The Boy from Long Lellang

DayakDaily Advertorial
Monday, 17 August 2020

Long Lellang, a remote village on the Kelabit Highlands.

This is the story of a boy from Long Lellang, a village so remote that this may be the first and the last time you will get to hear about it.

Situated in the Kelabit Highlands of Bario, the village has a peculiarity in that, it is surrounded by Penan instead of Kelabit villages.

Decades ago, a boy was born to a humble farmer in this village, unknown to many even today. As a staunch church leader who prayed every morning at village chapel, one expects something amazing to happen in this poor but honest hard-working family.

Over the years, the farmer actually found the boy to be quite different. There was a quiet disposition about him — friendly and sociable, yet reserved and laconic. Most times, the boy would be immersed in his thoughts, occasionally coming across as pensive and broody, unlike the other boys in the village. If the latter were like sunshine, then the boy was like the Highlands afternoon breeze – pleasant but unpredictable.

But the farmer was not unduly worried. After all, he had been placing the boy’s future in the hands of God as he knelt to pray in the chapel every morning. And the boy did not disappoint. The parents, the teachers in school and Sunday School teachers noticed he was a precocious child – a fast learner whose apprehension was quick and memory retentive, who was fast to listen but slow to speak.

Quest of faith

Sinah Maran Lugun.

Before Christianity, like the other native communities, the Kelabits were pagans who believed in animism. It was from their distant relatives in Indonesia that they heard about the one God who could break all bondages, including the taboos of paganism which had been causing so much hindrance and inconvenience to the Highlands community.

To get to know this God, the leaders of Bario Highlands organised a journey across the Sarawak-Indonesian border to learn more about the Supreme Being.

Long Lellang village chief Murud Tepun, prominent leader Maya Tuan and his daughter (who was to became the farmer’s wife later) and several other village leaders went on the journey. Upon their return, the whole Kelabit Highlands embraced Christianity.

Since they became Christians, life has become more ameliorating and reposeful. The sight of a bird crossing their path on the way to the farm is a joy, not a bad omen prompting them to turn back. The reflex action of pointing at the full moon will not result in their ears being cut off by some roaming spirits in the middle of the night. Life has become simpler and superstitious beliefs no longer hold sway.

Like many places in the world, with the advent of Christianity, education has become a very important tool of knowledge and enlightenment, and for Long Lellang, a primary school was set up in the village to sow the seeds of learning.

Long walk of education

Back then, rural folks who wanted an education had to walk long distances – literally — to acquire it.

The farmer had been to Marudi and noticed a stark difference between his fellow villagers and the town’s traders and administrators who knew how to read, write and count. There and then, he knew he had to make sure his children, with the new addition of a little girl, must emulate the townsfolk to be on par with them.

When the boy turned seven in 1964, the farmer made sure he went to school, however far away it may be from their farm hut.

Being the son of a shifting cultivator, going to school for the boy was not easy as the family usually stayed a distance away from the village. The situation was further complicated by the family’s semi-nomadic lifestyle — moving from place to place every year, depending on the location of the farm. That made schooling for the boy even more challenging.

The boy had to get up early in the morning and walk for an hour or two to the village school to attend class. Being used to the spartan life, he took the ordeal in stride.

With his older brother, he would walk past farms with lush rice fields and trek through virgin jungles every day to and from school. Despite the daunting challenges, the boy continued to work hard in school. For six straight years, he topped his class in SK Long Lellang.

In 1969, the boy sat for the Common Entrance Examination – a transition from primary to secondary education. Out of 17 students in the class, only three passed, including the boy.

Although this was good news, it was, however, beset with the problem of proximity. The nearest school — Bario Secondary School – is a long four days’ walk away! Fortune favours the brave. It was another impediment in a slew of several that the boy had to overcome and he rose to the occasion.

Scattered mall village settlements in the Kelabit Highlands.

For the boy, the first trip to this secondary school on foot was tiring but not worrisome. Then farmer was on hand to show him the way through the jungles from Long Lellang to Bario. With the farmer alongside, the boy felt safe.

The second trip was quite different. Although only 13, the boy was entrusted to lead the other two girls on the journey. That inspiring experience left an indelible mark in his memory.

On the morning of his initial assignment as the group leader, the whole family woke up early. By 6 am, all the food rations were properly packed in the “uyut” (Kelabit rattan backpack). And his father passed to him all of the family’s saving – RM30.

