Leaving a mark in the history of human civilisations


A replica of a kelirieng at the Borneo Cultures Museum.

LAST month, I was delighted to have finally visited the Borneo Cultures Museum in Kuching with my family. We spent over four hours exploring the museum and ensuring that we did not miss any of its fascinating displays.

My children, in particular, enjoyed the children’s centre, but what pleasantly surprised me was their equally strong interest in the regular exhibitions. The high-tech facilities and gamification techniques were undoubtedly a factor, but the museum’s overall ambiance, including its lighting, cleanliness, and spaciousness, also contributed to our enjoyment.

In my opinion, the Borneo Cultures Museum is on par with some of the greatest museums in Japan, Europe, and the US.

One of the most magnificent displays at the Borneo Cultures Museum is a replica of the kelirieng that once belonged to the family of Kabieng Tuluy from Long Segaham, Belaga.

Kelirieng or Klirieng is a traditional carving crafted on a wooden stick by the Kajang tribe for funeral purposes. The masterpieces are adorned with intricately-carved dragons, miniature creatures, and hudo’ motifs featuring huge fangs and jaws. The highest concentration of these burial poles can be found in Bintulu and Kapit divisions. Interestingly, according to the exhibit label, the actual burial poles were crafted by skilled artisans from Pontianak and the Kapuas River. It took them two years to complete the work of art.

Last year, three 200-year-old kelirieng were found at the bottom of Sungai Penyarai Tatau. Despite being beautifully carved on Belian wood, some parts of the poles have been damaged.

The restoration of the kelirieng has sparked controversy among both the local communities and authorities. While some advocate for conserving the poles at a nearby site, others argue that moving the artifacts to a safer and more accessible location is necessary due to the risk of damage in the current conditions. This case demonstrates Borneo’s own efforts and approaches in preserving its cultural heritage.

Getting to know Borneo better

With the recent political development in Malaysia and the Indonesian government’s ambitious plan to move the capital to East Kalimantan, Borneo has gained unprecedented attention. Furthermore, as climate change continues to gain urgency, the island’s role as a vital carbon sink has made it an essential piece of the puzzle in mitigating the crisis.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Borneo plays a key part in shaping the future of the Nusantara region, i.e., the entire archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei.

Borneo was long overlooked, but there is now a growing demand for more knowledge about the region from various communities, including policymakers, businesses, and intellectual circles. While museums are an excellent approach to showcase Borneo, writings and other forms of media are also accessible ways to reach broader audiences, especially with the rise of digital media. Borneo’s experience in transitioning to a more sustainable trajectory of development offers many lessons to be shared, from how the island transformed its economies to how it navigated political crises and conservation efforts.

However, publications on Borneo, especially in the international outlets, have been contested between local and foreign perspectives. On many occasions, the locals view foreign intellectuals, especially those being labelled ‘Western’, as being confined by their own perspectives or assumptions which may not accurately reflect the realities on the ground. The question is then how a new, objective, and locally-sensitive lens may be forged to provide a fresh approach to understanding complex development issues in Borneo.

Being pro-active in educating the global and local communities

Perhaps, it might be beneficial for Borneo to be more pro-active in creating platforms that cater to educating the diverse regional and international communities. Publications, exhibitions, seminars, workshops, and other forms of dissemination through platforms like state libraries could be useful to enable both global and local communities to learn from the diversity of Bornean experiences. These may further encourage edu- and eco-tourism, providing an opportunity for local communities to benefit from the interactions with visitors.

Borneo’s newfound attention presents a unique opportunity for the island to leave a lasting mark in the history of human civilisation. The island has much to offer. A better understanding about the island will also prevent unnecessary confusions and conflicts.

Ultimately, these will pave the way for more productive collaborations between global and local communities to harness the island’s potential for regional development and climate change mitigation. Personally, I feel grateful for the chance to publish a book about Borneo. Hopefully, there are more platforms to further contribute to connecting perspectives, sharing knowledge, and bridging gaps.

Borneo’s fantasy tales?

Having thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits and attractions that the museum had to offer, we concluded our visit with some delicious cakes and coffee at the museum’s café. The experience was truly memorable, and I would highly recommend this museum to anyone visiting Kuching.

“Papa, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a treasure hunt game in the museum with mobile apps, like the one we played at the Sarawak Cultural Village?” He made it his mission to collect as many of the ‘treasures’ listed as possible during our trip to Santubong and took the time to read each and every description.

“That would be amazing! Maybe more than that? How about stories like Lord of the Rings, but set in Borneo?”

“Imagine the adventures we could have, with mythical creatures and legendary heroes!” He got a bit too excited.

Well, who knows, maybe some geeks will write it one day. Looking forward to it!

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Harvard University. He is interested in exploring sustainable development in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.

His book, ‘Transforming Borneo: From Land Exploitation to Sustainable Development’, was recently published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.