views updated


PRONUNCIATION: kuh-LAH-buht [biht]
LOCATION: Malaysia (Sarawakstate)
POPULATION: About 5,200 (in 2000)
RELIGION: Christianity


See the article entitled Iban.


The Kelabit, with a population of approximately 5,200 people in 2000, is one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. They are highland people that inhabit the Kelabit Highlands area, which is located at the farthest reaches of the Baram and Limbang rivers in the remote interior of northern Sarawak. The unofficial capital of the Kelabit Highlands is Bario with 16 villages in the area. This includes Pa'Umur, Pa' Ukat, Pa' Lungan, (located along the Depbur basin), Long Dano, Pa Dalih, Ramudu (located along Kelapang basin), and Pa Ramapuh Benah, Pa Ramapuh Dita, Pa Derung, Ulung Palang Dita, Ulung Palang Benah, Padang Pasir, Kampung Baru, Arur Layun, Bario Asal, and Arur Dalan, in the Merariu river basin. There are four other Kelabit settlements located further down the tributaries of the Baram River: Long Peluan, Long Seridan, Long Lellang, and Long Napir.

Like many other indigenous communities in Sarawak, the Kelabit used to live in longhouses in the highlands of Central Borneo. However, due to economic and social factors, many have migrated to live in urban areas since the 1980s. It is estimated that only about 1,200 Kelabit are still living on the highlands. Many of the younger generation have moved out, mostly to get further education and to get jobs that suit their qualifications in towns and cities like Miri, Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, Kuala Lumpur, and other places overseas.


The Kelabit speak their own language, which is called "Kelabit." Today, many have learned to speak English and Malay languages. Unfortunately, this has affected the usage of the Kelabit language very badly. It is decreasingly used, particularly by the younger generations. The Kelabit did not have a written form of their language until education was introduced on the highlands in the 1950s and 1960s. A recent effort was made to document the language in a dictionary, partly to preserve the language.

Basically, a Kelabit name has two parts: the given name, and the father's name. Some common male Kelabit names are Lian, Agan, Giak, and Apui. Some common female names are Supang, Sigang, Rinai, Dayang, and Ruran. A common Kelabit name would be Supang (given name) Lian (father's name).

The Kelabit practice an elaborate and fascinating relational-name system, thus distinguishing them from the other tribes in Sarawak. This practice requires new parents and new grandparents to change their names completely and permanently, making their old names redundant. These new sets of names have to be announced to the community at the Irau Mekaa Ngadan (Changing Name Ceremony).


Over a century ago, the Kelabit were involved in headhunting raids, not so much for ritual purposes but as a means to prove one's courage, bravery, or valiancy, and to get even with an enemy. Thus, a person who succeeded in headhunting exploits was hailed as a hero and looked upon as a role model. Stories of successful exploits are narrated in various forms of oral stories. One of these heroes is Agan Tadun. His fame and achievement are recounted in legends, myths, and traditional songs.

One popular myth among the Kelabit is that all humans were originally from the highlands, until a big flood covered the whole earth. Many people had to build rafts to survive and were brought to the coastal areas by the water. However, some had built big and heavy rafts and were therefore stranded on the highlands. That is why and how the Kelabit remained on the highlands.


Most Kelabit are fervent Christians. A spiritual revival arose among them in 1973, causing the whole tribe to embrace Christianity. As a consequence, they have abandoned most of their traditional beliefs. They believe that Christianity has brought them freedom from the old religion which restricted their activities.

Formerly, the Kelabit had to rely on bird augury and dreams as guidance before beginning an important journey or starting the agriculture cycle. Certain rituals and practices were observed before commencing any undertaking. Sometimes these rituals required them to abandon a field that had been cleared for farming, or to leave their ripened rice to rot. With their conversion to Christianity, these rituals ceased to be observed by the Kelabit. Instead of these rituals, today many Kelabit say (Christian) prayers before embarking on major tasks on their farms.


Two major holidays for the Kelabit are Christmas and Easter. They celebrate both occasions as a community, not merely as a family affairs. Opening one's home to visitors is one of the main features of Christmas. Visitors are served with a variety of cakes, cookies, and drinks. Longhouse communities also get together for a meal either on Christmas Eve or for Christmas lunch, or both, after Christmas services.

