Henry Jala Tamalai, a giant in his own right

Henry Jala Tamalai, (ABS, JBS) 1932 – 2016 was born in Batu Patong, Kelapang, in the Kelabit Highlands. He is survived by Lapu Sakai @ Midang Aran, four children, 13 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

The Educator 1946 – 1987

He was one of the first batch of students at Pioneer Kelabit School that was established at Pa Main after the war. He was also one of three young Kelabit men selected to continue further education in Batu Lintang Teachers Training college, Kuching.

He graduated as one of the first two Kelabit teachers from Batu Lintang Teachers Training College in 1951. In the same year, he was selected to represent the indigenous people of Sarawak at the inaugural Colombo Plan launch at the World Exhibition held in Colombo, Ceylon.

His first posting was to pioneer a village school in the Kelabit Highlands, initially at Long Lellang in 1952. A menhir rock bearing the names of the first school committee stands there today—a testament to his valuable contributions to education in Sarawak. Before he went on to start another school in Kubaan, he served for two years among the Kenyahs at Long Moh in Upper Baram. For family reasons, he was transferred back to Long Lellang to build upon what he started.

It is an attestation to Henry Jala’s pioneering work that many ex-students from Long Lellang went on to have fruitful careers, many in government services, mostly as teachers themselves, and some as medical officers, police field force and Up River Agents (URA). It is no coincidence that the first Kelabit graduate, Henry Lian Aran, who went on to have a distinguished career in Shell, was himself a student of Long Lellang school.

Henry Jala was among many pioneer teachers who were seconded to man the first full primary school in Bario in 1963. After several years, he was delighted to answer the call to commission yet another school in the Kelabit Highlands, this time in his village of origin. The school in Pa Dalih was opened in 1966. Sadly for him, he did not stay long enough to make the same impact he did in Long Lellang a decade earlier.

From there, he was transferred to Long Seridan, where he served for four years. Again, for family reasons, Henry requested for a final transfer to a town school, where he taught in SRK Lutong until he retired in 1987.

By then, the curriculum had changed from English to a full Bahasa Malaysia medium. It is a credit to him that after half a lifetime teaching in English, he successfully retrained in Rajang Teacher College, Sibu, to become a proficient specialist lower primary teacher, teaching in Bahasa Malaysia. Henry had the pleasure of teaching his very own grandson in SRK Lutong.

After total service of 34 years, Henry was awarded a Long Service Medal. In recognition of his long and distinguished career in education, he was awarded the state-level ‘Tokoh Guru’ award on May 22, 2004.

The Community Man 1963 to 2009

His success as a teacher and headmaster was due to the fact he was first and foremost a community person. When the newly-formed Parish Council was formed in Bario in 1963 (precursor to the current Jawatan Kerja Kampong (JKK), Henry served as the first secretary and was instrumental in the modernising of kampong administration.

From 1973 to 1975, he assumed an initial stint as chairman of a Bario Cooperative. Along with the support of auditors from town, he was able to initiate proper governance and accountability in the running of the cooperative’s everyday affairs.

When he was transferred from Bario to Miri in 1978, he assumed the role of Ketua Pelayan of SIB Miri. Through his church work, he became involved in the welfare activities among the growing Orang Ulu community in Miri—from organising family support for the sick to burial of those who did not have any relatives in town.

In this capacity, he was also appointed the lay representative of the Majlis Mesyuarat Agung SIB, Pusat Miri, a voluntary community work he did without any financial contributions from the centre.

Upon retiring in 1987, he resumed his old position as chairman of Bario Cooperative. By then, the cooperative had suffered a severe financial setback. Through his tenure, it became a viable concern once again, so much so it was held by the late Professor Ungku Aziz, the president of Angkasa (National Co-operative Organisation of Malaysia), as one of the most successful cooperatives in Malaysia.

It was also about this time when Henry realised that if they were to draw the government’s attention to their plight, the Kelabits would need a political voice.

His foray into politics started when he assumed the position as chairman of the PBB Cawangan Ulung Palang. Shortly after, he found himself an exco member of the PBB Cawangan Telang Usan, Baram. In this capacity, he rallied populous party membership from across the Kelabit Highlands and saw PBB as the major political voice among the Kelabits.

Henry never relinquished church work, which he started while in Miri. He sought to revive the spirit of ‘gotong royong’ wherever he went. Through his political and church connections, he was instrumental in highlighting the plight of the Orang Ulu community to the government and to companies like Shell and Petronas and was able to apply for various community grants for much needed community projects.

Of notable mention were his involvements in rallying support from the Kelabit community, including from those of the Kelabit diasporas in the towns, towards the building of the Gereja Umum (Community Church) in Bario. Apart from the initial seed money from a government grant, the funding and resources were provided by the Kelabit community themselves. It was one of the last self-funded community projects of this magnitude in Bario.

In 1993, the Native Court in Bario was looking for a person of standing to act as an Assessor. As a trusted church elder, Henry fitted the bill, and on many occasions, he was called upon by the then Penghulu to preside on various cases as an Assessor in the Native Court proceedings. In recognition of his Native Court knowledge and experience, he was appointed to sit in the committee that drafted the Kelabit Adat in the Kelabit Majlis Adat Istiadat, Sarawak.

Henry’s appointment to Penghulu in 1998 was a complete surprise for him as he did not have any aspiration to hold any public office. However, his experience in community work thus far stood him in good stead to assume the executive role, which he undertook with understated passion. He was a man of action and mostly led by example. Not content to be just a ‘director’, he was always in the thick of community work—from cleaning of ditches to clearing of the community graveyards.

His statesmanship as Penghulu, and in 2006 as Pemanca, was marked by his ability to foster alliances with the JKK and stakeholders in the various kampongs. He was a proponent of transparency and accountability in his administration, and because of his experience as church elder and SIB Utusan Pelayan, his primary focus in resolving community matters was to go through mediation before any cases were brought before the village court.

To quote Sargeant Sukhri, the resident police officer in Bario during Henry’s tenure as Penghulu/Pemanca, “His administration was marked by stability and peace in Bario,” he said.


1977 Sarawak Long Service Medal, Sarawak

2003 Chairman of Bario Cooperative

2004 Tokoh Guru Peringkat Negri Sarawak

2006 Recipient of Ahli Bintang Sarawak (ABS)

2015 Recipient of Johan Bintang Sarawak (JBS)


Source: http://miri.my/2016/03/23/henry-jala-tamalai-a-giant-in-his-own-right/