The Iban concept of adat, like cognate notions in other Malayo-Indonesian societies (cf. Hooker 1972, Ter Haar 1948), refers very broadly to rules, canons and sanctions held to be binding by the members of a community. For the Iban, these rules apply to virtually all spheres of human life, social, economic, religious and political.
At the beginning of this study it is important to stress that the author in the following chapters applies the concept of adat broadly, to cover the entire normative framework of traditional Iban life, in accordance with ordinary Iban usage. In contrast to the Malays, the Iban do not distinguish between adat and religious rules and practices; much of Iban adat is believed to be of religious origin or is concerned with ritual observances and other facets of religious life. Also adat for the Iban is not restricted to what is commonly known as “customary law” (Ter Haar 1948: 5). Some elements of Iban adat are enforced by constituted legal means, are sanctioned by fines, for example, imposed by longhouse or regional authorities, or by other accepted forms of redress, but others are not, and both are given equal treatment here. In short, the present study treats the rules of adat that govern various areas of Iban social life, including religion, and is not specifically, or even predominantly, a study of adat law, although attention is given to community sanctions and to the judicial procedures by which adat is, and was traditionally, upheld.
An Iban generally means by adat roughly what an English-speaker means by custom in its broadest sense. Thus adat describes essentially the various things people customarily do and the ways in which they customarily do them. For the Iban virtually every area of human activity has its own particular adat consisting of concrete rules and interdictions. Thus there is marriage adat, adat of mourning, adat concerned with the construction of a new longhouse, farming adat, adat for making sacrifice or propitiating the spirits, and adat for dividing game taken in a communal hunt or fish taken by communal netting. Some account is given here of each of these different bodies of adat. Adat also regulates interpersonal relationships and defines the respective rights and responsibilities of individuals standing in different relationships to one another. It also stipulates the rights persons may enjoy in land and other tangible property and the manner in which these rights may be inherited or otherwise transferred from one person or group to another.
Like the English notion of custom, adat also covers personal habits. In this sense the Iban frequently speak of an individual as having either good or bad adat. To have good adat implies not only that a person’s behavior is in accordance with the specific rules of adat accepted in his community, but also that it exemplifies more abstract ideals, such, for example, as generosity or personal courage. Thus the notion of adat is seen by the Iban as embracing more general values, moral norms and standards. Besides innumerable rules governing social and ritual behaviour, adat in addition, therefore provides an essential measure, or gauge, against which the conduct of individuals can be judged. Although the Iban are relatively homogeneous culturally, there are, nonetheless, notable local differences in adat, and in the case of ritual prohibitions (pemali) variations exist even between families. Most Iban recognize that what is right in one community may be judged differently in another. A basic principle evoked when strangers have dealings with one another is that each party should, as far as possible, respect the adat of another person.
From this it follows that the Iban generally view adat as something rather more binding, and less tangential to the existence of orderly social life, than is generally implied by the English notion of custom. In this sense, the Iban concept differs. Large areas of adat have a strongly normative character. Thus rules of adat tend to stipulate, in a normative sense, what an individual should or should not do in varying circumstances.
Adat defines correct behaviour and is seen as essential to the maintenance of moral order and the continued existence of society itself. A violation of adat is described as penyalah, a “wrongful act”. While specific rules of adat vary, all Iban share basically similar notions of what constitute penyalah. The Iban frequently argue that the fact that a particular rule of conduct is adat is reason in itself why it should be followed. In describing Iban judicial process, Heppell (1957: 303) observes that a statement by a respected elder that a particular rule is adat is sufficient to clarify the provisions of the rule, and when this is done and accepted, there is little necessity to seek precedent to establish its correctness. “The fact that the rule is adat precludes any necessity for further enquiry” (1975: 303).
Wrongful acts contrary to adat evoke disapproval and in many instances are punished. The Iban concept of adat also refers to the ways in which people customarily deal with such acts. When the Iban discuss adat they very often use the term to describe, in any given situation, both the rules of behavior that apply and also the correct punishment to be meted out should these rules be transgressed. The term adat applies to both. For many transgressions, punishment takes the form of fines, or reparations of value. The notion of fines (tunggu) is closely associated with adat and written codifications of adat are characteristically described as tusun tunggu, or “fine lists” (cf. Richards 1963).
Traditionally tunggu is reparation payable to the injured party and mutually agreed to by both disputants. This is distinguished from the more recent ukum, an imposed fine or penalty, retained all or in part by the government or presiding authority. After the arrival of the Brookes in 1841, Iban fines were systematized and assigned monetary equivalents. In the first chapter of this study the author describes the major scale of fines used today by Iban judicial authorities in the Second Division of Sarawak. Later, in listing specific rules of adat, he stipulates in each case the appropriate class of fines levied in the event of its violation. Generally these fines are stated as maxima and may be reduced depending on circumstances.
Many wrongful acts have also spiritual implications (ngasoh samengat siga or Liar Samengat) and so require ritual propitiation. Some are thought to disturb relations with the spiritual world and unless repaired by ritual means are believed to provoke supernatural retaliation. For serious offences, such as incest, supernatural danger may extend to the whole community to which the transgressor belongs. In such cases, ritual redress is aimed at preserving the group’s collective well being.
In addition, violations of adat that cause personal injury, or result in damage or loss of possessions, are perceived by the Iban as an attack upon the victim’s soul, or spiritual personality. Such acts therefore require ritual redress aimed at reviving the victim’s soul, either by itself or in addition to fines. Thus wrongful acts often have spiritual consequences, or are thought to invite supernatural punishment, and these notions further reinforce the moral authority of adat, and the application of fines and more diffuse social sanctions in maintaining compliance.
Ultimately every person is thus the member of an adat community, the continued existence of which is believed to depend upon his behaving in accordance with its accepted norms and sanctions. When a person is the victim of a transgression, he is expected to minta adat, “to ask for adat”, meaning, specifically, that he is expected to insist upon compensation in accordance with the stipulations of adat (cf. Heppell 1975: 318). The responsibility of the longhouse headman and other community elders is to see to it that correct fines and ritual sanctions are applied and every act of redress is looked upon as a triumph of adat that restores the social harmony and spiritual health of the adat community.