Bidayuh Literature

Title : Problems and Prospects Facing Bidayuh Mother Tongue Education


The purpose of this paper is to discuss the factors which may impede mother tongue education amongst the Bidayuhs population in Sarawak. Mother tongue means different thing to different people. Fowler and Fowler (1993) define mother tongue as "one's native language.' According to the Oxford Advance Learners Dictionary (1993: 807), mother tongue means 'a language that one first learn to speak as a child'. For the purpose of this paper 'mother tongue' literally means the native language of the Bidayuh. In the context of the Bidayuh community, the dialects widely spoken by them are the various Bidayuh dialects.

In addition, this paper will also discuss the prospects or opportunities the Bidayuh could seize in order to popularize the use of the Bidayuh dialects as either a third language to be implemented in the pre and junior primary schools in Sarawak or to be taught on a voluntary basis by volunteers from the Dayak Bidayuh National Association (DBNA).

At the outset, it must stressed here that none of the Bidayuh dialects have ever been made or used as a medium of instruction or as a third language to be taught in any school in the Bidayuh Belt1 in the State of Sarawak.

Who are the Dayak Bidayuhs?
By virtue of Article 161A of the Malaysian Constitution, the term 'Dayak' refers to and consists of two native groups in Sarawak, namely the Ibans, who are often referred to as Sea Dayaks, and the Bidayuhs, also known as the Land Dayak. It was James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak, who used the term Sea Dayak to describe the wandering and seafaring Ibans of Sarawak. On the other hand he used 'Land Dayak' to refer to the settled and more passive groups of Kuching, Serian and Bau Bidayuhs (Dundon, 1989).

Today, the Dayak Bidayuh or the Bidayuhs as they prefer to be known live mainly in Kuching and Samarahan Divisions which comprise of the Districts of Serian, Kuching, Bau and Lundu, conveniently referred to as the Bidayuh Belt. According to the 1997 estimates on the population of Sarawak produced by the Department of Statistics, Sarawak Branch, the Bidayuhs make up about 8.3 percent (158,700 people) of the total 1.9 million population of Sarawak. Table 1 in Appendix I shows the total population of Sarawak according to the various ethnic groups from 1993 to 1997. In the context of Malaysia, the Bidayuh population makes up only 0.0037 percent of the total 21.67 million people in Malaysia.

Bidayuh Language and Dialects
Compared to any other ethnic groups in Malaysia, the Bidayuh group is a very diverse community because of the existence of the various dialects spoken. There are four major dialects of the Bidayuh (Omar, 1984, Nais, 1989 and Dundon, 1989), the dialects are: Bukar Sadong for the Bidayuh residing in Serian; Biatah for the Bidayuh residing in the Siburan and the Padawan Sub Districts; Bau-Jagoi for the Bidayuhs who reside within the Bau Districts; and Salako-Lara for the minority among the Bidayuh who live in the outskirt of Lundu District in the western part of Sarawak (Nais, 1989; Dundon, 1989).

However, Omar (1984: 148) discovered that even among the four major groups, there are dialects spoken by the subgroup. Among the Biatah dialects, the subgroups are; the Penyua dialect, Binah dialect, Bisitang dialect, Bipuruh dialect, Tebia dialect, and the Bebengoh dialect. Apart from that the Bau-Jagoi dialects too have their own subgroups which can be divided to the Bisinghai, Biroih, Krokong and the Bijagoi dialects. The same subgroups is also found among the Serian Bukar-Sadong group. The Bidayuhs residing in the upper tributaries of the Sadong river speak a slightly different dialect from those residing in the lower reaches of the river and those Bidayuhs residing closer to the Sarawak/Kalimantan border too speak different dialects than those living along the Kuching Serian Road.

The Bidayuh dialects are very unique because the root words are not derived from any particular dialect. The Bidayuh of the western-most part of Penrissen area (Biatah dialectal boundary), spoke only one dialect locally known as Puruh dialect, and they called themselves the Dayak Bipuruh ( Nais, 1987: 369).

