Sunday October 23, 2005

Tera Ratcho’s children

In this final part of our Other Malaysians series, VERONICA SHUNMUGAM visits Sabah’s Lundayeh in the rural seaside town of Sipitang. Like their sister clan the Lun Bawang in Sarawak, they have successfully adopted a modern lifestyle but now risk losing their language and culture. 


GLORIA Muring Ganang remembers that as a child, her father would tell her folk tales instead of Western fairytales at bedtime. 

One particuar story remains bright in the 19-year-old Universiti Malaya Sabah student’s memory: it told of Rang Dongo who covered himself in banana leaves to ward off the sun’s heat, went up a mountain, and found a woman called Tera Ratcho (Egg of the Sun). The Lundayeh believe they are descended from this couple. 

But for these tales and a sense of identity imbued by her parents, Gloria would just be like any other Malaysian youth jostling to sit at the back of lecture halls, and counting MTV and CSI among life’s must-haves. 

In fact, without her traditional blouse, skirt and beadwear – which she sheepishly put on at the behest of her dad, Ricky Ganang – Gloria looks Chinese, courtesy perhaps of her Sino-Kadazan mum, Lucy Koh. 

Kg Ranau-Ranau headman Sakai Bangau and his wife, Selumi Kasih, have all the mod cons in their lives.
“People from semenanjung especially think I’m Chinese as they don’t know what a Lundayeh is or where the towns of Sipitang and Tenom are,” says Gloria, who often has to play “ambassador” to university mates from the peninsula. 

The Lundayeh culture, however, is at risk because of minimal political representation (to begin with), urbanisation, globalisation, increased mobility and influences from other races. 

The young and old do don traditional attire, but only for festivities and beauty contests where marks are awarded for complete and correct use of the attire, and a girl’s ability to reply to questions in Lundayeh.  

“Most Lundayeh families will have a costume for special occasions. Manik (bead) accessories, especially, are safely kept because these are hard to come by nowadays. The elders don’t feel shy wearing cawat (loincloth) with a bark vest covering their torso but try asking a young man!” laughs Koh, who teaches English in Sipitang (where there’s a shortage of English teachers). 

Gloria says that, unlike in Lawas, Sarawak – where their “sister” community, the Lun Bawang (who were featured last week), live – most Lundayeh youth in Sipitang are fluent in Bahasa Malaysia or English but not their native tongue. 

Yet, they still hold to the traditional life of padi farmers.
“The Lundayeh language is not taught in schools and this contributes to its decline among the young. 

“And the last time I performed a Lundayeh dance was when I was in Primary Five. We do sing a few Lundayeh songs in SIB (Sidang Injil Borneo, or the Evangelical Church of Borneo). But most of the songs are in Malay, although some have been translated into Lundayeh for the benefit of the elders,” says Gloria, who, like many Lundayeh, serves actively in church. 

Gloria’s ability to switch between the modern and traditional has come as a result of her parents’ overseas exposure: Ricky, accompanied by Lucy, studied at University of Carbondale, Southern Illinois, United States, from 1981 to 1984, making him the first Lundayeh overseas graduate.  

Today, Ricky is Sabah Forest Industries assistant manager of materials and is working on the Lundayeh-Lun Bawang Dictionary and Cultural Encyclopaedia (ready by 2007). And his name is known amongst the Lun Bawang and Kelabit as well as university researchers. 

Gloria Muring Ganang (right) and uni mate Emy Japiri were shy about putting on traditional garb and had to be persuaded by Gloria’s dad, Ricky.
Ricky says unlike Gloria, Lundayeh youths from the more remote kampungs have a different attitude: “Their upbringing and lives are different. Their schools lack teachers to guide especially the kampung kids who are difficult to change.” 

Gloria knows of several Lundayeh secondary schoolmates (who live apart from their parents in the interiors) who deal in syabu to make a quick buck and who prefer the town’s fast-paced life.  

“Not that Lundayeh kids are a bad lot. Even though they are not streetwise, most of the ones who go to urban areas keep out of trouble. But we have had a few who got involved with bad hats. And that’s when you see the ‘wild man of Borneo’ coming out in them!” adds Ricky. 

But change is nothing new to the community: over the decades, the Lundayeh have had to deal with religious conversion, mass relocation from the interiors and Sabah’s merging with the then Federation of Malaya (1963). 

Sipitang’s Kg Ranau-Ranau headman Sakai Bangau, 61, and wife Selumi Kasih, 60, voluntarily moved from the highlands of Long Pa’sia in 1950 along with many families, and were part of the last generation of Lundayeh who lived in old longhouses made of bamboo and wood bark. 

From 1969, they had to get used to living in wooden houses and, later, cement houses. They adopted a more orderly lifestyle to ward off disease, and started school in their teens. 

The church is the centre of community life in Kg Ranau-Ranau as it is in other Lundayeh kampungs.
“The British didn’t take into account age, so I was 13 years old when I started Primary One at SR Pantai. I studied up to Primary Three,” recounts Selumi who married Sakai suka sama suka (a love marriage) in 1964. 

