Melanau people

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Melanau people
Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud.jpg
TYT Sarawak Abang Muhammad Salahuddin.jpg
Rosli dhobi.jpg
Total population
113,280 (2000)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Melanau, Malay
Islam, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Dayaks, Bruneians, Orang Ulu

The Melanau are a people who live on the island of Borneo, primarily in Sarawak, Malaysia. They are among the earliest settlers[2] of Sarawak, and speak a Northwest Malayo-Polynesian language (see Melanau language).


The Melanau were in the 19th century, settled in scattered communities along the main tributaries of the Rajang River in Central Sarawak. Melanau or problematic Kajang [1] speaking tribes such as the Sekapan, the Rajang, the Tanjung and the Kanowitz(???) gradually moved and assimilated into Dayak migrations settling in the Rajang. The Punan [2] (or Punan Bah) today are closely linked to the last riverine dwelling Melanau communities previously inhabiting the middle and upper Rejang tributaries. The Kajang language is kept relatively alive by the isolated Sekapan communities Kapit division of Sarawak.

The Melanau are considered among the earliest settlers in Sarawak. The name Melanau was not used by the Melanau to refer to themselves until recently. They call themselves a-likou meaning 'people of the river'. Legend has it that the name Melanau was given by the Malays of Brunei to the inhabitants of the coastal swamp flats and riverbanks of central Sarawak which might signifies "coast-dweller".[3]

Eda Green, writing in 1909, referred to "...the Milanes, whose girls are as fair as any Europeans and the belles of Borneo."[4]


Grouping-wise, the Melanaus can be classified into the followings;

The largest being the Matu-Daro group. Each group has its own characteristic dialect but they all share the same cultural and lingual background (Exception would be the Melanau Bintulu dialect which can hardly be understood by the rest. Many linguists feel that it hardly fits into the Melanau language grouping. This tribe is also known as "Vaie" whose language is very similar to Punan Lovuk Pandan and Punan Bah. Their early establishment were from Lavang and Segan riverine). The Melanau languages have been divided in the following eleven dialects[5]

Another Melanau group worth mentioning and inclusion is the Melanau Igan. They live in kampungs by Igan River (example : Kampung Skrang, Kampung Tengah, Kampung Hilir.) that borders the Mukah - (Matu-Daro) district. The main language is Melanau. However some speak local Malay dialect. This group of Melanau is probably all Muslims. They mainly adopt the Malay culture even though some of the Melanau cultures are still being maintained. It is believed that this group was originally Malays who settled in the area. However, mixed intermarriages with the Melanaus over generations produced new generations who considered themselves Melanaus.

Similar to the Igan Melanaus ancestral beginnings, many Melanaus who had migrated to different areas in Sarawak experienced the same transformation. A group of Matu Melanaus settled in Bintawa area in Kuching after World War 2. However their offsprings, even though mostly Melanaus by blood, normally do not speak the language. They are considered as Malays. However as a point of interest, the new secondary school built in Bintawa Kuching in 2007 is named SMK Matu Baru. Many areas in Kuching notably Petra Jaya, Lundu and Santubong do have a significant Melanau population. Miri, Bintulu and Sibu are also places where there is a significant Melanau population.

However the 'Bin' which mean "son of" and 'Binti', meaning "daughter of" factors in all their names (be they are Muslim, Christian or "Likou") had probably confused the census workers (read the following paragraph). One of the reasons the Muslim Melanau 'migrated' to become Malay is that during the registration of birth of the newborns, they will automatically being assumed as Malay if the parents don't inform the birth and death registration officer of their racial preference.

Culture, religion and economy[edit]

Religions of Melanaus [6]
Religion Percent
Folk religion
Other religions
No religion / Unknown

The Melanau were traditionally fishermen as well as padi and sago farmers. Some were skilled boat builders. They used to live in tall stilt and long houses, but nowadays, they live in Malaysian kampung-style houses (individual & separated houses). Because of religious similarity, the majority of Melanaus live socially and culturally like the rest of the Malays in Malaysia.

It is one of the rare ethnic groups in Malaysia which hardly grows or increases in its population. This is because the Muslim Melanaus that have migrated to bigger towns in Sarawak have "automatically" become "Malays" especially during the National Census Operation as their names (and many times the language the elders use with their children at homes) are inseparable from the Sarawak local Malays. This has helped the Malay population of Sarawak to have significantly increased in the census.

All the Melanaus have a 'Bin' (son of) and 'Binti' (daughter of) in their names similar to the Malays[7] and it is also likely that the Christian Melanaus too were designated as Malays in the census.

