Vernon L. Porritt: Bapak Guru Orang Bisaya: a Pioneer in Social Experimentation in Sarawak: Ro Bewsher, 1910-1998. Special Issue of the Centre for South-East Asian Studies. Hull, England: University of Hull, 1999. ISBN 0-903122-08-1.
Reviewed by Otto Steinmayer.
One of the by-products of James Brooke's acquisition of Sarawak was that it closed the way to any further adventurers of the Man-Who-Would-Be-King variety. That role was taken, and white people who came to the country had to turn their ambitions to something other than power. Sarawak's good fortune was that many of the men and women who looked there for opportunity and adventure sought it in ways that benefitted the people of the state. From Lundu to Marudi people still remember with gratitude the Peace Corps and Volunteer Service workers who taught school and helped in the fields.
Roland Bewsher was born in 1910 into a highly religious Australian family, and from his youth intended to become a missionary. He joined the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) and was assigned to Limpasong in the Ulu Limbang, where he arrived in 1932. Limpasong was his base for the next ten years. He made his home among the Bisaya people and became close to them, learned their language, and evangelized among them, with indifferent success; but he was esteemed highly enough by the local community to be appointed (in 1941) Council Negri member to represent the Limbang district.
When the Japanese invaded, Bewsher, his wife, and adopted children fled with others, including Hudson Southwell, upriver to Aroh Linau, near Mulu. Here he remained until the end of July, when the party was captured by the Japanese, and eventually sent to Batu Lintang camp.
Internment ended Bewsher's long decade of apprenticeship. His religious fervor (of which the BEM and its director expected a perhaps excessively ardent level) cooled after discussions with other prisoners, in particular a German atheist doctor captured at Pontianak, whose arguments Bewsher apparently found "unassailable." Bewsher resigned from the BEM. However wrenching a change this may have been for him personally, it turned to Sarawak's gain. The good that Bewsher had been able to do as a missionary had been meagre, but with religion out on the side, Bewsher was freed to pursue a secular career with the Sarawak civil service.
From the first, Bewsher had always insisted on education, education, education. At Limpasong he conceived the noble, if breathtaking, ambition of achieving 100% literacy among the Bisaya within a generation. In his post-war appointment as Agricultural Education Officer he found the perfect way to express his missionary zeal. He travelled throughout Sarawak surveying the state of education---in ruins after the occupation---and made recommendations. The result was the founding of the Rural Improvement School in Kanowit. This was originally designed to be a model longhouse community, although changes were made in the system as experience gathered. The RIS ran for nine years, Bewsher presiding over five of them, and although it was closed in 1957, it had produced a respectable number of graduates who went on to become progressive influences in their homes. The buildings immediately became the Kanowit Secondary School.
We should not judge the RIS a failed experiment,
nor, as Denis White asserted in 1952, that it was a waste of money that
accomplished nothing. Bewsher's aims may have been idealistic. At the
very least the RIS demonstrated that establishing literacy and
improving rural life must be long-term goals, and that their
achievement would be difficult.
Bewsher's career in Sarawak continued another eight years after he left RIS. He spent a year as officer in charge of the Co-Operative program, and after that another year as Educational Officer for the 1st Division. Liberated from this desk job in 1955, Bewsher was made Secretary and Executive Officer of the Community Development Committee. He also broadcast in English and Iban over Radio Sarawak.
As Executive Officer of the Development Committee
Bewsher was involved in development schemes at Sebandi, Muara Tuang,
Padawan, and Long Lama. Within a relatively short time Bewsher and his
colleagues had acquired much knowledge about the right and wrong ways
of directing development. Unfortunately, their enlightenment proved to
be a false dawn. When Sarawak entered Malaysia, the records of the
Community Development Committee were somehow destroyed, and efforts
towards development had to begin again from scratch after the turmoil
At the end of 1958 Bewsher was reassigned to the Agricultural Dept. as Extension Officer in charge of training. At length, problems with the health of his family made it difficult to remain in Sarawak. In 1962, Bewsher resigned from government service and retired to Australia.
In 1990, at the age of 80, his wife Mary having died, Bewsher returned to Sarawak to record the history of the Bisayas with whom he had first lived. The then Sarawak government shortsightedly refused permission for him to do research, and Bewsher returned home for his last few years.
Such are the bare facts of Bewsher's career. They
suggest a man of determined convictions, committed to making life
better for the natives, hard at work and on the move. I can only regret
that Porritt did not spend more time on Bewsher the human being.
Bewsher was surely the exact opposite of a faceless bureaucrat: the
personal details that appear sparingly in this memoir hint at deeps in
The fact that Bewsher began as a BEM
missionary---and indeed at a very early age---might suggest that he was
something of a puritan. Porritt describes Bewsher as an "austere
individual with little time for 'small talk'" and Rev. Peter Howes
(whom Porritt quotes) depicts him similarly as "very reserved, very
serious, and...rather tense." Bewsher one day came upon Howes planting
flowers (Porritt recounts) and asked him if he had nothing better to
On the other hand, Bewsher's own words, in his report on the Sibuti Ibans (printed as Appendix 5), show him tolerant of Dayak life. He notes with approval the availability of tuak and arak, at least as indicators of a sufficient rice-supply. And he attributes the prosperity of the Sibuti Ibans in part to the absence of manangs among them and the presence of ex-Ranger "Free Thinkers" and “nominal Christians” creating a climate where superstition did not get in the way of work.
Bewsher's description of Bisaya life is tinged with humor: he did not accept all his adopted tribe's practises, e.g. subsisting on gooey sago paste, but he was not about to "reform" them.
To my mind, one of Bewsher's strengths must have
been that he was serious about things that mattered---education,
hygiene, self-sufficiency---and also tolerant of tradition, beliefs,
and pleasures. A good mix, and one I think he must have come to slowly.
He might have started as someone zealous to re-make the Dayak in his
own image, but he ended thinking only of their welfare. I surmise that
Porritt compiled this memoir entirely from written sources; he does not
seem ever to have met or corresponded with Bewsher, although I would
have thought he had the opportunity.
Bewsher was most remarkable for his attitude towards rural development. He was, Porritt says, even at Limpasong a person readier "to prompt and suggest rather than organize and direct, and to encourage indigenous experimentation and discovery," and by the time he neared the end of his service this trait had progressed into the conviction that development must proceed "bottom-up," that if the Dayaks were to improve their lives they must take the initiative, coming up with their own ideas and enthusiasm, and implementing their own plans within a democratic longhouse system under their own elected leaders. The last in his list of recommendations stemming from his study of the Sibuti Ibans is: "Government keep out of sight. Don't volunteer advice, elicit ideas from them. Don't offer material help, give it only when clearly essential." This is classic self-sufficiency. Bewsher's enlightened attitude towards development and how it should progress was far ahead of his time in the late 50s, and, sadly, it remains ahead of its time today. People of the older era, like Bewsher, still have much to teach us.