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  • Writer's pictureMarie Tseng

CI In Conversation #3 - When in Sarawak, do as the Sarawakians do

Addressing the topic of Sarawakian Culture in the workplace proved more challenging than I initially anticipated. The session left me with a few thoughts and questions:

  • What are the differences between how we talk about/ address minority cultures compared to better known cultures?

  • Getting to understand and learn about minority cultures is harder work.

  • Sarawak is a land of diversity, and mixity - Does coming together means ironing out our differences and specificities? Is it about creating a common culture, and only reverting to our original culture when among a specific homogenous group?

  • The importance in Sarawak of blending in without asking too many questions: How to combine an experiential approach (feeling a culture) with a cognitive approach ( intellectualizing cultures)

  • Our cultures teach all of us specific skills, connected to the values that matter in our communities. What are the skills that are specific to the different ethnic groups in Sarawak?

I do believe that it is important to have clarity on what one’s cultural preference is so one is aware of the gaps with other people and better equipped to bridge those gaps. I am still curious to further explore some of the main ethnic groups in Sarawak.

The conversation I had with Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom, Alexis wan Ullok and Valerie Mashman is a first stop in this discovery. Here is a free transcript of what we discussed.

How do East Malaysians view themselves?

Welyne clarified that it depends if this is a personal or an anthropological question. Speaking only for herself (not as an anthropologist), she shared:

Overseas I am Malaysian.

But when I meet a Malaysian, I say I’m Sarawakian.

If I meet another Sarawakian, they will ask what are you? Kelabit, Bidayuh, Iban? I see myself always as a Bidayuh, and am very patriotic with regards to my ethnic group.

Alexis agreed: “Within their own community, people are very proud of their ethnic groups. There are differences between them, but they are all patriotic, proud of their heritage.” Sarawakians are very friendly and open to foreigners. Maybe as a result of the many years of foreign presence in Sarawak, when we were under Brooke’s / foreigners in the past rule.

Welyne highlighted that in Sarawak,diversity and inclusion is practiced. Most Sarawakians have the same view when it comes to how we view ourselves. “We embrace each other and our differences, you can’t tell who is the Bidayuh, who is the Iban. We can’t differentiate between us. We only see ourselves as different when people start pointing it out to us, in particular outside Sarawak”. In her own experience working at UM, she didn’t initially see herself as different from anyone else. However, having other people constantly view her Sarawakian heritage as ‘other’ lead to a creation of boundaries. She insisted that people in Peninsular Malaysia view East Malaysians as different. She recalls being “welcomed to Malaysia” a few times, when she mentioned her Sarawakian origin.

“We are not outstandingly different from the rest of Malaysia. It’s not about the people, but about the social environment.”

Being of mixed heritage is also common. As an outsider Valerie noticed that a lot of younger people don’t want to be pigeonholed, many are very mixed. Her son says he is Malaysian, not half Kelabit, half British.

Identities are complex. Yet in Sarawak, as well as in peninsular Malaysia, people consider Alexis white. “Only people that I know better are more interested in knowing about my background and ethnicity.”

Key shared cultural traits in Sarawak

Importance of socialising

Throughout our conversation Welyne and Alexis minimised the specific traits of Sarawakians: “There is no particular thing about Sarawakians that people have to be aware of.”

Welyne’s advice to connect with people is simply “Just be friends with us. We are very thick-skinned. We don’t get offended very easily.”

The importance of socialising at a personal level was reinforced by Alexis: “Talk to your colleagues, spend time with them. Just like anybody else.”

Valerie also agreed but said that language could be a barrier! “There is such a diversity of language in Sarawak (Hakka, Bidayuh, Iban, Hokkien.... in addition to Malay and English) that people very quickly fall into side conversations in different languages, making it challenging for those who don’t understand the different languages.” Valerie used to consider it very rude because people present who don’t speak particular languages are excluded. In her English school, Valerie first imposed rules to have everyone speak English, a common language. It took her a long time to realise that in a Sawarakian context it was not rude to speak in a different languages.

Work culture

The feedback that Alexis gets from people coming to Sarawak, is that they find it easier to meet people and get an appointment with people here. “Perhaps we’re not as busy or a little bit more laidback, compared to the peninsula. In KL everyone seems to be a lot busier.”

Similarly, Welyne’s students consider her approachable. She wonders whether it’s a cultural behaviour,a personal individual character.

Understanding the nuances is not that easy though

A lot of knowledge was passed down orally in my father’s tribe, which is very different from the 1000 years of French history recorded in books. As a result you need to put more effort and time into learning and understanding the cultures of Sarawak (particularly the indigenous cultures), as most of their knowledge is transmitted through oral tradition: songs, story telling. It is not as easy as picking up a book to understand the culture, the language and the nuances.

Could that have an impact on how people develop better listening skills?

Later in the conversation Valerie shared her professional experiences: “To engage with my students I tend to act, shout, speak loudly and keep people on their toes. Recently, an old student of mine reminded me that I used to shout a lot. I thought that was my way of engaging. But then I realised from my husband’s side, that here people speak softly. People who talk loudly are perceived as showing off about how well they’re doing. Among the Kelabit, you talk softly and hold back, because that’s how you’re respected.

Lessons from the past

Welyne reminded us that it is important to remember the Wisdom of our grandparents. Here are a few lessons she learnt growing up.

Be kind to others

Her grand-mother often taught her that we must be kind to others. She says kindness is a global, human value, but particularly important in her community: “you should be the leader that everyone wants to work with, not a leader that people are scared of”.


My grandfather owned a shotgun. My grandfather would never allow anyone to touch the shotgun, but when I was twelve, I was allowed to shoot flying foxes. That’s how I learnt about the word trust. If you don’t trust someone to do something, you’re better off doing it yourself. But If I trust you to do this, and you do not perform, then I will never ask you again.