Nais (1989) in his study on the Bidayuh culture revealed that there were 302 Bidayuh villages found in the various districts in the State of Sarawak. Table 2 shows the number of villages in the respective districts in the Kuching and Samarahan Divisions where the majority of the Bidayuh population in Sarawak are residing. As the State begins to develop, more and more Bidayuhs have migrated to other towns in Sarawak. As a result, the educated and more adventurous Bidayuhs are now found in the 'oil town' of Miri and the 'gas town' of Bintulu.

Table 2: Number of Villagers and Dialects spoken by the Bidayuh according to Districts
Name of DistrictNo. of VillagesDialect Spoken
Bau43Bau- Jagoi
Lundu41Salako Lara
Source: Nais (1987)

Within each dialectal group, there are variations. Take the Bidayuh in Kuching District, for example, they speak Biatah, but the subgroups mentioned earlier vis; Penyua, Binah, Bipuruh, Bisitang, Tebia and Bebengoh have their own intonation and style of pronunciation. And so has the Bau-Jagoi groups and the Serian Bukar Sadong sub-groups. In Bau alone for instance, rubber is called 'jotu' in the Jagoi dialect, 'daduo' in the Singgai and 'potok' in the Biroih and the Krokong dialect (Dundon, 1989).

Some words in one dialect means different thing in the other dialects. For example 'bisaki' in the Biatah dialect means 'how' and in the Bukar-Sadong it means 'making love' and a shirt means 'jipo' in the Siburan and the Binah dialect, 'skinang' in the Bisitang, Bipuruh and the Penyua dialects. Where as in the Bau-Jagoi 'jopua' means blanket or a lady's sarong.

Every village within a dialectal group has its own distinctive style and way of talking and pronouncing thing, for example, 'I want to eat rice'

In Biatah : Aku an man tubi
In Bau-Jagoi : Oku raan man tobi
In Bukar-Sadong : Aku era maan sungkoi

The following are some of the words selected to illustrate the similarity and the differences between these dialects
Name of DistrictNo. of VillagesDialect Spoken
Bau43Bau- Jagoi
Lundu41Salako Lara
Source: Dundon (1989: 412)

The problems posed by the existence of the dialectal sub-groups is enormous and becomes an issue that cannot be solved overnight.

Education in the Bidayuh Belt

In the past, education in most of the Bidayuh areas in Sarawak came about as the direct result of Christianity. In the areas where the Bidayuhs community have embraced Christianity, the Christian missions opened up schools, and at these schools Bidayuhs children were exposed to education in which the medium of instruction was English. In the early 1900s the Anglican mission established St. James Chapel at Kampong Kuap in Kuching. With the establishment of St. James, the mission consequently built four class rooms block where the earliest primary school with English as a medium of instruction was being conducted by the Anglican mission. Subsequently, the mission set up St. Michael Primary School at Tiang Bukap in the Padawan area. and St. Paul Primary School at Segu Bunuk in the Penrissen area respectively, to meet the need for the growing population from these two areas. In the Bau district, the Roman Catholic Mission was instrumental in the development educational facilities in the rural areas. The spread of Catholicism to Bau district in the early 1940s was primarily responsible for the setting up of a mission center (St. Stephen Mission) at Bau bazaar, which was then only known as a small gold mining settlement. The first school in the district was set up at the mission center itself, and was named St. Stephenís Primary School. By the 1950s, the mission had outreached further into the more remote areas of the district.

One of the strategies for christianizing of the local tribal communities, in particular the Jagoi, Singghai and Krokong Bidayuhs, was set up basic educational facilities in these communities. As a result, St. Patrick Primary School was built at Krokong to cater for about five nearby villages (at that time) in the area while in St. John Primary School was built in the Singghai area. Similarly in the Jagoi area St. Leoís Primary School was built at Kampong Serasot and St. Mark at Kampong Staas. These schools were only a few of the numerous schools set up by the mission. The medium of instruction was supposed to be English but for the first three years Bidayuh language was also used as a transition medium. Most of the teachers at the early stages were missionaries or volunteers. For the foreign missionaries and teachers of different races, teaching in these pioneer schools was also a place where they learn the local language. Ability to master the local language and at the same time preaching Christian teachings and values enable these missionaries to spread Catholicism. Catechism books and church hymns were the first written media available in the Jagoi Bidayuh dialect.

