The Culture of Sang Jati Dusun

Siti Rokiah Abdullah and Rokiah Mahmud

“This paper’s the main point of discussion is the Malay Dusun, one of the ethnolinguistic groups in Brunei Darussalam. In addition, the paper will also share the efforts and initiatives taken by the Government of Brunei Darussalam in preserving the culture of the native people and at the same time, how the country managed to tackle the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Brunei Darussalam handles Covid-19 pandemic

The Government of Brunei Darussalam has been applauded for its effective measures in handling, coordinating, and managing the nation towards curbing the novel coronavirus (Covid-19). While other countries are still battling the virus, Brunei Darussalam is very lucky since it enjoys a bit of a normal life with several phases of de-escalation plan being carried out.

Brunei Darussalam has been one of the most successful countries in the region and in the world in addressing the risks of Covid-19 due to its effective measures in social and physical distancing and good hygiene practices which include wearing face masks and using hand sanitizers.

Despite the several measures and steps that are still being carried out in ensuring that the country is continuously being free from the infectious disease, Brunei enjoys practicing its traditions and cultural practices. The locals are still able to travel and promote domestic tourism. Part of the country’s de-escalation plan was to allow mass gathering in September 7, 2020 which allowed a small group of people gather in a number of events and occasions. Two months after, the number of people allowed in mass gatherings was increased to 350.

However, the public is being reminded repeatedly to comply with all regulations and directives relating to social distancing measures. The people of Brunei are required to use BruHealth app and QR codes when entering and exiting premises especially public areas such as shopping malls and retail shops and participating in cultural events such as rites of passages and the likes.

The story of Sang Jati Dusun: The beginning

In this article, we will share about one of the ethnic groups in Brunei Darussalam that has been seldomly being discussed. Brunei Nationality Act of 1962 named seven indigenous groups of the Malay race. These include Brunei, Kedayan, Tutong, Belait, Dusun, Murut, and Bisaya. Dusun constitutes about 6.3 percent of the total population. The Dusun ethnic group or Sang Jati Dusun is traditionally animistic though many have converted to Islam and Christianity. The group is traditionally nomadic swidden cultivators and collectors of jungle products residing in the forested interior of the country.


Each of the ethnic tribes has their own unique and wonderful tradition and culture. One of the ways to showcase how beautiful one’s tradition is through wedding celebrations. It is unique because we can see here how these ethnic groups show the richness of their cultures by showing the best dresses, the beliefs that they practice, the do’s and don’ts, and customs such as head to toe decorations as well as how these traditions impacted the society.

In the past, pre-arranged marriages and the setting of dowries were practiced. It is very important that they abide with all the rituals as these forged a union not only between the bride and the groom but also family members and the local community.

The Sang Jati Dusun often live in Tutong thus, their culture is mostly influenced by nature. They used to wear black attires derived from a type of material with lots of decorations that emphasized the beauty of the dress as well as the symbolic meaning of each of the decorations they wear.

The Dusun wedding customs start off like any other ethnic groups where the practice of Basuruh, Bajarum-Jarum, or Manau Muot ceremonies is still carried out. The groom’s family will send a representative to ask whether the bride-to-be is still available for marriage.

Ino boh ajat jami tih kan maya nyilot taap labo literally means the request for marriage. The groom’s entourage will return the woo to the prospective bride and would give gifts to the prospective bride as a sign of engagement. Invitation cards or samayoh in the form of 30 small woven rattan and knotted books would be cut off daily as the countdown to the wedding begins. On the wedding day, few customary sequences will take place starting with the groom and his entourage being led by an elder, followed by three to four women carrying takiding (bamboo baskets) with bronzed covers.

The first takiding has dowry in the form of money. The second consists of sarong for the mother-in-law, while the celapa, a traditional container often made from bronze or copper and kalakati which is an instrument use to peel off the beetle nuts will be placed in the third takiding.

In the past, when family members send off the groom, they will often be equipped or armed with spears accompanied with four men carrying traditional musical instruments such as tawak-tawak, biola (violin), dombak, and kulit biuku which will be used to signal their arrival.

The gendang teritik or tagunggu will be beaten and the bride’s representatives will respond with the hitting of the gendang ibang-ibang. This would be the signal for the groom to begin his walk towards the residence of the bride.

Before ascending to the bride’s house, the groom will perform the Pusing Naga or making seven circular turns accompanied by an elderly man selected due to his rich experience or being a respected person in the community. A representative will then enter the residence to meet the head of the house while the groom waits for the cue to enter.

The representative then will have to carry a ‘fine’ of either gong or money which is then placed in front of the bride called tampat kedudokan banta barian before the groom is allowed to come inside the house.

The bride’s representatives will escort the groom from to the wedding dais, followed by his entourage. They will sit in a circular seating arrangement and the Adat Banta Berian will commence.

