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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

by Rev David CS Wee

Developments in missions and ministry to the Ibans in Sarawak, Johor and Singapore.


A longhouse is made of belian (iron) wood, which lasts for hundreds of years through sun and rain. Each longhouse, comprising between 16-80 biliks (family rooms) was built along the rivers of Sarawak. And each bilik has 2 or 3 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and an open bathroom from which everything is dumped below. Water for bathing, cooking and cleaning is from rainfall or the river. The longhouse open corridor, stretching from one end of the building to the other, is a community space for funerals, weddings and worship. Here guests and visitors used to sit, fellowship over most meals and sleep. Here too, animals such as dogs and chickens, run freely.

A longhouse of Sarawak and British North Borneo, c 1900.

In the 1900s, the Chinese Foochow – businessmen, school teachers, pastors – brought the Gospel from China to Sibu, the former business capital of Sarawak.

By the 1940s, an American and an Indonesian missionary had brought the Gospel to the Ibans in Kapit where about 5,000 longhouses lined the rivers in the Kapit District.

In school, if there was one, the Ibans learned English and their mother tongue which is a close variation to Malay, e.g. ako (aku), jalan (jalai), makan (makai).

When I was there in 1975, it was still common to see men with long ear lobes, and women walking and bathing topless.

Then change began.

When the United Methodist Church (UMC) left Kapit in 1968, the Sarawak Ibans, mostly living in the jungle, were completely neglected educationally, financially, and spiritually. There were insufficient trained and educated local pastors. Some of these Iban pastors took on a second job and very slowly became ineffective in the pastoral ministry.

The UMC had handheld the Ibans for less than 40 years, compared to nearly 100 years in Singapore and Peninsula Malaysia. Yet, in the late 1990s, TRAC required the Sarawak Iban Annual Conference to be financially independent within five years.

The Iban Conference suffered with poorly educated pastors and leadership. Pastors then were paid about RM200 per month and had to find funds to travel from one longhouse to another. Sadly, some of the better pastors left the ministry for other jobs for the sake of their families.


Under the Malaysian government, the younger generations of Ibans in Sarawak slowly began to be educated in Malay and moved away from the longhouses to cities. This resulted in challenging changes for the Ibans as a people and Church. To make matters worse, many became disillusioned and left the faith.

The outside of an Iban longhouse.

Iban youths, attracted to city lifestyles, faced temptations as they were exposed to cigarettes, gambling and drugs. Even a small town like Kapit has about 20 lounges and bars! I was shocked to learn that Kapit holds the record for having the highest number of child pregnancies from girls aged 12-13 in the whole of Malaysia. This is as recent as just last year!

In response to this situation, Dr Lee Chee San, a Malaysian who worships at Barker Road MC whenever he is in Singapore, rallied Christian businessmen and friends to start Lighthouse in Kapit. Renting the former Methodist Girls Hostel under the Sarawak Iban Annual Conference, Lighthouse runs tuition programmes and practical job training. With the help of medical doctors and nurses from Kapit Hospital, formerly Christ Methodist Hospital, sessions are held on boy-girl relationship and sexuality. CCMC has made a contribution to support this ministry.

The few educated Ibans with “O”, “A” or Polytechnic certificates have moved their families from Kapit to other towns such as Bintulu, Kuching and Miri. There, they slowly take root, forming small Bible Studies groups and eventually a church.

Ibans worshipping in their new Miri sanctuary.

Many longhouses are now occupied by the elderly and their grandchildren, with working adults visiting only during their leave. Those of another faith have stepped in with their own form of missions and proselization. Kindergartens have been started with free religious books, free education, free uniforms. They bring in dentists, doctors, musicians – everything our former missionaries did before.

An Iban woman weaving a basket.

