Pagar & Padi: Examining nationhood through paddy heritage

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Photo Credit: Adrian Johnny
Photo Credit: Adrian Johnny

by Emily Chin

Rice is a staple in Borneo – in food, in culture, in spirit.  It is what we consume, both physically and philosophically.  As we plant seeds into the soil, so too do we plant ourselves, rooting our identities into our home and heritage.  But as rice planting falls further into the periphery of forgotten traditions, where does Sabahan identity root itself today?

PAGAR & PADI – an art exhibition by Catriona Maddocks and Gindung McFeddy Simon – plants rice at its centre, symbolically and literally, in the form of a land art piece at Kampung Kilimu, Ranau.  There, the two artists – together with several members of the Kilimu farming community – participated in momongot, the practice of rice planting, spelling out the word ‘jamin’ with heritage rice grains passed down through generations.

“Rice is really powerful and evocative in Sabah,” shared Catriona, “Traditional beliefs tell of Huminodun sacrificing herself to transform into rice, the spirit of Bambarayon.”  It was this immense sacrifice that saved her people from starvation – “My body will give rise to all sorts of edible plants and feed the people.  My flesh will give rise to rice, my head – the coconut, my bones – tapioca, my toes – ginger, my teeth – maize, and my knees – yams.  Our people will never go hungry again.”

This speaks not only of rice but also the strength of community ties, as it was her love for her people that compelled her to make such a sacrifice.  In the present day, community remains essential, as Catriona and Gindung experienced in the making of this exhibition.  “It was very much a community effort, with Gindung’s mum teaching me how to plant and his neighbour helping us to look after the paddy in the months after the planting,” Catriona explained.

She continued, “When it came time for momongot, we worked communally with eight members of the community to harvest the rice.  We began with a prayer in Dusun and throughout the days they shared with us local beliefs, like whistling to call the wind when winnowing rice – which does actually work!”

Photo credit: Jun Kan
Photo credit: Jun Kan

Planted into Kilimu soil is the word ‘jamin’ – meaning ‘guarantee’ in Malay – inspired by the Keningau Oath Stone, first erected in 1964 in commemoration of the terms to which Sabah – then North Borneo – agreed in the formation of Malaysia.  The plaque bolted onto the stone stated that the Malaysian Government guarantees the rights to freedom of religion, land autonomy, and practice of customs and traditions in Sabah.

On this, Catriona said, “The monument’s plaque clearly stating indigenous rights were to not just be upheld but enshrined in a nation building promise felt like this really powerful and hopeful symbol of a change, and a new beginning after the oppression of colonial rule.”

Unfortunately, it was found years later that the first four words, “The Malaysian Government Guarantees”, were removed, taking Malaysia out of the picture, almost as if the oath in question had been reduced to a mere suggestion.  Although no official explanation has since emerged, its erasure begs the question: where does Sabah stand within the context of this nation?

“The Keningau Oath Stone and the erasure of the promise is well known by Sabahans,” Catriona explained, “In fact [sometime during the pandemic], the plaque was once again replaced, with appropriate ceremony and fanfare, in attendance of YBs, local community members, and members of the media.”

“The words ‘Kerajaan Malaysia Jamin’ once again are forged onto the stone,” she added, “However, that almost seems to strengthen the feeling that these promises can disappear and reappear according to political will, and the attention that it brings.”

After all, it was just prior to the announcement of nationwide COVID-19 lockdowns that the infamous Sheraton Move occurred, where the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government was overthrown by a “backdoor government”, the Perikatan Nasional coalition led by Muhyiddin Yassin.  This was the start of a period of high political instability in Malaysia, a massive shake-up after a historical win in the general elections just two years prior that ended the 60-year reign of Barisan Nasional.

As we watched promises being made and then swiftly broken on the national and political spheres, is it any wonder how the same happened here?  And in the sudden reinstatement of the guarantee amidst all the political upheaval, what is the plaque truly meant to protect?

“Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi.”

Rely on the fence, yet the fence eats the paddy.  It seems typical — typical enough to warrant a metaphor — that what, where, who you rely on to be your protector becomes your oppressor instead.  It seems typical that a promise to safeguard our freedom would be left to be feasted on by crows.

But if PAGAR & PADI can teach us anything, it’s that the ties of ancestral memory root deeper into the earth than any metal plaque ever could.  

In Sabah, rice nourishes both the stomach and the soul.  “On a practical level, it is served at almost every table for every meal in Sabah and enables communities to be somewhat self-sufficient.  In fact, during COVID-19, there was a resurgence of rice planting by communities to sustain themselves.”  It was amidst the pandemic that programmes like Projek Padi – an initiative to revitalise long abandoned paddy fields in Tenghilan, Sabah – were planted.

From Catriona’s perspective: “The land and the people are what the promises of the oath stone were made to.  So the process of planting paddy on the land, through the labour of Sabahans, and then later consuming the rice, felt really evocative to explore.”

Catriona and Gindung have since completed a second round of planting, with plans to continue for years to come. “Like the cycle of rice planting, the promise of the Keningau Oath Stone does not really have an end,” shared Catriona, “It is a continuous ongoing cycle of rights and promises to be upheld.  As long as the land, the changing climate, and the community allow us to continue our planting, we feel it is important to keep doing it.”