The Enduring Cultural Links among the Peoples of the BIMP-EAGA

The links among the peoples of the member countries of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia- Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) go back to a very dim past. These links were cultural, economic, and political. The ancient cultural links survive in the many cultural practices shared by the peoples of the BIMP-EAGA, including the fact that they speak languages that belong to the same Austronesian family of languages.

These cultural links were strengthened by the extensive trading that was going on within the region as well as outside the region. As the ancient trading centers expanded their network, they also gained political influence, and various Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim empires rose and fell in the region long before the arrival of Western Colonialism.


The different Western colonial powers fought over territories and resources in Southeast Asia, with the victors imposing their own cultures and government systems on the territories they controlled. These colonial projects created barriers among the different peoples as their orientation shifted from within the region to the colonial metropolitan centers.

The modern countries of Southeast Asia have largely retained the political and territorial boundaries that were established by the colonial powers.

However, the different peoples and ethnicities of the region, while displaying cultural diversities, have retained their core cultural values even as they have integrated foreign cultural elements into their daily lives.

With the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967, the ancient cultural links are being rediscovered as the different countries forge stronger economic and political ties to develop the region and become an international force.

Of particular importance was the creation in 1994 of the BIMP-EAGA, a sub-regional aggrupation of the ASEAN that encompasses the entire Brunei Darussalam; the provinces of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku and West Papua of Indonesia; the states of Sabah and Sarawak and the federal territory of Labuan in Malaysia; and Mindanao and the province of Palawan in the Philippines.

In this paper, I will explore the cultures in the sub- region with the aim of celebrating and appreciating our diversities and strengthening our commonalities in order to develop a stronger bond of friendship and cooperation among the different peoples of the BIMP- EAGA.

Common Language Ancestor

Filipinos delight in encountering many words in the languages of other countries in the BIMP- EAGA that are also used by Filipinos. Here are some common number words and their variants that are recognizable throughout the sub-region: One (usa, satu); two (dua, duha, duwa); three (tulo, telu, talu). In fact, the BIMP-EAGA languages, a subfamily called the Malayo-Polynesian under the larger Austronesian family of languages, stretch as far as Malagasy (Madagascar) to the west and Hawaii to the east.

In the BIMP-EAGA, ten is sampu, napulu, or sepuluh; in Malagasy, it is folo. In faraway Hawaii, many words have deviated so much from the ancestral proto-Austronesian that only language experts can detect them. However, the Hawaiian word for hand is lima, which is also found in some Filipino languages to mean not only the number five but also the hand.

More similar words can also be found in various aspects of BIMP-EAGA life. The words for person are tao, tawo; although it is orang in Malay The pronoun “I” or “me” is ako. The face is mukha; the sea is laut. If you want to mail a surat (letter) in the BIMP-EAGA, you will be walking on a jalan (road), and perhaps encounter a kerbau (carabao), or a kambing (goat). If you want to read, you will use your mata (eyes).

There are several theories about the origin of the Austronesian-speaking peoples. The current accepted theory, based on linguistics, states that the home (or urheimat) of the Austronesians is Taiwan. Taiwan has the greatest concentration of diverse languages around the region, which points to its being the homeland of the Austronesian languages. Challenging this “out-of-Taiwan” theory is the “out-of-Sundaland” theory, which is based on genetics.

This theory states that the Austronesians spread out from Sundaland, once a huge landmass connected to the Asian mainland.

When sea levels rose 12,000 years ago, almost half of Sundaland was submerged, creating the islands in Indonesia, Malaysia, and parts of the Philippines. The population dispersed, bringing with them their languages, arts, and culture, which later further diverged. However, a common genetic imprint can still be traced among the peoples and tribes in the region.

Regardless of which theory turns out correct, the peoples of the BIMP-EAGA can only wonder at the many beliefs and cultural practices that used to be common not only within the region but also in neighboring Mainland Southeast Asian countries.

Budayaw landscape

Human Origin Myths

The human origin myths in the BIMP EAGA are very diverse, but three major themes are common to many of them involving the sky, the sea, and the earth.

