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Articles, Opinions & Views: A Tribute to Sarawak’s 20th Senate President Datuk Mutang Tagal from Ba Kelalan - Special report by James Ritchie

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A Tribute to Sarawak’s 20th Senate President Datuk Mutang Tagal from Ba Kelalan - Special report by James Ritchie
Sunday, May 12, 2024

Part 1: From Miracle to a Tragic loss​.

My first encounter with Datuk Mutang Tagal and his family go back to 1985 when Sarawak’s first correspondent of the New Straits Times. Forty years ago I was invited from attend a gathering of “Lun Bawang” or “Murut” natives celebrating a series of Christian Miracles at Buduk Nur at the foot of Gunung Murud --Sarawak’s 7,953 ft highest mountain complex.

It was at Ba Kelalan that I met the prominent family of Pastor Mutang Tagal and two sons Dr Judson Tagal and younger sibling Mutang, a 29-year-old University of Malay-trained lawyer. It was here that Pastor Mutang built up his fortunes of growing the famous “Padi Adan” better known as Bario Rice. Pak Tagal also bred the Sabah species of “ponies” and had a stable of horses. Together with Ba Kelalan’s community of about 1,500 villagers and Tagal’s two sons, they also developed the surrounding hills and built a tourist resort.

They built a mini hydro-electric dam which provided power to nine “Kampungs” the enclave. It was through Pastor Tagal that the community enjoyed that facilities, amenities and a Borneo Evangelical Mission or Sidang Injil Borneo” which had served the community since the 2nd world war. My journey to Ba Kelalan entailed flying by Boeing from Kuching to Miri for a night-stop before connecting by MAS Twin Otter to Lawas’s Budur Nur airstrip.

After a week of investigations, I wrote (New Straits Times (December 2, 1985) my story. “I saw a video-tape recording of one of the miracles…women dressed in white skirts and yellow blouses looking up to the sky. “Then as they clapped their hands a small ball a light appeared in the sky…songs of praise and clapping seemed to bring the ball of fire closer and slightly larger. “As it zig-zagged in the sky the villagers of the Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Mission) continued singing…it appeared to be keeping in rhythm to the choir.”

The reports of “dancing lights” were first reported in April 1985 and at the soccer pitch of the Ba Belan valley watered by quaint streams and brooks and bamboo groves from which they community built their habitat! It was at Ba Kelalan that I met the prophetic pastor Agung Bangau who motivated the villagers to build South East Asia’s highest church called “Gedung Hallelujah” on the saddle of Mount Kinabalu.

From Gedung Hallelujah, we hiked for four hours to get to the peak to witness the first 6 a.m. sunrise on a misty day. Grand-mothers as old as 80 and children below the age of six from the cluster of Ba Kelalan’s 10 villages--Buduk Nur, Long Langai, Long Lemutut, Long Ritan, Long Rusu, Pa Tawing, Buduk Bui, Buduk Aru and Long Rangat—have joined in the pilgrimage since. In my first interview with Agung, he spoke of his journey with an angel who brought him to place he called “heaven”.

As skeptical as I was, I continued to interview many of the villagers and they told me the same story of miracles of a burning bush and how rice had been turned to flour. It was at in this valley interspersed with bamboo groves, that I met an evangelical Indonesian pastor “Pendita” Yohanis Sakai from neighboring Krayan who introduced me to his church. Nearly 40 years later I continue to be an avid follower of Pak Yohanis who had started his Bible College called “Yayasan Pintu”---or gateway to heaven, at the City of Samarinda, the capital of East Kalimantan (KALTIM).

He convinced me that the miracles were real and challenged me to follow in his footsteps, bravely venturing into “unchartered” spiritual waters in Kalimantan. On my first night at Ba Kelalan, I had the first encounter with an “unholy spirit” but after Pak Yohanis laid hands on me, I was healed and apparently born-again. Later, Pastor Mutang who is related to Yohanis and the late Agung grew Indonesian apples at his farm and built a “home-stay” motel for about 120 visitors and tourists.

It was at apple lodge that I cultivated a close relationship with Pastor Tagal, now 91, wife Yamu and Tagal clan now spread out in Kuala Lumpur and abroad. Tagal’s first tragedy was he lost his oldest son Dr Judson in a tragic helicopter crash which took the lives of six civil servants and a businessman. Sadly, Datuk Mutang’s demise occurred in July 2004--20 years after tragic killing of his Judson.

Part 2: Ba Kelalan: Gateway to North Kalimantan

A ramble into the heart of the Central Highlands straddling the Sarawak-Kalimantan border has never failed to excite the imagination of the avid traveller. With many six foot tall “highlanders” towering over the natives from other tribes on lower lands, I made my first foray into the highlands more than 30 years ago. Armed with these stories of giants who etched their images on massive rocks and boulders, I decided to investigate the origins of their tales as I roamed the hinterland.

