3 Lions Tama Abu Pass
Long Sabai
Long Sabai :: Sarawak :: Borneo :: Malaysia
Robin Leo Gunung Tam Abu
Long Sabai
Southern gateway to Pulong Tau National Park

History and Culture of Long Sabai

Tama Abu first ascent

Location. Long Sabai is located on the southern tip of the Pulong Tau National Park, at the confluence of the Tutoh and Sabai rivers. The settlement is about 3 kilometers from the Park. It is the furthest settlement on the Tutoh. To reach it, one takes an hour's flight in a small plane from Miri to Long kellang, a 4- hour walk from Long Lellang to Aro Kangan, and an hour's outboard
ride from Aro Kangan to Long Sabai.

Population. Long Sabai comprises 22 families, and a population of 100 people: 55 males and 45 females. Seven families comprising 20 individuals were previously living at Ba Keramu, and a family comprising 7 individuals at Long Belusu, located downriver from Long Sabai. These families agreed to move to Long Sabai. The population census also reveals that 13 individuals from neighboring Penan settlements are residing in Long Sabai, following marriages or are staying with relatives: 4 females and 1 male from Ba' Lai; 2 females from Long Sait; I male from Ba Berang; 3 males from Long Kepang, I male from Long Main, and 1 male from Long Belok, in the Apoh. There are also two non-Penan individuals, both male, residing in Long Sabai: a Sa'ben from Long Banga, and a Lun Dayeh from Long Midang, Kecamatan Krayan, East Kalimantan. They are married to Penan women of the village.

Education. Despite the remoteness of Long Sabai, a respectable number of individuals have some form of formal education. Of the 36 individuals between the age of 5 and 19, 22 are attending school: 13 at the primary school, Long Lellang, and 7 at junior secondary school, Bario. The other 14 either did not go to school or dropped out. The reason given for dropping out was financial.

The village census indicates that there are 41 persons between the age of 20 and 49. Of these 41 individuals, 18 attended school: 12 at primary level (did not continue to the secondary level due to financial constraints), 4 at junior secondary, and 2 at senior secondary. It is interesting to note that 9 people between the ages of 40 and 70 are able to read printed words in Penan. They attended adult education classes organized for church elders by the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM). The Sidang Injil Borneo (5) (SIB) continued the program in parts of interior Northern Sarawak. The main purpose of this adult education program was to teach church elders to read the Bible in their own language. Three of the 9 individuals mentioned, two females and one male, went for further training in reading and writing at Long Bedian and Lawas. They were later appointed as pastors. One of them, in his 70s, has now retired. Some of these retired pastors are active in local church activities.

History. The upper Tutoh used to be inhabited by several bands of nomadic Penan. Over the years some bands have moved out of the area to other parts of the Baram and Limbang districts, specifically to the Selungo, Akah, and Magoh in the Baram, and the Madihit and Adang in the Limbang. Three groups remained in the upper Tutoh: one group at Long Sabai, another at Ba Keramu, and a family at Long Belusu. All except one family from the Ba Keramu group and the family at Long Belusu have moved to Long Sabai; members of that remaining family have indicated their intention to move to Long Sabai at some point in the near future.

Despite the isolation and difficult access to the outside world, the Penan of Long Sabai have said that they prefer to stay where they are. The reasons are as follows:

* They consider the upper Tutoh as their okoo bu'un, place of origin. They have historical and emotional attachments to the area through burial grounds of long-dead ancestors and sites of old camps. They know the river system, where the sago and rattan are and the location of salt licks and pig wallows.

* They claim that the upper Tutoh is rich in food: wild sago, vegetables, fruit, game and fish. It also has a rich diversity of medicinal plants.

* They also claim that the land is quite fertile proven by the good harvests they have had.

* The absence of other groups competing for land and resources.

The headman, Pusa Luding, said that he is the eighth generation of his family to live in the Upper Tutoh.

During their nomadic days, the Penan generally traveled great distances, from one river system to another. However, the group at Long Sabai did not. They moved mainly within the area of the upper Tutoh and its tributaries, between the Labid and Kerurai, a tributary of the Sabai. Their foraging area, tana' pengurip, includes the Selunok and Sabai including its tributaries, the Lawan and Kerurai. These rivers are now part of the Pulong Tau National Park and are known to the Penan by different names, Labid River as Kalit, Selunok as Dat, Lawan as Pedereng, Sabai as Kuren, and Kerurai as Kelure. The group made their living in these river systems, moving from one resource area to another, in a circle, returning to previous harvested areas that had regenerated. They also followed pig migrations during fruit seasons.

Contact with Outsiders. Since time immemorial the Penan of Long Sabai have been in contact with their neighbors, the Kelabit and Kenyah, through social visits and also through barter trade meetings (tamu). A few marriages have taken place between the Penan and their Kelabit and Kenyah neighbors. Village eiders say that it was through tamu organized by the government that the Penan had the opportunity to meet government officials during the Brooke and Colonial periods. Five places were designated as tamu centers for the Penan of the upper Baram, Selungo and Tutoh: Lid Matu on the Baram, Long Suit and Long Sele on the Selungo, and Sungai Layun and Long Melinau on the Tutoh. The presence of government officials was to ensure that trade was conducted fairly. The District Officer normally brought along one of his Sarawak Administrative Officers, a Hospital Assistant to dispense medicine, and other relevant officers.

