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An Initial Qualitative Exploration of Economic, Cultural, and Language Changes in Telok Melano, Sarawak, Malaysia

The Institute of The Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi 43600, Malaysia
Faculty of Language and Communication, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Kota Samarahan 94300, Malaysia
Institut Agama Islam Negeri Pontianak, Kota Pontianak 78243, Indonesia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(5), 2655;
Received: 26 November 2021 / Revised: 14 January 2022 / Accepted: 6 February 2022 / Published: 24 February 2022


This research focuses on the present economic, cultural, and linguistic issues of Telok Melano, a hamlet in Sarawak that was formerly isolated from nearby communities. Telok Melano is changing dramatically as a result of the Pan Borneo Highway construction and the nature of cultural obsolescence in modern society. This qualitative study has been conducted through face-to-face structured and semi-structured interviews, as well as participant observation. This study found that the highway construction benefits the villagers. An economic overturn has begun among them, and basic infrastructure has also been greatly enhanced as a result of the project’s spin-off. Are these changes beneficial to their cultural practices? Ethnographic techniques are delivering a number of interesting results. For instance, the changes have solidified the local Malays’ religious beliefs. Although the locals have abandoned many traditional practices in order to comply with Islamic beliefs, they have preserved certain traditional etiquette. In terms of language, a generational gap emerged between three linguistic varieties spoken in this area. Their dominant mother tongue, the Kuching Malay dialect, is becoming more commonly spoken, particularly with outsiders. This study successfully presents the picture of economic and social changes in Telok Melano following the development of this new road system.

1. Introduction

Telok Melano is a small hamlet located near Tanjong Dato (Cape Dato), a headland on Borneo’s western coast (see Figure 1). Before the new Pan Borneo Highway was constructed to this remote village in 2019, Melano Bay’s inhabitants were an isolated rural community. Melano Bay is bordered in the north by the South China Sea, while the interior area in the south is densely wooded. In the vicinity of Telok Melano, the nearest township is Sematan. The sea ferry was the main means of transit between this hamlet and other Sarawak areas (Malaysia). Traveling from Telok Melano to Sematan takes about 2 h across the bay, and during the monsoon season, this location is completely inaccessible (October to February). These geographic constraints have hindered Telok Melano’s development in terms of electricity and water supply, industry, and telecommunications services. As a result of the impact of economic development and globalisation, the isolated, poor, and backward hamlet now faces enormous changes in social, economic, and culture. The completion of the Pan Borneo Highway in 2019 (see Figure 2), as well as the fact that “the remoteness itself did not suffice to insulate Telok Melano from national and even global developments” [1] are the major factors driving these changes. The next section delves more into the Telok Melano setting, focusing on the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. That section will provide an overview and literature reviews of Telok Melano prior to the development of the Pan Borneo Highway.
The economic and socio-cultural characteristics of the area are the main subjects of this study, with special emphasis given to the transition of the Homestay program, cultural preservation and obsolescence (wedding etiquette and sea worship rites), and language maintenance and shift. This research will look at the observable impact of the new road system on the local economy as well as the socio-cultural conditions in terms of preservation and obsolescence. Would there be any immediate cultural consequences of the highway’s opening? The findings of this analysis are significant as they can be offered as a benchmark for future research. According to the final research work, these components are definitely noticeable and significant in characterizing the correlation between geographic changes and socioeconomic, cultural changes that have occurred in a remote rural area such as Telok Melano today.

