Field notes

Voices from Borneo, heard through the arts

Highy intricate and evocative woodcut prints being displayed at an event organised by Pangrok Sulap, a Sabah-based collective of artists, musicians and social activists who hope to empower rural communities through art.
Highy intricate and evocative woodcut prints being displayed at an event organised by Pangrok Sulap, a Sabah-based collective of artists, musicians and social activists who hope to empower rural communities through art.PHOTO: PANGROK SULAP

Local artists reach out to new audiences to reveal untold stories of the 'other Malaysia'

Was there really a riot in Sabah in 1986 following the state election? Yes, there was, but it is so rarely talked about that the event is sometimes dubbed the Silent Riot.

Ms Nadira Ilana, an independent film-maker from the East Malaysian state, did not know about it either until she heard a vague mention by a family member sometime in 2012. She was then 25.

When she asked older members of her family about it, they were initially nonchalant. Only when they began retelling the story did something seem to awaken in them, she said.

"It feels amazing to me how people had never talked about it before then," she said.

She later turned her research into a documentary on the riot, which erupted in March 1986 in Kota Kinabalu, Tawau and Sandakan in Sabah following a turbulent state election in the previous year.

Her film, Silent Riot, won the top award at the Freedom Film Festival organised in 2012 by Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat (Komas), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Kuala Lumpur. Screened numerous times since then, the film has been well received.


We have a lot of frustration and closeted feelings here. But it's not easy to highlight the inequality between West and East Malaysia without feeling like we are also antagonising West Malaysians.

FILM-MAKER NADIRA ILANA, on a divide that has left Borneo largely unrepresented in standard narratives.

Last year, after making several short films, Ms Nadira filmed a documentary featuring a small village called Bongkud-Namaus in Ranau, Sabah. Big Stories, Small Towns, part of an Australian venture, premiered in March this year.

She is now working on Wilderness, a feature film set in Kota Kinabalu, which has the rare distinction of being a film about Sabah that is directed by a local.

Ms Nadira, 29, is among the rising number of young-ish Borneans who have captured the public's imagination with the way they are bringing forth the previously untold stories of Borneo - the island on which the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak sit - through art forms such as film, handicrafts, photography and music.

Since Malaysia was formed through the merger of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak (and briefly Singapore) in 1963, the Bornean side has largely been invisible in the Malaysian narrative, officially or otherwise. It is barely featured, other than in tourist literature, partly because of its geographical distance. There is also a lack of interest and familiarity, partly because the official narrative focuses strongly on the Malay-Muslim identity. 

It is only in recent years that Bornean voices are being heard much more, through the likes of Ms Nadira, Sabahan artist Yee I-Lann, woodcut printing artists' collective Pangrok Sulap, Sarawakian musician-artist Alena Murang and handicraft group Tamu Tamu Collective, as well as many others.


Their works are diverse. Pangrok Sulap, for instance, takes an overtly sociopolitical focus, often incorporating themes such as economic and social injustice in their wonderfully intricate woodcut prints. Pangrok means "punk rock", while Sulap refers to a hut usually used as a resting place by farmers.

Others tell stories of their homeland - Ms Alena through the sape or traditional lute, and Tamu Tamu through handicrafts that incorporate heritage arts.

While the stories might appear to be simple, they push forward the unmistakable message that Malaysia is much bigger than the Malay-Chinese-Indian triumvirate that dominates the standard narrative but mostly reflects the social, economic and political life of peninsular Malaysia.

"It challenges the long-held concept of the Malaysian identity that is peninsular-centric, and ideas that many grew up with. Suddenly, all these Borneans are saying, 'look, we are here, too'," said Ms Nadira.

With their thought-provoking works, these artists have captured considerable attention in peninsular Malaysia, also referred to as West Malaysia, and are often invited to show their works here. In a way, this has helped to get a conversation going between the two halves of Malaysia, which are separated by more than just the South China Sea.

Law lecturer Azmi Shahrom, an associate professor at University Malaya, noted: "The Peninsula and Borneo Malaysia are, in many ways, also so emotionally separated."

It did not help that, over time, Sabah and Sarawak became just two of Malaysia's 13 states, even though they joined in 1963 as equal partners with Malaya - meaning they had expected equal standing and power in government. This served to aggravate the already simmering anger over developmental neglect, despite Borneo's rich natural resources.

"We have a lot of frustration and closeted feelings here," Ms Nadira said. "But it's not easy to highlight the inequality between West and East Malaysia without feeling like we are also antagonising West Malaysians."

Things changed when Sabah and Sarawak were suddenly thrust into the limelight as political king-makers following the turbulent 2008 general election - their votes were what kept the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition afloat, then and now.

With this, interest in all things Borneo surged, and it suddenly found greater space in the media, both mainstream and alternative. And its artists gained a new platform.

Dr Azmi noted that NGOs such as Komas, which funded Ms Nadira's Silent Riot, and organisers of independent arts festivals and other events played a significant role in providing a platform for Bornean voices to be heard through the arts.

Another example is Borneo Art Collective, which helps promote the work of Ms Nadira and Pangrok Sulap. The organisation plans to explore and document Borneo's art and cultural heritage via a 1,500km road trip through Borneo next year, and is seeking to raise £3,000 (S$5,400) for the project through


Political analyst Arnold Puyok, from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak's social science faculty, said the young and creative have led the way because of their generally wider exposure to higher standards of good governance in other countries, gained through greater travel and education as well as social media.

Their youthful idealism is also accompanied by a spirit of experimentation and creativity that can get messages across in ways that stand out.

Dr Azmi noted that an artist's voice can be effective because people are generally unlikely to seek out information on topics they are not interested in. They often don't know what they don't know, and few bother to find out.


Pangrok Sulap has become a popular fixture at Kuala Lumpur's pop-up events, where it attracts many visitors who are drawn by the beauty of the works displayed and then become curious about the strong messages behind the woodcut prints.

One of its three members, Mr Jerome Manjat, 32, always makes time to explain things to anyone who asks, having discovered that Borneo's issues are generally unfamiliar to West Malaysians.

The situation is a little bit better now. There is certainly a higher level of awareness in West Malaysia about Borneo, although perhaps it is still confined to those living in Kuala Lumpur.

The federal government has pledged to relook the rights of Sabah and Sarawak, and has allocated much larger sums for their development.

But Mr Jerome hopes it will go beyond that. He noted that, while people might know more about Sabah (and Sarawak) now, they also think "oh, well, that's in Sabah (or Sarawak)".

Dr Azmi agreed. "To a West Malaysian, Sabah and Sarawak are so far away," he said. "There's still a great sense of separation among the people who don't relate to each other emotionally."

A small start has been made, but progress is slow, with as many steps backwards as forwards.

Sometimes, some West Malaysians are annoyed when these artists insist that the Bornean perspective should be heard. They feel that such views are divisive.

But Ms Nadira does not see it that way. "If anything, I want the idea of Malaysia to be fully realised. We have our own Borneo identity - we don't want to have to trade that to fit into someone else's idea of what it means to be Malaysian."

"But that doesn't make us love this country or our countrymen less," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 10, 2016, with the headline 'Voices from Borneo, heard through the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe