Kelabit woman chief hails late father’s words of encouragement as driving force of accomplishments


Caleena looking lovely in her traditional Kelabit attire.

THE ‘Ketua Kampong’ (village head) of Pa Derong in the Bario Highlands, Caleena Lallang, could never forget what her late father had told her when she was a little girl: “My daughter, your future lies beyond those hills.”

Since then, his words have been the driving force behind all her achievements, including being the first Kelabit Ketua Kampong of her area.

“His words led me towards a determined road for further education beyond Primary 6 in Bario, and beyond the proverbial hearth,” she told thesundaypost in Miri.

Long Lellang days

Caleena’s parents, Puun Maran (left) and Puun Aran.

Caleena was born in Long lellang, a small village in the Kelabit Highlands, when Sarawak was still under the British colonial rule. She admitted that she was a bit better off than most girls at the time, in that she was able to attend a primary school in the village, where her relative Henry Jala was a teacher.

However, there was nothing easy about the journey that she and other children had to go through when it was time for them to further their education in Bario.

It was a seven-day walk for them, having to cross three big ‘pa’ (river in Kelabit language) – Pa Tutoh, Pa Labit, and Pa Kubaan – and spending the night at six different villages.

No parents today would have allowed their children to undertake such a trip, but at that time, Caleena’s old folks had strong faith that she and her mates would reach Bario safely.

Bario – All the ‘first times’

It was 1963, at the height of the Confrontation, that then-10-year-old Caleena opened her eyes to a sight far different from what she had ever known before – she witnessed the arrival of Caucasian soldiers in full uniforms and also airplanes, which she and the other children called ‘the machines in the sky’.

She was too young and innocent to know the reason behind the troops entering Sarawak.

“What I remember is how thrilled I was to receive the army rations, especially the biscuits and the candies,” she recalled.

The school in Bario had arranged for the girls to help out with the washing of the army uniforms. It was also the first time that Caleena had ever seen a bar soap.

“The boys would ask the girls to ‘accidentally’ drop the soaps in the river after washing clothes, and the (boys) would dive into the river to retrieve them!” she laughed at such a simple pleasure.

Life was not too bad for the youngsters in Bario, as they were given army rations regularly.

Also once a month, the children would watch foreign films screened at the school yard and despite having a barbed wire fence set up between them and the screen, they deeply enjoyed every show and would really be looking forward to the next screening.

The children had no school uniform at that time – they wore whatever clothes that their parents could afford.

For the young boys, receiving army jackets from the ‘big-brother’ troops was akin to being given medals of honour.

They wore them with pride, and those who are still around today continue to wear army jackets.

‘Barefooted in Marudi’

Time flew, and Caleena was later selected to attend the government secondary school in Marudi in 1964.

It was only then that she realised that throughout her time in Bario, she had been attending classes barefooted.

“We were flown to Marudi from Bario at the time. Upon alighting from the plane, my bare feet touched the blistering-hot bitumen runway.

“I can tell you that I never felt pain like that before! In Long Lellang and Bario, amidst the jungles that I was so familiar with, the ground was cool.

“Once I arrived at the school in Marudi, I could see that everybody wore either sandals or shoes,” she recounted.

Caleena said the principal, Dennis Pritler, was very kind as he took all the newcomers from Bario to the shops in Marudi where they bought their first-ever footwear.

“We got the plain ‘selipar Jepun’ (flip-flops). Mr Pritler took us to town in a small yellow jeep.”

In Marudi, Caleena’s circle of friends became more diversified. She had Malay friends like Zaharah Omar from Marudi town, as well others from the Chinese, Kayan and Kenyah communities.

“All of them have become my lifelong friends.

“Back then, we went everywhere together. We walked to the classrooms together.

“We were like sisters!”

Miri – Road leading to teaching

After three years of attending lower secondary school in Marudi, Caleena was again selected to further her education at the prestigious Tanjong Lobang School – the first government secondary school established in Miri in 1957, and is now known as Kolej Tun Datu Tuanku Haji Bujang. The teaching staff comprised volunteers and professionals from the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand.

To Caleena, all of them were her role models.

“I had a teacher, Mr Perry, whose daughter Gillian was in my class. We became friends and she would often ask me to babysit her baby brother, which was actually a paid job.

“The amount might seem small to many people, but to me, it was a real godsend because many of us from Bario really did not have two cents to rub together.

“I was really grateful,” she said.

Having been to places more developed than Long Lellang and met many people from overseas, Caleena began to understand her father’s words about ‘the future beyond the hills’ more clearly.

“I slowly began to set my sights ‘beyond the hills’, just like what my father had told me.

“After Form 5, I became a temporary teacher like many of my peers.”

In 1969, Caleena got posted to Long Ikang where she said she actually enjoyed the experience of teaching.

“To tell you the truth, I secretly aspired to become a policewoman and wear that beautiful uniform – perhaps it was influenced by my time in Bario.

“I did go for the recruitment drive, but left disappointed because I was just an inch below the required height.