The Background and Critical Examination

As mentioned briefly in the previous section, the objectives of this paper are to respond to the research questions of what impact this new route has on the local economy and what the present state of cultural obsolescence is for the locals. Indeed, the impact of the highway on the Telok Melano community has yet to be studied after it was constructed. The building of this highway in April 2015 was one of the National Development Plan’s megaprojects, with a budget of Ringgit Malaysia (RM) 29.30 billion. The purpose of this project is to boost and enhance the economic development of Sabah and Sarawak [3]. The highway connects Telok Melano in western Sarawak with Serudong, a small township on the Sabah-East Kalimantan border near Tawau. The Sematan-Telok Melano route was included in the first phase of this mega project [4]. This 32.77-km highway linking Sematan and Telok Melano was completed in January 2019. Telok Melano is currently the starting point for the entire new highway, or kilometer zero of the Pan Borneo Highway; see Figure 2.
According to a review of the literature, previous academic studies on the Telok Melano community have been extremely limited. All of the studies, such as those by Ishikawa [5], Nazaruddin [6], Nor Shuhada et al. [7], and Neilson et al. [8], were conducted during the Pan Borneo Highway project’s pre-development phase. In fact, reviews of their works can provide information on Telok Melano’s social and economic conditions prior to the implementation of a mega infrastructure project in the region. Among the materials, the most well-known research is Ishikawa’s anthropological work on the Telok Melano society. His 1994 field research presents an in-depth portrayal of how the emergence of national space shapes this borderland society, as well as how the inhabitants strategically position themselves as members of the local communities, nations, and ethnic groupings. According to Ishikawa, the immigrants that arrived in Telok Melano in the 1890s originated from Sambas [5]. In another version, the Melanaus, a coastal indigenous people who are neither Dayak nor Malay, are descendants of the Malay in Telok Melano [9]. For example, Harrison stated that the Malay in the south-west Sarawak area (particularly in Santubong, Bako and Telok Melano) could still remember certain Melanau fishing terminology in the 1960s [10], and “the Malay” population in the western part of Sarawak was made up of Melanaus immigrants from the Rajang Delta, according to Faizal’s study [11]. In terms of ethnic identity, the Telok Melano Malays defined themselves as Telok Melano Malay, distinguishing themselves from Sarawak Malays elsewhere.
Telok Melano now has a total population of 234 people, organized into 55 households. They are ineluctably a marginal community in Sarawak’s macro setting, but in the local context, they are a border community that has formed a communal neighbourhood with the Sambas Malay in Desa Temajuk, on the opposite side of the Kalimantan-Sarawak border. This border was established through boundary delimitation during the Dutch and British colonial periods. In other words, this village is isolated from other Malaysian communities but located significantly closer to Indonesian territory than Sematan, the nearest Malaysian town [5]. In terms of social interchange, integration, and contact, residents on both sides of the border have dynamic interaction. On both sides of the border, culture, languages, society, and the economy are all integrated [12]. Long before the international border was demarcated, border settlements were formed, and interaction in the realms of the economy and the socio-cultural existed [13].
The main economic activities of the inhabitants during Ishikawa’s study in 1994 were pepper cultivation, coconut farming, swidden agriculture, and other commercial crops. After the Malaysian Federal and State governments attempted to build a community-based-tourism project—the Homestay Program, the locals began to engage in eco-tourism in 1998. This Homestay program allows visitors to have an experience of living in a Malaysian village. The Homestay program is mainly managed by people who own houses in rural areas [14]. The government’s Village Integrated Development Program was responsible for this local tourism planning and development in Telok Melano [6]. The Federal Ministry of Rural Development, the State Development Office, and the Federal Fisheries Development Authority were among the government entities involved in this program. Visitors to the Homestay have the opportunity to stay with their host family in a traditional wooden Malay house, savour their host’s home-cooked meals, and engage in daily village activities. The project’s ultimate goal is to enhance the locals’ economic and social standing. Nor Shuhada et al. assessed this Homestay program in terms of the management and problems encountered by the locals, as well as the constraints and economic impact of the program on the operators. They reported that the number of Homestay accommodation units had been increased to 28 in 2015. Nonetheless, the Homestay operators are complaining about a lack of basic infrastructure, such as power and water, as well as communications networks [7].Nowadays, the phrase “cultural heritage” refers to the built heritage, knowledge, traditions, or living expressions inherited from ancestors, as well as the physical nature of culture [15] (p. 3). These intangible heritages, such as cultural beliefs, practices, rituals, crafts, skills, music, and so on, are confronting the challenge of cultural obsolescence in almost every contemporary society around the world, a phenomenon which is “now accelerating around the world” [16] (p. 12). According to Appel, the identified factors that led to the obsolescence of cultural and language traditions include colonialism and globalization. Other scholars, such as Zhang & Mace, have emphasized the importance of internal social behavior in cultural subsistence. “Cultural continuity is maintained by stable equilibria of cultural behaviors in the local ecology,” [16] (p. 13). In the instance of Telok Melano, the influence of modern educational systems, shifting religious beliefs, access to modern lifestyles, and the attitude of the younger generation have all posed a challenge to the locals’ traditional behaviors. Neilson et al. revealed that the isolated community of Telok Melano is undergoing changes in terms of inherited heritage, and these transitions are continuous. Traditional knowledge is becoming obsolete among today’s youngsters. For example, they are no longer skilled at traditional crafts, and this age group has minimal knowledge of plant terminology and traditional medicinal practices [8]. The rapid shift reflects the generational divide between the older and younger generations, resulting in an intergenerational gap in this community. In reviewing the study by Nelson et al., it is noticeable that their discussion included some information on the linguistic issue, but it was limited to plant terminology. As Toni-Duruaku and Chukwu point out, “language is part of a people’s culture” [17] (p. 12) and, hence, examining traditional intangible heritage as well as languages may help one determine the concept of cultural obsolescence. In short, language, as the primary medium of human cultural learning and transmission, can provide a quantifiable measure of cultural diversity in terms of heritage [18] (p. 24). To address the lack of discussion on the language situation in Telok Melano in Neilson et al.’s study, this study will analyze in depth the language vitality among the villagers in Telok Melano in the cultural section.
Figure 2. The Pan Borneo Highway Route. (The map is based on the route described in Binwani [19].
Figure 2. The Pan Borneo Highway Route. (The map is based on the route described in Binwani [19].
Sustainability 14 02655 g002

