Contradictheory: Two sides of Sarawak’s history

  • Living
  • Monday, 17 Sep 2018

A painting of one of James Brooke's battles against pirates in Sarawak. Photo: Brooke Heritage Trust

The other day, the Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP) issued a press statement asking the Education Ministry to correct some mistakes in the history curriculum. For them, the issues were that Malaya is referred to as “our nation” in the textbook, and that in 1963, Malaysia consisted of 13 states.

For me, it’s a case of Sah-rah-wak, Seh-rah-wak – it depends how you look at it. After all, I still consider events that took place in pre-1957 in Malaya as part of “my nation’s history”. And while I accept there was a rewording of the Federal Constitution in 1976, my belief is that it was more cosmetic than substantial (on this point, I am willing to be proven wrong).

Regardless, this kind of talk is akin to prodding a hornbill’s nest with a very sharp stick. In fact, an issue similar to the one about Sarawak’s position in the Federation of Malaysia arose while I was involved in making a documentary about Sarawak’s history.

My simplistic solution was to follow the wording in the Malaysia Agreement: “The Colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak and the State of Singapore shall be federated with the existing States of the Federation of Malaya as the States of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.”

However, I assume the reason why the SUPP needed to hold a press conference to highlight this was simply because they are not in a position to change the curriculum themselves. The truism is that, in fact, history is written by the winners.

Let’s take for example the story of the three White Rajahs of Sarawak that (very) roughly goes like this:

The adventurer James is the one who landed on its shore and fell in love with the land. His nephew Charles extended that admiration to the natives of Sarawak and protected the well-being of his subjects by expanding borders to diminish the chaos of Brunei rule. And finally, grand-nephew Vyner allowed Sarawakians to live by their local culture and rules, and would later announce the Nine Cardinal Principles of the Rajah, with a promise that “the people of Sarawak shall be entrusted in due course with the governance of themselves”.

James Brooke
A portrait of James Brook, which is currently displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Photo: Brooke Heritage Trust

Taken in this light, it is the story of how the Rajahs brought order to a chaotic land, established laws and borders, and eventually returned it to the inhabitants via temporary British colonial rule in the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, part of the reason the story goes like this is that the people who wrote most of the books were British themselves (some close friends of the Brookes). You would expect favouritism.

What about the other side? What did the locals think? If you talk to some Ibans in Sarawak now, they paint a very different picture of the Brookes. They talk of a group of men who had barged in to exploit the locals, who pandered to them to win their favour and massacred them to gain their obedience. One person we talked to even referred to the Brookes treating the state as a “personal zoo”.

This is the other narrative of the White Rajahs of Sarawak. James was a colonialist eager to find fame and fortune by expanding the British Empire. Charles established a system of state-sponsored warfare by using local Dayaks to hunt and kill other Dayaks who did not submit to Brooke law. And Vyner failed to take advantage of the state’s vast resources to develop any significant economic prosperity and finally decided to sell Sarawak in return for some ready cash.

As I’ve said in previous columns, the truth tends to lie somewhere between two extremes. One of the things we have tried to do in the Sarawak documentary is present several sides of the story.

But it is somewhat more difficult to deliver the “local” side of the story. One of the things we have to do to various channels and commissioners is to cite sources and proofs that back up the claims made. Of course, if an interviewee says it, we can take it at face value – as long as they are recognised as an expert on the subject.

Another issue is that modern-day Sarawakians express their views lucidly. But is this what their ancestors would have said nearly 200 years ago?

When it comes to James and Charles Brooke, on the other hand, we have a window into their minds through their letters and diaries, as well as accounts by friends and acquaintances. But local Dayak culture depended a lot on oral history, and that is much harder to source. We met somebody who was a descendent of an Iban who fought alongside and against the famous warrior Rentap. Unfortunately, we could not obtain a transcript of their oral history passed down through generations.

So it isn’t only that history is written by the victors, but that the “victors” tend to take better care of the records.

Does this mean that whatever documentary we make will be oblique or one-sided? I prefer to think of it as a work in progress. This is what we have at the moment, hopefully presented in an entertaining and elucidating fashion.

If what we make provokes others to tell their stories, so much the better. So in that sense, although I don’t agree with the points made in the pleas to review the curriculum, I am happy that the pleas are being made. State your side, present your evidence, and add to the ever-growing story.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at

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