The 2010 Malaysian Population Census showed the Melanaus population in Sarawak, Malaysia was about 123,410. They make up the 5th largest ethnic group in Sarawak, after the Ibans, Chinese, Malays and Bidayuh. The continuous inter-marriage between the Melanau and other races in Malaysia has also caused the disappearance of the Melanau identity. Data from some private research estimated that the actual Melanau population (in Malaysia and outside Malaysia) is much higher.

Being migrants in the early days, Melanaus are found almost everywhere in Sarawak. Sadly, though their children know their roots, many of them cannot speak or even understand their Melanau language.Intentionally or unintentionally, many of them registered themselves as other races, mostly as Malays. In some cases, their parents, both Melanaus, prefer to speak to their children using Malay or English. This language trend is mainly found in the towns and cities in Sarawak. There have been little efforts done to preserve the Melanau dialects and to teach the current Melanau generation continuous usage of their own dialects.

The gradual disappearance of the Melanau cultures and dialects is further aggravated by the absence of qualified Melanau staff members handling the documentation on the Melanau culture and history in the 'Majlis Adat Istiadat' department in Sarawak. This department is involved in the preservation and documentation of the cultures and histories of the various ethnic groups in Sarawak. The Melanau are slowly being emulsified into other cultures. The Melanau Kaul festival will only serve as a reminder of the Melanau Pagan ritual.


While originally animists, the majority of the Melanaus are now Muslim, although some of them, especially among the Melanau Mukah, and Dalat are Christian. Nonetheless, many still celebrate traditional rites such as the annual Kaul Festival. Despite their different beliefs and religions, the Melanaus, like other East Malaysians (Sabah and Sarawak) are very tolerant of each other and are proud of their tolerance. One can still come across a Melanau family with different children in the family embracing Christianity and Islam while their parents still have strong animist beliefs.

Melanau calendar[edit]

Main article: Melanau calendar

The Melanau have their own calendar which begins in March. The New Year is celebrated during the Kaul Festival.

Notable Melanau people[edit]