2. The Conceptual Framework

This paper’s conceptual framework addresses the significance of local wisdom in human life as well as its roles in sustainability and sustainable development discourse. The relationship between social change and sustainability is also highlighted. The core of this conceptual framework is concerned with the sociological perspective in studying the socioeconomic and social-cultural changes in Telok Melano. According to Persunay, “culture and all of its products are the ultimate result of the human life process. Each local community exhibits its culture and ability to exist through the unique way it interacts with its surroundings. Local wisdom is the ability to adapt to, organize, and cultivate the impacts of the natural world as well as other civilizations, which is the driving force behind the transformation and creation of this remarkable cultural diversity. Local wisdom responds to everyday issues as well as the actualization of living systems because it gives a framework for responding to outside forces while maintaining a cohesive cultural identity in the future” [20] (pp. 1, 2). Cultural ignorance has a negative impact on human life, and its effects are difficult to resolve and have impacted a society for generations. For example, according to a statement by Kibert et al., “many of the environmental and social problems that exist in the United States today are the result of a refusal to live within local ecological limits. This refusal is linked to the early European immigrants’ exclusion of local cultural knowledge, including knowledge about native animals and flora, agricultural customs, and landscape features” [21].
In general, the features of local cultural change are determined by modernization, globalization, and environmental factors. There is a significant relationship between the sustainability of local cultural and social changes. Sustainability is a framework for ecological, economic, and social policies and programs that is becoming increasingly important and being applied in a wider range of situations [21]. Change and sustainability are not limited to a small ethnic group with similar cultural practices; rather, they reflect the transformation of the entire society and even characterize nation-building. Locals in Telok Melano, for example, who were formerly descendants of Indonesian Sambas Malay, abandoned their original ethnicity and adopted the identity of “Sarawak Malay” after shifting to the Kuching Malay dialect (Sarawak, Malaysia). This shift has indirectly augmented the demography of a population and strengthened the political position of this ethnic group. In another study, Sumartias et al. found that changes in social values and lifestyle in Indonesia had an impact on nation building. Certain values of local wisdom, which have been alleged to have been displaced by outside cultures that are more secular and materialistic, may erode the nation’s character. In other words, societal values such as mutual cooperation and tolerance have begun to deteriorate in many parts of Indonesia, and the weakening of social relationships usually implies conflict between citizens of various religions, ethnicities, and languages [22] (pp. 1305, 1306).
Certain disciplines, such as ethnography or archaeology, can also be used to depict certain “changing” situations. For example, Miller, for his research on modernity uses an ethnographic approach to explore characteristics of modern conditions among the Trinidad community in his research on modernity. In archeology, Holtorf’s concept of authenticity, which states that “a material object is not only in relation to the age of an object but to its age-value, i.e., the quality or condition of being (of the) past—its pastness” [23], can be used to investigate the values of a heritage. According to Bryne et al., “authenticity is concerned with discovering the set of values of an inherited heritage” [24]. By identifying the default values of a heritage, we may evaluate its modifications in terms of its values based on observations of present situations. As the research in Telok Melano deals with two components of the changes in contemporary Telok Melano, namely economic and cultural changes, the authors employ a sociological perspective to investigate the mentioned changes. The rationale is that these changes are categorized as social changes as they occur within the framework of society, and these two occurrences are interrelated and determined by factors such as the socioeconomic and the social-cultural.
Social change is described as “...shifts in the attitudes and behaviour that characterize a society”, in general [25] (p. 1). The great sociologist, William F. Ogburn, claimed that technological invention or material culture was the mechanism underlying social change. In a review, Godin summarized some key principles in Ogburn’s book on social change. One of the concepts is based on Ogburn’s pioneering idea of inventions. According to Godin, inventions are “one” of the greatest sources of change in social institutions, and social problems are influenced “in part” by inventions [26] (p. 12). Inventions are determined by three main factors: (1) individuals (mental ability), (2) cultural base (antecedents and achievements), and (3) social attitude toward the new. “Invention is the evidence of change”, according to Ogburn. “There are few changes when there are few inventions. Changes brought about by invention are an evolutionary process that can be summarized as new forms of material culture are added while some old ones are discarded [26] (p. 14)”. Interventions, in addition to inventions, play an essential part in social change. Invention, as stated in the preceding paragraph, is an evolutionary process. Interventions, on the other hand, might be seen as a more objective and drastic process of social change. “Changes in social processes as a result of interventions may lead to direct and indirect social changes,” according to Shukla and Jani [27]. A geographical change, such as the government’s intention to implement a development project (or road system) in a suburban region, might stimulate internal migration, change the locals’ core economies, and improve basic infrastructure. The locals are now confronted with an increase in new neighborhoods; some of them can engage in construction projects, which can indirectly strengthen their social economy. The growth in lifestyle and modernity brought about by the introduction of new projects may undoubtedly have an impact on society in terms of changes. For example, the construction of a new road system or a telecommunications tower might expose locals to new cultures. This will eventually lead to the issue of cultural values becoming obsolete and a shift in the local community. The above statement is consistent with the findings of research conducted by Dewi in the Sukasari district of Indonesia. The construction of a new road system in Sukasari has encouraged the locals to adopt external cultures and incorporate them into their own [28]. In short, this explanation is a fundamental concept for evaluating the impact of development on a society, with the impact being determined by the social changes that arise as a result of intervention. Shukla and Jani suggested a set of categories for social change processes in their Table 1 [27] (p. 55), and the road impact assessment in Telok Melano is based on the relevant categories that were identified (as will be described in the subsequent paragraph).
The study in Telok Melano encompasses three types of social change processes, as highlighted in Table 1, namely the geographical process, the economic process, and the social-cultural process. Shukla and Jani’s other three categories, demographics, institutional and legal processes, and emancipator and empowerment processes, are outside of the scope of this study. Since the Pan Borneo Highway was only completed in January 2019, and was immediately followed by a lock-down due to the worldwide pandemic COVID-19, demographic elements such as internal and external migration, land pattern use, and population growth are not significant in this study. The institutional and legal processes, as well as the emancipator and empowerment processes, which are related to government policies and political influences in terms of centralization, decentralization, and democratization of the local community, are difficult to ascertain, as the government initially focused on the construction of facilities and infrastructure. The government has not yet prioritized a crucial component of capacity-building, such as sustainable development.

