Letter to the Editor
By Flora Remeo
When the Tan Sri Empiang Jabu Research Chair In Dayak Women Studies was launched on 1st August 2019, it was a momentous day for all Dayak women. The chair was established by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in collaboration with Sarakup Indu Dayak Sarawak (SIDS), the largest Dayak women association in Malaysia.
It is not every day that we see a Dayak woman hailing from a longhouse in a rural area of Sarawak being recognised at the highest echelon of education in Malaysia. It is certainly no mean feat to have a research chair named after one’s name.
Therefore, to come across a report that Dr Ting Tiong Choon had, amongst other things, questioned the name and purpose of the research chair is unacceptable as it was raised by a non-Dayak and a man to boot.
Rightfully, all of us Sarawakians regardless of gender and race, should rejoice in the establishment of a research chair that focuses on women studies and the first of its kind on Dayak women in any university anywhere in the world. Nobody should politicise it much less belittle its name.
Since inception in 1957, SIDS has the objectives of promoting education and culture within Sarawak’s women community especially the Dayak. To have a research chair named after its ninth Chairwoman, YBhg Tan Sri Empiang, its longest serving and most decorated leader, was not a surprise to any Dayak women and to all Sarawakians worth their grain of salt.
Tan Sri Empiang, affectionally known as Indai Rentap, has served the people tirelessly long before she held any position of power. Born at the end of the Japanese occupation of Sarawak in Paku, Betong, she went through near insurmountable odds to carve her place in history with her astounding number of “firsts”.
She was the first Dayak woman: to be awarded the prestigious Colombo Plan Scholarship; to attend university; to graduate with a degree; to serve as a graduate teacher; to serve as a two-term Senator in Parliament; and to be elected as the Chief of the Women Wing of a multi-racial political party.
Her eventual foray into politics does not disqualify her as an exemplar of a successful Dayak woman who charted new paths and opportunities for her community.
Her firm commitment to ensure SIDS remains true to its raison d’être of serving Dayak women irrespective of creed, politics or social status drew many to join making it one of the most apolitical and multi-religious organisations in Sarawak.
A champion for the promotion of Dayak culture, she spurred the revival of traditional weaving arts and turn it into an economic livelihood for Dayak women. She was responsible for the introduction of Iban design in textile printing, including the introduction of Iban fabric to the international fashion world.
She identified what held many Dayak youths back from pursuing higher education such as poor command of English, Mathematics and Sciences subjects as well as lack of funds. This led to the establishment of the Dayak Cultural Foundation (DCF) of which she was a co-founder.
Eventually her work on how to improve education amongst the Dayak community made its way to the Board of Yayasan Sarawak where thousands of Dayak children benefited. I was one of the fortunate Iban students to merit a Yayasan Sarawak scholarship to pursue my studies in MRSM Kuantan. To this day, like many other Dayak women, I am appreciative to Tan Sri Empiang for the opportunity.
A lot more can be said as to why her name is very apt as the namesake for the celebrated research chair. This short letter won’t do her justice. A towering personality in the Dayak community, she served where she is needed without the need for pomp and recognition. Something that a lot of people today should emulate.
To my mind, her best contribution to Dayak women was to demonstrate how one can be an effective contributor to society-at-large at the same time as being an effective contributor to one’s own family as a wife, mother and grandmother.
For all of her achievements and contributions, she became the first Dayak and Iban woman to be awarded the honorific ‘Tan Sri’ by His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. She had laid out a high benchmark for us to follow and to surpass.
Therefore, it goes without saying why the Research Chair has been named after Tan Sri Empiang. The Chair will help create more Dayak women like her. Dayak women who are empowered through education with the passion to develop and empower others toward the creation of a progressive, strong and cohesive Dayak society and in turn all Sarawakians.
Whether the chair is held by a man or a woman is totally irrelevant. What is important is that the person is competent and meritorious to uphold the legacy of the Dayak woman it was named after.
I, for one, will not begrudge her this recognition. She never asked for it but she deserves it after her long years of unstinting service to the Dayak community. She continues to serve even after her retirement.
Thank you Tan Sri Empiang. We need more icons like you.
This is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of DayakDaily. Letters to the Editor may be lightly edited for clarity.