Sarawak has more than 40 ethnic groups with their own distinct language,
culture and lifestyle. Cities and larger towns are populated predominantly
by Malays, Melanaus, Chinese, and a smaller percentage of Ibans and Bidayuhs
who have migrated from their home-villages for employment reasons. Sarawak
is rather distinctive from the rest of Malaysia in that there is only
a small community of Indians living in the state.
Ibans form the largest percentage of Sarawak's population, making up some
30%. Reputed to be the most formidable headhunters on the island of Borneo,
the Ibans of today are a generous, hospitable and placid people. The Ibans
dwell in longhouses, a stilted structure comprising many rooms housing
a whole community of families. The Ibans are renowned for their Pua Kumbu
(traditional Iban weavings), silver craftings, wooden carvings and beadwork.
Iban tattoos which were orignally symbols of bravery for the Iban warriors
have become amongst the most distinctive in the world. The Ibans are also
famous for their tuak, a sweet rice wine which is served during big celebrations
and festive occasions. Today, the majority of Ibans are practice Christianity.
However, like most other ethnic groups in Sarawak, they still hold strong
to their many traditional rituals and beliefs. Sarawak is unique to colourful
festivals such as the Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Gawai Kenyalang
(hornbill festival) and Gawai Antu (festival of the dead).
Malays make up 21% of the population in Sarawak. Traditionally fishermen,
these seafaring people chose to form settlements on the banks of the many
rivers of Sarawak. Today, many Malays have migrated to the cities where
they are heavily involved in the public and private sectors and taken
up various professions. The Malays are famed for their wood carvings,
silver and brass craftings as well as traditional Malays textile weaving
with silver and gold thread (kain songket). Malays are Muslim by religion,
having brought the faith to Asia some 1000 years ago. Their religion is
reflected in their culture and art and Islamic symbolism is evident in
local architecture - from homes to government buildings.
Melanaus have been thought to be amongst the original settlers of Sarawak.
Originally from Mukah (the 10th Administrative Division as launched in
march 2002), the Melanaus traditionally lived in tall houses. Nowadays,
they have adopted a Malay lifestyle, living in kampong-type settlements.
Traditionally, Melanaus were fishermen and till today, they are reputed
as some of the finest boat-builders and craftsmen. While the Melanaus
are ethnically different from the Malays, their lifestyles and practices
are quite similar especially in the larger towns and cities where most
Melanau have adopted the Islamic faith. The Melanaus were believed to
originally worship spirits ina practice brinking on paganism. Today many
of them are Christian and Muslim, though they still celebrate traditional
animist festivals such as the annual Kaul Festival.
Chinese first came to Sarawak as traders and explorers in the 6th Century.
Today, they make up 29% of the population of Sarawak and comprise of communities
built from the economic migrants of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The first Chinese migrants worked as labourers in the gold mines at Bau
or on plantations. Through their clan associations, business acumen and
work ethic, the Chinese organised themselves economically and rapidly
dominated commerce. Today, the Chinese are amongst Sarawak's most prosperous
ethnic groups. The Sarawak Chinese belong to a wide range of dialect groups,
the most significant being Hokkien, Foochow, Hakka, Teochew, Cantonese
and Henghua. Hokkien and Mandarin are the most widely spoken dialects.
The Chinese maintain their ethnic heritage and culture and celebrate all
the major cultural festivals, most notably Chinese New Year and the Hungry
Ghost Festival. The Sarawak Chinese are predominantly Buddhists and Christians.
from West Kalimantan, the Bidayuhs are now most numerous in the hill country
of Bau and Serian, within an hour's drive from Kuching. Historically,
as other tribes were migrating into Sarawak and forming settlements, the
meek-natured Bidayuhs retreated further inland, hence earning them the
name of "Land Dayaks". The traditional Bidayuh abode is the
"baruk", a roundhouse that rises about 1.5 metres off the ground.
Typical of the Sarawak indigenous groups, the Bidayuhs are well-known
for their hospitality, and are reputed to be the best makers of tuak,
or rice wine. The Bidayuhs speak a number of different but related dialects.
While some of them still practice traditional religions, most modern-day
Bidayuhs have adopted the Christian faith.
phrase Orang Ulu means upriver people and is a term used to collectively
describe the numerous tribes that live upriver in Sarawak's vast interior.
Such groups include the major Kayan and Kenyah tribes, and the smaller
neighbouring groups of the Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit, and Penan. Nowadays,
the definition also includes the down-river tribes of the Lun Bawang,
Lun Dayeh, Murut and Berawan as well as the plateau-dwelling Kelabits.
The various Orang Ulu groups togther make up roughly 5.5% of Sarawak's
population. The Orang Ulu are artistic people with longhouses elaborately
decorated with murals and woodcarvings. They are also well-known for their
intricate beadwork detailed tattoos. The Orang Ulu tribe can also be identified
by their unique music - distinctive sounds from their sape, a stringed
instrument not unlike the mandolin. A vast majority of the Orang Ulu tribe
are Christians but old traditional religions are still practiced in some
Penan are the only true nomadic people in Sarawak and amongst the last
of the world's hunter-gatherers. The Penan make their home under the rainforest
canopy, deep within the vast expanse of Sarawak's virgin jungle. Even
today, the Penan continue to roam the rainforest hunting wild boar and
deer with blowpipes.
The Penan are skilled weavers and make high-quality rattan baskets and
mats. The traditional Penan religion worships a supreme god called Bungan.
However, the increasing number who have abandoned the nomadic lifestyle
for settlement in longhouses have converted to Christians.