Ibans find niche in Johor

A large number of Ibans have settled down in Johor, driven by economic necessity.

ABOUT 15 years ago, M.M. Samy noticed an unfamiliar chattering among a group of people in a coffee shop in Masai town, Johor.

“They were not speaking Malay or English. It sounded different. It was not a language that I’ve ever heard,” recalled Samy, MIC assemblyman for Permas Jaya in Masai, about 25km east of Johor Baru.

Later, when Samy stumbled on more of these “strange sounding” people, he found that they were Ibans from Sarawak.

“At that time, there were not many of them in the Pasir Gudang area. You could see one or two of them in coffee shops. Then I saw more of them in Masai town,” said Samy, whose state seat is part of the Pasir Gudang parliament constituency. “Now there are so many of them.”

What Samy probably did not realise at that time was that he was witnessing the gradual migration of Ibans across the South China Sea from Sarawak to Johor.               

Arguably, Johor has the largest number of Ibans living outside of Sarawak. The number ranges from 10,000 (according to Samy) to 40,000 (Dr John Brian Anthony of www. dayakbaru.com).

One of the early Ibans to live and work in Masai is Gong Anak Sandah, who hails from Engkilili, about 156km from Kuching.

In 1990, Gong left Sarawak’s capital to look for greener pastures. In Kuching, he earned about RM7 a day fixing bulldozer engines, while in Pasir Gudang, he made about RM20 a day working in the electrical department of a shipyard.

“I felt it was rugi (a waste) to leave my hometown. But I had to do so as it was difficult to find a high-paying job in Sarawak,” recalled Gong, 52, his voice almost drowned out by Iban songs at a karaoke session at the coffee shop next door.

“When I found a job in Pasir Gudang, I could breathe easier as I was able to feed my family,” said Gong, who has 12 children aged seven to 30.

When Gong first moved to Masai, he felt like a foreigner. At that time, there were not many Ibans living in Masai.

“Back then, when you walked around Masai town at 6pm, you could spot about 10 Ibans. Now there are hundreds of them. If you want to see more Ibans, just go to the supermarkets,” smiled Gong.

Better economic opportunities in Johor drove hundreds of Ibans to abandon their home state.

According to John Brian of www.dayakbaru.com, his kinsmen started to migrate to Johor in big numbers in the late 1990s, when major construction in the booming oil and gas town of Bintulu in Sarawak was completed.

“We have a tradition called berjelai (an Iban word for journey). The purpose of berjelai is to seek knowledge and fortune,” he explained.

“When there were no jobs for skilled and semi-skilled workers in Bintulu, many headed for Pasir Gudang, a booming oil and gas town, and shipyard.”

These Ibans, noted John Brian, had no choice but to leave Sarawak as “there was nothing for them back home.”

The Ibans have made themselves felt in their adopted state. There are several Iban-owned shops in Taman Megah Ria in Masai. There you can find several Iban coffee shops selling kolo mee (a famous Sarawakian noodle dish), Apai Jamming Studio, Gereja Methodist Iban Johor, Gagasan Dayak Iban Malaysia Bersatu (GAIU or Iban Dayak United Malaysian Organisation) office and a shop selling CDs of singers from Sarawak.

On Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, there is a Tamu Dayak (some call it Pasar Borneo) where popular Sarawakian products – fresh and salted terubok, live sago worms, midin (wild jungle fern) and wild boar – are sold.

Some of the churches in Johor have masses conducted in the Iban language.

The Ibans studying in Johor schools, according to Samy, contribute to national integration as they have introduced their culture to the other students.

“I’ve attended school functions where students danced the ngajat (a traditional Iban dance),” he related.

For these Ibans, Johor has become their home. Transplanted Sarawakians such as Gong have become Johorean. If before Gong spoke Malay like a Sarawakian, now he could pass off as a native speaker from Johor.

“I consider this place as my kampung halaman (village). We have made the surrounding jungle our own. We hunt for wildlife such as monitor lizard, anteater, wild boar and porcupine in the nearby jungle. We also look for vegetables which many locals are not aware are edible,” said Gong.

However, his heart belongs to Sarawak. “One day I will go back and live in Sarawak. I’m worried that if I don’t take care of the paddy fields and rubber plantation in Engkilili, someone will grab it,” he said.

According to GAIU Johor president Sai Malaka, the Ibans here can be divided into two categories.

Some like Gong plan to work in Johor (or Singapore) and save enough money (about RM100,000 to RM150,000) so that they can return home and invest in a business.

Others plan to live permanently in the adopted state as life in Johor can be pretty comfortable.

“Just take transportation; the journey from one Johor town to another is superfast because of the highway. In Sarawak, such journey may take a day,” explained Sai, 45, owner of Panggau Libau Paradise restaurant in Taman Megah Ria.

Back in Sarawak, it takes Sai nine hours to travel from his longhouse in Katibas to Sibu town. This includes a six-hour boat journey to Song, a small river station. From Song, it is another three hours on an express boat to Sibu.

“Unlike my house in Masai, my longhouse in Katibas has no piped water or electricity. The closest hospital is nine hours by boat,” said Sai.

However, there is no denying that Sai misses his longhouse.

“What I miss most is the community bond in the longhouse. Here (in Johor) it is difficult to trust anyone. Even though you think someone is your friend, he might steal your motorcycle. True friends – that’s what most Sarawakians living here miss most,” Sai lamented.

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