The Easter celebration lasts for four days at least. The whole community will get together at the central church to worship and socialize together. Special speakers are invited to give sermons. It is an occasion most people look forward to attending. In addition to Christian holidays, and like other Malaysians, the Kelabit also observe other national public holidays or festivals which include New Year's Day, Hari Raya Puasa or Hari Raya Aidil Fitri (end of Ramadan), Thaipusam (celebrated by Hindus on the 10th month of the Hindu calendar), Chinese New Year (celebrated over 15 days beginning on the first day of Chinese Lunar Calendar), Wesak Day, Gawai Dayak (harvest festival), Deepavali, and Christmas.


An infant is normally delivered by a midwife or an experienced older woman. In the past, a child was required to go through different stages of ceremonies or rituals as she or he grew to be a teenager. One of these ceremonies was the Initiation of the Child. It involved the slaughtering of one or more pigs, and the examinations of the livers and gall bladders to discern the fate and fortune of the child concerned. Today, these ceremonies are not observed at all, except for the Irau Mekaa Ngadan (Name Changing Ceremony).

As a teenager, a child is trained by her or his parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles to do chores. While a girl is trained by her mother, grandmother, and aunts about cooking, washing, and working on the field, a boy is trained by his father, grandfather, and uncles how to hunt, fish, collect firewood, and build huts or houses.

The birth of the first child among the Kelabit signifies a transition in an individual's life. This is marked by the Irau Mekaa Ngadan, which is held to affirm one's transition to parenthood and grandparenthood. The new parents and grandparents are required to take up new names to mark their new status. These new names are chosen and announced at the Irau Mekaa Ngadan which involves the whole community. Guests at the ceremony are served a big feast by the hosts (the new parents and grandparents).

A death among the Kelabit is often followed by a lot of mourning and weeping. Relatives and friends come from all over to pay their last respects. A dead person is normally buried within 24 hours.


A hospitable and friendly person is highly respected and valued by the Kelabit. It is considered rude not to offer hospitality to any visitors at the longhouse. Everybody is expected to greet one another by shaking hands and asking simple questions like "Where are you going?" "Where are you from?" "Who came with you?" and "How are you?" A person who does not greet others, particularly elderly people, is considered rude, unfriendly, and, to a certain extent, bad-mannered.

It is considered improper to wear shoes or slippers in the house. Helping the host or hostess with cooking or cleaning up is most welcomed. Taking gifts when visiting a friend or relative is highly favored.


The Kelabit, like many other ethnic groups on the island of Borneo, used to live in longhouses. This situation has changed and continues to change since more and more Kelabit in the Highlands are residing in detached-single houses. Furthermore, many Kelabit have migrated to live in towns and cities. The longhouses and houses in the villages are always kept clean. This is encouraged by constant inspections by the health officers. All the longhouses have tap water, and some longhouses have generators to give light in the night, while the others have to depend on kerosene lamps or candles. In order to be safe to drink, the tap water must be boiled.

Most Kelabit in the highlands are free of common diseases that can be found elsewhere in the tropical interior. Their constant involvement in vigorous work on the farm keeps most of them physically fit. The consistent supply of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish keeps them healthy. They buy or barter these goods from each other. This said, it is important to note that there is increasing dependence on foodstuff from nearby cities and towns. These groceries are air-flown to Bario on a daily basis.

A government clinic with a hospital assistant is stationed in the highlands. The villagers have a constant supply of medication, except for major or serious illnesses and accidents. In these cases, the patients are sent down by aircraft to the nearest town for better medical care.


Family life is highly valued among the Kelabit. The family is not only a social unit, but also an economic one. A large family consists of 6 to 12 children. Often the grandparents will live with the family, and sometimes other members of the extended family live with the family as well. Consequently, there are cases where a family consists of 12 to 15 members. However, this has changed over the years, as many children have migrated to urban areas.

The husband is considered the head of the household. He is responsible for making political or leadership decisions for the family. This involves being the spokesman for the family. If any members of the family have problems, e.g., misunderstandings with other members of the community, the father is responsible for making peace. The wife, however, makes most of the economic decisions. She decides when to start the farming each year. While the husband is responsible for bringing back meat and fish for the family meals, it is the wife's job to collect vegetables and mushrooms for the meals. Their children are trained from a young age to help carry out these tasks. A son will help his father, and a daughter is expected to help her mother.

Not many families keep animals as pets. Some raise cats to keep pests away, and some raise dogs for hunting. Poultry such as chicken and ducks are kept for their meat and eggs. Water buffalo are kept to prepare the fields for farming and also to carry heavy loads.