Notion of time

Sometimes we Sarawkians are a little laid back when it comes to time - but I spent time in Germany where I learnt the value of punctuality. Yet in Sarawak, if you want to hunt a wild boar you need to be there half an hour before the wild boar. She implied that younger people should bring that punctuality in everything they do.

Sharing: the values of growing up in a long-house

I used to live in a long-house, you learn to live as a community. Back then you shared almost everything: your space, your food, your toys, your knowledge. There is no room to be individualistic.

Changing values

Welyne sees change happening though: when the longhouse was demolished, people started living in individual homes. People became more individualist and acquired the notion of their own space. You started to have to call people if you wanted to see them instead of just dropping by. The city life started creeping into the jungle. The world around us seems to have changed our values.

I believe that we are not different, and we are all the same and we don’t need to be highlighting our differences.

On building trust and respect as a leader

Be genuine

As Welyne mentioned earlier, Alexis said trust in business is earned based on your actions. If you’re genuine, you can build trust quite quickly. People might perceive Sarawak as less savvy and less advanced, but if you approach anyone with that mindset it will be very difficult to build trust.

Keep traditional knowledge and customs

We listen less and less to the elderly. We used to listen to the elderly in the village, but now we don’t turn to them for advice. Our leaders used to be very knowledgeable about our traditions, taboos, ethics. This earned them respect .

Welyne remembers her great grandfather as such a leader, in his position of Orang Kaya Pemancha (chief of the heads of villages under the Brooks Administration): “When he would speak, everyone would listen”.

With many people converting to Christianity or Islam and with modern politics creeping into the village’s organisation, this has changed.

The current leaders (orang Kaya Pemancha) are less trusted by the people, as they are often appointed by the government, and not by the people.Today, there are no note-worthy characteristics held by long-house leaders that might distinguish or identify them.

Seek consensus

Valerie referred to an article she read about Alexis’ ancestor, the late YAM Datuk Seri Temenggong Oyong Paul Lawai Jau (DTOLJ). He was compared to Churchill and considered a statesman. When it came to leadership, he would always think things through carefully and ask the opinions of people around him before making a strong decision. As a leader in Sarawak, it’s good to build on the consensus of other strong people around you.

How do you relate to people across the Indonesian borders?

Welyne remembers that “the last time we had any connection with people across the border was in the eighties, through my grandparents.” She met distant relatives on her grandmother’s side,but she doesn’t feel connected to them. “They are from INDONESIA !” she says with a smile. Her generation sees these relatives as from another country.

Alexis agreed. As far as the Kenyah people are concerned, there are greater numbers in the Kalimantan side. But it is now a difficult border to cross physically. “We still remember stories of how people came to this side of the border, we still recognise each other, but we are very separate.”

Impact of colonialism

A history of mixity and diversity

Alexis points out the long history with colonialism in Sarawak. It is accepted and there has been a lot of intermarriage. People have English names, adopting the name, or blood line from the English. Also because of the ethnic diversity within Sarawak itself (there are over forty different ethnic groups), people are used to “foreigners” - maybe not white, perhaps the same colour as they are, but foreigners nonetheless. A history of interacting and living in harmony with other local ethnic groups, British, and Chinese traders has been there for a long time.

Valerie always found it very easy to be a white foreigner in Sarawak; even easier than being an English person who speaks Italian, in Italy. She says that maybe this is due to a romanticised (“misty eyed” ) view of the Brooke’s regime. If Sarawakians were to re-assess their history through a more critical lens, perhaps they might see things differently.

Embracing the “good side” of colonialism

Welyne always likes to listen to older people’s stories, it gives her perspective. Her father is 70 this year. He was sponsored by a padre to go to mission schools. He received his name Jeffrey from the priest who took care of him. That priest was named Lee Welyne, that is how she got her name. That shows how much people embrace this colonial heritage. Whatever shaped her father’s generation came from that experience of colonialism (mission schools, christianity,..). Reading in history books about James Brooke’s work in Sarawak, you learn about the dual sides of Colonialism. As Sarawakians we embraced the ‘good’ side of colonialism., in terms of education in particular. Even when it comes to religion, people were willing to give up their traditional beliefs to embrace Christianity or Islam.

Recent revival of original religions and heritage

There is a small movement now to gain back the original religion and heritage etc.

For the past five years, Welyne has oboserved that at official events, people have begun to wear traditional clothes (instead of batiks or suits) and they start meetings with traditional ceremonies rather than Christian or Muslim prayers. In the 60s and 70s people embraced English names, but now, today’s generation uses Bidayuh names. It’s like a reinvention of identity.

This revival leads Welyne to question herself too“Who am i as a Bidayuh?”. She finds it hard to figure out what makes her Bidayuh, and what differentiates her as a Bidayuh from other people.

Tips to work with Sarawakians

As a conclusion, Valerie, Welyne and Alexis share simple tips to work well with Sarawakians:

  • Be broadminded, flexible and easygoing.

  • Remember that people’s families are very important. Family obligations will always come first and people also want to know about your family.

  • Be patient, don't lose your temper and stay calm.

  • And finally don’t ask too many questions. Just get on with it and follow what we do.

Welyne reminded us of this proverb “Masuk kandang kambing membebek masuk kandang", the Malay version of “When in Rome do as the Roman do”: embrace their culture and their way. do not impose your own beliefs. Become temporarily Iban, Kelabit, or Penan to be accepted. There are no boundaries, it is just your willingness to accept, and embrace other ways.

She wisely concluded: “Globally, we have conflicts because we don’t want to accept”.

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