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The Bisaya are an indigenous people of northwestern Borneo, Malaysia, concentrated around the Beaufort district, Padas river in Sabah and Limbang river in northern Sarawak state. There are other related tribes called Dusun in Brunei. As early as thirteenth century Bisaya was the first community to accept Islam as their way of life. Nowadays, most Bisaya are Muslim and few are Christians. The first Bisaya leader is known as Awang Alak Betatar or Muhammad Shah. They are distantly related to the Visayan of the Philippines, though a comparison with Cebuano Bisaya vocabulary shows that the language bears few similarities, most of which are more related to Bahasa Malaysia than Philippine Bisaya. Such similarities may be due to the standardizing effect and influence Bahasa Melayu had over not just the Bornean Bisaya but also all other ethnic languages spoken in Malaysia. The same could be seen in Germany, where Standard German has influenced the vocabulary and grammar of the regional dialects.

One of their main festivals called Babulang is celebrated annually in Batu Danau near the Brunei border. More photos of the festival in June 2006 showing their black traditional costumes and their buffalo racing tradition are available on flickr at [1]



Bisaya’s people are indigenous that had been settled in Borneo thousand of years ago. The Bisaya’s was a people whom terrified, bashful, loved, feared and respected by the others within this island. They are skilled in agriculture such as paddy planting, ginger, sago, local ginger, tapioca, banana, yum, pepper, coconut planting and so on. They also hunting an animal and to bread some of the animal such as chicken, duck, goose, goat, buffalo, cow and many more.

In the river or sea, bisaya people are skilled in catching fish and they can hold their breath under water without drowning. One of the tragic history happened a few hundred years ago when Awang Kuyoh, sons of Awang Alak Betatar was killed and drowned by the Sulu people and their took his wife back to Sulu island. Legends have the bisaya sailor called Awang Semaun and his crew sailed around this island start from Klias Rivers and he tied a handkerchief in front of the boat. When he arrives at the starting point, the handkerchief was torn and that’s how this island was called Handkerchief Island or Pulau Sapu Tangan or Pulau Peraca in local language. The Imperials Colony called it as Borneo. From Spanish records, this island was known as Borneo during the first visit of the Spanish sailor Magellan.

On the thirteenth century, the Bisaya was lead by a leader called Sultan Awang Alak Betatar bin Bonian Mas Kayangan. In 1363, he converted in Islam and changes his name as Sultan Muhammad Shah. Sultan Muhammad Shah had appointed his only son as a leader of the Peninsula Klias and he is known as Sultan Awang Koyoh bin Sultan Muhammad Shah. In 1370, he migrated to Barunai and spread the teaching of Islam to the people. Sultan Muhammad Shah became the first Muslim ruler in Barunai.

Sultan Awang Koyoh bin Sultan Awang Alak Betatar government was situated a long the Klias river and until now it is still known as Kota Klias. He died on 1621. The successor of the throne was his son Sultan OKK Setia Pahlawan Awang Kassim bin Sultan Awang Koyoh. He had leads the people until 1855. After he died, his son Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak Ismail Jalil bin Sultan OKK Setia Pahlawan Awang Kassim runs the government. Before he died on 1961 and he had left a will to his successor among his great grandchildren to keep the secret until now.


The popular legend of the Bisaya origin as described Bewsher(1958),Sandin(1971) and Hussain & Newman(1987) goes as follows:-

Museum Brunei Version

In 1370, Ma-ho-mo-sha [Maha Mokhsa] was a King of Barunai [P'o-ni]. A Chinese mission commanded by Chang Ching Tze dispatched to P'o-ni in 1370 (9th month, 3rd year of Hung-wa), found the king in a burned out capital with just 1,000 inhabitants. He sent a tribute mission to the Emperor of China in August 1371.

Some versions of the Syair Awang Semaun trace the foundation of Brunei to fourteen saudara (brothers and first cousins). Other versions say they were all sons of Dewa Amas of Kayangan, a supernatural being who fell to earth in an egg at Ulu Limbang, and fathered them by fourteen different aboriginal wives:

• 1) Patih Barbai [Marbai] [Peti Barambai], Paduka Sri Pangiran Bendahara Sri Maharaja Permaisuara. The official version states that he became the second Muslim ruler as Sultan Ahmed - see below.