In this particular time, the Adat Babasuh Kaki will also be held for those originating from Tutong descendants. However, in the past, the groom’s entourage will only present the bride with a ring or a bracelet. During the Adat Babasuh Kaki ceremony, the bride will place her right foot in the Batu Pengasah’or sharpening stone and the bridegroom will then step on in with his right foot. The bridegroom’s family will then pour water to the bride’s feet while gifts in the form of money or jewelries will be placed in a basket placed near the dais.

The ceremonial dagger used during the ceremony is important. It means that the groom will always be ready to support, protect, and take care of his family. After the wedding ceremony, the newlyweds will perform the Majlis Balik Tiga Hari or Muli Angai.

Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau: Not just a house but a living heritage

Tucked away in a rural area of Tutong District which is about 3.7 kilometers from the main road of Kampong Bukit Udal, lies a traditional Dusun house that was built as a reminder of a bygone era.

Located at the Bukit Kukub in Kampong Bukit Udal, Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau is a traditional Dusun house that was built on an islet of a lagoon. Alai Gayoh means s big mansion or large house in the Dusun language. The house is a source of pride for the community as it is the only traditional Brunei Dusun ethnic house in the country that maintains the traditional architectural features.

Prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Alai Gayoh has hosted hundreds of visitors who love to experience the place and researchers who study the surrounding forest. Guests include those coming from the European countries, the United States, ASEAN member countries, Asia, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

According to the exhibit inside the house, Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau started off as small hut called Alai Tadik built 14 years ago. It was built as a bangkar or floating house in a lagoon and originally meant to participate in the water procession at Pekan Tutong, held in conjunction with the celebration of His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Mu’izzaddin Waddaulah ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Haji Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Sa’adul Khairi Waddien, the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam’s 60th birthday.

In 2008, Alai Tadik II was built to replace the previous damaged house. The new house, measuring 13 by 11 feet was made from local wooden beams, palm flooring, and wooden wall with sago plant leaves as roofing. However, the house was accidently burnt in 2009 while the construction of the new Alai Gayoh was in progress.

A year later, Benson Tunggong, the manager of Alai Gayoh Anak expanded the house to become Alai Gayoh which would showcase the living heritage of a Dusun traditional house. The house was inspired by Benson’s father’s experience. The house was constructed with 63 different species of plants from the local forest. Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau is divided into eight areas including pantaran (verandah), serambi (lounge), sirang (main hall), salapir (kitchen), lubok (main living room), angkap (apex), ambir (extended area of the kitchen), and sampir (main extension of the house).

In an interview, Benson explained that visitors can both enjoy the nature and at the same time learn about the Dusun culture and traditions.

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the house ceased operation for more than three months but later allowed to host guests following the easing of restrictions given that its abides by and comply with the guidelines set out by the Ministry of Health.

This means allowing visitors to explore the areas of the forest reserve located at the eastern tip of the Andulau Forest Reserve. In support of the ‘One Village One Product’ (1K1P) Project, Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau conducted programs aimed to make the community more creative and innovative while creating employment opportunities for the locals.

The program includes a weekend overnight stay, forest biodiversity trekking, bird watching, forest spot-lighting, traditional ethnic cultural showcase, traditional cooking, native fruit gathering, and sampling.

As part of the post Covid-19 plan, the Minister of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT), Dato Seri Setia Awang Haji Ali bin haji Apong, hoped to boost the quality of the hospitality services particularly in the frequently visited sites which include the Alai Gayoh Anak Pulau.

Benson, referred to by many as Cikgu Benson, was a former educator who has decades of experience. As the 11th out of 14 siblings, Benson grew up helping his parents around the house –foraging for food in the jungle and helping his father collect materials in building their own home. The house though has to be rebuilt or renovated every 10 years due to wood rot.

“We spend most of our time in the jungle and I remember when I was a child and up until I was in my teenage years, my father and I would spend almost every afternoon looking for different types of timber that would be suitable for our Alai Gayoh,” said Benson.

He said he learnt a lot from his father from the materials used in building the house, construction methods, and design. Every single thing about the house was done by hand.

The site is very important to the community. According to oral tradition, a disease broke out in the area two centuries ago. A Dusun man, named Yajung, led two families including his own to the small body of water where the homestay is located today. These families stayed for than two months. The lagoon and the surrounding forest provided for their provisions. So, they never strayed away from the site. Benson said Yajung was one of the first to discover the secluded islet which proved to be a bountiful location for the Dusun people.

These two families stayed for than two months, as they lived off of what the lagoon and the surrounding forest has provided for them, and never straying too far away from the site. According to Benson, Yajung was one of the first people to discover the secluded islet, which proved to be a bountiful location for the Dusun people.

Each components of the house holds its own significance and the house itself is not just a relic of the Dusun way of life but a symbol that represents the continuation of the group’s culture.

There is no single design for the Alai Gayoh as it depends on the needs of the specific Dusun household. Now it functions as homestay. It was designed to fit into the needs of the riverine or lakeshore communities. But for the Dusun communities who lived in hilly terrains, their houses would have a different design.

