April 15, 2021

Of language and acceptance: the tale of one Iban in Johor

4 min read

GAWING was nineteen years old when he first arrived in Johor back in 1993. The Iban/Christian boy certainly never expected – over a quarter of a century later – to still be living and working in Johor Baru.

Growing up in an isolated longhouse community in Sarawak (almost 250km from the state capital Kuching) and the eldest son of struggling black pepper farmers, he was the fortunate recipient of a scholarship to study civil engineering.

One of the first things he noted in Johor was the way the various races seemed to live quite separately.

“Sarawak is a very accepting and multiracial place – we gather together regardless of whether it’s a Chinese restaurant or the mamak, but in Johor it was very different.”

Of course, at that time, Malaysia – the combination of the Federation of Malaya (the peninsula) and Bornean states of Sabah and Sarawak had only been in existence for some thirty years (since 1963). With the two halves of the country divided by the South China Sea, most ordinary “Malaysians” had little idea of what life was really like on the other side of the watery expanse.

Initially, Gawing had only intended to stay in Johor for his degree and then return to Sarawak. However, he was fortunate enough to secure a job in Johor Baru immediately after graduation so he stayed on. Indeed, Johor has grown exponentially ever since, offering enormous opportunities and prospects (way beyond anything Sarawak with its tightly controlled and controversial natural resource economy could match) and very much in tandem with Singapore just across the causeway.

Now working for an oil and gas company (a job that he enjoys immensely) and married with three children, Team Ceritalah felt that Gawing came across as very composed and unassuming.

He chose his words carefully, explaining: “Johor is home, but Sarawak is kampung.”

And yet Gawing’s story – of internal migration, of diversity (both linguistic and religious) and of moving from a world where he lived as part of the majority to living as a minority is one that Malaysians, especially more conservative Muslim Malaysians tend to disregard.

It’s also a crucial part of the country’s DNA and indeed a key to a more progressive and dynamic future. According to the 2010 census there were some 342,900 East Malaysians residing in the peninsula.

These numbers are thought to have increased substantially over the past decade. Certainly the huge volume of air traffic across the South China Sea underlines the growing integration.

Of course the Sabahans and Sarawakians, such as Gawing, living in the peninsular can have a direct influence on their immediate surroundings. But beside that, they also act as a crucial conduit of information – remember this is the era of social media – for friends and family back home, shaping views and opinions.

This is all the more important when one realises that a quarter of the seats in the Malaysian Parliament are reserved – under the constitution – for the two states. At the same time East Malaysia also has the largest proportion of non-Muslim Bumiputra. However, in Malaysia as a whole, most Bumiputra’s are actually Muslim and Malay. By way of contrast, Sarawak – the state that sends the most MP’s to the Federal Parliament – fully 42% of the population is Christian and only 32% Muslim.

Team Ceritalah joined Gawing (who plays the organ) for a Sunday evening service. It was an energetic and high-octane experience with flashing lights, singing and dancing. However, the most interesting aspect of the service was that it was conducted entirely in Malay (there is a separate Iban language service as well).

Now, to my mind, the language that one uses in prayer, is language at its most elevated and intimate.

So at a time when so many other Malaysians are sending their children to schools and colleges where the medium of instruction is Chinese, Tamil or English, the East Malaysians are bucking the trend by sending them to national schools where Bahasa Malaysia is the main language. Their commitment to the national language is deeply-rooted and unshakeable. Interestingly all three of Gawing’s children have been educated at national schools.

As Team Ceritalah shifted the discussion to present day affairs and politics, asking Gawing about the recent Tanjung Piai by-election and the over-whelming Barisan Nasional victory, he was non-plussed: “This is Johor, the people are straightforward, if they want to get rid of you, they will get rid of you.

“However, we do need to be patient. Change cannot happen overnight and we should give Pakatan Harapan more time.”

Now, Gawing may not be the best example. He is very much a community man but it’s men and women like him who make a tremendous difference to all our lives – they are the “joiners” and the “doers”.

So as political power in Malaysia continues to fracture and dissipate, it’s to be hoped that Sabahans and Sarawakians will exert greater influence – injecting their more inclusive and progressive views on the peninsula.