Borneo, land without border

The fifth edition of Borneo Hornbill Festival was held last week and the fatigue has gradually subsided.  My focus is now on Spirits of the Harvest scheduled on 31st August and Malaysia Zero Hour on 15th September 2013. After that is vacation time in London and Paris.  We shall see whether it is a well deserved one.

Looking back at the recently concluded Borneo Hornbill Festival, and I must say, this excludes the controversy surrounding both pageant and dance competition, I realize that the word Borneo has grown larger than life.

Borneo Hornbill Festival was initially called Hornbill Festival in 2008 and it was executed as a showcase of dance from Sarawak, minus the competition.  The year after that saw our first Kumang and Keling 2009 and Hornbill Festival took a break.

After gaining experience in both dance showcase and ethnic pageant, Warisan Sarawak revived Hornbill Festival in 2010 with the main features of Ethnic Pageant and Ethnic Dance Competition.  It came to our attention that there was another Hornbill Festival happening in Nagaland province of India and the organizers actually emailed us for a possible collaboration and to remind us that they have been organizing Hornbill Festival longer than we have.  Therefore, we decided that a rebranding was necessary and Borneo Hornbill Festival fit the bill.

In 2011, Borneo Hornbill Festival improved its performance as a second year stint and brought in talents from all over Sarawak.  By then we already had Dance troupes coming from Sabah, Labuan and a few teams from Malaya, consisting of mainly Borneo students. 

Carrying the name Borneo certainly warrants inclusivity, at least for the Malaysian part.  There was already participation from Sabah in our ethnic dance competition and demand for a Sabah segment of our ethnic pageant was difficult to be ignored.  With considerable objections from a portion of the committee members, we launched a Sabah Ethnic Pageant called Runduk Tadau 2012.  It has the same meaning as Unduk Ngadau in another Sabah dialect.  There was also objections from the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association but we maneuvered the obstacles amicably and made everyone understand that our motive was not to compete with KDCA but to be more inclusive in our activities and promote a better understanding of cultures among people from Sarawak and Sabah.

With Runduk Tadau happening on Friday and Kumang Keling happening on Saturday, we managed to run both pageants separately.  We had judges from KDCA helping out in the Runduk Tadau event and appreciated the learning experience with them.  The dance competition happened on Sunday.  By then we were glad that we took the initiative because Borneo Hornbill Festival represents Borneo, not just Sarawak.  We also told our fans that we plan to expand our reach to include Kalimantan and Brunei in the years to come, as soon as we are comfortable with the Malaysian side of it all.

As 2013 approaches, we were faced with obstacles concerning the limitations of calling our pageant Kumang and Keling and Runduk Tadau.  A rebranding was necessary for two purposes.  To reduce the implications of restrictions due to the specific title of Kumang/Keling/Runduk Tadau and also to allocate more space for the participants to explore all possible options in terms of ethnic costumes and themes.  By rebranding the titles as Miss/Mr. Sarawak Ethnic and Miss/Mr. Sabah Ethnic, the participants are no longer bound by the narrow scope of representing Kumang, Keling or Unduk Ngadau.  They are officially competing to earn the titles of ambassadors for Borneo culture.  The winners are not only judged from their ethnic costumes but also their justification for wearing them, knowledge about culture and their communication skills in conveying their thoughts and ideas.

Due to time constraint and the need to allow the judges spend more time with the participants, we have decided to conduct a closed interview for both Sarawak and Sabah pageants in 2013.  This was made possible by a one day closed judging session between the judges and all pageant participants on Friday.  We had judges from Sabah and Sarawak origin who have good knowledge and experience with both cultures. With Friday fully booked, it meant that the finale was to include both Sabah and Sarawak.  This proved to be a challenge in terms of timing and we had to make sure that the choreography was not only fast paced but it has to be executed like clockwork as well.

The Friday judging session started by 9.30 am and all judges were present for duty.  There were 48 finalists from all categories of Miss Sarawak Iban, Bidayuh and Orang Ulu, Miss Sabah, Mr. Sarawak and Mr. Sabah. 

