In December 2008, I had breakfast with an elderly Bidayuh man and his daughter in their upland village — one of four due to be resettled to make way for a new dam and reservoir. With an official land compensation ceremony a few days away, the conversation meandered, as it often did, towards the project. My elderly interlocutor — a follower of the old rituals, adat gawai — had been reminiscing about life in the 1950s, “before [Sarawak became part of] Malaysia”. Back then, he said, the bus fare to Kuching was less than a dollar; food in the city came in generous portions for just ten cents, and trousers cost a few dollars. These days, however, everything was expensive because those Malays who ruled the country didn't know how to run the “economy” (English). But being Malay was difficult, added his Anglican daughter, since they were Muslim and had to live according to strict observances. Ruminating further, they began to contrast the lives of Muslims with those of Christians, who today form the bulk of the Bidayuh population.
Running through the different churches in the area, they concurred that the “strongest” of the lot was the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB), or Borneo Evangelical Church — a non-denominational organization with a small but vocal local presence. Those people were rich, they declared, and their prayers really worked; indeed, the SIB leaders were so powerful that they were often able to tell the future. To illustrate their point, they mentioned “Pastor Henman” (pseudonym): a white preacher who visited the region regularly, and who had predicted 2004's Boxing Day tsunami. More recently, he had prophesied bad things for the dam being constructed downstream: perhaps it would collapse or just fail. But of course, this was hardly surprising, explained the old man, since the soil at the construction site was poor, prone to landslides and flooding. As I discovered later, it was also an area filled with capricious local place spirits, which might respond badly to the upheavals around them. All things considered, my interlocutors concluded that the dam would almost certainly run into problems.