• 2) Awang Si Mawn [Semaun], Pangiran Temenggong.

• 3) Patih Mambang.

• 4) Patih Tuba.

• 5) Patih Sangkuna [Peti Runak].

• 6) Patih Manggarun.

• 7) Patih Malakay.

• 8) Patih Pahit. m. Si Lampang, a captured Banteng.

• 9) Damang Sari.

• 10) Patih Sindayung.

• 11) Damang Libar Dawn, Juru Shahbandar. Emigrated to Java, where he lived for nine years. m. a Javanese lady, by whom he said to have had issue, one son and one daughter (?):

o a) Nakhoda Ragam (or Sultan Bolkiah - see below). o a) Palingkam Kahaya.

• 12) Hapu Awang.

• 13) Patih Layla Langkung.

• 14)Awang Alak Betatar [Umuk Batata]. The official version states that he became the first Muslim ruler as Sultan Muhammad Shah.

Paduka Sri Sultan Muhammad Shah[1363 - 1402] , Sultan of Brunei, a younger son of Dewa Amas of Kayangan, by an aboriginal lady. He was chosen by the saudara to become the first ruler. Constructed his palace at Pirasung. Legends have Brunei founded some 29 reigns ago by 14 brothers of heroic stature and semi-divine descent, according to a Monograph of the Brunei Museum Journal. The exploits of the 14 founding heroes of Brunei are recounted in a very lengthy poem called the "Sha'er Awang Semaun.". Awang Alak Betatar was not the eldest, but was chosen to be their leader because of his intelligence and good looks. He was installed Sultan of Brunei and he remarried with the daughter of the Sultan of Johor.

Tales from Limbang

The popular legend of the Bisaya origin as described Bewsher(1958),Sandin(1971) and Hussain & Newman(1987) goes as follows:-

The legend tells of an immigrant family living in the North of the Borneo Island. In this family were seven children, 6 boys (Peti Barambai or Pati Barabai, si Garamba, Peti Garamba, Peti Runa or Pati Begunak, Smaun or Si Maun and Alak Batata or Urak Betatar or Lok Batata or Awang Alah Bertabar) and a girl (Siti Duyah or Duri or Bunga Sunting). A boat race was used to determine who was to become the Rajah of Brunei.

This race was won by Alak Betatar the youngest brother. He became the first Rajah of Brunei and later converted to Islam and became Sultan Mohammed, the first Sultan of Brunei. Peti Barambai, the eldest brother, became the Raja of Java. Si Garamba settled in the Limbang area and became the ancestor of the Bisaya’s. Peti Garamba settled in the Tutong(Brunei),Peti Runa in the Kinabatangan River (Sabah) and Smaun in the Birau River(south of Tutong). Siti Duyah married a Chinese named Awang Sunting (or Ong Sum Ping) and settled near Mount Kinabalu (Sabah).


Several theories were put forward by several researchers regarding the origin of the words Bisaya:

a) Beyer H.O. in 1926, Hester E.D. in 1954 and Harrison in 1956 suggested that the name may have come from the empire of Sri Vijaya (Sonza, 1972). However, in 1960, Eugene Vestraelen (a Professor of Linguistics at the University of San Carlos, Cebu City) cautioned that linguistic derivation of VIJAYA would not be BISAYA but BIDAYA or BIRAYA.

b) In 1960, John Carol suggested that the name originated from a culture hero named Sri Visaya. Derek Headly (1950) recorded that Bornean Bisaya legend which says that the Sultan of Brunei, upon seeing the beautiful land of Bisaya, exclaimed Bisai-yah! meaning How beautiful!

c) Suhaili A. Shatar (1961) recorded from Laksamana Tengku Ishak OKK Setia Pahlawan Awang Kassim, the word Bisaya came from the sentence of ‘Mabisa Iyo’ which means ‘that guy looks so great and handsome’. Later the pronunciation change into ‘bisa iya’. In the end, comes the word ‘bisaya’.

