Window on the World - Sarawak, East Malasia

Sarawak is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. It is almost exactly the same size as England but with only two million people. It is part of the island of Borneo, which lies on the equator, and until recently was almost entirely covered in jungle. It is a naturalist’s dream world, while its people are a remarkable variety of race, language, religion, culture and lifestyle. After more than a century of British influence, Sarawak became part of Malaysia in 1963 and has undergone remarkable economic development (see David Burfield’s article on Malaysia in Headway, Autumn 2003 for further background). Alongside material growth has been a remarkable spread of the gospel, not least among the Iban people.

The Iban people The 600,000 Ibans are the largest group in Sarawak, the original 'wild men of Borneo' with their fierce reputation as headhunters. Historically aggressive and expansionist, they lived in longhouses, a whole village under one roof, ever ready to move forward into new areas to practise their slash and burn agriculture, prodigal of land resources. They have a dynamic and rich language, reflected in their abundant oral folklore (some scholars claim greater in volume than Greek and Roman materials), the basis for their animistic religion that embraced the whole of life, from rites of passage to rice rituals, from guidance through bird augury and dreams to blood sacrifices. The Iban way of life, their adat, had proved itself in their dominance over their environment. Why should they change?

Resistance to the gospel

For over a hundred years up to World War II different missions sought to win Iban people to the Christian faith. Though their theology and methods varied, the response was the same. The Ibans were not interested beyond any medical or educational benefit they might receive. The 1947 census identified three per cent of Ibans as Christians. Those who did respond never really gave up their old beliefs, and Iban lifestyle changed little. In contrast, some smaller non-Iban people groups experienced radical transformation, as they trusted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

My own experience

I went to Sarawak with the then Methodist Missionary Society in 1961 and some of the first Iban boys to have secondary education were in the classes I taught. In the holidays I visited their home longhouses in jungle areas up Sarawak’s rivers. I shall not forget the skulls hanging above where we slept, the fighting cocks tied along the same veranda outside each family room, the tough hard life of farming, but also the sense of community and satisfaction with being Iban. The outside world was only just beginning to impinge. Later, with my wife Margaret, with the Borneo Evangelical Mission (eventually merging with the OMF) we lived among the Ibans seeking to share the gospel in their longhouses. But it was always hard work with not a great deal to show. Subsequently we helped to establish the first town churches of the S.I.B. (Evangelical Church of Borneo – the fastest growing denomination in Malaysia), in Kuching and Miri, for believers in other people groups moving from the interior, but we kept in touch with Iban people. We came home in 1978 because of new immigration laws, just as the first Iban overseas graduates were returning. Some of them had received new life while pursuing their studies. We hardly dared believe they could impact the situation.

A dramatic change

We have been able to make three return visits – in 1988, 1999 and 2003 – and it is difficult to believe what has happened. In the 2000 Census 70% of Ibans identified themselves as Christians. Last year, after three hours by road, three hours by boat and three hours on foot with a group of twenty from a city church, I spent Easter in an Iban community. I had never seen so many people gather for worship in a longhouse -complete with guitars and amplifiers - but this is quite common now. Then down to the river for the baptisms of new believers. On the way there we travelled through an Iban area where over one hundred evangelical churches have been planted in a matter of a few years. Politically-active Ibans shared with me how their political party dinners begin with prayer, as does the Iban Graduates Association Conference in the presence of Muslim Government leaders. The old tag of Iban being synonymous with pagan is being left behind. In the towns we attended large meetings in churches and homes of urbanised Ibans. The welcome, the joy, the freshness of the worship and the witness of new believers was at times overwhelming. Now there is the Iban ‘Big Meeting’ held every December when two or three thousand Ibans from the Anglican, Methodist and Evangelical churches meet together. With the departure of western missionaries liberal theological influence has waned and, throughout Malaysia, Protestant churches are broadly evangelical.

Some explanation

The move towards the Christian faith has to be linked with the profound changes to the Iban environment. For twenty years there was a campaign to pressurise Ibans to join Islam; on the whole this has been resisted. The Iban world is no longer self-contained. Many have moved from the longhouses to urban areas. Education and new agricultural methods have made massive inroads into the commitment to the old religion which is seen as irrelevant outside traditional Iban life. Despite some efforts to revive the old customs – not least to boost the tourist industry – the Lord has used these developments to draw Iban hearts to the gospel. This has taken place through the spread of the Word, largely through individuals (often along family networks), through healings and other signs that Ibans are quick to interpret with spiritual significance, and through the prayers of God’s people over many years.

Some remaining challenges

  1. There is a great deal of nominalism among the 70%. They need to be discipled.
  2. The remaining pagan Ibans need to be reached with the gospel.
  3. Pray for sufficient Iban pastors and evangelists, especially for Iban evangelism co-ordinator, George Pandong.
  4. There is an outstanding need for Iban language materials to help nourish the church on the word of God (the Iban Bible was published in 1988).
  5. An Iban church can have enormous impact on the general church scene in Malaysia. Already Iban churches are developing in West (peninsular) Malaysia where Islam is much stronger than in Sarawak.
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