After Sarawak joined the Malaysian Federation more schools were built as ìGovernment Schoolsî throughout the Bidayuh areas and the rest of Sarawak. The introduction of Bahasa Malaysia (or merely known as 'Malay') in Bau beginning 1967 was not any easy. To most Bidayuh communities, the Malay language was as strange as the English language. Again the use of Bidayuh, albeit informal and normally not encouraged by school authorities, was used as a 'bridging' medium during the children's first few years of schooling. Thus we can see that the Bidayuh dialect or language was widely used in the past not only as a spoken but written form as a medium of instruction.

For the Serian District, the three missions vis-a-vis the Roman Catholic, Anglican and the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), started primary school education at three different localities. The Catholic mission focused their activities much further in the rural areas of Bunan Gega in the Tebakang Sub-District to serve Bidayuh villages within the area and the out skirt of Mongkos sub-district. The Anglican mission, on the other hand, established the first school in the Serian District at Kampong Taie. Where as the SDA2 mission, having their head quarters at Sunny Hill Kuching set up a sister school at Ayer Manis along the Kuching Serian Road, and a primary school at Kampong Rabak Simboh to serve the Petag-Tuku area.

Since those schools were mission schools the medium of instruction was English, the respective Bidayuh dialects as discussed earlier, were only taught as a 'vernacular' language. Simultaneously, all Bidayuhs students in the Kuching District had to study Biatah, while those in the Serian District had to take Bukar-Sadong dialect and those in the Bau- Jagoi had to take the either the Jagoi or the Bisinghai dialects.

A recent brief survey on the schools in the Bidayuh Belt revealed that there are altogether ten government secondary schools, of which only three schools had Form Six classes3 . There are also 138 Primary Schools compared to 64 Pre-schools. All the secondary schools are government secondary schools, while about 70 percent of the Primary Schools are government schools and 30 percent are government aided schools. The number of primary schools has increased some 10 folds from that of the 1950s. This suggests that virtually the spread of Christianity in the Bidayuh Belt have had a significant influence in education amongst the Bidayuh.

The implementation of the Razak Report and the Rahman Talip Report witnessed the increase in number of primary government schools being built in the Bidayuh Belt4 . The implementation of the policy meant that the old education curriculum which was used by the mission schools in the Bidayuh belt had to be ceased to accommodate for the curriculum recommended by the Razak Report. The direct consequences of the report were: the abolishment of the Common Entrance Examination, and the mother-tongue language at the primary school level; the Sarawak Junior Examination (SJC), and the Overseas Senior Cambridge Examination(OSC) at the lower and upper secondary school level respectively. During the transition period, SJC was replaced by Lower Certificate Examination (LCE), the OSC was replaced by the Malaysian Certificate Education (MCE), while the HSC was maintained.

With the introduction of Bahasa Melayu as the medium of introduction in school throughout Sarawak, the Bidayuh language which was once taught as a vernacular language in most Bidayuh schools had to be abandoned. The obvious reason was, students were assigned with the new task of acquiring both Bahasa Melayu and English while they were at the Primary school. The above scenarios explicitly describe why the mother tongue of the Bidayuh community in Sarawak became less prominent in our Malaysian Schools particularly in Sarawak.


The problems posed by mother tongue education in the Bidayuh dialects are plenty. The problem posed by the dialect itself is one. The Bidayuh dialects vis; Bau-Jagoi, Biatah, Bukar-Sadong, and Salako-Lara are dialects of the minority of the people in Malaysia and in Sarawak in particular.. The Bidayuh dialects is not the language of all areas of activity indulged by its speakers. Because of this reason, the Bidayuh dialects are excluded from the formal spheres such as education, administration and the mass media. As it is now, the usage of the Bidayuh dialects are confined to home and religious activities.

