabah as far as Papar and in Limbang in Sarawak and the 5th District area of Brunei. They originated from the Brunei Sultanate, which had survived for five centuries and at one time included present day Sarawak and some parts of Sabah. As Brunei lost territory during the 19th century, the cultivable area shrank and both the Malays and Kedayans, whose homeland was Brunei, migrated to neighbouring areas, including Labuan which was virtually uninhabited when the British took over.
The well-known water villages of Patau-Patau and Kampung Bebuloh were set up by the Brunei Malays, carrying on their traditional lifestyle of living in stilt houses over the sea. These villages consist of large communities with shops, surau and other facilities. They have also settled on land, especially in the Kampung Rancha-Rancha, Lubuk Temiang, Gersik, Tanjung Aru and Pantai areas. Their dialect differs somewhat from the Peninsula Malay dialect. Some of their customs too, are slightly different.
Traditionally these people were fishermen, sailors and traders. Today they fish using modern boats and methods, and many are employed in the civil service and service industry.
The Kedayan people make up about half of Labuan’s population, and like the Brunei Malays have moved into adjacent areas in Sarawak and Sabah. Their origins are somewhat mysterious, with some claiming to have Javanese origins. But some researchers think they may have Kalimantanese roots. Hose, in his research in 1912 classified them under his early Kalimantan group, while Leach in 1950 thought they might have been an early cultural stratum of a Murut-Kelabit type, who became Islamised and eventually drawn into Malay cultural influence, especially with the setting up of the Brunei Sultanate.
In Labuan the Kedayan make up just over half of its Muslim population. They speak a Malayic language which is similar to Malay, but they have their own distinctive culture and like to preserve their own identity.
In the past, the Kedayan people have shown a streak of rebellion and had rebelled twice within the last 114 years. In 1884, together with the Bisayan and Limbang Muruts, they took part in a rebellion in the Limbang area against the Brunei temenggongs and rajas. They rebelled again a few years later and questions were asked whether this sparked off an influx of Kedayan people into Labuan.
The early Kedayan were mainly padi farmers. Today, as there are hardly any padi grown in Labuan, the ones that are still farming tend to grow fruits and vegetables instead. An interesting note is the Kedayan’s knowledge of use of medicinal plants. They grow plants which are used to treat a wide range of ailments, and sometimes they mix the plants to make tonics. They also have plants for antidotes.
The Iban, the largest ethnic group in Sarawak, were also known as Sea Dayaks. Formerly a warlike and expansionist people, they were famous pirates and headhunters. Their traditional lifestyle is based on shifting cultivation of dry rice, and the rice planting and harvesting cycle is the focus of their belief system. Although the majority of Ibans have converted to Christianity, rice continues to play a powerful social and spiritual role. Nowadays many Ibans grow cash crops such as pepper, rubber, cocoa and oil palm, as well as hill rice.
Many others live in Sarawak’s town and cities, but maintain strong ties to their ancestral longhouses.
The Iban are a very democratic and egalitarian people. All adults have a full say in the way the community is run, and the tuai rumah of a modern longhouse does not inherit his position, but is chosen by the residents for his leadership qualities and understanding of adat or customary law.
The Bidayuh, also known as Land Dayaks, are the second largest indigenous group in Sarawak. Like the Iban, their economy and belief system are both based on the growing of dry rice. Former opponents of the Iban, they too developed longhouse living for protection in times of war. For the Bidayuh, the longhouse has less ritual importance, as the focus of the community is the Baruk, or head-house, an elaborate circular or octagonal building with a conical roof, where enemies’ skulls were kept.
Many Bidayuh women still produce exquisite and practical rattan basketware, and they are particularly famed for their woven backpacks and baby carriers, as well as tough and decorative rattan and bamboo mats. In the remoter areas, many older women still wear dozens of brass rings around their legs, reaching from their ankles to their knees. Bidayuh men are skilled bamboo carvers, producing all manner of artefacts and works of art from simple bamboo stems. Like the Iban, they produce good tuak, but they are famous for their excellent fruit wines, including tuak tebu (sugarcane wine), tuak tampui (wild mangosteen wine) and tuak apel (cider). Visitors are sure to be offered a sample.
The term Orang Ulu means “upriver people” and covers a host of smaller tribes from Sarawak’s interior. Travellers are most likely to visit the longhouses of the Kayan, Kenyah, Punan, Kajang, Kejaman, Kelabit and Lun Bawang. Whilst all of these peoples have widely differing cultures and languages, they also have many factors in common.
Unlike the Iban, the Orang Ulu tribes are hierarchical, with a class of traditional aristocrats known as maren. The tuai rumah and his family will live in a very large apartment at the centre of the longhouse, surrounded on either side by their aristocratic neighbours, whilst the commoners live further away from the centre. Social status was traditionally determined by a person’s distance from the tuai rumah’s apartment, although nowadays this distinction is becoming less important in everyday life.
Orang Ulu are also very fond of personal adornment. Many older women have their hands, arms, legs and feet covered in dense black tattoos, and even today many younger women elongate their earlobes with heavy brass rings. These tattoos and elongated earlobes are marks of great beauty amongst the Orang Ulu. Men decorate themselves by piercing the upper part of the ear, through which a boar’s tusk or leopard’s claw is inserted for ceremonial occasions.
The Bajau, the second largest indigenous group, is a collective term for a predominantly Muslim peoples and Kindered groups.
Originally seafarers there are now two distinct groups, the East Coast Bajau and West Coast Bajau. The West Coast Bajau have now settled down around the Kota Kinabalu to Kota Belud areas and have learnt the art of farming and cattle rearing. They are the famous cowboys of Sabah.
Their skills in horsemanship are well known locally and on festive occasions both horses and riders are dressed in colorful costumes. On the east coast however many of the Sea Bajaus still live in the traditional way. Fishing is the main activity. While many have settled on land or in water villages some are still nomadic boot dwellers.
The Dusun/Kadazan group is the largest indigenous group in Sabah. They are actually a collectivity of ethnic groups speaking similar languages and dialects as well as having similarities in culture and traditional beliefs. Within this group there exists at least 10 distinct languages with possibly 30 or more dialects.
There are some people of this Dusun/Kadazan group who prefer to call themselves Dusun, while others particularly in the Penampang/Papar areas prefer the term Kadazan.
Many others however prefer to call themselves by tribal names such as Lotud, Rungus, Orang Sungai (River People), Kuijau, Tambanuo etc.
The Dusun/Kadazan are mainly found on the west coast from Kudat to Sarawak border and in the interior areas of Ranau, Tambunan and Keningau. They are traditionally farmers occupying the fertile plains of the west coast and the interior. The majority of the Dusun/Kadazan peoples are Christian while many also profess Islam with some still classed as pagans.
The Muruts are the third largest indigenous group in Sabah. The Muruts, literally meaning ‘hillpeople’, are found mainly in three areas of the Interior Division, Tenom, Keningau and Pensiangan. The Muruts are for the most part shifting cultivator, living in the more remote areas. They live in communal longhouses, usually near rivers, using the rivers as their highways. They plant hill padi and topioca, hunt and fish for a living and were the last of Sabah’s ethnic groups to renounce head hunting.
The men are skillful hunters with blowpipe and spear, and of course their hunting dogs. Mostly converted to Christianity or Islam the Muruts still practise a remarkable from of a bridewealth in which a man on marriage pays bridewealth throughout his life.
They are an extremely hospitable people and as in the Dusun/Kadazan group some still refer to themselves by old tribal names such as Timogun, Tagal, Nabas etc.