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Harvesting an identity

Millennium markers - Borneo-Sabah-Sarawak

THE first Harvest Festival was held in Sabah on June 30, 1960. Besides the performance of indigenous Sabahan rituals for rice harvesting, the participants enjoyed sports competitions and beauty contests. The Harvest Festival was based on traditional customs yet coloured by modern culture because the ''desire to be recognised'' on the part of the indigenous Sabahan was adopted into the festival.Modern sports were introduced in Sabah a century ago. The first football match in Sabah was played when a merchant ship called the Ratter visited Sandakan, then the capital of the state, in April 1899. An instant football team was formed by the British administrators in Sandakan to play a match with the crew. Football soon became a regular form of recreation among the British administrators and was played every Tuesday and Saturday in the town. A football league was finally started in Sandakan in 1917.

Local Sabahans learned to play football, too. By the 1920s, there were football grounds in every district and several football teams of local Sabahans in each town in the state. These competitions became an important avenue through which locals could gain fame and recognition. For instance, when the Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) Malay Club, formed in 1926 by the local Muslim Bajaus, successively won top spot in the Jesselton football league in 1931 and 1932, its name was known throughout the state through the articles in the widely-read bi-weekly British North Borneo Herald.

The British administrators then began introducing competitions into state ceremonies, such as coronations and royal birthdays. This was intended to encourage locals to attend these ceremonies and to foster a sense of belonging to the British Empire among them. Sports competitions were especially useful in attracting the local people.

The most common occasion among such state ceremonies was the Tamu Festival. The Tamu Festival was a government-sponsored ''open house'' held at the site of a tamu, an open-air local market held weekly or monthly, depending on the area. The government realised the significance of the tamus and began organising festivals centred on them in 1955. These were also called Tamu Besar (or Big Tamu) in West Coast districts.

Besides sporting events, beauty contests were incorporated in these Tamu Festivals from January 1956. That was the year Maria Menado, a famous Indonesian film actress, visited Jesselton to promote her movie. Menado, who was born in 1932 in Menado, Sulawesi, won the Miss Universe crown in Singapore in 1950. Two years later, when Sabah was invited to send a candidate to the Miss Orient Beauty Contest held in Tokyo in July 1958, beauty contests truly took off in popularity and were organised at Tamu Festivals in Labuan (July 1958), Tamparuli and Papar (September 1958), and Penampang (October 1958); soon, they were incorporated into festivals throughout the state.

All these forms of competition at the festivals fulfilled the need locals had to be recognised. In fact, the festivals might have helped locals recognise this desire to be spotlighted and even encouraged the growth of this desire. Thus there emerged people who tried to make the government-sponsored Tamu Festivals into their own festivals in the different ways. Among them were K. Bali, OKK Sedomon and OKK Gunsanad. (OKK stands for Orang Kaya Kaya - literally, Rich Man, a title used by the British to indicate a leader or chief.)

Bali was born in Kelantan in June 1927 to a Hokkien Chinese father and Siamese (Thai) mother. He idealised Indonesia where the indigenous peoples were united in sharing a sense of Indonesian nationhood despite their ethnic diversity. He decided to devote his life to the realisation of such a society in Sabah when he visited the state in 1956.

Bali became the editor of the Malay ''corner'' in the North Borneo News and Sabah Times (owned by the renowned Fuad Stephens) and tried to foster a sense of Sabah nationhood by promoting the Malay language through his articles.

He also formed a cultural body named Angkatan Gaya Baru (the Generation of New Style) in 1958 with the aim of promoting Malay literature and the local arts. The annual New Style festival started in the same year and had various competitions as it was modelled after the Tamu Festivals. In other words, Bali made the Tamu Festival the people's own by organising his version of it without government aid. It must be noted, however, that the New Style festival did not concentrate only on the culture and life of indigenous people as it also promoted Malay literature - the Malay language was not indigenous to Sabah, though it was widely accepted and used among the peoples of the state.

Sedomon was born in Bingkor, an interior district of Sabah, in 1894. His father, OKK Gunsanad, was one of the most influential leaders among the indigenous peoples of the interior. Sedomon succeeded his father and became the District Chief of Bingkor in 1936. When the Tamu Festival was introduced in Sabah in 1955, Sedomon asked the government to organise another occasion during which people could give thanks for the harvest. Instead, the government incorporated the thanksgiving rituals into the Tamu Festivals in the interior districts of Bingkor, Tambunan and Keningau; thus the Tamu Festivals became Harvest Thanksgiving Festivals there. By giving significance to indigenous customs surrounding the harvesting of rice at the Tamu Festivals, Sedomon succeeded even further in making these festivals a truly local one - except for the fact that they were still organised by the colonial government.

The Harvest Festival finally came into its own when, in response to the success of these festivals since 1956, the colonial government declared a public holiday called Native Festival Day in 1960 and allowed the indigenous peoples to organise their own festivals for the day. Many people, including Bali, planned to organise festivals for that day, but it was the Penampang Kadazans, one of the indigenous peoples from the coastal district of Penampang, who ended up organising Harvest Festivals throughout Sabah on Native Festival Day. This was because the Penampang people were the only people who had a network throughout the state at that time.

Harvest Festival today

The Penampang Kadazans claimed the Harvest Festival to be theirs by saying that all of the indigenous peoples in Sabah should be called Kadazans. Indeed, the Harvest Festival was once called the festival of the Kadazans, but now it is widely recognised as a festival for all the indigenous peoples of Sabah, including the Kadazandusun-Muruts (they comprise the Dusuns and the Muruts of the coast and the interior).

The development of the Harvest Festival represents the crystallisation of the struggle for self-awareness and a sense of independence among the indigenous peoples of Sabah. While other people resorted to anti-colonial battles against foreign powers, the people of Sabah gained their sense of self by organising these festivals to fulfill their desires. Today, these festivals that celebrate indigenous life are more popular than ever.n Yamamoto Hiroyuki was formerly a lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Sabah and is presently a research associate at the University of Tokyo, Japan.He recently submitted for examination his Ph.D dissertation on the emergence of ethnic and national identities among the people of Sabah.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.


Notes: STF -: In the Millennium Markers' continuing focus on Sabah, YAMAMOTO HIROYUKI traces the development of a festival that came to embody the indigenous peoples' sense of identity.

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