The Context: Bario, The Kelabit and The Kelabit Highlands

Bario in the central northern highlands of Borneo is the hub of life in the Kelabit Highlands. Thus considered as the unofficial capital for the Kelabit people. It is the centre of most activities in the highlands. In fact, most of the highlands population is found in the area. For instance, in 2000,  Bario constituted % ( 715 out of the 993 people) of the total population of the Kelabit Highlands. Many important government offices such as the immigration office, forestry department, the police station, agriculture department, water department, the health centre and clinic, the civilian aviation center and the two schools in .are located in the area. Other important social institutions like the Borneo Evangelical Church, and the Malaysian military base, shops, lodging houses, the MAS ticketing office, and most importantly (for the Kelabit in the Highlands), the airport, are also found in the Bario area. The location of these offices, shops and centres in Bario, makes the area as an important centre for activities like commerce, trading, exchanges of ideas, etc. in the Kelabit highlands

Prior to World War II, the only means of communication to Bario was by foot, climbing mountains, following the mountain ridges, crossing and re-crossing rivers and valleys for several weeks. There is no road, and a land expedition requires a river journey plus an additional weeklong trek across forested mountains. Today, the only practical means to get to Bario is by air---a daily flight either from Marudi or Miri. The Kelabit Highlands, which was once described as “…far upland plain [which] can only be reached by foot, with high equatorial labour. There are just one or two places on the map of Borneo and, more widely, on the map of the world – where you can get farther form a known place – name or a good take – off. But there are few, where, in fact, you can be more away from what most people call ‘the world’. There are few places where you (or I) are likely to be able to feel more remote, more ‘cut off’ from the great outside…” by Tom Harrison, who was one of the first white visitors to live with the Kelabit.

They were using the boat to cross the river 

The Kelabit Highlands although may be still hard to reach, but is no more isolated and strange to the outside world and people. The Kelabit homeland through some long, dynamic historical and political processes has become more connected to the world. Thus like many parts of Sarawak, Bario and the Kelabit people have gone through rapid social and economic change within the last 50 years. The two main catalysts to these changes were the introduction of formal education with the establishment of the first school in 1946, and the adoption of Christianity, particularly after a spiritual revival took place in Bario in 1973. The Kelabit as a community embraced Christianity wholeheartedly, thus an important turning point in the history of the Kelabit as a people. Both events are important part of the Kelabit history. Today, although a very small tribe, many Kelabits occupy influential positions in Malaysian national life as senior government officials, academics, business people and professionals.

Embracing change has great implications on the Kelabit livelihood. It affected various aspects of their lifestyle including their communication and information pattern. The introduction of formal education, for instance, did not only cause an attendant drift away from the highlands but have also gradually redefined the nature of previously established channels and sources of communication and information within the community. For example, although oral tradition is still widely practiced in the highlands, written tradition is increasingly an important channel.

Formal education also has caused many educated Kelabit to leave their homeland to seek well-paid positions in cities such as Miri, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur.  Today, there are about a thousand out of approximately 5,000 Kelabit, who remain in the highlands, and these are mostly the elderly and the very young ones.  These movements have other consequences such as the increasing occurrence of inter-marriages between the Kelabit with non-Kelabit, (with locals as well as with foreigners).  Intermarriage has become such a common phenomenon that it is not unusual for several members of a family to marry non-Kelabits.  For example, all five daughters of one couple are married to foreigners.  The increasing occurrence of intermarrying with non-Kelabit has caused some concern in the community in recent years.  Many have permanently left the highlands or even migrated overseas to the U.K, U.S.A, Canada, Holland, Australia and New Zealand.

An implication of these phenomena is a need to communicate between the Kelabit who are still residing in the highlands and those who have migrated out. In other words, due to Kelabit Diaspora, a new situation emerged whereby the Kelabit in the highlands (internal) need to exchange information with members of the community outside the highlands (external)--- a mutual exchange and feedback of information between the external and internal. This need is particularly eminent between parents (often left in the highlands) and the children (usually migrated out).

Now they can use Twin Otter to travel from Bario to Miri and Marudi

There is no doubt that there have been attempts to improve and facilitate communication between the highlands and the world outside, and one of the first attempts was to build an airstrip. The first airstrip was built in 1953, and ever since then, the airstrip has an important role as a means of communications and transportation between the internal and external. This is further eased with the completion of the concrete airstrip in 1996. For many people in the highlands, the airport is their closest link to the outside world.  One significant implication of airstrips in the highlands is the introduction of airmail/postal service provided through the MAS (Malaysian Airlines System) flights.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that airmail/postal service has become a very important channel of information into the highlands.  Base on data gathered in 2000 from the survey of 140 household, as many as 41% of the survey respondents receive very little information through the service, while as many as 93% still receive a lot of information through face to face communication.  One of the ways in which face to face communication is done is through metatad whereby a person is asked to relay a message for and to someone else.  For example, when a person boards a flight for Bario in Miri or vice versa, most likely that person will be asked to relay messages for and to someone else at the destination.  Besides metatad, one can nulis surat or write letters to be handed by a passenger to the receiver.  As such, as people move in and out of the highlands, they (the people themselves), including outside visitors, become important sources of information.  Thus, the airport in the highlands is not only a link to the outside world, but also acts as a hub for information exchange and feedback between members of the community and the external world as well as between the members of community internally. In fact, the span of 2 –3 hours daily at the airport before and after the daily flights is observed to be an intense time of information exchanges between members of the community.

Other than face-to-face communication, modern facilities such as radio/audio player and television have increasingly become important channels of information in recent years.  About 79% of the households surveyed own radio, and about 66% suggest that they do receive information through the radio.  Although only 30% of the households surveyed own a television set, almost all of them (26% of the 140 households) indicate TV as an important channel of information.

Another important communication channel introduced in recent years is the radio telephone service.  A radio telephone service centre, popularly known as inan radio call (lit. radio call place) was set up about 7 years ago to help the locals.  The government subsidizes telephone calls through Very High Frequency (VHF).  One has to line up to book a call with the operator who will then place a booking by calling the telephone operator several hundred kilometers away in Penang who then connects the line.  By the end of 1999, the Bario community of almost 1,000 people was averaging 750 calls per month from this facility.

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