3. Materials and Methods

The changes in the Telok Melano community are studied using a qualitative approach. According to Bengtsson, this approach “contributes to the understanding of the human condition in different contexts and of a perceived situation; there is no perfectly designed study, and unexpected events will always appear; however, a researcher must create the best study design possible, through accurate and considerate planning based on existing circumstances by identifying available resources [29] (p. 8).” For qualitative research, the researcher applied techniques including participant observation, face-to-face interviews, and intensive interviews based on a list of pre-planned questions. The techniques used are consistent with Froggatt’s statement, which states that “the main sources of qualitative data are derived from experience (through observation), inquiry (through interviews), or examination (of documentation and material produced by others) [30].” According to Froggatt, “qualitative research requires documented materials [30]”. To analyze or secure the background of previous research on Telok Melano, library research was carried out to obtain principal publications about the Telok Melano community, and online research was conducted to procure references from government websites, news publications, social media resources, and other online documentation. As Maxwell pointed out, quasi-statistics are significant in qualitative research in terms of reliability and validity [31], and therefore some relevant numerical data were gathered in this field to support the data analysis. The study is based on an applied social research model established by Maxwell, the interactive model of research design [31], which is explained in Figure 3.
The participant observation approach, as noted by Allen, is “…the process of entering a group of people with a shared identity to gain an understanding of their community…through the experience of spending time with a group of people and closely observing their actions, speech patterns, and norms, researchers can gain an understanding of the group” [32]. To put this method into action, the researcher spent 11 to 28 January 2020 in Telok Melano, interacting with and learning about the community on a daily basis. Mr. Amezan bin Abdul Hassan, the village chief, was the first person the researcher met with to discuss the research’s objectives. After about an hour of conversation and hospitality, he connected the researcher to more informants, such as his acquaintances, neighbours, and relatives. All of the informants appeared to be pleased to meet the researcher. In the days that followed, the researcher began casually interviewing the villagers about the information needed, such as the village’s history, demographics, economics, and social customs, and so on. The researcher also took part in nearly all of the community’s events, such as worshipping, attending weddings, visiting Homestays, chatting with folks in the café, and so on. The researcher also visited this village during the festival season, i.e., during Eidulfitri, to celebrate with them and understand further their culture.
In addition to informal interviews, the researcher prepared a list of questions to ask the informants about the required information. The questions were organized into three clusters: (i) homestay services, (ii) cultural cognition, and (iii) language attitudes. In this study, all information about the homestay program is concentrated on the homestay operators. In terms of ethnographic data and socio-cultural cognition, in addition to participant observation, face-to-face in-depth interviews were conducted with the targeted informants in the focus group. For instance, they will be asked questions about their understanding of traditional cultural practices in contemporary Telok Melano. For the sociolinguistic data, the questions are related to their attitudes toward the Sambas Malay dialect, the Kuching Malay variety, and the Malay language. The focus group for this study included a total of 20 locals as members. There were ten people under the age of 40 and ten people over the age of 41. Because age level reflects knowledge of traditional culture and attitude toward a language variation, informants were chosen as the focus group based on their ages. In terms of language attitudes, the concept of domain and language choice is used to identify villagers’ attitudes toward a language variant. The role of domains in determining language choice has been studied by sociologists Fishman and Greenfield among the Puerto Rican community in New York City. They discovered that the usage of a language or linguistic code is closely associated with the domains of family, friendship, religion, education, and employment [33]. In the preliminary case study in Telok Melano, the authors focused on the use of language in the domains of households and friendship since these two domains contain more language interaction data than the other domains. Overall, all of the interview responses were recorded and transcribed. In order to present more significant data for the analysis in this paper, a modified wordlist designed by Swadesh [34] was used to collect additional fundamental vocabularies of Sambas Malay (Temajuk) and Kuching Malay (Telok Melano), and the authors also observed locals’ language use in online media (Facebook). These sources are used to supplement the data for analysis.

Reliability and Validity

In order to establish the reliability and validity of a qualitative investigation, Jayasekara stated, “the quality of a research in each paradigm should be measured by its own paradigm’s terms. The most significant quality standards in quantitative paradigms are credibility, neutrality or confirmability, consistency or dependability, and applicability [35] (p. 414)”. This section evaluates the research work in Telok Melano to determine whether the reliability and validity in qualitative research have been achieved. The authors adopted Maxwell’s qualitative research reliability and validity criteria as a checklist [36] (pp. 243–245). As indicated in the “criteria” column in Table 2, six validity requirements must be fulfilled, namely “intensive, long-term involvement”, “rich data”, “respondent validation”, “triangulation”, “quasi-statistics” and “comparison”. The study in Telok Melano and the paper presentation are determined to have fulfilled all of Maxwell’s reliability criteria. The layout of reliability and validity checks for this study is shown in Table 2 below:

4. The Research Findings

This section explores the facts on economic and sociocultural changes in Telok Melano, one of Sarawak’s fastest-growing rural areas. The presentation of the findings of the study is organized into three sub-sections: the economic impact of the Pan Borneo Highway, socio-cultural shifts, and present sociolinguistic conditions.

4.1. The Pan-Borneo Highway and Economic Development in the Region

“Social changes may be both positive and negative,” according to Shukla and Jani [27]. The local community in Telok Melano has indeed been impacted by the completion of the Pan Borneo Highway (the Sematan-Telok Melano route). Based on field investigation, this project appears to have had a positive impact on the community. This route has improved accessibility, and locals may easily travel to different locations via road transit. Since Telok Melano is adjacent to three national parks, the Gunung Gading National Park, the Talang-Satang National Park, and the Tanjung Datu National Park, the number of tourists visiting the area has increased significantly. The number of visitors lodging at the Telok Melano Homestay attests to this reality. According to Nazaruddin [8], there were 661 guests to Telok Melano between 1998 and 2002, and the Homestay Program generated RM40,790 in revenue. In other words, the total income generated in the tourism market in Telok Melano over a five-year period was quite small, namely less than RM50,000.00 (roughly $11,000.00 in USD), with just 661 visitors.
According to statistics provided by the Telok Melano Homestay Program Coordinator, the overall number of tourists has grown massively since the Pan Borneo Highway (Sematan-Telok Melano route) was constructed in 2019. From January through December of that year, 9199 tourists visited Telok Melano. The revenue earned for the entire year was 2377 percent (RM969,725.00 or roughly $230,500 in USD) greater than the cumulative five-year revenue (1996–2002).
Since the Malaysian government introduced the Homestay Program in 1996, Telok Melano has seen changes and variations in economic activity. Recently, the Homestay initiative has resulted in a significant economic change. Some villagers began to take part in the scheme, transforming a portion of their traditional houses into guestrooms. In Telok Melano, a total of 16 homestays were built during the program’s initial phase, and this number grew to 28 in 2015 [7]. The growing demand for tourists in Telok Melano has caused the accommodation’s basic structural setup to change. Locals began to construct self-contained structures such as cottages and cabins; see Figure 4.
For those in the village who are not enrolled in the Homestay program, an economic change may be witnessed through their engagement in small tourism-related businesses. Indeed, after the increase of tourists to Telok Melano following the completion of the Pan Borneo Highway, numerous stalls or kiosks have been set up by residents, notably on the beach or along the roadway, to offer snacks and beverages, souvenirs, and local items; see Figure 5 below.
Roads, for instance, invariably contribute to economic development and improve the quality of life [37]. Telok Melano’s infrastructure has been greatly improved because of the Pan Borneo Highway. The development of necessary facilities, such as communication towers, electricity, and water supply, has been affected by this road. The participants in the Homestay Program were said to have had to rely on generators for electricity and untreated water for their accommodation sector at the beginning of the program [7]. This facility is currently available at Telok Melano’s Homestay. Residents have had access to electricity 24 h a day, seven days a week since 2019. The Sarawak State Government has also committed to spending RM6 million to build a temporary fresh water treatment plant at Telok Melano by August 2020, and it is also building a water distribution network to channel water from the Bengoh dam.