Traditionally the Kelabit wore very simple clothing. A man used to wear a loincloth and a jacket made from tree bark. A woman used to wear a knee-length skirt, and adorned herself with bead necklaces and a bead cap. However, today the Western style of dress is very common among the Kelabit.


The Kelabit always have a supply of fresh meat and vegetables from the jungle or garden. They collect wild vegetables from the jungle and hunt or fish for their protein. Each family also has farms for growing their own rice, not only for domestic consumption, but also for sale. Poultry such as chicken and ducks are reared for domestic consumption. The encroachment of urbanization is changing the food supply chains among the Kelabit. With easier access to cash and modern transportation, the Kelabit in Bario are also getting their daily food supplies from nearby towns like Miri and Marudi.

The Kelabit also produce their own salt, called Kelabit or Bario salt. This salt is obtained by evaporating salty water from salt springs which are found in the highlands. The salty water is boiled until all the water is evaporated, leaving the salt at the bottom of the kawang (big cooking utensil). The remaining water is completely dripped from the salt before it is put in bamboo pipes to be burnt in the fire. This is to harden the salt, which is later wrapped in big leaves to be kept in dry and safe places. The salt is used in cooking and also to preserve meat.

Traditionally the Kelabit used clay pots, made locally by women, to cook or prepare their food. However, today most of their kitchen utensils, such as spoons, forks, plates, and metal cooking pots, are obtained from urban areas.

Labo Belatuh (smoked meat) is a traditional Kelabit food. Meat, particularly wild boar and venison, is salted and smoked over an open fire. The meat will later be boiled and pounded into small strips and eaten with rice.


The first school was opened in the highlands in 1946 by Tom Harrison, a former British soldier who lived with the Kelabit for two years after World War II. He was assisted by Paul Kouhan who was originally from the island of Roti but later married and settled in Bario. There were only 46 students in the school when it first started. A few other schools were opened later on to cater to the needs of the Kelabit, who were coming to see the importance of formal education. Both sons and daughters were encouraged to go to school. Some students had to walk five to seven days through the thick rain forest to get to the nearest school. Access to education is one of the main reasons why many young people have migrated to urban areas.

The literacy rate among the Kelabit is quite high, particularly among the younger generations. Many of them have at least obtained a Malaysian Education Certificate. Of the 5,200 Kelabit, about 250 have obtained university degrees locally and abroad. Many others have attended professional courses and are working with governmental and private sectors across the country. In other words, the Kelabit, considering the difficult terrain of the highlands and the fact that they must leave their homes as soon as they go to school, have been very successful in their quest for formal education. Many have had to leave their home at the age of six or seven to attend boarding school.

Kelabit parents have played a crucial role in promoting formal education for their children. They see education as the means to improve their children's social condition. As a result, many highly educated Kelabit attribute their success to the encouragement of their parents.


Even though the Kelabit have gone through rapid social and economic changes within the very short span of 50 years, they have managed to maintain certain aspects of their culture which are still very unique, particularly their music and dance. A traditional musical instrument is the sape, a plucked lute instrument. It is carved from a tree trunk in an elongated rectangular shape, with a neck extending from one end of the body. Formerly, its three or four strings were made from finely split rattan, but today they are made of wire.

The Kelabit also play the pagang (tube zither), which is made from a length of bamboo tube, closed at both ends by its natural bamboo nodes. The strings are finely cut strips from the surface of the bamboo tube itself, which are still attached to the tube at either end.

The Kelabit use the sape and pagang music to dance their lovely hornbill and warrior dances, long dances, and single dances. The hornbill dance is performed in imitation of the hornbill bird. Hornbill birds are beautiful, shy, and very gracious. Many natives in Sarawak adore them, so they try to imitate their movements.

The Kelabit, like many other indigenous people in the Borneo island, do not have a written language. So most of their stories were passed down orally. However, recent efforts have been made by the local people to record this invaluable knowledge.


Most Kelabit in the highlands are rice cultivators. Historically, the Kelabit permanent wet-rice cultivation has distinguished them from the other natives in Sarawak, except for the Lun Bawang. They cultivate the famous Bario rice, which is well known for its sweet aroma and pleasant taste. Besides cultivating rice, they also grow citrus fruits for domestic consumption. Unlike those who remain in the highlands, Kelabit migrants to cities and towns are professionals, religious leaders, and intellectuals who play important roles in the wider Malaysian society.