“Maybe I was destined to become a teacher after all,” she recalled.

Caleena married fellow teacher Jeffery Passang in Bario in 1971 and later on, they got transferred to Ba Kelalan. They relocated to Trusan in 1973, and Pa Dalih in 1975.

Photo from the family album shows younger Caleena (right) and husband Jeffery (left) with their children, all standing behind the sitting elders (from left) Jeffery’s parents Param Sewa and Doo Swea, together with Caleena’s parents Puun Aran and Puun Maran.

It was in Pa Dalih when Caleena almost died when giving birth to her twins.

Her sister, Freda Kedung, who was working in Shell Company at the time, told her that enough was enough.

“She said I must leave the Highlands to work in Miri, where my young children and I would have better access to health facilities.”

The years in Miri

Caleena later joined Shell, where she worked at for the next 19 years.

During this tenure, she worked very hard to obtain her Higher Diploma in Human Resources Management under a special twinning programme with Hull University.

“I enjoyed working as a training coordinator and attended many service courses.

“All these experiences, I believe, meant to prepare me to become a good leader.”

Caleena never lost her drive of helping and giving back to her own community in the highlands.

It was during this period in her life that she joined Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), seeing that many of her relatives were there.

Caleena retired from Shell in 1996 and later worked at Dr Roland Dom Mattu’s clinic in Miri, where she stayed for 11 years.

By this time, her children were already university graduates.

“This was beyond my dream, actually. Still, what my father had said to me when I was a little girl, I instilled it in my children. I wanted them to raise their sights above the ordinary things.
“I wanted them to become more; with God’s help, they did!”

Becoming village head

Aerial view photo of Pa Derong, where Caleena is the village chief.

In view of her teaching experience and involvement in community work, Caleena became the head of the village of Pa Derong, located about 4km from the Bario Asal, in April 2017.

The settlement of farmers is home to 34 families, with eight living in a longhouse.

In 2018, fire razed this longhouse to the ground, but thanks to prompt action by the new Ketua Kampong, a fundraising drive was set up to help the families recover from the disaster.

“It was fortunate that I could get Datuk Gerawat Gala (Deputy Minister in Sarawak Premier’s Department – Labour, Immigration and Project Monitoring, and Mulu assemblyman) and many other politicians from PBB to come and assist.

“I am so thankful that friends and even strangers were quick to respond to our call for help.

“Right now, the funding for the construction (about RM70,000 for each family) is already in the JKKK (village security and development committee)’s account.

“The works on the new longhouse units should reach completion by 2023. The villagers are really excited about this.”

Caleena also said the Pa Derong folks would be looking forward to having a new community hall, a church and decent access roads to all their farms.

Challenges, and the future

Caleena did admit that it had not been a smooth sailing over the past seven years, but the benefits that came from it outweighed the challenges.

“My term of Ketua Kampong was initially for five years, but then it was extended for two more years. Now I am glad that I have been given this extension to help me achieve my vision and mission for Pa Derong.”

She was most encouraged by the diligent and enterprising spirit of the single mothers and widows of her village.

“Many of them have made their houses as homestays for visitors who come to Bario, a town with no hotel, and I can proudly say that these womenfolk have managed their homestays well.

“There are more than 70 registered homestays in Bario at the moment,” she said, adding that the government had provided funds to help upgrade the women upgrade their homestay operations.

Caleena also quipped about the women in Bario ‘generally outliving the menfolk’.

“That’s why there are many widows in the village who are still working their farms and at the same time, earning steady incomes.

“Our ‘kampong’ has very fertile land and we are doing very well as farmers.

“A former hotelier, Solomon Maran, is now a full-time commercial farmer.

“During the MCO (movement control order in force during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic), Solomon and his family had supplied lots of produce like chillies, rock melons, purple rice, capsicum and asparagus to Miri.

“It seems to be a direction that we’re heading – towards commercial farming.”

Caleena herself has a padi field, which yielded 90kg of rice last year – enough for her own household consumption.

Adding on, she said: “We are also looking into new styles of packaging so that our products would look good for Sarawak and overseas markets.

“We’re also excited about the possibility of growing coffee and packaging our very own specially ground coffee.”

Caleena also strives to open the opportunities for fellow villagers to see places outside their backyard, similar to her experience during the schooldays.

Vintage photo shows Caleena (second row from front, fifth left) and her Form 1 teacher and classmates during her days in the government secondary school in Marudi.

She arranged two very successful study tours amidst the MCO phases from 2019 to 2022.

“We did a tour on Miri, in collaboration with Miri City Council. Another group tour went to the Marudi longhouses and town.

“In between each trip, the Pa Derong womenfolk also attended talks and special programmes, where they, as well as I, got to learn so much.”

Caleena was happy to see that her fellow womenfolk valued and worked hard for a better future not just for themselves, but more importantly, for their children.

The Ketua Kampong herself now holds regular motivational talks and beneficial activities for the children at two schools in Bario, where she always tells them the wise words of her late father that she has revised slightly: “My children, look at your future that lies beyond those hills.”