In addition, the existence of the dominant language, Bahasa Melayu which is being used as the medium of instruction in the education system and official purposes has impeded the use of the Bidayuh dialects. Couple with this problem is, the Bidayuh dialects may lack areas of vocabulary found in other language like Iban and Bahasa Melayu. As it is today, some of the Bidayuhs vocabulary are being influenced by that of the dominant language to the extent of accepting and borrowing the vocabulary where native terms do not exist. For example, there is no word in any of the Bidayuh dialects for 'thank you' or 'good bye'. But as fellow Bidayuhs socialize with the other ethnic groups, they begin to say and accept the term 'terima kasih' to mean thank you, and 'bye-bye' for good bye.

In the context of the Bidayuh dialects, there is no one standard dialect which would represent the Bidayuh totality. If the Bidayuh language is to be taught at both pre-school as well at the lower primary school level, the problem which will be with respect to the selection of one dialect to adopt. At this juncture, the answer is of course, the mother tongue of the area. Hence for a Pre-Schools and Primary Schools in the Serian District the obvious choice is the Bukar Sadong dialect, Biatah for schools in Kuching District, Bau-Jagoi or Bisinghai for schools in Bau and the Jagoi and Salako-Lara dialect for schools in the Lundu Districts.

In view of the constraints imposed by the National Education Policy (NEP), the prospect of Bidayuh dialects being accorded as a mother tongue in the schools within the Bidayuh belt is bleak. Even if the Education Department allows minority languages apart from Mandarin, Tamil and Iban, there will also be problem in implementing the policy. The problem can be summed as follows.

Firstly, the problem of which of the four major dialects do we choose, and from where do we start. If the Bukar-Sadong is chosen, will the Bukar Sadong dialect be taught at other schools outside the Serian region. What about the other Bidayuh dialect vis: Biatah, Bau-Jagoi and the Bisinghai dialect, and the Salako-Lara dialect in the Lundu area. Hence, the problem of standard Bidayuh language or Bahasa Bidayuh will remained yet to be resolved.

Secondly, there will be the problem of qualified teachers to teach the dialects. Based on my recent observation, there are about 138 Primary Schools and 64 Pre Schools in the Bidayuh Belt with a total number of about 3,500 school teachers. Although about 80 percent of the 3,500 teachers are Bidayuhs, none of them has any form of formal training in teaching any of the Bidayuh dialects. In addition, teacher training colleges in Sarawak do not conduct any form of training to teach any of the four Bidayuh dialects except for Bahasa Melayu and English.

Thirdly, there is no book or text book written in the Bidayuh dialects. In the past there were prayer books or hymns written in the various dialects by the missionaries for their use while preaching Christianity in the Bidayuh villages. In addition to that, there were story books written in Bidayuh, the famous one written in the Biatah dialect was a story called 'Syun Nyamba Nang,' but as the Bidayuh community began to be integrated into the education mainstream as demanded by the NEP, such books are now no longer familiar to the younger Bidayuhs generation.

Lastly, the intra-dialectal and inter-ethnic marriage or mix-marriage in the Bidayuh communities also contributed to the decline in the usage of the Bidayuh dialects. For example, a Bidayuh man who hails from Bau who marries another Bidayuh lady from Serian, their children may end up either speaking Bahasa Melayu or English. If their parents are educated in English, there is a tendency that their children may speak English. And, if their parent are the by-product of the Bahasa Melayu medium of instruction, their children will ultimately speak Bahasa Malaysia, the language their parents used to communicate with them at home. This same case can also be applied to children of a mix-marriage couple. The children of a Bidayuh man, for example, who marries a Chinese wife may neither speak any of the Bidayuh dialect nor the Chinese dialect, but the language both mother and father speak at home. Here, it could be English or Bahasa Malaysia. This same problem could be also applied to the other Bidayuhs who marry the other races.

