Not a mere piece of cloth


THE flag, be it that of a country or a political party, is to be respected at all times. It is a symbol of the sovereignty of that country or identity of that organisation. The colours, shape and size of the cloth represent something intangible: a message or messages, more important than the textile used. Some may be paper flags but the intrinsic value of each sheet is insignificant compared to what the colours symbolise.

Even the flag raised by Frusis Lebi during the state election campaign in 2011 had its message: Ubah. There was no need to pull it down and, worse, burn it. Imagine the tension among the longhouse people at Entulang Entawa and witness the trouble that Frusis had to go through, as a result; all this was unnecessary political intrigue. Anyway, it is an offence under the Malaysian Election law (that relates to the conduct of election) to destroy flags or banners of a candidate in election.

One need not salute the flag every morning as we did the Rising Sun (during the Japanese Occupation of Sarawak from 1941 to 1945) or sing before it as we did the Union Jack during the colonial regime.

Our present state flag

All these colours on a flag evoke various emotions. For instance, the present flag of the state consists of three colours: red, black and yellow or gold.

The red represents courage, determination and the sacrifices of the people in their tireless pursuit to attain and maintain progress.

The black denotes the rich natural resources of Sarawak – petroleum, timber or what is left of the forests.

The yellow symbolises supremacy of law and order as well as unity in the diversity of the people. And to many of us it was a return to the good old Sarawak flag’s colours!

There were 10 previous versions of the state flag. Before 2000, there were nine points of the star in the middle, representing the nine administrative divisions of Sarawak. As there are additional divisions of recent creation, can you spot the additional two points? The golden star itself embodies the aspirations of Sarawakians to improve quality of life. Or so I read in ‘Who’s Who In Sarawak 2000’, published by Tamar Media Sdn Bhd. Kuching; I hope they got it right.

However, let’s hope no one will ever burn that flag in the near future. If that happens, all those symbols of resources, hopes of stability and unity in diversity and the supremacy of law will turn to ashes as far as the piece of cloth is concerned. But the concept itself is in our hearts and minds, where nobody can destroy it!

Our first flag

The first flag adopted by James Brooke for Sarawak was a red and black cross on a yellow ground, as described by Harriett McDougall, wife of the first Anglican Bishop of Sarawak, in her book ‘Sketches Of Our Life At Sarawak’, Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1992.

A HERITAGE: The late Anthony Brooke is seen with the old Sarawak flag.

The role of this flag in the history of the state is worth remembering.

If you’d recall the Kayan Expedition of 1863, you would appreciate the importance of that piece of cloth.

Readers who are not familiar with that episode may be interested to learn that the flag was instrumental in securing peace between the government’s bala (forces) and the Kayan of upper Rajang.

The story goes that during May to June 1863, Rajah Muda Brooke Brooke was tasked by his uncle James to punish the murderers of Fox and Steel, two of the Rajah’s servants stationed at Kanowit. Sawing, Sakalai and Talip, the suspects, had escaped up the mighty river and were being harboured and protected by the Kayan in the Makun (Bakun) complex.

The expedition started from Sekrang, down the Batang Lupar en route to the Rajang, to punish the culprits. After three weeks of hard pulling up the rapids without real fighting, except for some burning of longhouses, the leader of the expedition, the Rajah Muda, “at once decided to go no farther, as our work of destruction would serve as a sufficient punishment for these people, who have proved themselves a most dastardly set of cowards”.

There were three captives, one of them a woman. Through this lady, Brooke sent a message to Oyong Hang, the Kayan chief, in the form of “a 12-pounder shot and a Sarawak flag”. Oyong Hang was given a choice: the flag “was an emblem of peace which would provide him with a safe- conduct to Kanowit, in order to open peaceful relations” and the 12-pounder shot was “an emblem of war”. Oyong Hang would have to bring both down to Kanowit as soon as possible. Meanwhile all hostilities would cease immediately.

To cut the story short, the flag was carried by Oyong Hang’s emissaries down to Kanowit a month later, minus the suspects – Talip and Sakalai had been dealt with by Oyong summarily by his men; Sawing had escaped earlier but was caught eventually; he was tried and convicted and executed. That ended the inter-tribal war and in October 1963, there was a big Peace Ceremony in Kanowit.

This is a story of how a piece of cloth converted into the flag of a country played a crucial role in securing peace between enemies.

A heritage item

In some longhouses in Limbang, I saw the old Sarawak flag used to decorate the walls along with the pua kumbu and the Union Jack. In a community that respects pua kumbu as not merely a textile but more as a cultural heritage, flags have a place of honour.

I saw the old flag at the Junior Chamber International Headquarters in Coral Gable in California in 1971. There I saw flags from various countries where the JC had established chapters and the Sarawak Flag among them. I was quietly moved and looked at it for some time and thought of home, but my guide taped my shoulder saying it was time to move on as we had to meet with the president of JCI in 10 minutes.

Respect for what the flag represents

The only people who would not display their flags are pirates for obvious reason. I’ve often wondered if the ‘Cross-Bones and Skull’ flag was really used by pirates, outside of Hollywood movies, of course. Surely no pirates would advertise their nefarious trade to the Royal Navy cruising the same waters?

Flags, whether of the country or of an organisation or even of a pirate’s boat, must be accorded due respect. To burn is daft, to say the least. Burn the Malaysian flag and see what would happen to you.