Malaysia… Truly Asia! How many times have we heard this phrase blaring from the ubiquitous tourism promotional billboard? Yet, incanting this tagline doesn’t literally translate into an incredible assimilation of all things Asian.

In some places in Peninsular Malaysia, this could mean multiple burgeoning immigrant populations contained within a single South East Asian nation: you may find yourself in Indonesia, Bangladesh or Vietnam smack in Kuala Lumpur, the difference being a single street or two. But here’s the interesting series of contradictions and paradoxes: there will be places which resemble both Manila’s glitzy Roxas Boulevard and Cambodia’s Wild West at the same time. Still, credit to the person who coined the tagline; people have long attempted to figure out what exactly constitutes Malaysia.

Now if one thinks that visiting a major city in Peninsular Malaysia covers the full range of her people and culture, he’d flip immediately upon setting foot in Sarawak. I know because I did. Witnessing Sarawak’s kaleidoscope of cultures at every turn of the head can overwhelm any first visitor. Sarawak’s 40 or so documented sub-ethnic groups makes it impossible to draw specific boundaries which define Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau, Orang Ulu or even the Malay, Chinese or Indian per se. In addition, they are joined by a dizzying array of intertwined indigenous tribes, some of which are still unaccounted for Sarawak is the true anthropologist’s playground since her cultures vigorously maintain each distinct tradition and community structure, yet blend together to create a uniquely diverse heritage.

Take the Sarawakian Chinese for example. They belong to a wide range of dialect groups such as Cantonese, Foochow, Hakka, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese. Despite their cultures and community identities remaining largely intact, there are also many who settled in Malay areas, gradually adopting elements of the local culture and intermarriage with the Malay community. They are the Peranakan or affectionately Baba and Nyonya, culturally evolving into a synthetic set of practices, beliefs and arts combining both Malay and Chinese elements.

Another example of such cultural assimilation is the Malay wedding ceremony, which features Indian traditions where the bride and groom dress in gorgeous brocades, sit in state and feed each other yellow rice with hands painted with henna. Likewise, many Sarawak Malays have adapted the Chinese practice of giving ang pow on their festivals – except that the packets are green and have Arabic calligraphy on them.

While intercultural elements are evident for the three major races of West Malaysia, they are quite impossible to identify here, perhaps due to full mutual assimilation. Take the upriver Orang Ulu spread along Sarawak’s vast interiors in the north. In every longhouse, one would see Kenyah or Kayan folk alongside the Kajang, Kejaman, Punan, Ukit and Penan, not to mention the downriver Lun Bawang tribes, far upstream Berawan and Saban, and even the plateau Kelabits dwelling together.

Indeed, Sarawak – Malaysia’s true blue 1Malaysia state – has several advantages, ranging from food to fashion to festivals. Let’s start with food. Sarawak is widely known to be Borneo’s epicurean paradise. A number of culinary creations are drawn from each constituent native culture to produce what many consider to be Borneo’s best dining experience. These are coupled with colonial and immigrant legacies that further expand the spectrum of delicacies available for all taste buds. The most intimidating culinary experience would be the exotic sago worm that, in some places, is served as a side dish to whatever possible dish served, from the humble banana fritter to fried rice. A good time to remember not to bite off more than you could chew! The cross-cultural trait also ensures the Sarawakian’s morbid fascination for so many variations of the same meal (and often towards the outer limits of the human taste bud), for example a bowl of kolo mee that can be too sweet, too spicy or too salty! Native spices and condiments can be the heart and soul of certain dishes, although the quantity and proportions vary with geographical availability. Akin to south Indian practice, banana leaves are sometimes also used for those wanting a more traditional flavour.


…many Sarawak Malays have adapted the Chinese practice of giving ang pow on their festivals – except that the packets are green and have Arabic calligraphy on them.

 Cross-cultural elements are also manifested in each and every festival here. Religious festivals, cultural festivals, political festivals, sports festivals, media festivals or just-for-the-heckof- it festivals. We even have kongsi raya (shared festival) when annual community festivals coincide, like Chinese New Year and Hari Raya. No one knows for sure why Malaysians turn up in such large numbers at any kind of parade or festival and there is no shortage of theories to explain this – ranging from the fact that Malaysians are outdoor people to the weakness that Malaysians have for freebies – even if it’s just to collect the balloons! Young and old, rich or poor, Who’s Who and Joe Nobodies all turn up alike.

The easiest way to understand the Sarawakian’s intensive cultural interaction is to appreciate the open door policy maintained during festivals. All her ethnic groups open their doors to everyone else, even during religious festivals. Such inclusivity is more than just a way to dismantle cultural barriers and foster understanding. The better news is that unlike in other parts of the world, you don’t need an invitation so feel free to gatecrash. The secret to enjoying any festival here is simply to turn up! Sarawak is indeed Freddy Freeloader heaven.

Gawai Dayak would be the prime example. Enter any longhouse and watch how outsiders also gather around the ranyai (ceremonial tree) at the ruai (common veranda) of the longhouse. Watch how everyone equally enjoys the merry-making, feasting, drinking of tuak and their own wiggly version of the ngajat.

It’s no secret that people here get along better with each other in a manner those from the other side cannot fathom. Sarawak remains the prime example of cross-cultural assimilation because the multi-tribal psyche forces people to understand each other before expecting to be understood. It forces them to learn with the intention of gaining insight, instead of the intention to disagree.

No belief or position is deemed incontrovertible, hence placing mutual respect and tolerance above all else. The secret lies in unlocking the different tapestries of culture intertwined within the Sarawakian mindset, made up of over 60 tribes. Rudyard Kipling famously said “East is east, west is west and never the twain shall meet”. But if there is any place on earth where “the twain has met”, look no further than Sarawak.

Capt Dr Thiru Jr is an amateur writer and musician outside his day job flying for a leading airline. A regular Joe from Penang, he currently lives in Kuching with his family, and two demanding dogs.

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