4.2. Phenomena of Cultural Shifts

This section focuses on the Malay community in Telok Melano’s traditional wedding (pakatan & gotong royong, seperah) and sea worship ritual (semah), both of which are cultural heritage on the verge of extinction.

4.2.1. Marriage Etiquette

Antar Pakatan literally means “dowry sending.” Marriage, according to Sahay [38], is a contract signed by a man and a woman in the presence of two witnesses. Dowry is one of the norms that must be followed. Antar pakatan refers to the practice of giving dowry to the girl’s family at the marriage ceremony. The rules and laws that are followed (especially in Islam) differ according to the communities [38]. The geographical divergence between the Malay Muslim population in Telok Melano and other Sarawakian Malays has resulted in a variance in marital practices. The Indonesian Sambas Malay in the adjacent Temajuk hamlet had a strong influence on Telok Melano’s dowry practice. The term “pakatan” is an Indonesian word that is used as a local phrase in these two rural settlements on Borneo Island’s cape. Chicken, rice, eggs, and a particular amount of money are examples of dowry presented to a girl by the parents of a guy. In Telok Melano, a wedding is a communal event (or gotong royong in local terms). During the wedding ceremony, villagers from Telok Melano and Temajuk will team up to prepare, serve food and beverages, clean, and so on. The tradition of gotong royong at weddings is no longer practiced by the urban community. For example, the Malay population in Kuching, Sarawak’s capital, prefers to organize wedding events in a modern style. The wedding ceremony is now held at a hotel or hall, and the meal is provided as a buffet by caterers.
According to Rosmiza et al., “food serves to symbolize the belief systems, religious practices, and complicated ideologies of a single person or character, or of a entire community or culture” [39] (p. 269). The rural Malay village of Telok Melano has been witnessed still practicing the etiquette of serving meals to wedding guests. This etiquette, known as seperah, refers to “presenting meals to four people on a tray or dining with a group of four individuals”; see Figure 6. A comparable ritual may also be observed in Sarawak’s Sadong Jaya sub-urban Malay population. Telok Melano’s seperah is unique in that it features a variety of cuisines and is shared by four people. Depending on the cuisine, the total number of dishes provided to each group is doubled. For instance, if there are four dishes in a seperah, the guest must be offered eight plates (this number does not include the extra four plates for rice). According to the informant, the urban Malay have abandoned this practice owing to the enormous number of plates required and the time-consuming chore of dish washing.

4.2.2. Sea Worship Ritual: The Semah

As previously stated, Telok Melano is located on the South China Sea’s coastline, and the coastal community in this area relies on fishing for a living. Based on secondary sources, it was found that their traditional customs and practices were closely linked to the coastal environment in the past. According to Harrisson, a British anthropologist, the semah, or sea worship ceremony, is one of the customs that were once practiced by the locals in the Telok Melano area. This sea-worshipping rite, “comprises ceremonies and propitiations often connected with basically pre-Islamic beliefs of paganish character, but observed throughout the southwest by Malays, especially in connection with the seasons, fishing, and new activities” [40]. By examining his study on the Semah practiced in Talang Talang Besar and Satang Besar Islands near Telok Melano, we may obtain a glimpse of the Semah rites that were once practiced in this area. In his article, The Sarawak Turtle Islands’ “Semah,” he noted that the Semah is an annual ceremony held at the end of the monsoon that marks the “opening of the river mouth” for a new fishing season. During this ceremony, a pawang (or shaman) will sail around the islands, praying to the sea spirits. A landing is then made on the main islands, where a mock battle is performed in which the invaders are victorious. This ceremony’s apparatuses include a pole with palm fronds (known as Puan), anchak (an inclined forked stick with trays hanging from the forks by palm fronds), worship dishes, and the usage of chantings [40] (pp. 106, 109–110). Previously, some Malays in Peninsular Malaysia practiced this ritual as well. Skeat documented a ritual in Selangor called menyemah (prefix + semah) that was conducted to enhance the productivity of durian. Menyemah b’lat, or sacrificing at the fishing stakes, was also practiced by the Malay community on Selangor’s coast [41].
In the present day, this rite is becoming obsolete, and it is being modified in accordance with the imposition of Islamic beliefs. In reality, according to a report in the Sarawak Gazette (quoted from Harrisson [40], pp.107–108), the Semah “which is a survival of the Sarawak Malays’ former animisme, has lost most of its popularity” in the early twentieth century. The major reason for the abandonment of this tradition, which was practiced in Telok Melano and Talang-Talang Islands, is now recognized to be the changing religious beliefs of the locals. Beliefs and attitudes, as highlighted by Underwood, “are not static nor immutable, but spatially and temporally variable and subject to modification, permutation, and even transformation [42] (p. 2)”. These changes have been brought about by Islamization, environmental changes, and changes in the local Muslim community’s attitudes. Semah is now seen as a ritual that goes against the Islamic way of life by the younger generations. This is a regular occurrence in contemporary Malaysia, “where Islam has totally displaced animism in the Malay belief system. While animistic practices can still be seen in certain situations or in remote rural areas, the Malay mentality is dominated by Islamic religious beliefs” [43] (p. 7).
This ritual is now performed in a different manner. The Majlis Doa Selamat (literally, “pray for safety”) or “thanksgiving event” has taken the role of the worship occasion. According to locals, the last time this ceremony took place on Talang-Talang Island was on July 6, 2019, and it is a government-sponsored event rather than a cultural practice. The main objective of this event is to raise public awareness about the importance of turtle conservation and protection in Telok Melano, and the entire ceremony is based on Islamic beliefs. According to Pan and Chong, this movement may be found in Mukah, Sarawak. Sea worship (or Kaul) is practiced by the pagan and Christian Melanaus in Mukah, but not by the Muslim Melanau community [44]. With the construction of the Pan Borneo Highway, the Sarawak State government has begun to implement a number of development plans in Telok Melano. Despite basic infrastructure such as electricity and treated water, the government has also prioritized projects that improve locals’ quality of life, such as the launch of a local entrepreneur center (Anjung Usahawan) [45], a new immigration and quarantine complex [46], and a mosque [47]. Among these development plans, the government’s intention to build a mosque in this hamlet on August 13, 2020, with the goal of reinforcing Islamization in this area, has the potential to impact the area’s indigenous cultures.