  • Pangeran Matusin – Mukah Governor during Sultanate Brunei
  • Orang Kaya Selair – Leader of Matu district before and during reign of Brooke Dynasty
  • Orang Kaya Srigunim – Women who become a leader of Jemoreng district during reign of Brooke Dynasty, killed during pregnancy by her rival
  • Sawing – One of the Sharif Masahor army leader during attack on Kanowit Fort 1859, who killed Henry Steel & Charles Fox
  • Salakai – Sawing close friend who fought together during attack on Kanowit Fort 1859.
  • Aliff Cullen (a.k.a. Mohd Aliff Bolhassan) – Internet celebrity, social activist, freelance writer, lifestyle/travel blogger, Sibu
  • Mohamad Taufan Mohamad YassinSocial activist
  • Abdul Taib Mahmud (a.k.a. Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud) – The fourth and longest serving Chief Minister of Sarawak and seventh TYT (Governor) of Sarawak, father of Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib, a politician and Mahmud Bekir Taib, corporate figure
  • Adenan Satem - Fifth Chief Minister of Sarawak.
  • Abdul Rahman Ya'kub (a.k.a. Tun Abdul Rahman Ya'kub) – The third Chief Minister of Sarawak, who preceded the current Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and the Fourth TYT (Governor) of Sarawak
  • Ahmad Zaidi Adruce Muhammad Nor – The fifth TYT of Sarawak
  • Abang Muhammad Salahuddin Abang Barieng (a.k.a. Tun Sallahuddin) – The sixth and current TYT of Sarawak
  • Mohd Effendi Norwawi (a.k.a. Dato Seri Effendi Norwawi) – Former minister in The Prime Minister Department (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's administration)
  • Leo Michael Toyad (a.k.a. Datuk Sri Dr. Mohammad Leo Toyad) – Ex-federal minister (Foreign Affairs). Chairman, Sarawak Conventions Bureau
  • Wahab Dollah (a.k.a. Datuk Wahab Dollah) – Member of Parliament.
  • Sulaiman Abdul Rahman Taib – The son of Abdul Taib Mahmud. A corporate figure who also Kota Samarahan Parliamentary Member
  • Datin Hjh Fatimah Abdullah@Ting Sai Ming.[citation needed] – DUN assemblywoman and Minister of Welfare, Woman & Family Affairs in the Sarawak state cabinet. Married to a well-known educationalist. Deputy chair of Women Organisation Sarawak
  • Datuk Hj Hamden Hj Ahmad – Former DUN Assemblyman and Former Assistant Minister of Youth and Tourism. Corporate figure (Oil-palm plantation)
  • Abu Seman Jahwie – DUN Assemblyman. Former Deputy Superintendent Customs. Secretary Party PBB Sarawak.
  • Len Bubat – Melanau song composer/producer/lyricist (first Melanau original album 2002). This album Cinta Tuwah was launched by the Chief Minister of Sarawak in Miri, Sarawak during the Persatuan Melanau Miri 40th Anniversary Celebration on 24 October 2002. Two popular songs from this album are the "Blues Tubeng Balau" and "Bier Kou Tuwad".
  • Tazudin Murni – Melanau song composer/producer/arranger/sound designer/ANUM guitarist (ANUM First Melanau Original Rock Song Album 2006)
  • Deja Moss – Malaysian national singer and voted Voice of Asia in Shanghai
  • Dayangku Faizah – Malaysian national singer
  • REM – Malaysian national singer
  • Sazia – The Malaysian national Bintang Kecil champion in 2000, she sang five songs on the album Cinta Tuwah, First Melanau Original Song Album 2002
  • Nizza – The Dalat singing champion in 2000, she sang five songs on the album Cinta Tuwah, First Melanau Original Song Album 2002
  • Saiful Rahini – DJ Nasional MusikFM KL
  • Mary Corina Jul Mahrof – DJ RTM Kuching
  • Hang Tuah Merawin – Resident, Kapit Division
  • Hj Sarudu Hoklai – Permanent Secretary to Ministry of Planning (Sarawak). Former Resident, Mukah, Kota Samarahan and Kapit (Sarawak)
  • Akit Sebli – Former Permanent Secretary Ministry of Tourism Sarawak
  • Datuk Hj Adi Badiozaman Tuah – Well-known educationalist. Former Education Director (Examinations) Malaysia. Director (Education) for Yayasan Islam Sarawak.
  • Dr Haji Mohamad Topek Taufek Nahrawi – Businessman, developer and contractor, Former Deputy Chairman of SEDC, Academic
  • Yusuf Hadi (a.k.a. Prof Datu Dr. Yusuf Hadi) – Academician UNIMAS.
  • Sulaiman Hanapi (a.k.a. Prof. Dr. Sulaiman Hanapi) – Academician UNIMAS.
  • Rashid Abdullah (a.k.a. Datuk Prof. Dr Rashid Abdullah) – Academician UNIMAS.
  • Len Talip Salleh (a.k.a. Datu Len Salleh) – Forestry expert; member of state legislative council (ADUN); Deputy Minister
  • Aloysius Dris (a.k.a. Datuk Aloysius Dris) – Director, Sarawak Tourism Board
  • Edmund Kurui – Former assistant curator Sarawak Museum
  • Hamid Sepawi (a.k.a. Datuk Hamid Sepawi) – Corporate leader, CEO of Naim Cendera Group, well known property and housing developer and public listed company
  • Sharifah Zarina – A singer most notable for her hit, "Langit Ke-7"
  • Sahari Ubu – Staff Sergeant Royal Corps of Signal British Army 1962 Staff No 23895416, Penghulu Kampung Nangka, Sibu.
  • Rohani Abdullah (a.k.a. Prof Dr. Rohani Abdullah @ Josephine Yaman) – Academician UPM
  • Tuan Haji Mohamad Atei Abang Medaan – Mayor (Datuk Bandar) of Kuching North (Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (DBKU))
  • Datuk Dr Yusof Hanifah – Former mayor of Kuching North (Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (DBKU)
  • Mohd Hafiz Mohd Suip (Hafiz) – Singer and winner of Akademi Fantasia, Season 7
  • Rapaee Kawi (a.k.a. Apai or Mashor) (1958–2009) – First Sarawakian to scale Mount Everest,[8] ex-commando and Sarawak's most senior national press photographer
  • Associate Professor Dr Haji Abdul Mutalip Abdullah – The former dean of Faculty of Social Sciences UNIMAS
  • Dr. Junaidi bin Hj. Diki – Public health medicine physician, senior HCISB consultsnt SAINS, Ex Dep Hos Director SGH, DHO Sibu/Kuching/Samarahan/Bintulu
  • Datuk Haji Abang Abdul Wahap Haji Abang Julai – Mayor (Datuk Bandar) of Kuching North (Dewan Bandaraya Kuching Utara (DBKU)
  • M. Zulfadhli Zainudin – Sarawakian tycoon, businessman, investor, and philanthropist


  1. ^ "Melanau, Central". ethnologue. Retrieved 12 August 2014. 
  2. ^ 'The Report: Sarawak 2008 Oxford Business Group, 2008
  3. ^ "Melanau - Orientation". Retrieved 12 August 2014. 
  4. ^ Eda Green (1909). "Borneo: The Land of River and Palm". Project Canterbury. Retrieved 26 August 2008. 
  5. ^ Melanau Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (ed.), 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version
  6. ^ "2010 Population and Housing Census of Malaysia" (in Malay and English). Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Retrieved 17 June 2012.  p. 108
  7. ^
  8. ^ Sarawak Book of Amazing Facts And Records