I had heard about the Seluyah giants who were as tall 11 to 13 feet and seen etched images of these human beings on massive rocks—centuries-old Megaliths, Monoliths, Menhirs and Dolmen the giants had erected in Bario. As the Kelabits and their Lun Dayeh “cousins” shared the same culture, they have formed an association of “Highlanders” called FORMADAT to protect their ancestral land.

To further explore North Kalimantan, I sought the assistance of local cultural experts from Long Bawan—the administrative centre of “Kabupaten”, a regency within the Kerayan district. My adventure commenced after a 1,000km journey by Boeing from Kuching to Miri then by Twin Otter to Limbang-Lawas and Ba Kelalan. After a night at the “Apple Lodge”, its owner and former pastor, Tagal Paren sent me off early the next morning.

Alpius drove us by a four-wheel-drive vehicle through the 15km stretch where we entered foreign territory. In the old days, the road was a timber track until it was upgraded in 2002 and tar-sealed 10 years later. But alas, over the years the timber trucks continued to plough through creating a muddy track. Today the stretch resembled a minefield with its many pot-holes which became “craters” especially during the “Landas” monsoon between October and February.

Our Toyota Hilux continued to rumble through the broken road to Long Bawan—the capital of the Kerayan district—and we passed through the Malaysian and Indonesian Immigration and army checkpoints; we had to “surrender” our identity cards to the Tentera Nasional Indonesia (TNI) as the border still was not an official CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) border crossing.

Since time immemorial, the Ba Kelalan-Long Bawan stretch had been used by the Lun Dayeh of Indonesia for trade; it was especially essential for the Indonesians because the Kerayan district (also spelt Krayan) was cut off from the rest of Indonesian Borneo. It was part of East Kalimantan until president Jokowi decided to form a fifth province-KALIMANTAN UTARA (KALTARA) for better administration. Tagal Paren in his mid-80s said:

“For centuries, the people of Kerayan would travel on foot to Ba Kelalan to trade—a journey of at least a day. We felt sorry for them because they are our cousins and are cut off from the rest of Indonesia (it still takes two weeks to walk from Long Bawan to the nearest town off the coast, Malinau) until they built their first built their airstrip about 15 years ago.”

A member of the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM), he is the father of two famous politicians—former Member of Parliament for Lawas, Mutang Tagal and the late Dr Judson Sakai Tagal who was killed in a helicopter crash at the nearby 7,950ft Gunung Murud—Sarawak’s highest mountain—in 2004.

One of my Lun Dayeh associates, a businesswoman Sinang Meru, who was one of the pioneers in the construction of the small Long Bawan airport, recalled that in the old days she had to walk with at least 10 kilos of rice to exchange it for essentials in Ba Kelalan. Sinang, 47, who still shuttles between Sabah and Long Bawan at least twice a month, recounted:

“In the early 1980s it took me two weeks to walk from Long Bawan to Lawas. I remember that when I was about 10, my uncle had to carry me on his shoulders as we crossed a deep and fast running stream. “Now the road to Ba Kelalan is much improved but there is much to be done because the main connection to Sarawak is not tar-sealed and during the rainy season, the 25km Ba Kelalan-Long Bawan stretch can sometimes take as long as five hours,” she lamented.

Despite the upgrading of the Long Bawan airstrip built by American missionaries, there are only a few weekly flights provided one or two airlines and chartered air services which charge exorbitant rates. The other alternative is to fly by the American Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) which charges 50 percent of its rate for missionaries.

Sinang whose family were originally from Long Adang, a Kelabit village in Limbang, Sarawak, is also a rice dealer offering competitive prices for Kerayan’s famous aromatic “Pade Adan” (Adan rice) to customers as far as Jakarta! Lun Dayeh of Kerayan are the biggest rice growers in the central highlands. Several years ago the Kelabits were the greatest rice growers who cultivated the famous Bario rice which has found its way to Peninsular Malaysia.

Now growing Bario rice has become a pastime as the educated younger population have left the village for employment. The dilemma became acute when it was difficult to employ Indonesian workers because of strict immigration laws and low wages. As such “Pade Adan” is re-packed and sold as Bario rice.

Part 3 : Ba Kelalan--A Ghost town in a Christian Belt

In the old days the border village of Ba Kelalan with its friendly people, temperate climate and green valleys was touted as the “Shari la” of Sarawak. But in recent times it has been reduced to a “ghost town” because of circumstances that led to the authorities abandoning this small Lun Bawang community 3,000. Buduk Nur village elder retired pastor Tagal Paran, 86, remembers well the days when Ba Kelalan was a hub of tourism for the “Born-again” Christians from the Borneo Evangelical Church (BEM) in this remote region.