Therefore, the focus of the Church has moved out to the hinterland. This is very costly for the Iban pastors who need to own motorboats and buy petrol to fuel them just to conduct monthly worship services up the rivers of Sarawak. A trip from Kapit town to a longhouse can take easily four to six hours. And on each trip, the pastor covers 4 to 8 longhouses which are two to three hours away from each other. Such are the challenges of pastoral care, missions and evangelism to the longhouses.

As such, the former focus of building city churches was a right and effective one. Today, there are at least three or four city churches which are financially independent with two of them being able to provide financial support for local Iban outreach.

In the late 1990s, some 40 to 50 Iban families moved from Sarawak to Johor to find jobs. Today, there are about 50,000 Iban men, if not more, living in Johor. Most of them can be found in Megah Ria and Skudai. Some 20,000 of them work in Pasir Gudang Port while another 30,000 ride their motorbikes daily into Singapore to make a living as cleaners, factory workers and labourers. CCMC has made some contributions towards the purchase of a two-storey shophouse in Skudai for Sunday worship and ministry on weekdays.

The Skudai congregation has a treasurer who is a housewife. Her husband works as a cleaner in Singapore. This reflects the affairs of the Iban Church. Roger Heng is helping to galvanize volunteers and give tuition, family life and other teaching programmes for the Megah Ria and Skudai membership. I think more can be done with better support.

In 2013, on my retirement, I took a boat trip from Kapit to visit six longhouses. One-way upriver took six and a half hours. The return trip was an extremely challenging and memorable one. The rain started about an hour into the journey. I remember trying to keep my balance, shivering with cold and clinging on to my backpack and camera as the small boat weaved through rapids in the pouring rain. But it was exciting to see 28 people praying to receive Jesus in one longhouse. However, it was painful to discover that the same longhouse was later visited by a missionary group of another faith and people were drawn away from Christ by offers of food and money.


There is a lack of able and strong leadership in the Sarawak Iban Annual Conference. There is also a lack of understanding of leadership roles and functions, from pastors to laity, based on the Methodist Book of Discipline. This is mainly because not wanting to rock the boat and the respect those in authority are parts of Iban culture. Also, the attitude of “what we saw, we now do” results in many challenges to affect change. It calls for a lot of patience, understanding and selflessness in service. Jesus is our example.

The Sarawak Iban Annual Conference needs strong leaders to provide direction. A strong second team of leaders is also critical, and leaders need training! Whatever help that can be given would go a long way. The following are their specific needs.

Pastoral and leadership training

CCMC has agreed to sponsor four persons, including pastors and laity to the Church Leadership Summit 2020.


Sunday School Teachers’ Training

Dr Cheah Fung Fung, TRAC Associate Lay Leader, is helping with “the train the trainers programme” after a successful course in Skudai. Another course, planned for late February has been postponed to July because of Covid-19.

A volunteer teacher taking a class in Kapit Methodist Primary School.


Teams have taught English in Kapit Methodist Primary School once or twice a year. English is the children’s third language after Malay and Iban. One year, a team went up and the Principal pleaded with me to send more teams because, for the first time, 16 children scored distinctions for English! One team had to cancel their visit this year because of Covid-19.

Roger Heng and other volunteers have been doing excellent tuition work among the Iban children in Skudai. Again, Covid-19 has put this mission on hold.

Youth Ministry

It will be good if TRAC Youth can provide training and help.

Women’s Ministry & Family Life

Opportunities are as plenty as the needs. Roger Heng is exploring the opportunity to run a Marriage Counselling programme in Kuching but Covid19 has again sidelined this.

Basic Counselling training is needed across the board for children, youth, adult and senior’s ministries. And one can add on other training programmes such as Finance, Music and Worship, Evangelism, Christian Social Concerns, Missions, etc. Exposure and exchange programmes can be beneficial at all levels of ministry.

Missions is imparting Jesus Christ’s life and power without pride or prejudice. God wants to do great things through humble and obedient people. Let us attempt great things for God through simple action of selfless love among the Ibans of the Sarawak Iban Annual Conference.


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