According to Ricky, the Lundayeh developed a penchant for neatness because the sharing of space in longhouses required families to keep their belongings tidy, a trait that they share with the Lun Bawang. 

Following a measles outbreak (and widespread alcoholism) that nearly wiped out the Lundayeh in the 1920s, missionaries and health officers taught and encouraged the Lundayeh to keep their houses clean to ward off disease. 

“Nowadays, pigs are kept in (wooden) pens behind the houses. If you visited our longhouses in the old days, you would see pigs everywhere,” he says. 

Adds Sakai: “These cement houses are better and comfortable. There aren’t so many kids running about and making noise, or arguments between families. More importantly, there isn’t the constant fear of fire where just one blaze would mean everything would be razed.”  

Some practices, says Selumi, have been lost: “In a longhouse, your guest was everyone’s guest and when travellers needed to replenish necessities, they wouldn’t have to buy them as we would just supply them with whatever we could spare. Now that culture is gone, along with our young adults, who prefer to work in towns.” 

At present, the couple look after some of their grandchildren while their six adult children are at work. Early mornings see them planting or harvesting padi and other crops mainly for their own use. 

Everyone, they say, looks forward to festivities during Christmas or a wedding when the whole gin-bang visits – even if for just a few hours, as opposed to days of dancing, singing and poetry when cars and roads weren’t common. 

“We’ve come far and whenever I see, on the TV, how other Malaysian communities have also progressed, I feel happy,” says Sakai, formerly with the Territorial Army. He adds that he wants more of his people in education and politics in 10 to 20 years. 

Lundayeh speak

woman – decur
man – delai
rice – luba’
love – mawa
where are you going? – Me ya feikor?
go/walk safely – Do’dok lawey or cuai cuai lawey
goodbye – Do’ do’ tudor 

Community compendium


ACCORDING to Ricky Ganang who is writing the Lundayeh-Lun Bawang Dictionary and Cultural Encyclopaedia, “Lun” comes from the word “Lemulun”, which is the full Lundayeh (pronounced Lun-da-YERH) word for “people”.  

A lot of the Kedayan, he adds, are actually Lundayeh descendants who wanted a new name for their community after converting to Islam. 

“Before the Europeans came, there was no such term to groups us. The Europeans first went to Brunei as there was a good port. The Europeans called us ‘Murut’ after the area surrounding Mount Murud. The missionaries were the first to use the term Lundayeh in 1928 and our people were first referred to as such in written documents in 1972,” says Ricky. 


Through his research for his dictionary, Ricky found out there was an unsuccessful attempt to set up a Lundayeh association in 1965 when there wasn’t yet a Registry of Societies (ROS, set up in 1966 to enforce the Societies Act, 1966). Although they did manage to set up the Persatuan Lundayeh Sabah in 1978, this body was de-registered in 1983 after it didn’t submit annual reports to the ROS for two years running. A replacement, the Persatuan Kebudayaan Lundayeh, was then set up in 1991. 

Still, Ricky feels that the Lundayeh are at a disadvantage: “We are not represented by an MP. We are told that we need 7,500 and 3,500 people in the town and rural areas, respectively, but we only number six to eight thousand. But in 10 to 20 years’ time, we will have more representatives in government because more and more of us are getting into politics.” 


Folk in their 40s and 50s speak fluent English, thanks to missionaries and the state school exams being conducted in English even after the peninsula had switched to Bahasa Malaysia exams. As they were taught by teachers from the (American) Peace Corps who came to Sipitang during the 1960s and 1970s, education was a priority. 

The Lundayeh are proud that they outnumber the 200,000-strong Murut in terms of university graduates. They talk admirably of the Kelabits who, ratio-wise, have managed to produce many postgraduates (one reportedly in Cambridge) and professionals of both sexes. Few of their professionals – doctors, lawyers and lecturers – stay on in Sipitang, though. 


A large number of Lundayeh live in the Sabah Forest Industries’s (SFI) staff quarters comprising about 1,000 units of single-storey terrace houses. Most villages have piped water but all houses have a large blue plastic water tank outside for emergency use. Electricity – from the Tenom Pangi hydroelectric dam completed in 1983 – is supplied to villages as far as Kg Mendulong. In the most remote village, Long Pa’ sia, untreated water flows through a “gravity pipe” connected to waterheads in the surrounding mountains, and, in houses built from 1982 onwards, electricity is generated by solar power. 


The coastal town of Sipitang, which houses SFI’s vast industrial site, draws many visitors from other parts of Malaysia and abroad. Which explains the large variety of food stalls and well-kept restaurants serving everything from nasi goreng Amerika to seafood prepared in Chinese or Thai styles. There are also several Muslim restaurants.  

In the villages, Lundayeh grow rice, barley, millet, fruits and vegetables. The men occasionally hunt with rifles. Favourite foods are saltwater fish, and cucumber and yam leaves.  

Community leaders say starving families are rare as kampungs are surrounded by fertile land. A one-acre (about half a hectare) padi field provides for two adults and two kids for one year, with enough left over in good years to be sold at the market. 


Christianity, brought by missionaries of Sidang Injil Borneo (The Evangelical Church of Borneo), is a beacon to these folks.  


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