Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Research on the Brunei Dusun and Its Authentication: A Cross-Roads of Interests and Values

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Research on the Brunei Dusun and Its Authentication: A Cross-Roads of Interests and Values

Article excerpt

The Dusuns of Brunei

The Dusun of Brunei are the local branch of the Bisaya ethnic group of Limbang, being most strongly represented in Tutong district, with others in Belait, while a few villages (even some which call themselves 'Bisaya') are found in the eastern parts of Brunei district. The term "Dusun" will be associated in many minds with the Kadazan and related groups of modern Sabah, but it came to be applied to the Bisaya of Brunei, at least after the establishment of the British Residency in 1906. Before that, the common synonyms among outsiders were both "Bisaya" and "Orang Bukit," [the Hill People] though for Dusun themselves the term was "Kedayan" (surprisingly, given the unquestioned use of this label in the 20th century for the rural Malay-Muslims in, or originating from, the Brunei district). It has been surmised that the Visaya of the Philippines are a migratory offshoot of these Bisaya. Yet from a position as the most numerous (yet already politically subordinate) socio-cultural grouping of this part of northern Borneo in the 16th century, they have suffered in the past 100 years a relative decline in numbers and a steady erosion of cultural and linguistic distinctiveness. With the return to autarchy on the part of the Brunei Sultanate as the British colonial presence was wound down (1959-84), there has even been a seeming, absolute decline in population, as increasing numbers of Dusun redefined their individual identity through conversion to Islam, with or without intermarriage. Our calculation of Dusun numbers in the early 1990s was no higher than 15,000 in Tutong and Belait districts--and such was the estimate arrived at by one serious private survey, in 1989-91, merely for speakers of Dusun anywhere in the state. As for the condition of the language, there was progressive convergence on Malay during the 20th century, not only thanks to the spread of state education in Malay but also because of economic development, with attendant opportunities of employment outside the rural areas. By the early 1990s there were few parents who were still speaking Dusun to their children and ensuring even an adaptive perpetuation of the ancestral tongue into the future. (1)

As for social structure, our observations found a strong institution of village headmen and Penghulus (sub-district headmen), with its roots in an early era of greater village autonomy, predating modern bureaucracy (2) yet always subject to the bestowal of ranks: at least the higher, more ceremonial ones rather than the lower-level administrative positions, which seem to have emerged through grass-roots consultation. It was the tangible decline in local authority at the lower level, due to twentieth century bureaucratic encroachment, that prompted a coming together of thoughtful Dusuns with a modicum of modern education (mainly in Malay) in the 1970s (3) to try and stabilize and if possible re-energize traditional custom, especially the administration of fines for breaches of good order and social etiquette. This would have entailed a de facto confirmation of the administrative role of headmen and Penghulus. What is striking, sociologically, is the perception that the population of a village was the normative grouping. We readily admit that through marriage among neighbors across many generations there was a network of kinship serving social cohesion too, and that, having the bilateral descent system typical of most rural societies in this part of Southeast Asia (unless modified by any inroads of Islam), Dusuns can in fact claim a quite considerable network of waris (kinsmen) which in some families reaches as far away as Limbang. And yet, these more remote linkages, if and when discovered, are of a sentimental, not in any way "structural," nor of a meaningfully "corporate," nature. For practical purposes it is near neighbors with whom close relations exist, and from among whom marriage partners continue to be found (further cementing saudara ties, as they are called, if the choice falls on such close waris). …

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