KUCHING, May 22 (Bernama) -- In the olden days, adventurous seafarers
sailing up the Sarawak River, such as Rajah Sir James Brooke, could see Mount
Singai in the distance.
Approximately 30 km south of Kuching, the 1,000-ft high mountain can be
reached by a tar road via Batu Kawa here, while its flat top can be accessed via
the same jungle trail that was used by the village folks, who once lived there,
to travel to their farms on the lowland.
Until around the 1970s, Mount Singai – which is visible from Kuching – was
home to seven Bidayuh villages, whose inhabitants were known as "Bisingai," or
people of Singai.
A former Bisingai community leader, Orang Kaya Pemanca Durin, was even part
of the Sarawak team that went to London in 1963 to negotiate the formation of
Malaysia as well as Malaya, North Borneo and Singapore.
According to director of the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) Institute
of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, and professor at the Resource
Science and Technology Faculty, Andrew Alek Tuen, it is generally believed that
the Bisingai originated from Central Kalimantan and probably settled in Mount
Singai several hundred years ago.
However, ever since they settled in their farmlands on the plains and
established 12 new villages there, the only reminders of their early settlements
– which are now overgrown with secondary vegetation – are broken bottles, jars,
kitchen utensils, and some belian stumps and pillars.
Nevertheless, Andrew, a local boy from Kampung Tanjong Bowang, Singai,
declared that the mountain remained very close to the heart of the people, who
still carry out activities such as planting and harvesting fruit trees,
collecting forest products and hunting wildlife.
HIGH ECOLOGICAL AND SOCIAL VALUE
Andrew led a mini-expedition to Mount Singai to study the area''s natural
resources in 2010, and he still returns to the area on most weekends for
research, recreation, and social and personal reasons.
According to Andrew, the community forest of Singai is truly worth
conserving because of its high ecological and social value.
At a recent talk on the "Conservation value of Mount Singai – people,
culture and natural resources," he observed that in the original pagan culture,
prior to the advent of Christianity around 1885, the spirits of the land and of
their ancestors governed the people''s way of life.
Over the last 20 years, however, the site – which is now occupied by the
Catholic Memorial Pilgrimage Centre (CMPC) – has become a major tourist
attraction, while the Association of Research and Development of Singai Sarawak
(Redeems) Centre at Kampung Apar has become a popular venue as the host of the
Gawai Dayak carnival.
Andrew suggested that Redeems and Unimas can play a significant role in not
only documenting and conserving the local culture but also educating people and
increasing their awareness about the local people''s belief systems, culture and
traditional way of life as well as their customs, language, stories, arts and
crafts, which are being threatened and eroded by Western influence, brought in
especially through the powerful media of television and the recent influx of
In terms of flora and fauna, Andrew noted, studies conducted by Unimas in
2010 recorded at least 30 species of amphibians and 19 species of reptiles,
while a person walking on the CMPC trail at night might encounter the Bornean
leaf-nosed pit viper and several frog species.
Mist-netting efforts along the trail and around CMPC have yielded 26 species
According to Andrew, observation methods – which enable the recording of
canopy birds that have little chance of getting caught in mist nets – from the
beginning of the CMPC trail to the summit of Mount Singai beyond have yielded 93
species of birds.
"Some of the interesting birds include the rufous-backed kingfisher, whose
shrill cry as it flies past indicates impending disaster in the village,
according to the old belief, and the gold-whiskered barbet (“sogu”), whose call
tells the village that someone has just died," he remarked.
"The rufous-tailed tailorbird is perhaps the most famous of the augury birds
– its call literally dictates whether the pagan villager will go to his farm, go
hunting, or not," he pointed out, adding that the emerald dove and its pigeon
cousins were not only tasty to eat but also good pets.
Andrew noted that in this way, young Bisingai children learned how to set up
snares and construct cages for these birds, thus developing a healthy respect
for the forest and its wildlife.
Twenty-two species of mammals have also been recorded at Mount Singai,
including 10 species of bats, seven rodents, four treeshrews and a tarsier.
Until the early 1980s, especially during the durian flowering season,
according to Andrew, large numbers of flying foxes could be seen coming from the
coastal areas to feed on the nectar of durian flowers at early dusk. However,
only a handful of them can be seen nowadays, and the durian fruits are also less
He said that during the expedition, Unimas students also caught and measured
five western tarsiers – small, insectivorous primates that can turn their heads
360 degrees, giving the impression that they were mistakenly created facing
According to the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998, tarsiers,
bats, kingfishers, woodpeckers, owls and hill myna are categorised as protected
The expedition recorded at least 200 species of plants along the trail to
the summit of Mount Singai, and identified 83 of these as having medicinal
properties, based on their use by the Bisingai and other communities in Borneo.
The expedition also recorded 19 types of fruit trees growing along the CMPC
trail. The most common of these was the langsat, followed by durian, tampoi and
engkabang, which were all planted by the people as they travelled up and down
the trail from their longhouses to their farmlands below.
"Based on their size and from the anecdotal information shared by the
elders, some of these trees are probably more than 100 years old," Andrew
observed, adding that the tapang trees or “do-oh” in Bisingai language are the
giants of the forest of Mount Singai, towering above the other trees and
reaching a height of about 50 metres from the ground.
Easily recognised from a distance due to their small, light green leaves
forming a rounded canopy, the tapang was favoured by honey bees for nesting, but
sadly, the trees have been “barren” for the last 20 years. Even if there were
plenty of bees, the skill to construct the bamboo ladder or "tatok" is now lost
among the younger generation, he claimed.
Other useful plants include the rattans, from which the people make baskets
and mats, and bamboo – which, apart from making the “tatok,” is used for
constructing bridges, platforms, water containers, water channels, bird cages,
spines for atap roofs and, of course, yields the famous culinary item of bamboo
The sap palm is a source of toddy, while its fibre is weaved into twine,
which can last longer than rattan.
Studies conducted by Unimas in 2010 have revealed that several streams in
Singai carry good quality water, conforming to Class IIA of the National Water
Quality Standards for Malaysia, which is regarded as suitable for potable use
upon conventional treatment.
"I can remember collecting water from three of these water channels or
"oyak,” that are connected to the streams, using bamboo containers when I was
small, and the “oyak” never seem to dry up during those times," Andrew recalled.
The many streams that originate half-way up Mount Singai, slightly higher
than the old villages, were the water sources that sustained the people before
any piped water supply was available.
The right attitude, good behaviour, and respect for elders and the
environment, however, needs to be inculcated from a very young age, and the
primary schools in the villages as well as the teachers, parents and leaders of
the community all play an important role in conserving the environment and the
local culture, he added.
CJ INE CR