4.2.3. Language Maintenance and Shifting

The institutional education system is one of the major determinants of a dialect’s survival. Locals in Telok Melano speak a Malay dialect that is unique to the area. On the other hand, their national language is Bahasa Melayu (or standardised Malay language; see example in Table 3). This language is widely used in a variety of formal settings, such as schools, television and radio broadcasts, newspapers, and so on. Since primary school, the residents of Telok Melano have been learning Bahasa Melayu in a primary school in Telok Melano, Sekolah Kebangsaan Telok Melano (Telok Melano Primary School). After completing primary school, the children must go outside of Telok Melano to pursue secondary and further education, such as at Sematan, Kuching, and Kuala Lumpur. The Pan Borneo Highway has made higher education more accessible to locals. The youths in this area are proficient in Bahasa Melayu because it is the medium of instruction from elementary school to higher education. The locals, on the other hand, rarely speak this language while having conversation. One explanation for this is the speaker’s misconception of the use of standard Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Standard Malay is correlated with high social standing and prestige in Malaysia. In informal communication, a Malay speaker never speaks standard Malay. They prefer colloquial Malay to standard Malay because they are ashamed to speak a high-status language in such a casual setting. In other words, a person who communicates in standard Malay will be perceived as attempting to uplift his or her class status [48]. As a consequence, locals only used this language as a means of expressing their national identity, and the informants interviewed were proud of their Malaysian identity.
As previously stated, some of the villagers in Telok Melano claimed descent from the Sambas Regency in Indonesia and spoke Sambas Malay as their first language. Furthermore, some of them have relatives who live in Temajuk, a neighbouring Sambas Malay-speaking village on the other side of the border. As a result, the Malay community of Telok Melano speaks two Malay dialects, namely Kuching Malay and Sambas Malay. These two Malay dialects have different types of linguistic features. Table 3 depicts a selection of Sambas Malay, including both standard and Kuching Malay.
In Telok Melano, the younger generation nowadays speaks Kuching Malay rather than Sambas Malay. The Malay variation of Sambas is regarded as an out-group communication language. Because this Malay dialect is not passed down through the generations, some Telok Melano residents learn Sambas Malay through cross-border social and commercial exchanges. The residents of Telok Melano are proud of their mother tongue, which is the Kuching Malay dialect. This variety is common in households, among neighbors, and among tourists who flock to the beach. In Telok Melano, the sociolinguistics issue of language shift and loss is a pre-existing reality. The role of the Kuching Malay variety as Sarawak’s lingua franca is the main reason for this claim. The Kuching dialect has become the first and second language of Sarawak’s multi-ethnic community and is spoken throughout the state as a lingua franca [49]. In terms of social status, the Kuching Malay dialect is classified as a high (H) local dialect that is spoken in all formal settings throughout Sarawak.
The villagers’ attitude toward linguistic pride has been driven by the fact that the Kuching Malay variety in Telok Melano is the lingua franca throughout the state. According to Mufwene, “language shift is typically not a conscious decision, either at the level of individual speakers or at the level of communities” [50] (p. 27). The Sambas Malay, which was once used in this village, has become a source of pride for the elder generations and now coexists with them. The youths, who are said to be native speakers of the Kuching dialect, claimed incompetence in Sambas Malay, Bahasa Indonesia, and other languages spoken on the opposite side of the border. “The diverse attitudes expressed by people toward their native language or another language are referred to as positive and negative attitudes toward language” [51] (p. 26). According to Crystal, “various groups will have different attitudes and aspirations about their language” [52] (p. 93). The concept of awareness of the norms proposed by Garvin and Mathiot can be used to explain why the locals in Telok Melano have a positive attitude toward the “new mother tongue.” This concept suggests that “a society with a positive attitude toward its language makes an attempt to utilize correct and suitable language in appropriate circumstances” [53]. The following example is one of several pieces of evidence relating to the awareness of the need to communicate in a precise and appropriate way without switching to other languages. This is a casual conversation regarding missing cats between two family members of a household in Kuching Malay.
Abǝ pulaŋ  Semeraʔ liat   kuciŋɲa ilaŋ  alu  naŋisɲa:
   Abe return  Semera’ see  cat + 3 s   loss then weep + 3 s
   (When Abe returned to Semerak, he noticed that the cats are missing. He wept over the loss).
bila    ilaŋ
   When  loss
   (When it was mising)
dah  duaʔ-duaʔ ekoʔ  ɲa  ilaŋ,  aoʔ bah.
   COMPL two + RED tail  that  loss Yes  PART
   kameʔ   pulaŋ  Semeraʔ  alu  siʔ  ada:
   1 s  return  Semerak  then NEG EXIST