The commitment and perseverance of the judges amazed me.  I am touched with their sincerity not only with the organizers but also with each finalist.  They spent time making sure they understood what the finalists were trying to convey and even gave good pointers to them where needed.

They were glued to their seats till 8.30 pm, albeit lunch and toilet breaks in betweens.

I realized then that having judges from both Sarawak and Sabah together for the whole session opened up a learning opportunity for both sides; the judges learned as much as the finalists.  Some costumes were only known in reference books and yet the young finalists were wearing them with pride.  One boy even conveyed his mother’s message that the costume he was wearing looked like that since a hundred years ago.  I was touched.

Judges from both divide had a chance to ask the finalist question and even touch the costumes.  They shared notes on the similarities between Sabah and Sarawak costumes.  There were many!

During the grand finals on Saturday, Sarawak and Sabah were once again paired together and the convergence was evident on stage and among the audience.  As Sabah finalists came out to strut their stuff on stage, Sarawak audience got a chance to appreciate the costumes and ponder how similar it looked with theirs.  The same happened when Sarawak finalists took to the stage, some of our Sabah audiences were seeing the costumes for the first time. 

It was then that I told myself, this is truly a wonderful night of cultural appreciation across borders.   I have been to separate events on separate nights when I witness the splendor of either states costumes but tonight I have everything under one roof. Literally!

With our plans to include Kalimantan and Brunei, Borneo Hornbill Festival will indeed be fully inclusive.  And there is no other suitable time for this to happen than in the years to come because Dayaks once called Borneo their country.  Before there was Malaysia-Indonesia borders, Dayaks were free to roam the land and visit families and relatives across the shores. 

Today, it saddens me that whenever a Sarawak Dayak sees a rare Dayak costume they will instantly say “could be from Kalimantan” without realizing that their ancestors may have come from Kalimantan.  Even worse, some would say ‘please la, this is not my culture, it is Indon.  Bagi malu saja’. 

Little do they know that their leaders are now beginning to reconnect and reconcile with counterparts from Kalimantan and I believe this kind of integration should happen down to the grassroots, published and made known.

Many Sarawakians believe that Sarawak culture is rich in diversity and it remains that way for a long time.  What they don’t realize is that the so called community leaders have conducted a standardization exercise where some costumes are considered not ‘OK’ to be worn during pageants in Sarawak.  These costumes have somewhat been swept under the rug.

The only homophobia I have is the fear of homogenization.  I live to be different.  I’ll fight to be different.

We were famous for tribes like Skrang, Sebuyau, Tatau and Kanowit but now they are the terms for different places in Sarawak.  All the customs and traditions relating to the tribes have all disappeared, perhaps along with the language too.  In the case of the Kayan, Kenyah, Kelabit, Punan, Lakiput and many others, they have all been merged down to ‘Orang Ulu’.  Many Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit people prefer to be called Kenyah, Kayan and Kelabit instead of the generic ‘Orang Ulu’. 

For Bidayuh, I have a mixed feeling.  On one side I am proud to be called a Bidayuh but the generalization of ‘Bidayuh’ have caused the lines between Penrissen, Bau, Serian and many other origins to be blur and hence the different dialects confusing.  The Bidayuh people long for unity but at the same time hate the homogenization and convergence of dialects. 

I say we preserve everything and not try to merge all into one.  We will lose big time!

This is the reason why many Sarawakians get emotional about ethnic costumes especially during ethnic beauty pageants.  It blows my mind away to realize that some people simply do not want to accept any explanation regarding the existence of rare ethnic costumes and the shallow minded would conveniently say ‘you just made that up. Next year, I’ll make up a cock and bull story about my costume and I’ll sure win lah..’ 

Hello kaban, it is not that easy.   Thank God we still have seniors who persistently carry the tradition.  God bless them.

We must begin to explore our own history and study how we live long time ago, how we interact with our neighbors and how external factors influence the evolution of our culture.  We must embrace our neighbors and seek to understand the similarities and respect the different ethnic values and qualities.  We must once again be proud to say that we are all children of Borneo, land without border.

By Agustus Sapen.