A former President of the BEM, Tagal said: “Ba Kelalan was a great tourist attraction because of our friendly Christian folk. “In the late 1980s we built a Church at a saddle at the 7,950ft Gunung Murud and we attracted thousands who made a pilgrimage to the village to attend the annual revival service in the mountain church,” he said.

Over the last 25 years Christians as well as nature lovers would make the annual trek up South East Asia’s highest church (7,000ft) to worship or enjoy the unique montane flora and rock formation. “Each July the pilgrims which included elderly folk would trek close to nine hours to the church at Camp Halleluyah and an additional four hours to get to the peak. .”

But over the last few years we have built a road half way up the mountain and now it takes less than four hours to get to the Church,” he said. Times were so good that Tagal started an apple farm and tried to breed horses in the early1990s—he also established a motel-type “homestay” which could accommodate about 40 people. Looking back at the good old days, Tagal said:

“Even the Governor of Sarawak Tun Mhamed Salahuddin visited us to sample the apples at my farm. “Later we diversified and took visitors on treks through the jungle, bird-watching and basically eco-tours. I even offered my horses for rides in the countryside.” Business was thriving as the Lun Dayeh neighbours from across the border in Indonesian Kerayan bought their provisions from Buduk Nur.

Five years ago the government provided micro hydro dams to all the cluster of 11 villages in Ba Kelalan so that they could enjoy unending supply of electricity. It was a glorious time because the assemblyman for Ba Kelalan was Dr Judson Sakai Tagal, Tagal’s eldest son who had great plans for his village. However, Judson was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 2004 while scouring the area for a location where the government could built a large hydro dam to serve the region.

Following the incident, Ba Kelalan’s fortunes began to wane; more timber trucks began to use the old 160km Lawas-Ba Kelalan ploughing up its surface it on a daily basis. Five years ago the army upgraded a 60km stretch from Long Sukang to Buduk Nur, but within two years it too began to disintegrate. “I’m not sure what happened but they could have used inferior material to construct the road.

Only a section of the road from Lawas to Ba Kelalan is tar-sealed and so it’s a long and bumpy ride to the village,” he lamented. Today, what should be a 90-minute drive from the Lawas coast to the Kelalan valley, is a dusty four- hour roller coaster drive during the dry season or slippery and dangerous ride when it rains. . Ironically, the 29km-long “Highway” connecting Sarawak to Indonesia has been closed.

“A year ago the Indonesian stretch was a mud-field until President Jokowi pumped in millions of dollars to build a “highway” from Long Api to Long Bawan said Lun Bawang business woman Sinang Meru. Several years ago Indonesian community from Kerayan were given permission drive to Lawas to buy essentials instead of stopping over at Buduk Nur. Tagal lamented:

“So we became a ghost town and the business community suffered to the extent that the village co-operative had to be closed down.” However, recently there was a glimmer of hope as the government has stated building an CIQ-customs, immigration and quarantine complex not far from Ba Kelalan. “We were told that the CIQ will be opened soon and when that happens it appears that our fortunes will change,” said Tagal who has started a sheep farm and hopes to buy a few more horses.

“If all goes well then, I might even re-establish my apple farm and buy a stallion for my mare. Three of my horses were killed when they were hit by careless road users,” he complained. During a recent visit to Ba Kelalan, the authorities agreed to limit travel into Sarawak to by-pass Ba Kelalan until the CIQ is completed. On another issue, Tagal said that the proposed road between Ba Kelalan and Bario is almost complete but has been work has apparently been suspended.

He said: “I was told that the highland road is just several kilometres from Bario but the contractor laid off his workers because he was not fully paid. “If the road to Bario was completed the people from both regions would have better business opportunities. It will make it possible to travel by land from Miri to the highlands without having to pass through Brunei.” In fact the 60km Bario-Ba Kelalan highland road will be the inaugural “Pan Borneo” highway because Malaysians would be able to drive from Kuching to Miri and then all the way to Sabah. Tagal added:

“We are going through exciting times and I hope that I will be able to use the highland road to Bario to meet my long-lost friends and church members. They too will happy because the Kelabits and Lun Bawang are related. Former Minister of works Baru Bian who is from Ba Kelalan, hoped it would be matter of time before the missing link is connected. Indeed, if Baru who has returned to the GPS-fold recently can achieve this, we can make the Borneo highlands great again.

Captions 1.Prophetic pastor Agung Bangau 2. Sarawak sightings—a display of lights in the sky 3. Making of a classic movie 4. Tribune report-a Ghost Town called Ba Kelalan 5.JR and his twin brother 6. Old bamboo bridge across gthe Kelalan Tributary 7. Aerial view of Buduk Nur’s soccer pitch where the congregation prayed 8. The 7,953 ft Summit of Gunung Murud 9. Pastor Tagal Paran-father who had he tragic loss of two sons

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