Kelabit Doctor with a Mission

It always sound romantic when you visit a remote rural village stuck in the middle of nowhere in the vast Sarawak hinterland.

For Dr Roland Dom Mattu, Sarawak’s first native Gyneacologist, official visits to such isolated locations always came with great responsibility; the people were very poor and lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Having come from one of the remotest highland villages of Bario, he chose to study medicine as a young man because he realised that the most important need of the poor villager was health and medical care.

However, over the last 50 years the natives living in the Sarawak outback have enjoyed greater infrastructure development but still lag behind their counterparts in urban Sarawak.

Over the recent weeks Dr Mattu decided to revisit some of his favourite villages belonging to the Kelabit, Berawan, Kayan, Kenyah and Penan communities to see for himself if the many decades of “development” have transformed the people for the better.

On a visit to Mulu National Park recently he brought this Sarawak Tribune journalist to find out how far the Berawan and Penan communities have improved themselves.

He said: “Two years after graduating from the University of Western Australia in 1976, I had the opportunity to put my medical training into practice.

“When I was based in Miri as a Divisional medical officer in 1981 I had the opportunity to experience the Flying Doctor helicopter Service and during my rounds at Long Seridan examined a Penan lady who was a follower of nomadic chief Tebaren Siden and discovered she had twins. I believe she was the first Penan with twins and decided it would be better she delivered her babies in Miri and she had two boys—Dom (after Dr Mattu’s middle name) and Bobby.”

“Coincidentally, I was on one of my rural trips when I met Tebaren and was delighted to hear that he had been promoted to Penghulu of the Penan at Long Seridan.”

However, apart from the vastly improved medical system there were other aspects to life the communities were such as social-cohesion, adaption to settled life and understanding their rights as citizens of Sarawak.”

“Even as Sarawak has transformed with the New Millennium, we have seen the erosion of an old lifestyle for modernity which comes with the young picking up bad habits like smoking, consuming alcohol and even taking drugs.”

On this trip Dr Mattu addressed Berawan headman “Tua Kampung” (TK) of Long Terawan and his followers at the village in Mulu.

He spoke about land issues pertaining to Native Customary Land (NCL) rights and how to address the problem of lands claims and to find the medium between keeping their heritage or giving up portions for development.

Dr Mattu, 67, said: “Yes, I think we find a balance between land claims and allowing land to be developed for the sake of the village. There is a cost for everything but if giving up land for the sake of developing a sustainable village where everyone can enjoy the comforts of modernity and job opportunities, then it must be worth it.

“If not, you will continue to see the Rural to Urban drift where young and strong and educated natives will continue leaving the old dilapidated villages which does not only lack basic amenities and facilities, have nothing to offer to them.”

Needless to say, the Berawan village of Long Terawan—an hour’s journey away by longboat—has lost a third of its population of about 800 who have either settled at their ancestors NCL in Mulu or moved downriver to Marudi, Miri and as far as Kuching to look for jobs.

On the other hand, the Penan of Batu Bungan at Mulu, have a different problem.

Two decades ago many did not have birth certificates or identity cards, and as such some were not able to sit for their higher school exams because of the lack of the relevant documents. Yet their ancestors came from the adjoining Mulu National Park.

Now that most of the youth have birth certificates and identity cards, they have better opportunities but still lack self-esteem.

  • Dr Roland Dom Mattu pose for a photograph at Mulu airport.
  • Batu Bungan Penan demonstrating how they perform their version of the Orang Ulu long dance
  • A picturesque view of the misty Mulu complex.