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Temenggong Koh was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Chiefs and the Order of the British Empire.

MALCOLM John MacDonald’s name is no stranger to the annals of post-war Malaya. The British politician and diplomat played a pivotal role in this country when he served for two years as Malaya’s Governor-General before assuming the role of Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia during the onset of the communist terrorist insurrection in 1948.

I recently had the good fortune of acquiring a copy of MacDonald’s book — People and Places. Published five years after his final posting as Governor-General of Kenya in 1964, it contains random reminiscences of his time serving in various countries around the world.

Although much of the 254 pages are of no particular interest to me, one particular chapter however, immediately sets my heart racing. In it, MacDonald wrote about his visit to Sarawak soon after assuming his post in Malaya where he met Temenggong Koh Anak Jubang, the first Paramount Chief of the Dayaks.

Although Dayak is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups of Borneo which have their own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, it’s actually made up of seven main ethnic divisions: Ngaju, Apo Kayan or Orang Ulu, Iban or Sea Dayak, Bidayuh or Land Dayak, Murut, Punan and Ot Danum.

The thing about Temenggong Koh that struck MacDonald most was the intricate blue tattoo patterns on each of his finger joints including those on both thumbs. In fact, nearly every available space on the chief’s weather-beaten hands was covered with marks that reminded MacDonald of the gruesome Iban culture that was practiced in the past.

Before headhunting was banned by the White Rajah of Sarawak in the 1930s, it was an accepted practice for a warrior to show off his battle prowess after chopping off an enemy’s head by tattooing one of his finger joints with blue dye. The warrior applied the same on his other fore limb joints when he claimed additional victims. Knowledge of this age-old tradition led MacDonald to conclude that Temenggong Koh must have been a great head-hunter in his younger days.

Temenggong Koh (left) enjoyed a close bond with MacDonald (centre).

Dayak warriors

The outbreak of the Second World War in Southeast Asia on Dec 7, 1941 led to the eventual retreat of the White Rajah and his entire administration from Sarawak. Several months later, all of Borneo was occupied by the Japanese Imperial forces. The Ibans and other indigenous tribes didn’t view the Japanese as liberators. Instead, they were enraged with the aggressors from the Land of the Rising Sun and took it upon themselves to take up arms.

Encouraged by the Allied forces, the Dayaks called upon their age-old battle skills and the practice of headhunting was eventually revived. Their strategy relied primarily on stealth and the Dayak warriors took every advantage of the mistakes made by their enemy.

The Dayak warriors lurked in the shadows of the trees near Japanese camps and shot poisoned tipped arrows from their blow-pipes before quickly moving in for the kill once their paralysed victims had collapsed to the ground. Throughout the entire duration of the war, as many as 400 Japanese heads were acquired in this manner and hung as trophies in their captors’ longhouses.

I rub my eyes in disbelief at MacDonald’s account of an incident involving the death of a certain Japanese education director who was described as an intellectual with a refined, cultured face. Being short-sighted, he wore a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles.

The Iban who cut off his pate bagged his victim’s spectacles as well and placed it on the head as it swung from the longhouse ceiling. Each morning, the chief of the longhouse would respectfully remove the glasses, give them a good polish and replace them on what remained of the nose bridge!

Temenggong Koh posing with the first British Governor of Sarawak, Sir Charles Arden Clarke.

A new friendship

The first meeting between MacDonald and Temenggong Koh took place in Kapit, which served as the administrative centre for a wide Iban area in Sarawak’s Third Division. The men couldn’t have chosen a better location as this town, located nearly 320 kilometres up-river in Sarawak’s dense interior, was the place where the third and last White Rajah presided over the Great Peacemaking of 1924.

On Nov 16, 1924 Charles Vyner Brooke gathered the warring parties in Kapit and tried to resolve their squabbles. At that time, the Ibans from Batang Rejang and Batang Ai areas were on opposing sides with the Kayans, Kenyahs and Kajangs who were from Apoh Kayan and Balui River regions.

During the negotiations, Brooke managed to consolidate support from the Ibans by appointing one of their great war heroes, Koh Anak Jubang, to the newly-created position of Temenggong or Paramount Chief. At the same time, the Rajah also appointed Temenggong Koh a member of his powerful state advisory council, the Council Negri.

MacDonald was warmly received by Temenggong Koh when he stepped out of his motor launch. In his writings, MacDonald admitted learning more about the chief right from the first glimpse of his facial features and expression. They spoke volumes about Temenggong Koh’s physical robustness, natural and unassuming self-confidence, mental serenity and genial personality.

The Governor-General then joined the Paramount Chief and his followers in a meeting to discuss various local problems. After that, they participated in various Dayak ceremonies and enjoyed a slew of traditional dances and songs. By the end of that visit, both men had laid the foundations of a great friendship.

MacDonald taking part in a miring welcoming ceremony.

Their affection for each other culminated in a subsequent visit where Temenggong Koh honoured MacDonald by making him an adopted member of his family. It happened as soon as MacDonald had finished performing a traditional rite to appease both the good and evil spirits in Iban culture.

