A brief history of the Kajang people of central Sarawak

"Lovuk Sama", but widely known as "Punan Sama", is a Punan village along the Rejang. Punan is one of the six minority groups categorised under Kajang.

Kenyalang Portraits

By Calvin Jemarang

The name “Kajang” in the context of Malaysia refers to either a grouping of people in Sarawak or a town in Selangor. Regionally, ‘Kajang’ also refers to a tribe in South Sulawesi.

This article is specifically about the grouping of people in the central region of Sarawak: Kapit and Bintulu Division. Their total population is unknown, but believed to be nearly 10,000 in 2019 — a higher end estimate.

The majority of their population can be found in Kapit Division with their longhouses sandwiched by Iban, Kenyah, and Kayan settlements from above the Bikei rapids along the Rejang to Apo Koyan (previously Sungai Asap Resettlement). There is also a Kajang sub-group, the Punan, found in Bintulu Division.


Historical background

Before 1949, no one knew about the Kajang. It was anthropologist Dr Ronald Edmund Leach who first coined the term ‘Kajang’ in his “Social Economic Survey of Sarawak” report published in 1950.

Leach’s sources were almost entirely from a single group, the Sekapans of Belaga. Their paramount chief, Penghulu Puso Abun was Leach’s main source. Puso assisted and accompanied Leach throughout his whirlwind tour of Belaga and Bintulu from 2 to 11 September, 1947.

Puso was also the staunchest proponent of the grouping, motivated by his desire to counter Kayan and Kenyah hegemony in the Belaga District. Thus, in his articulation which is still adhered to today, Kajang encompasses the Punan, Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Bemali, Seping, Sebob, Lugat, Sian, Tanjong, Kanowit, and Berawan. This classification was later adopted by Leach.

Kajang elders, leaders and community representatives pose for a photo during the 2020 seminar on ‘Adet Kajang’ or ‘Kajang customs’ held in Bintulu.

About three decades later, Peter Metcalf, who went on to study the Berawan discovered discrepancies in the classification and was less than amused by what Leach had done. He went on as far as calling Leach ‘imposing ethnicity” rather than studying ethnification”.

“The temptation to invent non indigenous super categories was not restricted to amateurs,” Leach wrote in his book “The Life of the Longhouse: An Archaeology of Ethnicity”.

According to Metcalf, Leach rejects the Klemantan classification which Charles Hose had stretched to its breaking point. Then, having ridiculed Hose, however, Leach promptly substitutes a miscellaneous category of his own,” Metcalf laments.

Metcalf insisted “Kajang” is no more justified than Hose’s “Klemantan”.

He said it represents no indigenous ethnicity, and linguistically Sebop and Berawan are as distant from the languages in Belaga as they are from Kenyah.

“Leach, too, fell into the trap of imposing ethnicity, rather than studying ethnification,” Metcalf laments.

However, Leach’s classification of the Kajang, thereafter was enshrined in Borneo ethnography. After Sarawak gained her independence, the classification was subsequently adopted with only minor remodification.

The current classification of the Kajang includes only the Punans, Sekapans, Kejamans, Lahanans, Tanjongs, and Kanowits. Notably missing are the Kenyah groups, Berawan and Sebop, mentioned by Metcalf.

In Leach’s classification, “Punan” was classified as Aput, Basap, Boh, Buket, Bukitan, Busang Kelai, Lisum, Lugat, Ot, Penyabong, a group of formerly nomadic peoples. The Ot was not even of Sarawakian origin. Meanwhile, the Bukitan (Beketan), Lisum, Sihan become a separate group; Penan (including settled Penan), Punan Busang (previously Busang Kelai), Punan Aput were reclassified as ‘Penan’.

The term ‘Punan’ thereafter was redesignated as referring to a group that Leach called ‘Punan Bah’, reflecting the true origin of the name.

Where did the Kajang come from?

There are two conflicting stories. In the mid-nineteenth century, during the era of Penghulu Puso, it was said the Kajang were originally inhabitants of the Linau and Balui Rivers on the upper reaches of the Rejang.

Their settlements were purportedly scattered between Kebuau (Kebhor on map) and Kajang Rivers reports Iain Clayre. Historically, Kajang denotes “Sekapan, Kejaman, and Lahanan”. Their true name was Lajih ajo’ or Lajang aju’, so the Sekapan said (ibid). This also who they were in the Punan oral history.

Kajang community leaders and elders participating in the 2020 ‘Adet Kajang’ seminar held at Bintulu in early 2020.

In the late twentieth century, the story of Kajang origin was changed. According to Henry O. Luhat, the Kajang ancestors were originally from Apo’ Daa in today’s East Kalimantan. They end up in the upper reaches of the Rejang following two major waves of migrations that took place about fifteen generations, that is, before 1989.

The first wave brought the Kajang, specifically the Sekapan, Kejaman, Lahanan, and also presumably ‘Punan Bah’ to the Balui and Linau watersheds. In the second wave, another group headed westward to the source of the Balleh River and drifted downstream. This group consisted of the Tanjong and Kanowit, later, occupied the region between Kapit to Kanowit.

No evidence of Punan settled in Apo Daa, Linau and Balui Rivers

Researcher Dr Dianne Margaret Tillotson puts forward that strictly speaking, the Tanjong (Tanyung) and Kanowit (Kanawit), and Punan are autochthonous groups in the Rejang. There is no credible evidence to believe the Punan originally from Apo Daa in East Kalimantan or the Linau and Baluy valley.

This notion of Punan origin is contradictory to the ethnohistory and disputed by Punan elders, chiefs long ago. This had been asserted by Lanyieng Jiui (Punan Sama / Tepeleang), Luton (Punan Ba), Keseng Nyipa (Punan Kakus), Berasap (Punan Pandan), and Adi Avit (Punan Jelalong) in the mid twentieth century.

It has always been said the Punan were originally from the Punan River, a tributary of Bah River. The Ba Valley which means “Rice Valley” is where their archaic ancestors came from, as per researcher Dr Ida Nicolaisen. The Punan valley is located about 80km south of Bintulu as the crow flies, not a hundred kilometres in the southeast of Borneo.

Linguistically, the Punan languages are markedly different from that of Sekapan, Kejaman, and Lahanan. There were two dialects of Punan: the Rejang and the Tatau dialects. The Rejang dialect, heavily acculturated by the Kajang (Sekapan, Kejaman), Bukitan, Kenyah, and Kayan (Alexander 2017) is widely spoken.

Adet Kajang seminar participants listening attentively to Temenggong Ajang Sirek, Kajang community leader, during last year’s ‘Adet Kajang’ seminar, Bintulu.

The other obscure dialect is the Tatau (Taytow) spoken by a few hundred speakers today, mostly along the Tatau drainage. A related dialect was the Siteng dialect (spoken by a group known as Punan Lelak, Punan Ibiek according to Melanau sources), long-extinct and was believed to be a variant of the Tatau dialect.

The Kajang has always been a political grouping, a contrast to Kayan and Kenyah. It is modeled after Temenggong Oyong Lawai Jau’s “Orang Ulu” (Metcalf 2010), a label that subsequently gained mainstream recognition, thanks to the Orang Ulu National Association (OUNA).

In direct response to the Kenyah and Kayan’s success in forming a coalition of diverse groups under OUNA; the Kajang, led by Temenggong Matu proposed a similar umbrella dubbed “Kajang association”. However, due to internal politics, conflicting agenda, they splintered. It was only in 2020, that a Kajang association was formed. — DayakDaily