Friday, June 5

Rebel with a cause

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Pay the door tax, rain or shine. Photo of Penghulu Asun taken from ‘Fair Land Sarawak: Some Recollections of an Expatriate Officer’ by Alastair Morrison.

FOLLOWING the publication of my article on April 26 about the tragic love affair of Si Tondo, a former pirate chief/comrade-at-arms of James Brooke during the Seniawan War (1836-1840), I received some positive feedback from my readers.

Almost 100 years later, there were still a few rebels around.

One rebel with a good cause was Asun of Entabai, in the Kanowit District. While Rentap of Sadok belongs to the era of James Brooke, and Bantin of Ulu Ai to the time of the second Rajah, Asun appears during the reign of the third and the last English ruler of Sarawak.

Rentap and Bantin had their respective reasons for defying the Rajah’s rule, but Asun and his followers ‘never constituted a proto-nationalist, and anti-Brooke movement’, writes RHW Reece in his book ‘The Name of Brooke’ OUP KL (1982).

Asun’s story is that of a hard-headed Iban chief of principles, not a headhunter. He was Penghulu for the upper Kanowit. The story starts when local officials insisted on collecting the annual door-tax from each family in his area of jurisdiction without taking into consideration of the severe financial conditions at the time.

Ironically, this period of Sarawak’s history has been regarded by some historians as the years of peace and prosperity. A new Sarawak ruler had been proclaimed on May 24, 1917.

Despite the effects of the global economic slump of the 1930s, life was good for government servants and ‘townees’ as the production of petroleum from Miri had begun to bring in a bit of revenue to the country’s coffers. But life of the people in the rural areas was hard.

For several reasons, Penghulu Asun’s relationship with Rajah Vyner’s government had been restrained since 1929. He was not happy because most of his people could not afford to pay the annual door-tax due to the economic hardship: the prices of rubber and pepper were very low as world demand of the products declined sharply.

Two government schemes took a direct toll on the economy of the locals. One, the ‘Tapping Holiday’ restricted the number of days when rubber could be tapped. The other was the use of coupons to limit the quantity of rubber, which could be sold by an individual smallholder.

Towards the end of the third Rajah’s reign, the Sarawak Civil Service had begun to be dominated by young bureaucrats, some of whom tended to be Little Napoleons. The old Rajah’s servants faded away. Some resigned or were quietly told to go on a long holiday home.

All these woes contributed to the general disaffection of the people, not only of those in ulu Kanowit but also in several other parts of Sarawak including Sarikei and Binatang. Even in Kuching, the Batu Kawah Chinese protested against low prices of their products. There might have been a rebellion there too had not Kapitan Ong Tiang Swee and a Chinese-speaking officer calmed things down.

In Entabai no one calmed Asun down. When he resigned from office in 1929, he had a lot of followers, even among those Ibans in the Ulu Ai, Lubok Antu. That worried the government a lot. A punitive expedition of forces had been launched to arrest Asun but he escaped into the jungle. It took about 10 years before he was prepared to negotiate.

Meanwhile, more new regulations were introduced. In his book, ‘The Name of Brooke’ OUP KL (1982), Bob Reece writes, “the newly-created Forests Department had been establishing reserves where Ibans were not allowed to farm, hunt, or collect jungle produce.”

This broke the camel’s back: the ‘Iban uneasiness’ mounted among Asun’s followers although he was in exile.

Bertram Report

The Rajah’s brother Bertram Brooke, now in charge of the administration, went to meet with Asun and to hear from the horses’ mouth about this ‘uneasiness’. In his report, he suggested “that difficulties were largely due to the shortage of responsible European officers in the out-stations and the presence of too many  clerks who insisted on all regulations being punctiliously carried out. With little or no money coming to them from the sale of their crops, the tribesmen found it hard to  pay their taxes; and the clerks were not empowered to offer them a respite, nor were they people who could talk with friendly authority to them and explain matters with the easy good manners and jokes that the Dyaks loved.”

There you are – the Little Napoleons!   

In 1934, Sarawak signed an agreement under the International Rubber Regulation Scheme. This was the scheme designed to protect the interests of the large-scale commercial rubber planters in Malaya. Sarawak was under pressure by the British interests to participate in this scheme, despite the opposition by some Residents and District Officers. But these officials had to toe the government’s line. Even a small place like Sarawak was inextricably linked to the world and its economic ebb and flow. These measures compounded the economic problems of Asun’s people while he was leading a quiet life in Lundu.

Personal 

Local History buffs, advocates of debate and analysis, have been trying to look for justification for the government’s punitive expedition in 1934 to arrest Asun’s followers for evading tax. In the process lives were lost. A longhouse whose inhabitants were suspected to be Asun’s followers was looted and burnt.

According to AJN Richards (Sarawak Museum Journal December 1956), one victim was Mikai’s mother. Mikai was one of the exiles to Lundu for some other reason. I met him in May 1969 at Perian, near Senibong.

I remember seeing Asun in Lundu at his house in Tanjong Bemban, Kayan River. According to Richards, Asun was allowed to live in Kuching in December 1933. I think I saw this man in about 1945, maybe he was sent back to Lundu before or after the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945). Did he go back to Entabai after that? Where is he buried?

Wherever, Asun stood by his principles; doubtful that he knew about the American slogan ‘No taxation without representation’.

He died without paying the outstanding tax. Certainly, he died as a brave man, and the local population rather admired him. One of my nephews is named after him.

The punitive expeditions and exile were punishments out of all proportions to Asun’s offence: a quarrel with the Resident of the Third Division, and opposition to a door-tax imposed during bad economic enough times.

Does all this make sense?

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