d) Sonza (1972) asked the question, " Did the Bisayas of the Philippines originate from the Borneo? So did anthropologists and historians for many years.

e) Even the visaya in Philippines did not considered themselves as the indigeneous. They believe that the migration of the bisaya people from borneo was the one who helped them to protect their lives. ‘Si lapu-lapu’ was the guy who responsible of the revolution in Visaya island. It was believe that ‘Si lapu-lapu’ was sent by the Borneo Rulers at that time to free the people of Visaya Island from their cruel king. Lapu-Lapu was the king of Mactan, an island in the Visayas, Philippines, who is known as the first native of the archipelago to have resisted Spanish colonization. He is the Philippines first national hero. He also can call as 'Datu Lapu-Lapu'. Lapu-lapu is the word from grouper fish in the Philippines. Datu or datto is the title for chieftains and monarchs in the Philippines.

f) On April 27, 1521, When Ferdinand Magellan "discovered" the Philippines and landed in Cebu, he ordered Filipinos to honour the king of Spain. Warriors of Lapu-Lapu refused his demand, defeated and killed Ferdinand Magellan at the Battle of Mactan.

g) In 1970, there were more than 10 millions Bisayas estimated to live in the Philippines compared to about 14 thousand in Sabah and 3312 in Sarawak.


The majority of the Muslims Bisaya lives in Sabah and some of them live in Sarawak as a Christian. Though they treasure their cultural tradition of medicine, marriages, death etc., they don't actually practice it now, possibly due to the influence of the religion. Even though they would call the traditional medicine men or women to perform rites in times of illness, many now would go to the clinics available around their places for treatment.


The traditional musical instrument consists of Kulintangan, gong, and many of small gongs (cf. Asmahs claim that the Bisaya are supposed to be the best gong musicians). It is as if somebody just beats the gong and everyone-men, women, young and old just starts to dance. All these instruments are used in the wedding ceremony, celebrating very important people etc. Besides the musical items, the Bisayas are able to make good weapons for various purposes. There are andiban, sumpit, parang, keris and knife.

Bisaya Culture and Tradition

• Liliput dance

• Jipin (Zapin) dance

• Kulintangan Bisaya.

• Martial arts or silat Bisaya with bamboo music

• Tarik tali

• Gasing

• Bermain layang-layang (kikik)

• Ugang Bamboo

• Badaup during harvesting the paddys.

• Mibulang such as buffullo racing.

• Bubu mengalai or bubu dance using some spells as below:

‘Ya Bamban Ya Lukah,

Ya Bamban Eh Basari,

Main Kita Si Ipar Muda,

SiLukah Pandai Menari’

• Arm wrestling (Berambit/Bahambit)

• Scaling an infant on the month of Safar from Islam Calendar.

• Lastik/Melastik.

• Crossbow.

• Spear (Andiban).

• Traditional Medication (Bobolian).

• Traditional costume (White Shirt, Songket, Tarbus, Smoking pipe, Keris, Bracelet etc)

Traditional Bisaya Desserts

o Kalopis

o Bahulu

o Ketupat

o Kuih Cincin

o Kuih Tapai

o Kuih Sapit

o Kuih Jala

o Kuih Panjaram

o Kuih Lamban

o Kuih Gelang


Rumbia festival

The leaves (roun rombia )

The Rumbia's leaves can be woven into a roof, the women are trained by their elders (women ) to inherit the rumbia-weaving skill. The Rumbia'leaves known as roun rombia in Bisaya dialect. Meanwhile the process of weaving the Rumbia's leaves known as manyarut. The woven Rumbia's leaves need to be dried under the sun. These leaves would last for two to three years, environment-friendly.