Although feeling a sense of foreboding, the boy and the two other 13-year-olds started the long walk to school with unwavering purposefulness. For the next four days, they trekked through thick virgin jungles from dawn till dusk without meeting anyone. At night, they rested in jungle huts.

In the hindsight, the boy, now 63, described the whole experience as tough and challenging but memorable and interesting.

“The interesting part was walking for four days, starting at 6 am. You walked the whole day through virgin jungles and didn’t see a soul. I don’t know how we did it,” he mused.

The boy was a boarder at Bario Secondary School and would only return to Long Lellang during the holidays. For every term, it meant eight days of walking and walking through virgin jungles. “But we were used to it. We were brought up like that. Even while staying in the longhouse, like the Ibans and Bidayuhs, we did shifting cultivation. Our parents moved from one place to another, depending on where the farm was that particular year.

“When we were in Primary One, we stayed in the farmhouse which could be as far as two hours from school. So we had to wake up early for the walk to the longhouse to attend class, then back to the farmhouse again in the afternoon.

“After a while, the routine became second nature. They put you in the jungle, you know your direction, you know where you to go,” the boy said.

Riverine way to Marudi

Isaac was elected the Head Boy of Marudi Secondary School in 1973.

After completing his studies in Bario Secondary School as a top student, the boy enrolled in Marudi Secondary School to further his education. This meant another long journey every term.

By then, he had become such an experienced traveller and so determined to get ahead academically that he refused to let anything distract him from acquiring a full education – not the treacherous streams, hidden rocks or wild animals roaming in the night.

The journey from Long Lellang to Marudi involved a day’s walk and a longboat trip. Although there were outboard engines, the poorer travelers still manually paddled along the river linking the fluviatile settlements. Whether the journey was smooth or rough depended on the water level. Going downstream was comparatively easier than upstream, especially during the dry season where the trip could take a week or longer.

Education in Marudi was not only about studying from books, it was exposure to a different kind of lifestyle. The boy admitted he saw a car for the first time in Marudi. If not for the exposure, the car would be just another textbook picture.

From Marudi Secondary School, the boy followed the path of many rural students of Northern Sarawak by enrolling in Form Six in Tanjung Lobang Secondary School, Miri.

Pocket money had always been a luxury to the boy. As boarder, most of the time, he had to fend for himself as a boarder. But the boy had a way to make his life interesting. Odd jobs such as collecting firewood, cutting grass became part of his life then. Being young and curious, it was worthwhile to toil in some hot afternoons to exchange for a two-hour enjoyment in the cinema or to taste an ice cream to sate his craving.

“So it was a very tough kind of life and upbringing. As I have said, there was no way my parents could afford sending me any pocket money. They were farmers eking out a living on the land. It was tough but we were equally determined to succeed, helped by our religious faith.

“That was what was instilled in us — our faith in God — you must be able to reach beyond yourself. Because of our faith and willingness to work hard, Forms 4, 5 and 6 were quite smooth sailing. There was nothing else to do, anyway,” the boy recalled in a light vein.

For him, leadership was a natural gift. He was head boy of Bario Secondary school, was elected the head prefect of Marudi Secondary School and deputy head prefect in Tanjung Lobang Secondary School.

Setting up of second Penan school

Isaac’s first appointment letter as temporary teacher where he was entrusted to set up a Penan School at Long Sait.

While waiting for the Higher Secondary Certificate results, the boy took the job as a temporary teacher. His first assignment was to start a school — the second to be set up by the Education Department — for the Penans in Long Sait, a day’s walk from Long Lellang. So the Penan settlement was not a total stranger to him.

The job was actually kept in store for his brother who was doing a teacher’s training course at the time. The two young brothers had a rare combination of attributes – good education and an innate grasp for language and were known for their fluency in Penan.

The boy stood in for his brother until the latter’s graduation. It was 1977 and his main task was to register Penan students.

“The first thing I had to do was to buy school provisions — books and the like. I got help from the Education Department. They chartered a small aircraft to fly me and the school provisions from Miri to Long Lellang. I arranged for porters to bring the stuff to Long Sait.”

After returning to Long Sait, the boy assembled the Penan students near the river in the morning and taught them their first lesson – taking a daily bath with the soap and shampoo he provided. After the introduction to personal cleanliness and hygiene, lessons would start with singing and learning the alphabets.