   (Both of the cats were missing. Yes, when I returned to Semerak, they have gone missing)
mun ada  kelaʔ  dapat ŋǝmbaʔ  pulaŋ
   If  EXIST  after this can    AF + bring return
   (If later we find them, we can bring them back home)
naʔ  tiga ekoʔ  di  ɣumah  nun giʔ  ada:
   WH three tail  at  house  there again EXIST
   ada giʔ  aŋkatanɲa ya,  tapi  siʔ  ada  phuteh lagiʔ.
   EXIST  again batch + 3 s that but  NEG EXIST  white again
   itam  duaʔ ekoʔ deŋan  klabu:
   black  two  tail  with  grey
   (I do have three cats in my house. One of them is even the same colour as the missing cat. Nevertheless, I don’t have a cat in white colour. I only have a grey and a black cat)
yalah  siʔ  kacakɲa
   Yes + PART  NEG beautiful + 3 s
   (Yes, they are not beautiful)
3 s = 3rd person personal pronounce
COMPL = Complement
RED = Reduplication
PART = Particle
NEG = Negation
EXIST = exist
The informants in the dialogue above are entirely speaking Kuching Malay, with no other languages mixed in. The Kuching Malay dialect has the following linguistic features: (see Collins [54]).
  • The velar fricative phoneme /ɣ/ is correspondent to r, as in / umah/‘house’.
  • The elision of /h/ in the word initial position, as in /ilaŋ/ ‘loss’ and /itam/ ‘black’ (compare with hilang ‘loss’ and hitam ‘black’ in Standard Malay).
  • Proto Malayic (PM) phoneme *ɣ is shifted as /ʔ/ in the word-final position, for example, *ikur > ekoʔ ‘tail’ [55].
  • Other lexical items, for example,/mun/ ‘if’, /siʔ/ ‘Negation’, /kacak/ ‘beautiful’, etc.
The discourse in the preceding example is an example of locals communicating within their own group in their own mother tongue. Despite having a positive attitude toward their mother tongues, the villagers are fluent in two languages. This remark is in line with Apel and Muysken, who defined “societal bilingualism as a condition in which a particular society speaks two or more languages and almost everybody is bilingual” [56]. The only difference is in the bilingualism level and domain setting. In other words, the usage of a language or linguistic code in contact is closely associated with domains. Indeed, “the domain analysis has provided much insight into the general patterns of language choice in bilingual communities. This concept provides a link between the micro-level organisation of society, with its socio-cultural norms and expectations, and the micro-level organization of language use, manifested in individual behaviour at the level of face-to-face verbal encounters” [57] (p. 114).
The following example illustrates a Homestay operator using standard Malay blended with the Kuching Malay dialect code in a semi-formal domain, Facebook. The matrix language in this domain is standard Malay, and the embedded language is Kuching Dialect.
Homestay Maklong Telok Melano keluar news ritok gaiss! Tahun 2020 sememangnya banyak cabaran dan dugaan utk yg terlibat dgn industri pelancongan, terutama bg cdak pengusaha kecil2an kedak Maklong. Memang terasa. Ya jak sumber pendapatan. Mun xda org datang, susah maok dapat cash. Maklong xda kenderaan maok pergi bank di Pekan Lundu. Apa pun Alhamdulillah, syukur gilak kebanyakan tetamu Homestay Maklong sporting dan support biznes kecil2an tok. Ada yg berulang2 cdak datang dan ada juak yg rajin share gambar2 dan tolong promote ngan kawan2. Makseh gilak moga Allah permudahkan urusan dan murahkan rezeki kitak org.aamiin. Dan maaf diatas kekurangan. Tahun 2021, semoga keadaan lebih baik untuk kita semua”.
(Translation: The local tribune has written about the Maklong Telok Melano Homestay. 2020 will be a difficult year for the tourist sector, particularly for small businesses like Maklong Homestay. We were displeased. Our business cannot function without tourists, and we are cash-strapped. I don’t have access to transportation to get to Lundu town to get the money. However, we are lucky in that we have the support of our visitors. They assist us in promoting this lodging on social media. Thank you very much. We expect a stronger year in 2021).
The terms “matrix” and “embedded” language are found in Scotton [58]. The matrix language is the dominant language, whereas the embedded language is the inserted language (see also Auer and Muhamadevo [59]). In the example above, the Homestay owner used standard Malay (without highlighting) as the matrix language to convey her concern about the implications of pandemic COVID-19 on local tourism. Many local dialects have been embedded in her short statement since she is a native speaker of the Kuching Malay dialect. For example ritok (from the phrase ari to’ ‘today’), c-dak (from sida’ ‘them’), ya jak (‘that’s all’), mun (‘if’), maok (from mau’ ‘desire’), gilak (‘very’), tok (‘this’). In reality, the sociolinguistics issues of mother tongue shift and loss are still pre-existing scenarios in contemporary Telok Melano.
In summary, the sociolinguistic issues investigated in this study, whether through conventional methods, namely the study of language attitude and code selection in daily communication, or through online social media observations, all exhibit a similar pattern. In particular, the locals have a positive attitude toward the Kuching Malay variety. This positive perception reflects the choices of this variety’s code in daily communication and broadly in the public domains. Furthermore, as Sarawak’s lingua franca, the Kuching Malay dialect in Telok Melano is neither obsolete nor endangered.

