LAST week I wrote I never saw Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s interview with Sarawak Report coming; this week, I’m must admit I never saw the Bumiputra/Dayak controversy coming either.
It was middle of this month when two Barisan Nasional officials announced the binning of “lain-lain” on government forms.
A federal minister responsible for making the request to the Cabinet announced in Bintulu the categories of “Bumiputra-Iban”, “Bumiputra-Bidayuh” and “Bumiputra-Orang Ulu” would be inserted into new official forms where necessary.
Separately, the chief minister announced the same over in Kapit.
Both were officiating at functions where native land titles were being handled out. The occasions chosen to make the announcements were not without significance.
The news was mostly greeted with praise initially, that is until the Dayak National Congress called a press conference four days later to expressed its displeasure. The body said the word “Bumiputra” should be dropped and replaced with “Dayak-Iban”, “Dayak-Bidayuh” and “Dayak-Orang Ulu”.
Quickly, more indigenous interests groups came forth agreeing. I was surprised to see a statement by Datuk Peter Minos (the former president of the Dayak Bidayuh National Association, who is known to be close to the current CM) supporting the call. I did not expect the backlash to come from entrenched Barisan supporters.
A day later, PRS (one of four Sarawak Barisan parties) made its views heard, saying, yes, put the word Dayak in the forms. By Sunday, a rally (though not well attended) was held at Kuching’s Padang Merdeka over the matter.
Many, including myself, have wondered how widespread this sentiment actually is. Are these groups’ opposition to their classification as “Bumiputra” really representative of the majority of Dayaks?
I didn’t think it would be, but having interviewed a fair number of Dayaks since Sunday, it is apparent the sentiment is quite widespread.
The root cause is feeling of being long marginalised.
Minos, for instance, told me the classification should be officially “Dayak” because it was about “respect”. He said the word “Dayak” was a uniting factor.
Sarawak Dayak Graduates Association president Dr Dusit Jaul said the term “bumiputra” had no roots here, and that “Dayak” was more historically accurate. “Bumiputra has no identity to us. It erases our identity as ‘Dayak’. Our historical root is in the word ‘Dayak’, which even the White Rajahs and later the colonial government used,” Dusit said.
“People must remember that if the Dayaks of Borneo did not support the formation of the country, there would be no Malaysia,” he added.
It is worth pointing out here neither of the two are loud-mouth aggressive speakers, inspite of what their comments might suggest. Comparisons to the type of outspoken communal leaders found in Peninsular Malaysia cannot be made here.
I should also add that there were Dayak leaders I spoke to who did not feel as strongly about the Bumiputra/Dayak controversy.
Sarawak Teachers Union president Jisin Nyud believed the inclusion of the words “Iban”, “Bidayuh” and “Orang Ulu” was adequate.
Although he prefered to be called “Dayak” rather than “Bumiputra”, the teacher had more to say about the state of the education system (in relation to how little Peninsular Malaysia students knew about Sarawak and Sabah) rather than the forms.
To get to the heart of the matter, one had to look at the Constitution, said Dr Ahmad Nizar Yaakub, the deputy dean in charge of post-graduate and research programmes at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas).
The emphasis on Bumiputra in the race category was in line with the national Constitution.
“There are special rights for Malays and Bumiputra in the Constitution. It is not stated as special rights of the Dayak, Iban, Bidayuh and such. It’s like the naming convention for universities,” Nizar explained.
“You have Unimas, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Universiti Malaysia Pahang and so on. The root word is Malaysia. You don’t have a Universiti Sarawak. It’s to recognise Malaysia before focusing on the identity of individual state.”
I also asked him about doing away with the race column in official forms, which many civil society groups have suggested. In February last year, even MCA president Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai came out saying it was “pointless” to have the race category in forms.
Again, Nizar said, look at the Constitution. The academic did not think that would be possible as long as the Constitution spelt out special rights for certain groups.
“As long as that is still there, there would be a need to have that kind of categorisation.” Nizar said the only way race considerations could be removed altogether was if race-based policies were replaced with needs and merit-based policies.
This debate over race categorisation boils down to equal opportunities and fair treatment.