From the problems discussed above, and the constraints imposed by the National Education Policy, a question worth asking here is, "Is There Future for Mother Tongue Education in Bidayuh?" To be pessimistic it seemed that the Bidayuh dialects cannot and will never be a language to be used in the Malaysian education system. With the shift of emphasis in the medium of instruction from English to Bahasa Melayu in the middle of the 1980s, teachers in the Bidayuh Belt have become more competent in teaching subjects in Bahasa Melayu. However, there seems to be some prospect in introducing the Bidayuh dialects as a third language in the education curriculum especially in Sarawak.

If Bidayuh dialects is to be used a 'vernacular language' or as a third language in our Malaysian Education, for the start at least DBNA through the Sarawak Dayak Foundation (SDF) should make submissions to the Ministry of Education on the importance of Bidayuh dialects as a mother tongue in the pre-schools/primary schools in the Bidayuh Belt. If this fail, then the next course of action available is for the Bidayuh representatives both at the State and the Federal level to lobby to the governments at both levels to have the Bidayuh language recognized and taught as a third language. Bidayuh should be introduced at pre-school and the junior primary school level.

Another alternative which I feel is more feasible is for DBNA through its branches and units to conduct sessions at their respective branches and units. At these sessions Bidayuh students will be taught their mother tongue not in school but by DBNA volunteers. Through this way, more and more younger Bidayuhs generation would have the opportunity to learn their mother tongue.

The learning of mother tongue should not only be emphasized in the education system alone. The educated Bidayuh parents, especially inter-marriage couples, should make it a point to teach their children how to read and write in Bidayuh. Through this way they are able to impart their mother tongue to the next generation of Bidayuhs.

The effort to promote the use of Bidayuh dialects amongst the Bidayuh communities in Sarawak which was mooted by Encik Stephen Jussem Dundon, the Deputy President of DBNA in his working paper presented at the first Dayak Bidayuh Cultural Seminar in 1989 could also be implemented up by the DBNA, if it wants to popularized the use of the mother tongue in education. Among other things, Dundon (1989) recommended that DBNA should set up:

* Language Bureau which will look into various aspects of Bidayuh language and dialects. The Bureau should collaborate with the Majlis Adat Istiadat, Department of Information, RTM, Department of Education and Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to promote the use of the Bidayuh language;
* Adult Education Committee - which should organize Bidayuh language/dialect classes in towns and kampongs or essay writing competition to be written in the Bidayuhs dialects; and
* Research Committee - which will be responsible for the planning and development of the Bidayuh mother tongue.

While the above recommendations can be implemented by DBNA, the association, except for conducting two adult classes at Kampong Quop in Kuching District and Kampong Kakei in the Serian District respectively, DBNA has not been successful in implementing the rest of the recommendations (see Dreba, 1997).

DBNA should also encourage the educated Bidayuhs who had the opportunity to learn their mother tongue to start thinking of writing books in Bidayuh which later on could be adapted in the pre-school and junior primary school curriculum. This could be done by giving 'seed money' or grants to those who are interested so that they could start writing.


To recapitulate, the Dayak Bidayuhs are a very diverse community not only in term of culture but also the dialects they speak, such diversity may impede any attempt to teach the Bidayuhs younger generation the mother tongue. Apart from that, the constraints form the National Education Policy and the existence of the majority languages such as Bahasa Melayu and English, too further restrict the use of Bidayuh dialects both in schools and officially. Nevertheless, given the prospects that I have outlined earlier, Bidayuh dialects could still be learned by the younger generation.


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Appendix 1
Table 1: Mid-Year Population Estimates in Sarawak, by Ethnic Groups and Year.
Ethnic Groups19931994199519961997
Iban 525,600534,800544.200 552,100559,800
Bidayuh 147,000150,100153,400156.600158,700
Other Indigenous*108,100109,900115,500112,900114,000
Other **16,100 16,600 17,00017,500 17,800
Non - Malaysian Citizens27,20033.20040,00044,400 48,600

*The other indigenous population includes the Orang Ulu (Kayan, Kenyahs, Kelabits and the Lun Bawangs, Punans, Bisayas, Muruts, Penan, Ukits, Selayan and etc.)

**Includes Indians and Eurasians

Source: Department of Statistics, Sarawak Branch, 1997