Tuesday, September 26

Stories from a Kelabit Pemanca


Freddie (right) and Rinai being interviewed in a television programme.

THERE is one very interesting story about Pemanca Freddie Abun Tadam regarding his birthdate.

It was upon entering the prestigious Tanjong Lobang School in Miri (now, the institution is known as Tun Datu Tuanku Haji Bujang College) when he was told that he must have a proper birth certificate and to have that, he had to decide on a birthdate.

What the Kelabit community leader did know back then was his birth year, 1947, and also the day that he was born, a Sunday.

After reading many history books, he later chose June 4.

“Initially, it was June 6 – the day of the ‘Normandy Invasion’ in the European history of the Second World War. But it (June 6) was a Tuesday, and upon me knowing that I was born on a Sunday, I decided to have June 4 as my birthdate, and my teacher approved,” he recounted.

Asked about how he was sure that he was born on a Sunday, the former school principal smiled.

“My father had just returned from pastor training in Java, and was conducting his first Sunday service at the longhouse.

“That was when my mother was unable to attend church, because she was already in pain to give birth to me.”

‘Childhood filled with stories’

Even as a young boy, Freddie loved to tell stories, as much as he loved listening to them.

He grew up around folks who taught him the art of good story-telling.

“I already learned about the heroic stories of the Kelabits and other indigenous fighters led by Major Tom Harrison, and the Semut II leaders who had parachuted into Bario to save Sarawak from the Japanese.”

Freddie felt fortunate that during his childhood, his home village in Long Lellang already had a lower primary school run by pioneer teacher Henry Jala.

He also had another story connected to his short time in this school.

“It was during my fourth year in this school when, by a stroke of luck, I was plucked out of Long Lellang by one most unusual circumstance.

“The Colonial District Officer, whose name was probably McSporran, came to look for me.

“You see, my cousin Agan Iwat was already studying in Bukit Sabun at the time, and he was terribly homesick – so homesick that he threatened to walk all the way home to Long Lellang ‘on his two little legs’ – a journey that could easily take two months!” he recalled.

According to Freddie, Agan was the first Long Lellang boy to enter Primary 5 at the school in Bukit Sabun, an area in Long Lama initially planned for oil palm plantation.

“So to the colonial government at that time, he was a ‘precious intake’, and to help him overcome homesickness, they (school authorities) thought having a buddy would solve this problem.

“Just imagine – a white officer willing to take a week-long journey (from Bukit Sabun) to pick up a little boy from Long Lellang, just to keep Agan in school.

“I don’t think any ‘cikgu’ (teacher) would do that today.”

Thus Freddie, who was around 10 then, joined Agan in the Primary 5 class at the Bukit Sabun school.

Freddie (standing front, fifth left) and fellow pupils of Bukit Sabun Primary School in Long Lama, seen in this old photo.

‘Snoring pigs’

Being a year younger than Agan, Freddie knew that he had to work harder than he had ever worked before to catch up with the older boys.

“On the class register, I was ‘No 24’ despite my name being ‘Abun’. This was because I joined the class late,” he said.

Next door was the Long Lama Community Development School opened by the government for the older students who did not pass the Primary 6 entrance examination, or for those too old for primary school. It was administered by Tuan Hudson Southwell, who was later decorated by the Queen in recognition for his work in community education in Sarawak.

The mention of the Long Lama school was necessary for Freddie to tell another story.

“I did not waste any time lingering around and feeling homesick – I went straight to studying.

“I was burning the midnight oil, so understandably, I dozed off at times.

“The community school had this pig sty, and our block was just next to it – so close that I could hear the pigs snoring.

“I believe that at the time, I must have snored just as loud as the pigs – our snores might even have been in a rhythm!” he laughed.

The Kelabit Pemanca and his family.

School days in Tanjong Lobang

All these efforts helped Freddie pass the Primary 6 Common Entrance Examination, which earned him a place at the prestigious Tanjong Lobang School in Miri.

A hardworking student, he also excelled in sports particularly in hockey – he later became the captain of the Miri Hockey Team.

Freddie said at the time, he was very determined to do well in school.

He was always reading, socialising with the teachers, asking lots of questions and taking part in various activities, one of which was his favourite – the ‘School Repair Squad’.

It comprises five to six boys led by Gerawat Nulun, and supervised by the woodwork teacher, the late James Foh.

“We were tasked with mending all the broken chairs and desks. We were actually the best carpenters that the school ever had.”

Freddie said as he would only return home once a year, he had plenty of time during the holidays to undertake sports and other activities.

He was grateful for being able to learn from many teachers who came from all over the world.

He reminisced: “Already, I knew all along what sacrifice meant.

“Till today, I still regard knowledge as a gift that we can give to others.”

The great minds around him inspired and motivated him to become a teacher.

“Just like them, I wanted to see the world and by God’s Grace, I have been able to see the world more than many of my fellow men in Sarawak.”

Freddie said his teachers actually saw this trait in him, and continued to nurture and encourage him to reach his aspirations.

Photo from the family album shows Freddie and Rinai as a young couple.

Merigong Gorge 

Freddie said during his younger days, back when air and land transport was not as developed as today, he would often tag along his father and uncles to travel via the Akah River and also the huge Baram River, to trade in Long Akah and Marudi.

Along this journey, he said the villagers from Long Lellang had to face the formidable Merigong Gorge – the physical divider of the Long Lellang area and the valleys across the Baram tributaries.

“They had to leave their boats at the head of the Merigong Gorge and carry everything on their backs – rubber sheets, ‘damar’ (tree resin), jungle products, you name it – as they made their way to the other end of the gorge where they would board the awaiting longboats, ready to take them to Long Akah.