The headman, Pusa Luding, as a young man, remembers meeting Ian Urquhart, a well-liked Colonial District Officer in Baram, during a tamu at Lid Matu. It was at that tamu that Urquhart suggested to the Penan that they consider moving to Long Mau on the Baram, below Lid Matu. The main reason for Urquhart's proposal was to get the Penan close to the school and clinic at Lid Matu. It also meant that government officers would be able to visit them more regularly. However, none of the Penan agreed to the proposal. The headman also mentions having met another Colonial Baram District Officer, Malcolm McSporran at Long Akah. He also asked them to move downriver, near Long Lellang. Again, the Penan did not agree to leave the upper Tutoh.

When the Long Lellang Airstrip was under construction in the early 1970s, the Baram District Officer suggested that the Penan move near Long Lellang in order to justify the construction of the airstrip that would serve a larger population. Once again, the Penan refused. They told each District Officer that the upper Tutoh was their ancestral homeland where they have historical and socio-cultural ties to the landscape.

Christianity. Christianity was introduced to the Penan in the late 1950s through their Kelabit, Kenyah, and Kayan neighbors. They remember three Australian missionaries of the Borneo Evangelical Mission who had worked with the Penan: Ken Nightingale, Phyllis Webster, and Majorie Britza. Although they did not visit Long Sabai, the Penan often met them at the Kenyah village of Lid Matu and Kelabit village of Long Dati (which later moved to Long Lellang). A number of Penan attended the adult education classes organized by the Borneo Evangelical Mission at Lid Matu and at the Kayan village of Long Bedian on the Apoh, and met these missionaries there. A few young Penan also attended the BEM Bible School in Lawas. The Penan of Long Sabai built a chapel and a house for a pastor in the settlement. As they have no resident pastor presently; the task of organizing church services every Sunday is undertaken by the church elders. Penan in all the settlements interviewed consider conversion to Christianity important in one social aspect: it enhanced social interaction between them and their neighbors.

Settlement. The Penan of Long Sabai first settled down either in the mid or late 1960s. When they made this decision, they told the Baram District Officer that they would settle in the upper Tutoh, in the area where their ancestors had lived as nomads. They did not wish to settle in areas suggested earlier by various District Officers. Aban Lenyau Jau, brother of the Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau, who was present at the Penan meeting with the District Officer, said that it was a fair suggestion and supported the move. According to the Long Sabai headman, Pusa Luding, the two Kelabit headmen of Long Lellang "A" and Long Lellang "B," Lun Raja and Sena'an Bala did not object to the Penan settling in the upper Tutoh. In fact, they were happy with the move.

The Penan first settled at Long Penakoh, on the Tutoh, about an hour upriver by outboard motor from Long Sabai. In the 1970s they moved downriver and built their houses on the true left bank of the Tutoh, opposite the mouth of the Sabai. It was from here that the village got its name, Long Sabai. In the mid 1980s they moved again, to the present site, on the true right bank of the Tutoh, just below the mouth of the Sabai.

Farming. When the Penan first settled in the 1960s, they cultivated cassava, and a year or two later, hill rice. Cassava, sugar cane, and various kinds of vegetables were intercropped with rice. Some of their farms were on the temuda left by the Kelabit who now reside at Long Lellang. Those who fanned on Kelabit temuda obtained permission from the owners. According to the Penan, the four individual Kelabits who used to farm in Long Sabai at the time they made the decision to settle down were: Raja Bala, Ngelawan Tepun, Tuked Rink and Maren Bala. At that time the Kelabit were living at Long Dati, about an hour's outboard journey and two hours walk on foot from Long Sabai. According to the Penan, since the Kelabit moved to Long Lellang, none of the owners have come back to farm their temuda. At Long Lellang, the Kelabit gave me a list of people having temuda at the Long Sabai area. The list contains names slightly different from those given to me by the Penan.

The Penan also opened new areas of land between Long Sabai and Long Penakoh for their farms. They did this so that they would have their own temuda to fall back on, should the former owners decide to claim them back. At the moment there is no dispute over temuda land between the Penan and Kelabit. Should this become an issue in the future, the appropriate authority to deal with this is the district administration and the Native Court. The villagers express interest in adopting wet rice cultivation. Some of them have visited Bario and Ba Kelalan and are impressed with the irrigation system of the Kelabit and Lun Bawang. There is adequate fiat land at Long Sabai that could be converted into wet rice fields.

Livelihood The Penan are self-sufficient in rice and have adopted it as their staple food. Despite this, they still go to the forest to process sago. The Penan of Long Sabai rotate their consumption between rice, cassava, and sago. They do this to avoid the monotony of sticking to just one particular staple. The people of Long Sabai raise chickens mainly for domestic consumption. Some are also sold to the Kelabit at Long Lellang.

