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.