Among the Manobos of northern Mindanao as well as the Bol-anons in Central Visayas, the first people on earth were sky-people. From northern Mindanao comes this story. One day while hunting, Ukinurot shot a bird, and when it fell, the arrow penetrated the ground. When Ukinurot pulled the arrow, a hole was created on the ground. He peeped down and was attracted by the sight of a green world. Using a rope made from feathers, he and his people climbed down and became the first people on earth. The hole became the moon. One fat woman was left behind, who now lights the moon at night.

Similar myths of the sky-world origin of humans are told among the peoples of the BIMP- EAGA. Among the Bataks of Borneo, humans are descendants of a divine lady and a heavenly hero. The Bugis of Celebes also believe they are descendants of the son of a heavenly god and his wives.

Another common human origin motif in the Philippines involves the primeval sea. In the beginning there was nothing but sea and sky and a sea eagle (manaul) flying around. With nothing to perch on, the bird was getting tired, and so it made the sky and sea fight each other. The sea tried to reach the sky, while the sky threw stones at the sea. Now, the bird could rest on a stone. While thus resting, a floating piece of bamboo bumped the feet of the bird. Irritated, the bird pecked at the bamboo. From the first node Sikalak, the first man, came out and from the second node Sikabai, the first woman, came out.

Variant bamboo motif concerning the legend of Mamalu and Tabunaway is told among the various ethnic groups along the Pulangi River of Cotabato. One version says that Mamalu cut many bamboo to use in mending their fish cages. Before they went home, Mamalu instructed his brother, Tabunaway, to cut the last bamboo. This he did, and from the cut bamboo, a girl came out. Tabunaway told Mamalu to adopt the girl. They named her Putri Tunina. She became the wife of Sharif Kabungsuwan who spread Islam in Cotabato.

In Sulu, the bamboo motif appears in the fragmentary genealogy of Tuan Masha’ika. It is said that he was a prophet who was born out of bamboo, not through the line of Adam. He was respected by all the people who were not yet Mohammedans at that time.

The bamboo motif also appears in the Buginese epic La Galigo from southeast Celebes. Ratu (Queen) Wakaka of the kingdom of Wolio is said to have come out from an ivory-colored bamboo. There are no other details of her mythic origin. The hero of this epic, Sawerigading, regularly visited her on his big boat called welenrengnge (sounds like the Filipino balangay?)

Another bamboo motif is also found in Taiwan among the Ami people. A staff that was planted became a bamboo in which two shoots developed. From one shoot came out man, and from the other shoot came out woman.

Among the Minahasa, it was not bamboo, but a tree-trunk floating around the sea and was opened by a deity, out of which the first man came forth.

According to the Kayans of Borneo, in the beginning there was also nothing but sea and sky. One day a big rock fell into the sea. In time, slime covered the rock, breeding worms that bored into the rock, producing sand that turned into soil. One day, a wooden handle of a sword fell from the sky, which grew into a tree. From the moon a vine fell to earth. The tree and the vine mated, bearing a boy and a girl.

The origin myths above tell of human beings “already made” who came from the sky or sea. But there are also many versions in which superior deities or gods made human beings.

The Blaans and Tbolis of South Cotabato tell of Sawey and Fyuwey who made human beings out of clay. Sawey put the nose upside down, and Fyuwey said people would drown, so he turned it the right way. But he pressed a bit too hard, so people became flat-nosed.

Another version says the Blaan gods Melu, Fyuwey, Dwata, and Sawey sent the bird Baswit to secure some earth and fruits of trees. Melu beat the earth until he had made the land. When the land became fruitful, Melu said, “Of what use is land without people?” At first they used wax to mold man, but it melted when put near the fire. They decided to use dirt to form man. Fyuwey put the nose upside down, but Melu quickly turned it as it is now.

Among the Ata Manobos of Davao, Manama, the greatest of all spirits, made the first men from blades of grass. He made eight persons, male and female, and they became the ancestors of the Ata and all the neighboring peoples.