Celebration: Tamarok

Tamarok is a customary ritual for the blessing the newly harvested paddy. It could be classified into two categories based on their purposes. The most auspicious of these ritual ceremonies was Tamarok Gayoh or Adau Gayoh.

During this celebration, the newly harvested paddy, believed to have the spirit of fertility, is offered with offerings in the forms of paddy grains, bananas, eggs, coconut, cakes, and some utensils. The Balian (female head of the ritual dancers) had the special power to communicate with the Kayangan (mystic world). The Balian and her ritual dancers dance through various rhythmic beats of gongs and drums including dombak, canang, tawak, agong, and gulingtangan. Rice from this newly harvested paddy could only be consumed after two consecutive nights of the dance ritual.

The Brunei Dusun ethnic group celebrates Adau Gayoh to mark the end of the rice harvesting season. Adau Gayoh is celebrated for a month commencing from May 1st. The group would wear their traditional attires and people visit houses of their relatives and friends. They would also perform various cultural activities to celebrate the occasion.

The performing dancers and beats during the celebration were ancayau, Kasapi, Imang-Imang, Tak Injut, Tulan Bangkar, Sang Luba, Tapi Butan, Kaladuh, Lait Lalau, Ebang Bataring, and many more. Each dance has its own rhythm of music. However, the celebration is not only about the dancers, music, and costumes but also about traditional food. Various types of traditional food would be prepared and offered to the Puun. These are the main cuisines of Adat Panakod.


Despite the immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brunei Darussalam is blessed, now that we are slowly living and practicing normal life in new norms.

It is undeniable that restrictions and swift measures in almost all forms and all aspects of mass gatherings, including cultural practices like traditional gatherings, family and community-based social and artistic events as well as social distancing have affected many.

The closure of museums, art galleries, and libraries nationwide for a number of months affected the creative industry and prevented access to all cultural and traditional references and researches.

However, the challenges also created and provided a broader perspective in adjusting the cultural practices and norms in new ways. Indeed, the consequences that the nation have encountered drew unity. The people became more resilient and adapted to the challenges the pandemic has created.

These include embracing the use of e-platforms and maximizing online activities that were carried out by the cultural community-at-large which include museums, galleries, and libraries as well as those in the field of education, religion, and commerce. The youth also continued to express their creativity via online platforms which formed the spirit of togetherness and unity among them.

With the strong family bond that remains an important backbone of Bruneian culture support from volunteers to those that were greatly affected increased. This has become our way of life where we have been guided by Allah, the Almighty with a true embodiment of our national philosophy – Malay Islamic Monarchy (Melayu Islam Beraja – MIB).

At the regional level particularly in the Special ASEAN Plus Three Summit on Covid-19, the leaders have reaffirmed the spirit of a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN and encouraged the development of a post-pandemic recovery plan to share lessons learned for the restoration of ASEAN’s connectivity, tourism, economic and social activities, and present potential economic downturns.

ASEAN leaders also supported the realignment of existing available funds to facilitate cooperation, including the proposed establishment of the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund.

To conclude, the strong bond and the strengthening of community spirit has indeed opened doors of opportunities despite the restrictions. The nation moved forward, thanks to the rise of volunteerism and the people’s creativity. It has also collaborated locally and regionally in sharing lessons to restore and strengthen cultural and social activities. As such, with resilience and close cooperation that have been encouraged and promoted, the Sultanate along with other countries across the globe, will surely overcome the adversities that we are currently facing.


The seafaring Sama Bajau build watercraft out of wood. Sibutu boatbuilder Jubal Muyong lists some of the surviving types of Sama boats he knows of.

  1. The ped-das is the smallest boat in the Sama fleet. At times, it is tied to a lepa. It is used when a lepa is anchored in some moorage, and people need to go to the shoreline for the purposes of buying food or drinking water and of selling fish to residents of shoreline communities when the tide is low.
  2. The bog-go with is an outrigger boat for one. It is mainly used for fishing.
  3. A modified bog-go is a bigger version that the Sama use to go to their farm when they would rather sail than walk.
  4. The biral is a big-hulled vessel measuring 3 to 5 meters. Its front and back ends are pointed, like the Butuan balangay. Its main function is to transport cargo, e.g., coconut or cassava, from the farm to the home.
  5. In contrast to the biral, the kumpit is a passenger and cargo boat. It can ferry people from the island municipalities to Bongao, the capital town of Tawi-Tawi. It also carries cargo from Zamboanga to Tawi-Tawi.
  6. The damas is a flat-bottomed dugout with outriggers.
  7. The tiririt is a small, one-person fast craft that is akin to a speedboat.
  8. A kurikung is also a small craft.
  9. The lepa or pelang is a houseboat.

He also mentioned a sort of progression in building the bigger boats: pelang, then lepa, then kumpit.

Because huge timber has become difficult to procure, they have resorted to commercial lumberyards for plyboards.


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I acknowledge the First Peoples as the traditional owners of this land and their continued connection to land, sea, and cultures. I pay my respects to the resilience and strength of Ancestors and Elders past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Peoples of Mindanao on land, ashore, and at sea.