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The Borneo Sea Gypsy History is Written For Political Expediency Not Integrity


“Sea Gypsy” is an English term for a group of nomadic people who discovered 500 years ago (based on Spain Colonial History) migrating and make a living on the shallow sea or seabed mostly around North Borneo, Sulawesi, dan South Philippines. Modern studies assign this term to the people who carry out big boats (locally called Lepa) as their home and living the nomadic way of life in the ocean nearby that region.

From their observations, “Sama-Bajau” is the evolving Sea Gypsy Tribe which has chosen the way of modern life by building their house in the land or the seaside (a home on the water – stilt house). This race is very familiar with high survival value from diving skills to hunt and fish for food on the sea floor, which is admittingly superb. Scientific studies found some of the first Sea Gypsy groups still exist in the waters of Southeast Asian countries such as the Moken in Thailand, Bajo in Indonesia, Bajau in Borneo Malaysia and Sama-Bajau in the South of Philippines.

Google Image : Stilt-house nearby Maiga island

As a Bajau people, born and raised in Kunak Borneo Sabah, I have a solid understanding of the ‘Bajau Laut’ in Malaysia with its local titles Pala’uh. In particular, the current Bajau people are categorized into two main groups, namely Bajau in the East Coast and the West Coast of Borneo Sabah. Pala’uh exist in the waters of both these areas. There is not much difference concerning language, but the accent and the way of different pronunciation is.

The Modern Bajau living on the mainland have to hold their privileged caste life in the middle and upper economic classes. While Pala’uh is the poorest people who are in the lower economic class and their social level have the most isolated in the community being often ostracized by the Modern Bajau. Worsen that those Bajau people happen to do not admit that they are originally the same with Pala’uh by its phraseology of nations.

Personally, before my formal schooling begins, I still remember until now that our family was living on the big boat. As a single mother of ten siblings, my mom is the head of our family. Its a routine of our family to caught marine produce such as fish, squid, and crab for trade to the mainland people to be sold at the fish market or peddled from house to house. There is never a sense of “poor” or “unfortunate” rang in my heart or being sick of our life until I started schooling days.

At the beginning of primary school, I find it difficult to find friends or individuals who understand how happy I am to live my life in the ocean compared to the school on the land. Those days, the reflection of the human eyes on me always creates an eerie atmosphere which is “sorry” for being me or how pity my life is as Pala’uh makes me very fond of attending the school. For me, if this is what the school for, then it will educate myself to assess a human life based on physical and materials possession not as what my mom told me about what life is. So at that time, I decided to quit the school.

Google Image : Ocean is the Playground

As time goes by, the modernity life with government enforcement comes in forcing our family to the settlement scheme in the mainland. Nothing than sadness shade in my mind because as a playground, seabed that crafted thousand of memories and joy in my life has been turned into slabs of soils and concrete with thick bush.

Not much I can do to change the pressure in my family at that time unless to be self-employed and to have a formal education. Just being practical, I found that education is the only medium for me to assimilate into the modern world. Therefore, I decided to go back to school and managed to finish my degree at public university. Year after year, public acceptance around our family turn out to be positive. Oriented outlook towards our poorest life increasingly dissipated. The Pala’uh image is not there anymore. They received us as the part of the mainland people, which is The Modern Bajau.

From that short story, I can conclude several things as follows:

  1. Pala’uh is a social term created by the Bajau community itself for their people who are still living the old lifestyle such as housed in the boats, do seasonal-work, an itinerant trader and sea-fearer;
  2. Modern Bajau tries to separate poorest people by naming them Pala’uh as their embarrassment over an ancient practice lifestyle which believed manky and uncivilized;
  3. The ideology of caste in the social layout among the Bajau community exists, same as the existence of the term Arya in the Tamil community in India, similarly for the terms of Pala’uh in Bajau community. Worst nowadays, majority Sabahan symbolised that terms generally to the people who are outdated or marginalized from modenity.

Political Border: Breaker of Bajau’s Origins

Sulu sea and Silibis ocean are the nature and the origin region of the Bajau people. Now, the seas bounded by three countries, namely Malaysia (East Sabah), Philippines (Tawi-Tawi Province), and Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sulawesi). The Bajau People has existed before the existence of this political border. Nowadays, among these three countries, the majority of Bajau people found in the province of Tawi-Tawi Philippines. In Sabah, the ancient lifestyle of Bajau people known as Pala’uh, the Philippine’s Bajau called them as Sama’ or popularly known as Lumaan/Lua’an. All of them speak the same language with different dialects.

The changes in civilization always associated with modernity and its political boundaries. Today, as seen the Bajau in the mainland live their life based on the assimilation lifestyle of the modern world and to the untold history of their origins. Marriage, career, education, and technology are seen as the primary cause of this evolution. Sadly, most of them not even know how to be proud of their heritage due to being ashamed of what they have seen in the Pala’uh (the bearer of their culture and lifestyle) are poor, beggars and uncivilized. Worst, Malaysia’s government is restricted to recognized Pala’uh People as one of the ethnic group in Sabah. Their failure to have a concrete knowledge and understanding to separate which one which is the Malaysian’s Bajau Laut becomes the main reason on why the Pala’uh people still marginalized and undocumented.

Google Image : Processed salted fish by Pala’uh people

The Culprits in Malaysian’s History

In Malaysia, the political system resolved all matters including the writing process of our history. Media is the medium of communication amongst nations. While the education is a mechanism that developed it. Press freedom in Malaysia is bound and controlled by the governing party. As a result, any knowledge exploration that is ruling the party’s political ideologies are always stunted and not much support for the development of the reality of people’s identity in Malaysia, mainly Bajau and Suluk community in Sabah. The education system which should be free from the clutches of political ideologies is no longer function as an intellectual mechanism to produce a transparent anthropologist in Malaysia. I claimed this practised as causes of nowaday’s Bajau generations forget and faded on their actual heritage identity. A theory funded by government educations system stated that Bajau nations originally comes from Johor Natives, the Orang Laut Tribes. I do not believe nor support this theory. For me, this finding is grey, inaccurate and hoax as Darwin’s theory of human evolution and monkey.

I lived in Johor and studied there for almost six years and been at Rengit, the town of Orang Laut Johor for several months. Malaysian history believed that this tribe is the ancestor of Bajau people and all of Bajau nations come from Johor. From my observations, as Bajau people itself, traditionally this tribe is entirely different from our heritage population. Simply by our dietary is nothing the same, as Bajau people eats what the coral provides and the ‘coral manipulation’ never exists in their tradition. The only one similarity between this two tribe is we are using the Malay archipelago language as standard derivatives which is shared by almost all the people who were in Southeast Asia, including Indonesian, Malay, Tagalog Philippines, and Siam in Thailand. Rationally, the relationship between the indigenous Bajau with Johor Natives is not relevant because it is too general.

Personally, I consider this theory is desperate to support the government’s political ideology in lobbying the existence of a direct relationship between the Sea Indigenous in Peninsular Malaysia with Sabah Bajau Laut’ people. This theory was gazetted in the mind of Bajau people in Sabah with writing it as a form of history in national education. Feeling aggrieved glued to my heart because of my history is written from political expediency rather than integrity. Therefore, this historical crisis makes the real indigenous identity of the Bajau and Suluk people in Sabah waters destroyed and forgettable.

P/S : English is My Third Language, some suggestions to improve this article writing skill, comprehension, and grammar are most welcome. Please leave your comment below for the bright discussion. Thanks, readers.

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