Masing: History of cockfighting one of noble ancient traditions, nothing to do with gambling

File photo depicting the sport of cockfighting, known locally as 'sabung ayam'. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

By Karen Bong

KUCHING, June 11: Gambling on cockfighting is not a feature of the ancient tradition of the Iban ethnic tribe, whose rituals carry religious and spiritual significance normally practiced during the Gawai festival to bring harmony and unity.

Cockfights, where two specifically bred and well-trained cockerels with a knife strapped to their feet claw each other to death, is still allowed for ceremonial and religious purposes in Sarawak where a permit is required.

Even though gambling on cockfighting is illegal, these fights are still taking place in secluded areas, hidden from public view as police and the authorities continue to raid and break up fighting rings across the State, particularly in these difficult times of the Covid-19 pandemic when gatherings are not allowed as it could give rise to an outbreak.

Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing Jemut explained that cockfighting is an Iban traditional activity carried out during Gawai festival or as rites of passage when someone has passed away.

“As to why death is an occasion to hold a cockfight, I’m not too sure. But it was believed to be a fight between the spirit of the dead and the living.

“Gambling, however, is not the feature of this Iban traditional activity,” he told DayakDaily when contacted today to comment on a recent raid on cockfighting events in two villages in Simunjan, where a group of men scattered into the forests to escape from police.

Masing believed that cockfighting evolved into gambling due to the influence from the Chinese community who live across the regions together with other ethnic groups when they started to participate in the contest.

As cockfighting is part of the Iban rituals associated with deaths, he revealed that enthusiasts would sometimes fake death certificates in order to get the necessary permission to hold a cockfight activity.

“But the authorities concerned have gotten wiser to these tricks which was why many applications were rejected by the police and the Resident Offices who have the authority to issue cockfighting permits,” he added.

Meanwhile, two weeks before the Gawai festival this year, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg halted the issuance of cockfighting licences and banned the traditional activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has yet to subside in Sarawak.

But on the second day of Gawai, police uncovered an illegal cockfighting activity in Pakan near Julau following a tip-off and arrested five people including two women. Four live roosters, three dead ones and a weighing machine were also confiscated.

In the most recent arrest yesterday (June 10), police broke two fighting rings in Sebuyau organised at Kampung Jeragam where four people were fined and at Kampung Tuba, with no arrests made as the group of men fled into the forest upon sensing the presence of police.

Police have busted a few cockfighting events including on Feb 7 in Sibu where five people including one still wearing a white wristband were arrested in Sibu Jaya, on Feb 14 where 17 men were arrested in a vegetable farm at Kampung Batu Gong Siburan and on May 3 in Miri with 12 men were arrested in a banana plantation in Kuala Baram and dump site at Jalan Lutong-Baram.

According to a research paper on ‘The Transition of Nyabong from Cultural Identity to Illegal Economy in Sarawak, Malaysia’ by Parveen Kaur, cockfighting was also held as a sign of respect for the deceased and for certain occasions such as Gawai or Gawai Kenyalang.

Parveen, who is a senior lecturer of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology Faculty of Social Sciences of University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), highlighted that in ancient times, cockfighting was used by the Ibans as a medium to resolve conflicting issue and maintain peace as well as social relationships among villagers.

“The history of Nyabong according to our respondent, began during the time of their ancestors where the Ibans lived under the same roof with the orang Panggau (beings sent from heaven).

“Conflicts and fights used to occur among the villagers that were difficult to resolve at that time. Even if the tuai rumah (headman) settled the problem between them, the peace only retained momentarily.

“It was due to the situation that one of the ancestors or orang Panggau known as Sengalang Burung came to resolve the issue through the means of cockfighting. After the fight is over, the party at the losing end must ask for forgiveness from the winning party in which in return the winning party must accept and forgive in order to maintain peace between them.”

During Gawai festival, Parveen emphasised that cockfights are held as a sign of welcoming guests to the longhouse as well as a form of bebuti (entertainment).

“Moreover, cockfights also became a medium for solving conflicts with property such as trees that bore fruits which were located between two households since agriculture was prominent during those times.

“The winner from the cockfight battle will have access to the fruit tree and his household as well as for the generations that come after him.” — DayakDaily