The island of Borneo is home to many indigenous groups, long before the arrival of western powers, and before modern government systems were established. Chances are, each of them had their own culture and language making them different to each other on one hand.
But on the other hand, there are also many things that made them similar. Etymological studies suggest that some of these languages are in fact different dialects of the same branch of language.
This recognition is of paramount importance because it gives a strong sense of identity and community to the Puak Jati, especially as globalisation becomes more intrusive.
In Brunei, the indigenous groups are known as the Puak Jati of Brunei, a designation by the government to recognise and acknowledge the existence of the seven indigenous groups in the country.
We dedicated these pages to the Puak Jati because we knew that these groups form the basis of local identity and community. We hope you enjoy reading about the Puak Jati of Brunei as much as we did writing it.
PUAK JATI OF BRUNEI
When Antonio Pigafetta first came to Brunei in the 15th century, he wrote of the water village settlement, likening the Kg Ayer to Venice. The intrepid Italian chronicler had come a long way being part of an expedition led by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.
The former had the good fortune of staying alive and documenting his travels, unlike Magellan who died in battle with local natives at Mactan in the Philippines before the expedition came to Brunei.
Pigafetta also kept a journal- now sold under the title of ‘Magellan’s Voyage’, where he describes Kg Ayer as an important metropolis with a lot of trade.
Pigafetta was most likely to have been greeted by the sight of the puak Melayu Brunei or Brunei Malays who were thought to have traditionally been seafarers. What he may or may not have known is that there are other indigenous groups living further inland, not just in Brunei, but the whole of Borneo island.
Today, we know that there are seven ethnic groups in Brunei– Melayu Brunei, Kedayan, Murut, Melayu Tutong, Melayu Belait, Dusun and Bisaya— all of whom are constitutionally recognised as ‘puak jati’ or the indigenous ethnic groups of Brunei, according to the Brunei Nationality Status Act in 1961.
PUAK MELAYU BRUNEI
According to multiple sources, the origins of the puak Melayu Brunei can be traced back to their coastal life when they lived in wooden houses on stilts. Most of them made a living through fishing, running businesses out of their boats or trading high-value items such as silver and gold.
In modern times, the Puak Melayu Brunei no longer practice this way of life but remnants of this are still strongly represented through Kg Ayer where the houses are built in the same way on the Brunei River.
In his book on Brunei, Malaysian historian Ooi Keat Gin calls the original residents of Kg Ayer as the Bruneis, who are well known for their elaborate wedding ceremonies and close relationships with each other.
Ooi said that the Bruneis have maintained their community simply because of proximity—everything in Kg Ayer is built close to each other. They also attended major gatherings and events at the communal halls or balai which were considered meeting places for the entire village.
Unlike the puak Melayu Brunei, the Kedayans were mostly land dwellers that grew dry rice and hunted for food, both historically cultural practices which contribute to their identity and cohesiveness as a community.
With the advent of the modern life, there are not many Kedayans that still retain the agrarian lifestyle with many of the young generation opting for jobs in both the public and the private sector.
The Kedayans are usually distinguished mostly by their language, which Ooi said is categorised as a dialect of the Malay language.
Although most words are similar, Ooi said that there are certain variants in pronunciation—the Kedayan language does not have the ‘r’ sound. This means that words like rumah (pronounced as roo-mah) which means house would sound more like umah.
Yet, despite the loss of the agrarian tradition, some members of puak Kedayan still celebrate their annual ‘makan taun’ festival. The gathering is a celebration amongst the Kedayan community to meet each other after working hard in the rice fields.
PUAK DUSUN AND BISAYA
It’s easy to assume that the puak Dusun and Bisaya are different indigenous groups but some historians will say otherwise. According to Ooi, both groups have linguistic and cultural similarities. Some scholars even use both terms interchangeably.
Ooi said that the Dusun and Bisaya share 82 percent of their basic vocabulary, which suggests that their languages are, in fact, two dialects of the same language.
Traditionally, both groups are agriculturalists that practice shifting rice cultivation (where plots of land are cultivated temporarily then abandoned to allow the land to regain its natural vegetation) although this is rarely the case now.
In other sources, the Bisaya people can be traced from as early as the 12th century in the syair (poem) of Awang Semaun, who was the younger brother of Brunei’s first sultan, Sultan Muhammad Shah.
Known as the Lun Bawang (meaning ‘people of the land’) in other parts of Borneo, the Muruts are known to inhabit hilly regions of the country, mostly in Temburong. Their unique, traditional garment is commonly displayed as part of Brunei’s cultural shows and is one which the puak Murut still commonly use during special occasions. The men’s attire is made of tree bark which is woven together into a vest.
Meanwhile, the females don a black kebaya dress known as “puyu kebaya”. This costume is also worn by the Murut communities in other parts of Borneo.
The Muruts traditionally lived in longhouses which could fit up to 20 families. These longhouses are often situated in the interior highlands so that the Muruts could defend their territory against their enemies. The traditional wedding process for Muruts is just as elaborate as the other ethnic groups in Brunei—starting out with merisik (investigation) followed by engagement and the wedding day.
The puak Tutong was originally thought to have lived in the coastal areas of the Tutong district before moving inland for subsistence farming and rubber tapping.
Ooi said that the women wear black and white as the basic colours of the traditional Tutong dress while the men usually wear a cara melayu.
The traditional Tutong wedding starts with the begangai, a process where the parents of the prospective groom visit the prospective bride to observe the attitude of their future daughter-in-law, before openly declaring their intention. When the bride and her parents agree to the marriage proposal, bedudun process starts.
At this stage, representatives from the groom’s family will negotiate with the bride’s family to find out their requirements and requests. Once everyone’s in agreement, the formal engagement ceremony is held. The wedding is normally held at the bride’s house. The newlyweds are also not allowed to leave the house for three days, after which the husband can then bring his wife back to meet his family.
The puak Belait originally lived in Kg Kuala Balai which is located close to the Belait River, before moving to Kg Labi and Kg Mumong to pursue agriculture.
However, most of the puak Belait now work in the government, private firms or petroleum companies.
In his book, Ooi said that the puak Belait enjoyed a rich musical heritage which is most commonly seen in times of joy and sorrow.
The traditional weddings were often accompanied by music so that the couple would not hear other sounds that were perceived to bring sadness to the newlyweds. Likewise, music is also played, often loudly, when the community mourns the death of a loved one to inform other surrounding villages of the loss. In the modern age, not much is known of the puak Belait whose language is now virtually extinct.