Among the Dayaks of Borneo, the human creators were two birds, Iri and Ringgon. First they tried clay, but when it dried, the man would not speak or move; next they tried hard wood, but it turned out stupid. Finally, they tried the kumpong tree which has a strong fiber and bleeds red sap when cut. They were satisfied with the results. But when they tried to make more people, they forgot how they did it, and so they produced only inferior creatures whose descendants are the monkeys.

The Dusuns of Sabah say that the first two beings were made of stone, but they could not talk. So they tried wood to form man who could talk but it rotted. At last they made a man out of dirt, and all people today descended from this man.

There are other origin myths around the region with different motifs, but these are the ones that are closely related.


As the BIMP region is mostly an island world, it stands to reason that it should have plenty of flood myths. The Atas tell of waters covering the whole earth and all the Atas were drowned except for two men and a woman. They were carried away by the waters and would have died if not for a large eagle that offered to help them. However, one of the men refused, and so only one man and the woman returned to their home in Mapula, Pakibato, Davao.

The Mandayas of Cateel, Davao Oriental, also tell of a great flood that caused the death of all the people on earth except for a pregnant woman. She prayed that her child would be a boy. Indeed, she bore a boy whom she named Uacatan. When the boy grew up he married his mother. They were the ancestors of all the people.

The flood myths in Borneo involve the killing of a snake. According to the Ibans of Borneo, a watchman killed a snake that appeared from the sky and ate their rice. He cooked it, but as he was eating it, a heavy rainstorm caused a flood. Only those who reached the highest hills managed to survive.

Another version from the Dusuns of Sabah says that a great flood occurred after some men killed and ate a huge snake. They made the snakeskin into a drum. At night, the drum began to sound by itself, and a great hurricane came and swept away all the houses, including the people. Some of the houses were swept into the sea, while other houses were brought to other places.

Among the Nias, the flood was caused by the fighting between the mountains as each one wanted to be the highest. The fighting angered a deity who threw a golden comb into the ocean. It turned into a crab and stopped the sea from overflowing. Then the rain came, and water rose higher and higher until only three mountains could be seen. Only the people and animals who went to these three mountains survived.

Many other flood myths are also told by peoples from many islands in the Pacific.

Experts agree that these flood myths are indigenous stories, and not influenced by Biblical sources.

Another type of folk stories shared within the region is the trickster tale. Pelanduk, also spelled Pilanduk, is the name of a mouse deer that figures in trickster tales in Malaysia and in the Philippines.

In the Malay version, Pelanduk, also called Sang Kancil (mouse deer), is a trickster in animal form. One story about Pelanduk is how he tricked a crocodile. One day, Pilanduk wanted to drink and went to the river. But he was afraid to drink from the river because the crocodile could be lurking below the water. Pelanduk said aloud: “I will test the water if it is warm or cold.” Then he put a stick in the water. The crocodile quickly bit the stick and dragged it underwater. Thus warned, Pelanduk looked for another place to drink.

In the Philippine version, Pilandok is a human being. He is a poor man who is able to outwit the powerful. In one story of the Meranaws of the Lanao Lake region in Mindanao, Pilandok sat beside a tree that had a big beehive. A stranger happened to pass by and asked Pilandok what he was doing. Pilandok pointed at the beehive and said that he was guarding the royal bell that no commoner was allowed to beat.

The stranger asked Pilandok to allow him to beat it, to which Pilandok answered no, as only someone of royal blood was allowed to do so. The stranger declared that he was the son of a sultan and that he would give Pilandok a bag of gold just to beat the bell. Pilandok agreed, but he requested the sultan’s son to beat the bell once Pilandok was far away already because he was afraid the Sultan might hear the bell, come and behead him.

Pilandok ran as fast as he could with the bag of gold. When he was out of sight, the son’s sultan beat the beehive and was promptly attacked by swarms of bees.

There are many possible interpretations of the Pelanduk trickster stories. One lesson is that the small and weak can outwit or defeat the strong.

Many Filipinos still observe some superstitious rituals rooted in animism which views nature as inhabited by spirits who live in trees or forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, falls— everything in nature.

