Fostering Business Insights: Sarawak’s Indigenous Culture

This March, GIFT ASEAN will conduct the 2020 Malaysian Young Leaders Programme in Sarawak, Malaysia. The YLP brings together young leaders from Malaysia’s business, government and civil society and gets them to work on a pressing social problem, oftentimes one outside of Malaysia’s more developed regions.
Take a look at the project output produced by participants on the 2019 Malaysian Young Leaders Programme, in Sabah, Malaysia.
Sarawak, Malaysia’s largest state, is experiencing some of the country’s most rapid development. The Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE), is the country’s second-largest development corridor and attracted almost 90% of the state’s total inward FDI in 2014. Yet unique development challenges lay ahead as Sarawak plans to transform both its coastal and inland areas.
Sarawak has a rich tropical environment, with some of the world’s oldest rainforests and largest cave systems, and a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Gunung Mulu National Park. Sarawak’s immense and complex biodiversity prompted Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, to develop his own theories on natural selection.
Sarawak’s sheer abundance of natural resources has resulted in its export-based economy, focused on manufacturing (28% of GDP), mining and quarrying (21%) and agriculture (14%). Sarawak has historically been one of the world’s largest exporters of tropical hardwood timber, and the economy also relies on liquefied natural gas, crude petroleum and silica sand.
The majority of trade happens through Kuching, Sarawak’s capital and its largest city with a population of 570,000. Around 50% of Sarawak’s population is urban, which also holds much of the state’s wealth. In contrast, rural populations face significant economic challenges, such as a lack of formal education, poor access to jobs, and insufficient infrastructure like sanitation and electricity. These populations’ low standard of living is reflected in Sarawak’s median income of MYR 1,350 (USD 330), Malaysia’s third-lowest.
Much of Sarawak’s rural population consists of its diverse indigenous groups, collectively known as the Dayak. The Dayak are a riverine and hill-dwelling people comprised of over 200 ethnic sub-groups, crossing the state’s three eco-zones: coastal flats, inland hills and mountainous highland. Traditionally, the Dayak reside in longhouses that can house the entire community. The Dayak have a close relationship with the forests they live in, and they possess a rich cultural history mainly passed down through oral tradition.
Many Dayak now live in Sarawak’s cities, but the urban-rural divide and the economy’s reliance on natural resources place significant pressures on the indigenous population. Logging, plantation, mining and quarrying operations often encroach on Dayak customary land. For example, the construction of the Bakun Dam — the largest in Southeast Asia – resulted in the forced displacement of over 10,000 Dayak, forcing a complete lifestyle shift on this community.
Sarawak’s economy and society are growing and becoming increasingly diversified, especially as the SCORE initiative seeks to transform much of Sarawak. In addition, many of Sarawak’s challenges centre around its environment and indigenous communities, whose fates are closely connected.
From our countless programmes in rural communities, we understand the wealth of traditional knowledge, practices and beliefs in rural communities that are often threatened from modernisation. Ensuring balanced development between urban and rural populations will require preserving the unique culture and heritage of Sarawak, and is necessary if it is to become one of Malaysia’s leading states.
If you’d like to find out more about our upcoming 2020 Malaysia Global Leaders Programme, take a look at our brochure, and feel free to get in touch!
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