“From Long Lellang, it could take up to one week to reach Long Akah, and two weeks for the return journey.

“It was not all bad. While trekking through the jungle paths along the gorge, I got to see the grown-ups netting the highly-prized ‘ikan semah’, ‘empurau’ and other fishes, as well as other wild animals for food.

“The jungle and the rivers were provident. The rainforest was indeed our supermarket, created by God,” he said.

On Long Akah, Freddie described it as ‘basically a bazaar’, established by the British for the Chinese and some local natives to run their trades.

“We often stayed in the rooms above the shops and would borrow cooking utensils from the owners.”

Freddie and his family in a photo shot at Tugu Negara in Kuala Lumpur, during a holiday trip taken when their children were still small.

Passionate about woodwork

Freddie began teaching at the Bario Primary School in 1966 and in 1967, he entered the Batu Lintang Teachers College in Kuching, where he majored in teaching woodwork.

Remembering his stint as a member of Tanjong Lobang School’s ‘School Repair Squad’, he was strong in his opinion about woodwork being a subject that should not be taken out of the school curriculum.

“It’s such an important life skill. I have made a longboat, and many other useful wooden crafts.”

Out from the teachers college, Freddie’s first posting was at SK Sungai Tangit in Sibuti, in 1969.

He then moved up to become the principal of Subis Government Secondary School in 1970, where he stayed until his transfer to Long Lama Government Secondary School in 1972, where he served as principal until 1973.

It was in Long Lama that he built his own speedboat, affixed with an outboard engine that he had bought using a government loan. It was an undertaking that would later facilitate him in serving not only his school, but the local community as well.

He once transported a British Council officer from Long Lama to Long San because the usual motor launch would take a whole-day journey, and the officer had to be in Kuching within two days.

Freddie (right) and his fellow young trainees of Batu Lintang Teachers College, in this photo taken in the late 1960s.

“The officer was impressed by my speedboat, which he considered as ‘being good’ as any British-made speedboat!”

Freddie then went to study in the UK, from 1974 to 1976, on a scholarship.

He later returned home to serve at St Columba’s School Miri, where he set up what he called ‘a really good woodwork shop’.

“The students admired my woodworking skills. Not to toot my own horn, but to this day, they still think of me as ‘the best woodwork master’,” he chuckled.

Throughout the years, his career had progressed well. In 1978, he became the principal of Lawas Government Secondary School and three years later, he was made the Lawas District Education Officer. After that, he was appointed as the district’s examinations officer and the officer-in-charge of technology.

In 1986, he became the headmaster of Lutong Primary School and later, in 1997, he was posted back to Limbang to be the headmaster of Menuang Primary School.

A year before his retirement in 2001, Freddie was transferred to Long Sobeng Primary School to become its headmaster.

Ever active and socially-conscious, he had served as the president of the Principals Association of Sarawak from 1990 to 1993.

Also in 1993, he received a medal for ‘Excellent Service in Education’.

In that same year, he was awarded the ‘Pingat Pangkuan Negara’ (Medal of the Order of the Defender of the Realm) under the ‘Public Service Officers’ category.

Freddie later received the ‘Long Service Medal’ in 2001.

Specialist training in London

In all his years of teaching, Freddie regarded his service as a woodwork teacher as the most rewarding. For excellence in this subject, he was sent to London to undergo a two-year (1974-1975) special training under the Commonwealth Scholarship Programme.

“I could never have thought that a young teacher from Ulu Baram who was serving in Long Lama, would be scouted by the Commonwealth to study in London!

“At the time, I already had a daughter and my wife was teaching in Long Lama.

“But we decided that I should venture forward and undertake the course.

“I was lucky to be given the opportunity to study more about fibreglass, a technology that had just been developed then.

“I made a kayak out of fibreglass not long after returning to Sarawak. Till today, it is still a very good kayak!” he said.

Living in Miri

The first Kelabit Pemanca was Ngimat Ayu, who was appointed in 1998.

Freddie was first made a Penghulu in 2002, before succeeding Pemanca Philip Lakai, who passed away in 2018.

Under Freddie’s jurisdiction, there are 30 Kelabit Ketua Kaum (village headmen), and three Kelabit Penghulus.

The Kelabit community, accounting for just 0.3 per cent out of Sarawak’s population of close to three million, is too small in number for it to have a Temenggong (paramount leader).

Freddie and wife Rinai Iwat are blessed with sons Valentine, Matucci and Julian, daughter Tsarina, as well as 13 grandchildren.

Now, the Pemanca is living in Miri, but he strives to go back to Long Lellang as often as he can.

The family continues to maintain their splendid longhouse in Long Lellang, where there is 24-hour solar electricity supply and also WiFi coverage.

Talking about his home village, he said the Kelabits of Long Lellang were the first to plant rubber commercially in the 1950s, quite far ahead of many other native groups in this sense.

He said his community’s enthusiasm in learning the new ways was a significant influencing factor in his upbringing.

As a Kelabit Pemanca, Freddie has 30 Ketua Kaum and three Kelabit Penghulus under his jurisdiction.

“After embracing Christianity, we’re even more progressive in thinking and have since been working very hard to educate our children.

“This aspect, I believe, has significantly shaped me into the person I am today,” he said.

Freddie is still enthusiastic about teaching and education, even after years of retirement.

He still advocates the importance of discipline and diligence to his community.

“I always advise the villagers to keep their compounds clean and well-maintained, just like at school. Should they want to keep animals, they must build sheds and keep everything clean every day.

“The drains must be clear – definitely no stagnant water so as to prevent Aedes mosquitoes,” he said.