Malaysia Customary Laws – Sabah and Sarawak


Hereunder are better-known indigenous groups, Ibans and Dusun:



(i) Definition of a Family Unit
The basic unit of Iban social and legal organisation is the bilik (Malay word for “room”).  The Iban longhouse is primarily an aggregation of independently owned family apartments.  Each apartment is called a bilik, which is occupied by a particular family group.   An individual is born into a particular bilik, either of the father or mother, and may also become a member of a bilik by adoption.  The adopted persons are normally close kin and become full members of the bilik.
(ii) Principle of Inheritance
Fundamentally based on the membership of the bilik, and one’s sex or status in the family is not an issue.  Therefore, so long as an individual remains a resident member of his or her bilik either by birth, adoption or marriage, that particular person possesses full and equal rights of inheritance.

If a man dies as a member of his natal or adoptive bilik, all property he had acquired is inherited equally by the surviving members of that bilik which consists of his parents, wife and children, and also any brother or sister and their spouses, and the children who are still resident members.
If a man dies as a member of the bilik into which he has married, all property he had acquired would remain in the bilik which includes his parents-in-law, wife and children, his wife’s siblings and their spouses and children who are resident members.
The same applies to a woman.
(iii) Wills versus Adat Laws
Wills are generally unknown among the Ibans as Adat Laws have provided for the disposal of a deceased’s property.  In the case of  Sat anak/lelaki Akum and Anor V. Randung anak/lelaki Charaeng, it held that an Iban can make a valid written will and dispose absolutely the property which he had acquired during his lifetime.   However, there are certain properties he cannot Will away, e.g. land held under customary tenure if there are heirs entitled to exercise farming rights.




Division of Property
There are two kinds of property:

Ancestral Property (Pusaka) Includes property inherited from ancestors, which can only be inherited by blood relatives.

Acquired Property

Refers to the property acquired before marriage and also that acquired jointly during the marriage.  A share of acquired property may be passed onto relatives by marriage.  Once inherited, becomes ancestral.


Distribution of Property
Pusaka   (property acquired before marriage) Always remain in the family, and never pass from husband to wife or vice versa.
Where there is no issue in the marriage, the husband’s pusaka will devolve to his nearest blood relation.
The same principle applies to the wife’s property.
The rights of inheritance pass to certain classes of heirs in succession and the existence of any heir in the higher class bars any claim from the heir in the lower class.  The order of priority for the classes of heirs are as follows:
1. children or their descendants;
2. brothers and sisters or their descendants;
3. parents;
4. collaterals of parents or their descendants (collaterals refer to people with the same ancestors but by a different line of descent);
5. grandparents;
6. collaterals of grandparents or their descendants.


Wills versus Dusun Adat Laws
Section 1(3), Wills Ordinance of Sabah provides that nothing in this Ordinance shall enable any native to dispose of his property by Will in a manner contrary to any law or custom applicable to him at the time of his death. Means, a native can write a Will, but it must not be contrary to his native custom with regards to the disposal of his property.  However, a Will contrary to Adat may stand if the headman and heirs consent to its provisions.


















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