Most Kelabits' traditional games and sports are slowly being abandoned by the younger generation. They have learned new games like basketball, volleyball, and soccer. In recent years, these sports have been promoted within the Kelabit community through and during the annual Highlanders Games Carnival. During the carnival, game competitions are carried out to ensure participation by Kelabit from different cities, towns, and villages. In the past, children spent most of their time swimming in the river, or playing in the shrubs surrounding the longhouses. Unfortunately, today most of these games are abandoned.

Soccer as a sport has become very popular among the Kelabit. Most Kelabit young men and boys are enthralled with the game. Another sport which has become popular among the Kelabit is golf. Tournaments are often organized to promote and maintain interests in the sport among urban Kelabit.


Since the highlands are quite isolated in the interior of Sarawak, television and movies were unknown in the highlands until recently. The installation of generators in most Kelabit longhouses has enabled them to watch movies on television and video. Some families do have satellite dishes, which make it possible for them to receive television channels from all over the world.

Occasionally, the Kelabit get together in the night to sing, dance, and talk, after working hard in the rice field during the day. Various dances are danced to the sape music. The women sometimes get together to sing Christian songs, or traditional songs. These occasions are always joyous and delightful.


The Kelabit make many handicraft items, many of them for everyday use. Most of these items, however, are made with little ornamentation and no carving. Nonetheless, many of them are beautifully made, with great skill.

Bamboo and rattan are the two common materials used to make Kelabit crafts. Rattan is easily obtained from the primary forest, and bamboo is acquired from the secondary forest, i.e., from areas which have at some time in the past been used for agriculture. Many cooking utensils, tools in the kitchen, baskets for storage and carrying, fish traps, and rice winnowing trays are some items that are made of these materials.

The Kelabit also use other materials like grass, bark, or other plant materials to make mats, brooms, sun hats, knife sheaths, and rain capes. Nylon cord and thread are sometimes used together with the other materials.


One of the acute social problems faced by the Kelabit in the highlands is the increasing and rapid migration of the younger generations into urban areas. This inevitable trend has left the old people to tend the rice fields. In order to overcome the shortage of labor to work in the rice fields, the Kelabit are hiring laborers from their neighboring communities.

The rapid economic progress in Sarawak has benefited the Kelabit in many ways. However, the increasing encroachment of commercial logging and demand for agricultural land development has put the Kelabit in a dilemma. They have to decide whether to give up their land for large-scale land development and timber concessions, or to maintain their traditional farming system.


The Kelabit stress the fundamental equality of the sexes and the complementarities of their work. Nonetheless there are differences between men and women. This is especially with regards to their roles, responsibilities, functions and activities in the society. Female's functions and feminine roles include nurturing the family through cooking, cleaning, and working on the household farm, activities which reflect and at the same time reinforce feminine qualities such as motherliness, gentleness, friendliness and kindness. In contrast, activities which demand greater physical prowess, such as hunting, travelling and headhunting, are deemed to be men's activities. They involve and develop qualities that are considered to be masculine traits, such as strength industriousness, and physical ability and prowess. In its essence, the Kelabit gender system reflects a pattern, in which roles and activities are assigned for the purposes of accomplishing particular tasks and with a view to each individual's differing abilities and opportunities in performing them. Social differences between men and women in this case are defined by and based on the activities that they are engaged in. Nowadays gender roles have changed as a result of high rate of rural-urban migration and the arrival of formal education which facilitated women's increased labor force participation.


Bala, Poline. Changing Borders and Identities in the Kelabit Highlands: Anthropological Reflections on Growing up in a Kelabit Village near the International Border. Dayak Studies Contemporary Series, No. 1, The Institute of East Asian Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, 2002.

Janowski, Monica Hughes. "The Making of Earthenware Cooking Pots in the Kelabit Highlands." In Sarawak Cultural Legacy: A Living Tradition, edited by Lucas Chin and Valerie Mashman. Kuching, Sarawak: Society Atelier Sarawak, 1991.

Saging, Robert Lian, and Lucy Bulan. "Kelabit Ethnography (A Brief Report)." Sarawak Museum Journal 11, no. 6 (1989):89–118.

Talla, Yahya. The Kelabits of the Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak. Provisional Research Report, No. 9. Pulau Pinang: Social Anthrosection School of Comparative Social Sciences, University Sains Malaysia, 1979.

—by P. Bala