It is not uncommon to see educated Filipinos say, “Tabi” (”Please, excuse me”), when brushing aside foliage in forested areas or throwing an object into a bush or anywhere for that matter, especially at night. They are also likely to ask permission from water spirits when they want to take a bath in isolated lakes or rivers.

This animistic reverence for nature is not limited to Filipinos. An indigenous Iban of Borneo who wants to urinate in the forest must ask permission from the spirits so they would move out of “harm’s way.” Nobody would ever pee on a tree, as it could be a dwelling place of a spirit.

This is also observed by many Filipinos who do not want to offend the dili-ingon-nato (not like us, that is, not like humans.) Filipinos also observe the taboo against laughing or making noise lest they anger the woodland spirits. There could be dire consequences for the offender, such as getting sick or coming down with a severe disease, depending on the gravity of the offense.

OOne interesting ancient practice among the peoples of the BIMP countries is shamanistic or spirit healing, in which the supplicants call on the spirits to cure a disease. In South Sulawesi, Indonesia, people believe that the nature spirits choose among themselves who would be best able to grant the request of a supplicant. This is similar to the belief among certain ethnic groups in the Davao Gulf region about the labi, the superior spirit who “owns” a particular disease and can therefore cure it.

Even the rituals associated with healing are almost the same. Among the Malanaus of Nia, Borneo, the medicine woman summons the spirits. The spirits thus called ask: “Why have you called us?” And the medicine woman responds: “Tell your master that I have called you because there is a person here sick.” And the spirits then fetch the powerful spirit concerned.

Among the Mandayas of Davao Oriental in Mindanao, the call to the spirits likewise consists of a dialogue between the balyan (priestess) and the spirits being summoned. The balyan pleads: “We implore you…We ask your divine power…All the diwatas, descend on us, all of you, descend on us.”

The spirits respond through the balyan whose voice changes: “I am angry! I am disgusted!…Who has commanded the balyan? Why the call? Why the summon?”

Then the balyan tells the purpose for calling the spirits, mostly to seek help in curing a disease.

Another healing ritual common in the region is based on the belief that a person becomes sick or is dying because his/her spirit has left the body. The task of the balyan, then, is to call the spirit back to reunite with the body. To do so, the sick person is prettified to make her appealing, and the sick bed is decorated to make it attractive so that the spirit will want to come back and live again. When a person gets well, it means her spirit has come back. When a person dies, it means her spirit has left the body forever.

Another type of sickness that can afflict a person is being possessed by a bad spirit. The cure is to call on a good spirit to expel the bad spirit out of a sick person. It is a kind of exorcism, performed by a skilled herbolaryo or medicine man. It is worth noting that in the early 1900s the Kalagans around Davao Gulf sought the assistance of the labi to expel the Americans from their lands.

In 1521, Antonio Pigafetta of the Magellan expedition described heavily tattooed Bisaya natives he met on Limasawa Island in the Visayas. The Bisayas had so many tattoos all over their body that the Spaniards called them Pintados (painted).

This practice was also very common among the other ethnic groups of the Philippines as well as in other areas of the BIMP-EAGA.

In the past, a tattoo signified bravery for a man. Certain tattoos placed in certain parts of the body could indicate the person had killed another person. Among women, tattoos signified specific skills they possess, like weaving. People of high status could be identified with tattoos on their throats.

In Mainland Southeast Asia, the Thais consider tattoos sacred, especially certain designs that incorporate geometric patterns and chants written in an ancient script derived from Pali Sanskrit. These tattoos give the wearer good luck and protect him from harm.

According to the Jangans/Klatas, as well as the Atas of Davao, tattoos are important in the afterlife because the tattoos will glow and guide them in the dark underworld. The Atas believe that Andarapit, a shape shifter, guards a river in the underworld and makes it difficult for the soul to cross. Similarly, among the Kayans, the soul will confront Maligang, the guardian of the bridge in the underworld, who refuses passage to those not properly tattooed. The tattoos burn bright in the underworld, guiding the soul to its destination with the ancestors.