Game and fish are still plentiful in Long Sabai. This is so because the place is isolated, difficult to get to, and so hunting pressure from the outside is minimal. In her study on hunting patterns and wildlife densities, Chin (2002:102) says that of the three sites she studied, the hunting success in Long Sabai was the highest, at 82.4% compared with Long Main 56.8%, and Ba Buboi 19%. Long Sabai is also rich in jungle vegetables, shoots, and fruit.

The Penan of Long Sabai are poor, however, in terms of cash. Shortage of money is pressingly felt when children go to school, especially to secondary schools in Bario or Marudi. Of the 36 persons between the ages of 5 and 19, 14 did not go to school or have dropped out mainly due to financial constraints.

Income and Employment. In the past Penan collected various forest products to trade with their neighbors at barter trade (tamu) centers in the Baram District. Most of these resources have been depleted. Ten to 20 years ago, gaharu was a big income earner
for some families. In the mid 1980s and early 1990s, the headman of Long Sabai made several trips to Brunei, Labuan, and Kuala Lumpur with some Kelabit friends to sell gaharu. Today, it is extremely difficult to locate gaharu in the forest. Rattan is still plentiful in the Long Sabai area and is collected and woven into mats and baskets for local use. In the past, such products were brought by the Penan to tamu to barter trade with their neighbors. Since tamu were discontinued in 1976, there has been no market for these items. The odd travelers passing through Long Sabai might buy one or two rattan baskets, but such travelers rarely exceed ten a year. In the past ten years, a number of researchers have come to Long Sabai to conduct research on wildlife and resource inventories and have employed local people, both men and women, as informants, guides, and porters. This provided cash income to some families.

During the off-farming season, a few Penan go to Long Lellang to look for odd jobs with Kelabit families after making prior arrangements with them. They are paid between RM 15 and RM20 per day depending on the type of work. There are three young Penan families staying at Long Lellang while looking after children attending school. They are also employed by the Kelabit to do odd jobs. They normally go back to Long Sabai during the farming season, leaving one of the parents to look after the children.

Penan can be good guides for jungle trekkers. A German tourist was extremely happy with his two Penan guides (one in his 30s, and the other 16) who guided him trekking from Long Lellang to Bario for seven days, despite the fact that the two men are not certified tourist guides. The tourist was very impressed by his guides' knowledge of the landscape, plants and animals, and the speed at which they could build shelters for them to sleep in the jungle. The same tourist went trekking in the jungle of Sabah with certified tourist guides, but they were not as knowledgeable and competent as his two Penan guides. The two Penan guides told me that they were each paid RM 100 per day. Young Penan say they like to guide tourists as it brings good pay; but the number of tourists trekking between Bario and Long Lellang is small and far between. Two brothers, one 30 years old, the other 27, with Form 5 education, are employed by medium sized companies in Miri, with monthly salaries. Both are married with young children. As the nature of their employment is not permanent, the likelihood is that they will eventually return to Long Sabai.

Houses. The families live in single houses built on stilts. The houses are made of timber with zinc roofs supplied by a timber company, and built by the Penan. There are three persons in the village with some basic carpentry skills: Balang Weng, Romeo Pusa, and Matius Robin. Presently there are 14 family houses. Seven of the Penan families still live in Ba' Keramu, and one at Long Belusu. It is learnt that they will move to Long Sabai when the community decides to build a new longhouse.

Views on Timber Blockades. Long Sabai has not been affected by logging, but individuals from the village have taken part in blockade activities at various locations, such as the Magoh, Layun, Akah, and Upper Limbang. They did this to declare their sympathy with those whose way of life has been disrupted and to show solidarity with the Penan community. They do not see anything wrong with setting up blockades as this is done to exercise their rights to protect resources important for their livelihood. Blockades, according to them, are an expression of frustration and helplessness
meant to draw public attention when authorities do not listen to the problems caused by logging.

Views on the National Park. Based on information given to them by officials of the Forest Department and ITTO, the Penan do not think that the National Park would in any way affect their livelihood. They believe that the Park is good for them as they are given rights of access to harvest resources within it on a sustained yield basis. They also see the National Park as a source of employment, as informants on indigenous knowledge and as guides and porters for visiting researchers and scientists.

Views on One Settlement. The Penan of the four settlements were asked what their views were if there is a proposal for them to settle in one big settlement so that basic amenities such as a school, clinic, and so forth could be built for them. The Penan of Long Sabai feel that the idea of one settlement for the Penan around Pulong Tau National Park is not feasible. They feel firmly attached to Long Sabai, an area rich in food resources. They would not like to move out from the area to either Long Lobang or Ba' Tik "A," and live in one big settlement. They also feel that the Penan of Long Lobang, Ba' Tik "A" and Ba' Tik "B" would not like to move to Long Sabai, either.


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