“At that time, the Penans were still not settled. Most of them, especially during fruit and wild boar seasons, would disappear — and their kids too. So in such a situation, the main purpose was to encourage them to settle down. I think about 30 students of all ages were registered,” the boy recalled.

As a temporary teacher, he was paid RM260 — the first salary he ever received. It was such an overwhelming moment for a poor young man like him that he kept his first payslip to this day. Soon after, his brother graduated and took over from him. The boy was re-posted to Long Lama Primary School. All this while though, he did not give up his dream of reading law, preferably in the United Kingdom. Due to peer pressure, however, he also applied to the University Malaya (UM).

Angels of Northern Sarawak

One day, some three weeks after reporting to Long Lama Primary School, he was called in by the headmaster. Apparently, Marudi Sarawak Administrative Officer (SAO) Ding Ibau, now a priest, had received a telegram, advising that the boy had been accepted to read law in UM with a cautionary afternote that failure to report to the university within two weeks meant he had given up the slot.

Ding who had wanted to do law but did not have the chance, cycled straight to the school to inform the principal who quickly typed out the boy’s resignation before informing the latter of his acceptance by the university.

It isn’t easy to get placement in the Law Faculty of UM in those days. Every year, the intake is only 50 nationwide.

With Ding’s help, the boy was put on a government speedboat to Marudi the next day. Knowing that the boy needed some pocket money while studying in UM, the then-District Officer of Marudi, the late Edwin Dundang, instantly arranged to raise fund.

It was planned for the boy to travel to Miri to look for a certain clinic whose resident doctor was Dr George Chan (former Deputy Chief Minister and now a Tan Sri), the then Lion Club Miri chairman.

George Chan (left), Edwin (top right) and Ding (Bottom right).

The boy did as told. During their meeting, Dr Chan handed RM3,000 to the boy, the amount raised by the Lions Club of Miri to help him out in university. Subsequently, Dr Chan put the boy on a flight to Kuching with a letter to (the late) Datuk Joseph Balan Seling.

Upon reaching Kuching, the boy was pleasantly surprised to see Balan’s driver waiting for him with a letter to the Immigration Director to expedite his passport application.

The next day, the driver sent him to collect the passport and that same evening, the boy flew to Kuala Lumpur and headed straight to UM where law courses had started a month ago. From then on, the boy subsisted on an annual RM3,000 Petronas scholarship until he graduated.

Boss of multiple companies

After graduation and being bonded, the boy worked for Petronas for eight years. He was instrumental in setting up the Asean Bintulu Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the oil company.

This was followed by a posting to Petronas headquarters in Kuala Lumpur as the second person-in- charge of the Legal Department with a team of 42 lawyers.

While working for Petronas, the boy was headhunted by Exxon Mobile, the world’s biggest oil company at the time and a Petronas contractor.

The boy recognised this was another opportunity of a lifetime but as a token of gratitude and respect for Petronas, he left the decision to Petronas president Tun Azizan Zainul Abidin.

With his boss’ blessings, the boy joined the Exxon Mobile legal team and stayed on for the next six years before switching to contracting and procurement.

In 1995, he received a promotion from Exxon Mobile to work in the US as an international procurement advisor. About the same time, Cahya Mata Sarawak Berhad (CMS) headhunted him.

Noting his wife’s reluctance to move overseas and with CMS offering him the chance to come back to his beloved homeland, the boy decided to return to Kuching for an interview and a survey of the living environment.

The family fell in love with Kuching at first sight. Following the job offer from CMS — albeit with a substantial pay cut — the boy turned down the counteroffer from Exxon Mobile with its attractive options of either working from Singapore or London. The boy had made up his mind — it was time to come home.

He started as general manager in CMS, looking after the company’s secretariat and legal department. The portfolio subsequently expanded to cover human resources and corporate communications.

He continued to scale the height of his profession and is now CMS Group managing director and executive director as well as chairman of CMS Land Sdn Bhd.

He also sits on the boards of many companies — Sacofa Sdn Bhd, Samalaju Properties Sdn Bhd, OM Materials (Sarawak) Sdn Bhd, OM Materials Samalaju Sdn Bhd, among others.

This boy is none other than Dato Isaac Lugun, the son of Maran Lugun and Sinah Maran Lugun of Long Lellang, a place you may have heard of for the first and the last time. — DayakDaily

Dato Isaac Lugun at his residence.