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Assessment for Dayaks in Malaysia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Dayaks in Malaysia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Malaysia Facts
Area:    329,750 sq. km.
Capital:    Kuala Lumpur
Total Population:    20,933,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

There has not been any protest or rebellion among the Dayaks since 1998. The peace is likely to continue in the future according to the following factors: 1) Malaysia's democratic regime, 2) both the group and the Malay government's effort at negotiation and reform, and 3) the lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring countries. The Dayaks as a group have lagged behind in the economic, educational, and social sectors, compared to other groups within Malaysia. Efforts and visions to ameliorate the group's situation have been taken, including attempts to expand the group's middle class and entrepreneurs, to provide sufficient information on development projects, especially land development, to reduce poverty in Sarawak, and to promote tourism in Sarawak. Meanwhile, PBDS continues to serve as a vehicle for the Dayak community to draw closer ties to the state.

Analytic Summary

The Dayaks in Malaysia reside primarily in the northern Borneo state of Sarawak, making up 40% of the state population (GROUPCON = 3). Contrary to the largely Muslim population of Malaysia, the majority of Dayaks are Christians (BELIEF = 3). By its tribal and ethnic identities, the group is constituted of three categories: the Iban (Sea Dayaks); the Bidayuh (Land Dayaks); and the Orang ulu ("peoples of the interior"). Among them the Ibans are the most cohesive and numerous (68%), while the Orang ulu are the most divided, including various tribal identities such as the Penans, Kayans, Kelabits, etc. Since 1980s the Malaysian government has been trying to bring the Dayaks together and settle the group's problem due to their economic and social similarity.

The main grievances of the Dayaks are political underrepresentation, poverty and economic underdevelopment, especially regarding land rights, and the need to improve educational opportunities for group members. They are also concerned with religious freedom and cultural preservation of their way of life.

The Party Bansa Dayak Sarawak (PBDS) is the primary representative of the Dayaks (GOJPA00-03 = 2). In 1987 the party claimed victories in the state elections (by winning more seats, 15 of 48, than any other party). The party, however, cannot defeat the Malay and Melanau (both Muslim ethnic groups) dominance of the Malay politics. In 2000, in the 62 seat state legislature, PBDS has only 8 seats. Since the 1980s the indigenous group has been active in defending their political interests and rights. Organizations like Sarawak Iban association were established. The surge of Dayak political interests seems to bring the community as a whole in order to further promote and protect its own culture and life ways, resisting Malaysian assimilation policies (POLDIS01-03= 2).

Since its incorporations of Sarawak into the Malaysian federation in 1963, there has been excessive economic exploitation of the region's natural resources such oil, gas, and forest. Like Aceh and Irian Jaya in Indonesia, the indigenous population benefits little from the economic development by the state government. While the state benefits greatly from the revenue generated from Sarawak, the majority of the estimated 3,800 longhouses and Dayak villages in the state were still without electricity and water supply. The Dayaks' customary lands, although protected under the Malaysian legal codes, have been incrementally transferred by the government to various external concessions due to the government's delay in surveying and demarcating tribal lands and the consequent lack of legal title. The appropriation into interior forest by large logging companies entails serious controversies regarding the groups' property and land rights, as well as de-forestation issues. Other land issues involve boundaries in a native customary land, transformation of native land into commercial estates to benefit the community and developing commercial-based projects. Specific poverty alleviation projects do target Dayak groups with limited success (ECDIS01-03 = 1)

Sarawak is also facing rapid urbanization of the Dayak population, which could generate social and environmental degradation if poverty is not tackled. Because of the industrialization the state's urban population has now risen to about 50 percent of the total population from only 15.5 per cent in 1970. Major cities, such as Kuching, Miri, Bintulu and Sibu, face significant urban poverty resulting from the migrant population.

Another major social issue involves education of the group. There have been voices calling for the community' s abstaining from excessive drinking, gambling and cock-fighting in order to save money for their children's education or invest in shares. About 26,000 students in Sarawak had left school while in Primary One to Primary Six, and another 40,000 students while in secondary school, between 1992 and 1997. The majority of these students came from poor families in rural Sarawak and about 80 per cent of them are Dayaks. According to a UNDP 2005 report on Malaysia, education of indigenous populations such as the Dayaks continues to be a major challenge. The state government sees education of a significant means in national as well as community building. To improve the group's education is one of the priorities to enhance the community's manpower.


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Phase I, Minorities at Risk, overview compiled by Monty G. Marshall, 08/89.

United Nations Country Teams-Malaysia. 2005. "Malaysia: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals: Successes and Challenges." UNDP.

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