The branch

In the past, the branch of Rumbia tree used as wall for a house or hut ( in the farm ). The branch can be used to build chicken home, fence to guard the plants ( vegetables etc ) and the dried branch used as a torch ( to spread the fire; to clear the land for agriculture purpose ). Meanwhile, skin of the branch can be woven into basket, mat, and others. Among the well-known woven stuff from this Rumbia parts are saging (a kind of basket carried at the back of a person), lalibu (a flat woven-basket useful during paddy harvesting), and topau (a mat used to dry the paddy seed).

The Trunk

We start from the upper part, here we can get a punoh, this part is a delicious 'vegetable'. Can be eaten raw, sweet and soft. The punoh served as main menu (vegetable) during wedding reception among Bisaya community. Then, sago (staple food of Bisaya, young generation didn't agree with this) is extracted from the Rumbia's trunk. The skin (palunoh) of Rumbia tree can be used a firewood, floor for hut, and wall too. The trunk can be used as a bridge, it is a strong trunk and last longer. During flood, my brothers and I used to build a boat from the Rumbia tree. I missed those days, we are adult now. In case of emergency, you can get water from the roots of Rumbia tree. It tastes water, of course.

(This article was contributed by Malaysia Government officer. E-mail : . It was extracted and summarised from Dr. Shafiq's article in Sarawak Museum Journal)

Beaufort history

Beaufort, Sabah; name was given in commemoration of the first English Governor called L.P. Beaufort. He had arrived here on 1889. Beaufort town situated nearby the Padas rivers to replace the Kota Klias government of Borneo Thrones. The relocation of the administration center had been approved by the current rulers, Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak Ismail Jalil in 1890s.

Borneo history (Sabah)

The name of Borneo was the first known as Bonian among the Bisaya people. When the native bisaya converted into Islam together with their leader Awang Alak Betatar, the word was change from Bonian into Bornian due to the mother tongue of the preacher which is came from Taif, Arab Saudi. At the same time the native people had to pronounce Borneo until the Malaysia Day in 1963. Today it was known as Sabah.

Sabah history

In 1959, Tun Datu Haji Mustapha Datu Harun met Sultan Tunku Laxamana Awang Ishak Ismail Jalil in a place called Kampung Takuli, Beaufort, Sabah. He was to convey a message of freeing the Borneo from British Colonial. Tun Mustapha ask Sultan Laxamana Awang Ishak his view regarding the new name of Borneo. The Sultan Laxamana Awang Ishak told Tun Mustapha that his ancestor Awang Alak Betatar always mentioned the word ‘Mongoi dasasabah’ every times he wants to go to the sea. The meaning of it, ‘mongoi dasasabah’ means going fishing to the sea whereas the island was surrounded by the sea and had a lot fish and food. Tun Mustapha had offered Sultan Laxamana Awang Ishak to form Sabah Rulers but he rejected it because he is too old. According to the record his age is almost bicentennials. He prays someday his grandchildren will embrace all the people with the information whenever it needs and may them guidance by Allah the Almighty. The census of Bisaya is at least 1,000,000 people throughout Borneo (Sabah, Sarawak, Brunei and Kalimantan) and West Malaysia. Most of them lived in Sabah.


Selamat Jati; Sejarah Sosio Ekonomi Bisaya (thesis 1990).

Dr. Shafiq Sarawak Museum Journal (1989); “Bisaya Ethnography: A Brief Bisaya Report.

Antarano Peranio; The Structure of Bisaya Society.

Bewsher; Kumpulan tulisan Bewsher (Tuan Busa kajun Bisaya)

Prof. Vernon L.Poritt; “Bapa Guru Bisaya”.

Harrisson; Kaitan Bisaya Sarawak, Brunei dan Sabah; “Some origins and attitudes of Brunei Tutong-Belait-Dusun, North Boreneo “Dusun’, and Sarawak Bisayan (1958).

Asmah Hj, Omar (1983), Araneta and Bernard (1960), Hussain Jamil & Newman(187); Bisaya language

R.E. Stubbs (1968); Kegemilangan Bisaya.

St. John (1862) Volume 2; Tulisan yang awal tentang kampung-kampung Bisaya.

Coordinates: 04°36′36″N 114°51′55″E / 4.61°N 114.86528°E / 4.61; 114.86528

See also



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