The Southeast Asians also shared the common practice of blood compacts. In the Philippines, this was first noted by Pigafetta in 1521 and performed by Legazpi with Bohol chieftains in 1565. During the Philippine Revolution against Spain in 1896, persons joined the revolutionary organization Katipunan by signing their names in their own blood. Today, many Mindanao ethnic groups, collectively called lumads, use animal blood to seal peace pacts among themselves.

Among the Moluccans in Indonesia, a similar pact called pela seals an alliance of two or more villages. The chieftains perform a blood brotherhood compact, the effects of which also extend to all members of the individual communities. The members within the pela are even forbidden to marry each other.

Pigafetta reported in 1521 that Palawan natives in the Philippines kept roosters for cockfighting. During the colonial period, the Spaniards noted that the Filipinos loved their fighting cocks so much they immediately tended their cocks first thing in the morning. The Filipinos were so addicted to cockfighting the Spaniards decided to build cockpits in all towns so they could earn revenues from it. Today, cockfighting remains a popular legalized gambling, with cockpits full to the brim during Sundays and holidays. Illegal cockfights, called tupadas, also proliferate in neighborhoods.

Cockfighting is a passion shared by our neighbors. Chinese Song (960-1279) records report that one of the favorite pastimes of the people of Java was cockfighting. During a lull in the war between two ancient armies in Indonesia recorded in 996 CE, the bored soldiers whiled away their time by cockfighting. Today, the Indonesian government frowns on it, but in Bali, it remains a popular sport, with the Balinese man doting on his cock like the Filipino sabongero. The people engage in this sport for religious ceremonies, with cockfighting performed in temple yards.

However, for gambling purposes, they do it elsewhere. In Borneo, the cockfight is called nyabung manok, almost similar to Filipino sabong. The popularity of the cockfight in Borneo is interpreted as a symbolic outlet for the warring instincts of the people.

In Celebes, cockfights could lead to war. In the La Galigo epic, Sawerigading and his son La Galigo are portrayed as cockfight aficionados. The ratu (queen) of Makubakulu, Bunga Manila, invited Sawerigading to a cockfight. Sawerigading lost and war broke out. La Galigo also engaged in a cockfight and lost, and war also broke out.

There are no available details on the cockfight wars in the Celebes epic, but in Brunei, a cockfight caused a costly dynastic war (1660-1673) that involved the Tausugs. One version of the story says Pengiran Muda Bongsu, son of the thirteenth sultan of Brunei Muhammad Ali, and Pengiran Muda Alam, son of Pengiran Abdul Mubin, engaged in a cockfight in which Pengiran Muda Bongsu lost. Pengiran Muda Alam taunted the loser. In his anger, Pengiran Muda Bongsu killed Muda Alam and fled. In retaliation, Abdul Mubin garroted Sultan Muhammad Ali and declared himself the fourteenth sultan of Brunei with the title Sultan Hakkul Abdul Mubin.

To appease the followers of the previous sultan, Sultan Abdul Mubin appointed the grandson of the slain Sultan Muhammad Ali, Muhyiddin, as Bendahara (Chief Minister.) Later, Bendahara Muhyiddin would rise against the reigning sultan and declare himself the fifteenth sultan, and a dynastic war ensued, with Abdul Mubin fleeing to northeast Borneo, now Sabah.

The war dragged on for ten years with no clear winner. So Sultan Muhyiddin asked the support of the sultan of Sulu, promising him eastern Borneo (now Sabah) as a reward. According to one version of a Sulu tarsila, Sulu Sultan Bararuddin I sent his two sons, Datu Alimuddin Han and Datu Tumanggung Dagangan Salikala, to help Sultan Muhyiddin against Abdul Mubin. Abdul Mubin’s forces were routed. The Brunei version says Abdul Mubin was killed in the war, while the Sulu version says Abdul Mubin left Brunei and disappeared.

That was how the Sulu sultan acquired North Borneo. Crowned first sultan of North Borneo (Sabah) was Datu Alimuddin in 1698. The Sabah controversy involving Malaysia and the Philippines has its roots in this costly cockfight.