5. Conclusions

This exploratory research discovered that Telok Melano is now undergoing major changes as a result of the development of the Pan Borneo Highway. The previous economic position of Telok Melano has been overturned. Unlike 20 years ago, when tourism was a side job for some locals, it is now the opposite. Locals have been seen leaving traditional economies like swidden agriculture, fishing, and so on in favor of tourism-related businesses. The significant impact of the highway on the development of the homestay program and basic facilities, which occurred at speed, is regarded as the consequence of intervention change. The socio-cultural component that was explored, namely the obsolescence of two fundamental local cultural and sociolinguistic issues of language maintenance and shift, found that this occurrence began long before the construction of the highway and is still continuing. As a result, socio-cultural changes fall under the concept of “change invention”. The impact of the highway on these two components is difficult to foresee at the moment since its properties are progressing. Up to this point, we have only identified that this route contributes to the consolidation of the use of the locals’ mother tongue, i.e., that the opening of this road has encouraged the locals to use this language broadly with other Malay communities. However, the year 2019, which celebrated the opening of this highway, could be used as a baseline in the future study to assess cultural changes.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, C.S., D.T. and Y.Y.; methodology, D.T. and C.S.; validation, D.T.; formal analysis, C.S., D.T. and, Y.Y.; investigation, D.T.; resources, D.T. and C.S.; data curation, D.T.; writing—original draft preparation, C.S.; writing—review and editing, D.T. and Y.Y.; supervision, C.S.; project administration, D.T.; funding acquisition, Y.Y. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and approved by the Ethics Committee of The National University of Malaysia, Malaysia (approval code: UKM/PPPI/111/8/JEP-2021-878, date of approval: 11 February 2022).

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was obtained from all subjects involved in the study.

Data Availability Statement

The data presented in this study are available on request from the corresponding author. The data are not publicly available due to privacy and ethical concerns.


We didn’t get any administrative and technical support, or donations in kind (e.g., materials used for experiments).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. The location of Telok Melano (Sarawak) and Temajuk (Indonesia) [2].
Figure 1. The location of Telok Melano (Sarawak) and Temajuk (Indonesia) [2].
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Figure 3. Maxwell’s interactive model of research design [18] (p. 5).
Figure 3. Maxwell’s interactive model of research design [18] (p. 5).
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Figure 4. An example of modern Homestay in Telok Melano.
Figure 4. An example of modern Homestay in Telok Melano.
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Figure 5. An illustration of food and beverage kiosk in Telok Melano.
Figure 5. An illustration of food and beverage kiosk in Telok Melano.
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Figure 6. The example of seperah etiquette.
Figure 6. The example of seperah etiquette.
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Table 1. Social change processes [27] and the domains related to road impact assessment.
Table 1. Social change processes [27] and the domains related to road impact assessment.
Demographic processesIn migration, Out migration, Presence of temporary residents, seasonal residents, Displacement and dispossession (loss of lands & assets), Rural to Urban Migration, Urban to rural migration, etc.
Economic processesAlteration and variations in economic activities, Inflation, Currency exchange fluctuation (devaluation), Concentration of economic activity, Economic globalization.
Geographic ProcessChanges in land use patterns, Urban sprawl, Urbanisation, Gentrification, Enhanced transportation and rural accessibility.
Institutional and legal processesInstitutional globalization and centralization, Decentralization, Privatization.
Emancipator and empowerment processesDemocratization, Marginalization, Capacity building
Socio cultural processesSocial globalization, Segregation, Social disintegration, Cultural differentiation
Table 2. The validity checklist for the study in Telok Melano.
Table 2. The validity checklist for the study in Telok Melano.
CriteriaFullfillment Depiction
Incentive, long-term involvementThe researcher spent approximately 3 weeks in Telok Melano with the community and returned during festival season.
“Rich” dataTelok Melano’s material includes participant observation notes, in-depth interview data, recorded conversations, a vocabulary list, and other secondary resources.
Respondent validationThe head of the village and cultural chief of Telok Melano, as well as the 20 selected informants, serve as member checks in this study to exclude the chance of misinterpretation.
TriangulationTriangulation is the process of gathering data from a variety of people and situations. Aside from informal interviews, the researchers used structured interviews with the selected informants in this study.
Quasi-StatisticsThis study provides simple numerical data on the revenue generated by the homestay, as well as population statistics for Telok Melano.
ComparisonIn this qualitative study, multisided studies were employed for comparison. For example, the mention of a marriage ceremony in Sadong Jaya; the position of the Kuching variant outside Telok Melano as a lingua franca; and a review of Harrisson’s sea worship event.
Table 3. Malay varieties examples in Telok Melano and Desa Temajuk.
Table 3. Malay varieties examples in Telok Melano and Desa Temajuk.
GlossIndonesianStandard MalayTelok MelanoDesa Temajuk
Neck leher lehergəɣuʔtigɛʔ
Mother ibuibu ma⨠um:a⨠
Crocodile buaya buayabɔjaʔjal:u
Crab kepitiŋkətamktamkəpitiŋ
Cat kuciŋ kuciŋpusa⨠kuc:iŋ
Butterfly kupu-kupurama-ramakəlebarami
Coconut kəlapakəlapaɲiorkəlapa⨠
Pumpkin labu labu kuniŋlabu⨠pɛraŋgi
k.o. fruit (B.morleyana)rambai rambai ambɛul:ap
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Shin, C.; Tuah, D.; Yusriadi, Y. An Initial Qualitative Exploration of Economic, Cultural, and Language Changes in Telok Melano, Sarawak, Malaysia. Sustainability 2022, 14, 2655.

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Shin C, Tuah D, Yusriadi Y. An Initial Qualitative Exploration of Economic, Cultural, and Language Changes in Telok Melano, Sarawak, Malaysia. Sustainability. 2022; 14(5):2655.

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Shin, Chong, Dilah Tuah, and Yusriadi Yusriadi. 2022. "An Initial Qualitative Exploration of Economic, Cultural, and Language Changes in Telok Melano, Sarawak, Malaysia" Sustainability 14, no. 5: 2655.

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