When John Wilson entered the far interior of Sarawak in 1952, he did so with a vision which was very far removed from the reality that was Rumah Gelau, up the Budu river. It was like any other Dayak settlement of the time: a rough clearing in the jungle comprising of a longhouse and a few other structures.
He set it upon himself to turn the native Dayaks, who had known nothing but jungle and their own traditional way of life into people who were conversant with the twentieth century, its ways of government, commerce, and social services, and who were prepared to take on the responsibilities of leading their communities.
This he did for the next twenty years of his life, in a region far removed from, and yet deeply affected by, the numerous political activities of the state. He was expelled from Sarawak, now part of newly-formed Malaysia, in 1968. By this time, the education scheme which he pioneered had expanded into several other regions. Budu had amongst its community natives educated in the west, including a doctor who graduated from the University of Aberdeen. This was the legacy that John Wilson left a land, and a people whom he held so dear.
Before Sarawak (1914 to 1949)
John Kennedy Wilson was born in Glasgow on 4 April 1914. He gained a reputation as a lively and inquisitive individual who knew his own mind. His mother died suddenly on his twenty-first birthday, a loss which caused him to keep many feelings to himself in later life.
He graduated with second-class honours from the University of Glasgow, then went on to Jordanhill Teacher Training College for a diploma. He took a teaching job in the Gorbals, a bad area (then and even today) of the city. This was probably the first indication of a life of dedication.
When the war broke out, he joined the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. He was highly-decorated for action in the middle east and Germany.
After the Japanese surrender, Sarawak was passed into British hands. John Wilson answered an advertisement for education officers in this new Crown Colony, and got the job.
Kuching (1949 to 1953)
John Wilson became principal of the training centre at Batu Lintang. One of his responsibilities was to visit settlements in the interior, in order to recruit promising students for the school.
During this time, Wilson came to believe that there could be no success in education unless there was a parallel progress in the settlements themselves, then extremely backward.
Such was his unrest, and his belief in his theories, that he offered his resignation from the school in order to go into the interior, on a local teacher’s pay, to carry out his plan of action. His destination was Rumah Gelau, Budu.
On 1 January 1953, John Wilson began the journey upriver, and arrived several days later. The settlement at Budu was a sight to behold. There were no latrines for human waste. Pigs and chickens ran wild. The Dayaks were largely untouched by Western civilization, the majority of the population being illiterate and uneducated. Wilson spoke no Dayak, and they no English.
Nonetheless, the Dayaks demonstrated a desire to help themselves, which was the most important factor. Wilson took a vocational approach to education. He had the existing school structure repaired, seedlings planted, and pigs penned. He also introduced basic western medical practice to the community. Soon people from other longhouses several hour’s walk away were also approaching Wilson for treatment. John Wilson introduced a payment system, by which a cup of rice or some vegetables were given in exchange for treatment. The Dayak economy was based on such barter, so this was well-understood.
John Wilson also coaxed the people to dig latrines, which pitted him against the local gods:
The third pit latrine, a large ten foot by six, was destroyed by unexpected heavy rain. The chief, the Tuai Rumah, took this as a sign from the gods as disapproval, and the people nodded in agreement and started walking away. “Wait!” Wilson cried as he quickly thought of something to say. He asked the Tuai Rumah how many people there were in the longhouse. One to two hundred was the reply.
“Then it is clear why your gods did not like this hole. Your gods did not think it was big enough.” Wilson seized a changkol and a basket, leapt into the centre of the filled-in pit and began to dig. “We will make it twelve feet, not ten, so that everyone in the house can use it!”
His ploy worked.
Help Is Recruited
A year later in 1954, his scheme was doing well, and growing. It was clear to John Wilson that he needed help in the form of a male nurse and an engineer agriculturist. He took leave to Glasgow.
Somewhat unexpectedly, hundreds replied to his advertisement. A further questionnaire included questions such as, “Can you walk five, six, eight hours through the jungle, and back again if need be without any rest?” “Are you prepared to eat rice at every meal?”
He chose Thomas McBride, previously an accountant, and Arthur Thwaites, a male nurse, to return with him to Budu.
For the next 14 years, John Wilson, Thomas McBride, and Arthur Thwaites were to expand the scheme to many more areas around the region, some several days’ journey from Budu.
Arthur Thwaites found his western medical knowledge at odds with that of the Manangs, traditional medicine men who believed that illness was caused by evil spirits, but both parties soon found that their practices could go hand-in-hand.
Thomas McBride helped set up a co-operative, which was soon thriving, though business did not always go smoothly:
On one occasion a Chinese trader defaulted on his debts, leaving the co-operative in grave danger. It was decided that a party be sent to Saratok, where the trader was based, to negotiate a settlement. John Wilson and Arthur McBride, accompanied by ten trainees, as well as three older Dayaks clad in traditional war dress arrived in Saratok.
The three Dayaks in war dress went into the shop first, sitting calmly down and began to sharpen their knives. The rest of the party then entered, and found little resistance from the trader. They sailed back upriver with the amount owed to them, plus interest, in goods.
From 1954 to 1968, a handful of Dayak boys were sent to Scotland for their education, warmly welcomed by the family and friends of the three Scotsmen. They returned with various qualifications, including one with a highly-prized medical degree from the University of Aberdeen.
John Wilson was rather looking forward to spending the rest of his life in Sarawak. He had, for instance, built himself a Scottish-style house, and had just started a school in the interior when he was served with his banishment papers.
The denial of his Malaysian citizenship, then his consequent expulsion was very likely due to the mistrust by the government of his motives, and his influence with the people with whom he had spent the last 20 years with.
On 4 June 1968, he boarded a plane bound for Britain. He left with much sympathy from the European community, and much mourning on the behalf of the Dayak people.
Not one to spend time crying over spilt milk, he began work with the delinquent youngsters of Scotland.
This writeup was summarized from Longhouse in Sarawak by Mora Dickson (1971, 230 pages; republished 1995 by S. Abdul Majeed and Co., 2210 Malayan Mansion, Jalan Masjid India, 50100 KL, Malaysia).
John Wilson’s own book, Budu; or twenty years in Sarawak, is out of print. Over thirty years have passed since the account of his life was written, and I have no idea what has happened to John Wilson since, although I shall attempt to find out.