The Dayak leader suddenly stood up and called for silence. Speaking through a translator as he didn’t speak English, Temenggong Koh praised MacDonald and announced that he would like to call the Englishman his son due to the deep affectionate ties binding them. The Paramount Chief used the Iban word anak for son, which denoted the closest fellowship that could exist between an older and a younger man.

MacDonald, deeply touched by this acknowledgement, accepted Temenggong Koh’s suggestion and began affectionately addressing him as Apai, the Iban name for father used primarily by the Paramount Chief’s children and most intimate friends when addressing him.

Despite becoming a reformed character as far as head-hunting was concerned, MacDonald wrote that, over their subsequent meetings, Temenggong Koh had consciously displayed periods of enthusiastic relapse.

During a certain consultation at the District Officer’s house in Kapit, Temenggong Koh suddenly extracted several bits and pieces of paper from the folds of his loin-cloth and handed them to MacDonald. While MacDonald was busy perusing the letters written by his critics, the Paramount Chief looked at him earnestly and asked if he should go and take the authors’ heads.

The Governor-General thought the comment was made in jest and started laughing. He only stopped after realising that Temenggong Koh was serious about wanting to liquidate his enemies. While MacDonald fully understood and respected the Iban ancestral heritage, he managed to successfully talk the chief out of the idea.

In the eyes of outsiders, including those of MacDonald, Temenggong Koh was a very conservative person. He cherished the age-old customs, traditions and beliefs which, for centuries, had ordered the lives of his Iban people.

At the same time, the Paramount Chief was also aware of numerous new ideas beginning to penetrate up-river after the Second World War. He realised that while the older generations found it extremely difficult to adjust to the novel, modern way of life, the younger Ibans were starting to embrace fresh notions about proper ‘civilised’ behaviour.

Temenggong Koh’s prowess as a head-hunter was displayed on his hands.

Of tradition and modernity

Many Iban men began casting off their slim loin-cloth which had been their sole article of clothing and started putting on shirts and shorts instead. The young women adopted the fashion of covering their previously bare breasts with brassieres and blouses. MacDonald also wrote that numerous youths cut their long hair so short that they began to look like English college students!

Over time, MacDonald began observing remarkable changes in Temenggong Koh’s attitude towards modernity. The Paramount Chief began caving in to the inevitable with good grace. His expedient concessions to new-fangled notions were best demonstrated when he sent his youngest daughter Segura to learn the ways of becoming a modern young lady in a down-river boarding school.

When Temenggong Koh’s favourite lieutenant and heir apparent Jugah anak Barieng and his other counsellors converted to Christianity, he didn’t oppose the prevailing trend and was himself baptised in 1949.

Despite his conversion, the Paramount Chief remained grateful to the spirits of his ancestors who had been wonderfully benevolent in giving him great good fortune throughout his life. He was convinced that this resulted from the respect he always paid the spirits in his worship and the efforts he invariably made to seek and obey their will.

Temenggong Koh was also a man of high integrity and he would have considered it an act of despicable, unpardonable betrayal to completely desert his people’s guardian spirits in favour of any other God.

When MacDonald visited Temenggong Koh in 1952, the 82-year-old chieftain was still supremely loved by all his people but his strength had started to decline. As the years went on, there was little more he could do other than sit around quietly on the verandah of his vast, heavily populated longhouse.

Temenggong Koh (right) posing in his traditional dress.

The end for the great Dayak

I continue reading with a heavy heart as the circle of life began to close in on the great Dayak chieftain. While his mental faculties still kept him alert, it was clear that his life force was fast ebbing from his frail body. Many family members and close friends at that time were sure that he was starting to prepare for departure from this physical world.

Then, sometime in 1956, the Paramount Chief fell into a coma and news spread quickly through his wide principality that he was at death’s door. The unconscious leader was placed on a mat in his room. The small chamber was decorated with attractive native weavings which hung like tapestries on its walls while the dying chieftain’s beloved collection of large antique Chinese jars stood guard on all sides.

Temenggong Koh’s wife, children and grandchildren gathered by his side, weeping. Later, they were joined by Jugah who’d received the bad news via the efficient Iban ‘jungle telegraph’ and rushed up-river to pay his final respects to his mentor.

Then, at that moment, Temenggong Koh opened his eyes momentarily and glanced towards the people around him. He told them that he had never felt better in his life and it was time for him to join the spirits of his ancestors.

He instructed Jugah to hurry down-river to Kapit and make preparations for his departure. After that, the great Dayak chief closed his eyes and drew his last breath. Temenggong Koh gave his final command on Nov 4, 1956.

The remaining parts of the chapter tell of how the Paramount Chief’s body was conveyed to the Kapit Methodist Mission the next day for a Christian funeral service. Then, in accordance to his strict orders of not wanting to be interred in any cemetery, the body was brought back for burial in a traditional tomb amidst thick forests on the opposite side of the river from his home.

As I close the book slowly, I find myself brimming with admiration for this great Dayak leader who among many things, cared most for his people and, despite his own initial reluctance, was willing to embrace change for the betterment of those under his care and protection.

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