IN the 1979 book ‘Drunk before Dawn’, Shirley Lees told the story of the Lun Bawang of Sarawak, who were going extinct between 1900 and 1930, during the rule of Rajah Charles Vyner Brooke, the third and last English ruler of the British protectorate of Sarawak.
According to the information she had gathered, the Lun Bawangs were saved by a trio of Christian missionaries from Melbourne, Australia, who had landed in 1928 and had set up the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) or Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB). The story makes for an interesting read.
The gist of the historical facts is that the Lun Bawangs were a race of headhunters and had numbered around 20,000 during their heyday, until the government had abolished headhunting in 1874. The book suggested that the race was at the time addicted to alcohol (“they were drunk 100 out of 365 days”) and were heavily influenced by superstition and omens.
A smallpox epidemic, which broke out in 1904, had decimated their population to around 5,000; and two following epidemics in the next three decades continued to shrink their numbers further to just 3,500 by 1930. According to Baru Bian, writing in his book ‘The Long Awakening’, “the Brooke government had done nothing to curb the spread of disease, seeing it fit instead to let the Lun Bawangs die out since they couldn’t be brought to heel”.
In 1928, Hudson Southwell, Frank Davidson, and Carey Tolley had set sail from Melbourne in Australia for Limbang on a Christian missionary venture into Borneo. They were only allowed into Limbang as the other divisions were already divided up for the earlier Anglican, Catholic, and Methodist missions by the government of the day. The BEM missionaries upon stepping foot in the Lun Bawang homes had noticed “neatly woven reed mats on the floor, bunches of blackened human skulls, about 20 in all, while along the wall were hanging blowpipes and parangs”.
Baru Bian wrote, “Life was governed by superstitions because of the belief that the spirit world controlled all human activities.” As the missionaries set to work to teach them about Christianity, one of the things that they had to deal with was their fear of spirits and the supernatural. The other was their love for alcohol, betel nut chewing, and animist worship.
Within nine years of the first landing of the BEM missionaries, in 1937, the majority of the Lun Bawangs have totally been reborn and even Vyner Brooke himself had stated, “I am amazed at the change in the Murut (Lun Bawangs). I believe you have done more good in a few years than the government has done in 40.”
Today more than 80 years later, the Lun Bawangs still form the hardcore majority of worshippers in the BEM churches throughout the land; although some, through inter-racial marriages and relocations, have joined other denominations of the Christian faith as well. Although Bakelalan is still considered the Lun Bawang capital of the country, many of its young have moved and ventured to the nearby towns and cities; many more have gone overseas to further their education; and there are many ensconced in positions of authority and power throughout the nation, having achieved success in many fields.
One fine day soon, who knows, maybe a Lun Bawang would ascend to the highest position in government in our nation. Baru Bian, just before he had gone for his further studies abroad was advised by his father, “Baru, going away to study is just like going hunting. Everyone in the village expects you to bring a catch back. If you don’t it will be a great disappointment. So when you go to school, we expect you to come back with something and be somebody.”
The stories we tell our children with regard to our fathers and their faith are always rewarding ones.
In my Chinese family of the Ong Ewe Hai (1830-1889) clan, there are parallels yet many differences from the Lun Bawang story. It occurred around the same period in our history.
My great, great grandfather Ewe Hai was a prominent Chinese trader and very successful merchant during the Brooke era; he was appointed Kapitan Cina (Chinese headman) for Sarawak and was also the guardian of all Buddhist and Toaist temples in the then First Division. He was a staunch Buddhist and had chaired many charitable and religious organisations of the day. His son, Ong Tiang Swee had taken over from him upon his demise in 1889, and had inherited his many titles and positions. Upon his death in 1950, Tiang Swee’s second son (eldest had pre-deceased him) Ong Kwan Hin took over the reins of the family dynasty till his death in 1982.
I am a fifth generation Sarawak-born Ong – by virtue of our birth we were all Buddhist/Taoist at birth. However, the majority of my generation, those born after 1945 were enrolled and educated at Christian missionary schools, usually at St Thomas’s, an Anglican school. Even my father and his peers, siblings and cousins, who were born in the 1920s, were among the very first batch of missionary school students during their day.
In our schools, we were all taught Scripture and Bible Knowledge and had to attend regular school assemblies and numerous Christian calendar celebrations of Easter and Christmas in church; all of us had memorised and said our prayers in classes, regardless of whatever faiths we had professed. It wasn’t an issue then and was well accepted by one and all.
As we became more educated and began to think for ourselves and knew what freewill meant, we had slowly became individuals and some had started to question the faith of their fathers. Most of us were content and happy to let it be — continue living the way we have done since childhood and many just felt like not rocking the family boat.
Some, although a minority, had upon attaining their age of consent or maturity had decided to break away from the family unit and had converted — either to being an Anglican or Catholic. A smaller number became Muslim through marriage. Many simply became atheists or free thinkers or simply someone with no religion.
As for me, my family and I had been born Buddhist/Taoist; but at age 38, after a life-changing personal experience, had become a born again Anglican. My faith has continued to guide and show me the way to live a Christ-like life as we continue our paths to everlasting life and glory.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast (1 Peter 5:10).
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