Hornbill Unleashed

May 23, 2009

Painting Penan Reality

By John Riwang @ HuEditor

penanThere was a time I lived with the Penan for one year. Once every 2-3 months, I would go to the nearest urban center for a day to buy rations. During each visit, I would accidentally bump into friends and relatives in town. Each time they see me in town the first thing they’d say is “Welcome back to civilization! How is it over there? Are you becoming ‘one of them’ already?” This is usually followed by their laughter.

I did not really understand their reaction at first. It was only later that I begin to realize people tend to paint a different – and frighteningly, almost uniform – picture of the Penans, and hence their twisted perception of the Penan reality. They would ask me the kind of food I ate with them, whether they wore ‘western’ clothing like us, and whether they were true Penan,  in the sense of whether they were still nomadic or have they become “modern” (which, I found out later, doesn’t really appeal to many); some even asked if they could speak Malay. Sometimes, I don’t really know how to respond to their strange inquiries.

And also, there’s another group of people that often ask me if the Penan understands ‘development’ and why do they go against the peritah and development? They would ask me if the Penan understand that the peritah and kompeni are trying to help them to ‘develop’ themselves so they can be “on par” with other Malaysians?

When they ask me these questions, it’s not that they’re interested in knowing about the Penans’ daily reality. They just want to confirm the misrepresentation of the Penan portrayed in their minds that have been carefully painted for them by the media and peritah, or otherwise everything else apart from that representation would be bland and boring. Like what my friend told me one day, “It’s not sexy enough”.

rgw_penan_narrowweb__300x458,0Nowadays, or since the 1980s, another phenomenon that is commonly associated with the Penan is the ‘blockade’. If you Google “Sarawak blockade” today you’d find the first page of 10 items relating to Penan blockades in Sarawak. This is as if blockades are exclusively a Penan construction. What about the earlier blockades erected by the Berawan, Kelabit, Kayan and Iban communities against the timber companies? Don’t they matter? Oh, I forgot. They’re not “sexy enough”.

To many of us urbanites, the Penan blockade is seen as a symbol of resistance, demonstrating defiance against the peritah and kompeni, as if it is the last bastion of struggle between the noble savages and ruthless capitalists (and its political minions). This romance is painted by those urban middle class who claim to be defenders of human rights and environmental activists. To the authority, the Penans are merely simple people who are ignorant of ‘development’; when they erect their blockade; they are breaking every rule jotted in the law book. On top of that, they’re instigated by NGOs.

With all these realities conveniently painted for the Penans what else is there to understand about them, right? Oh, yes, they have their monkeys as their best friends as well.

Actually, the Penan reality is more complex than all these representations that have been laid for you by the media, the peritah officers, or better still, and by the social and environmental activists. Of course, I am not going to write everything in here nor do I claim to know everything there is to know about the Penans. In fact, I know very little about them. But let’s just say that I had a chat with some of the guys I met a couple of weeks ago: two guys from Long Kerong, one from Long Win, another from Long Bangan and a guy from Long Pusit.

During one of our conversations I asked them if they were aware of what the media or the public say about the Penans in general. Most of them shook their head, looked at each other muttering the silent bé’ jam (“don’t know”) although they’re aware that the media have written about the Penan blockade. When I asked what they knew about it, they smiled and said “orang selalu bilang kami ini lawan peritah” (lit. “People say we are against the government”). I put on my urbanite hat and asked “Jadi, kamu orang lawan peritah kah?” (Lit. “So, are you all going against the government?”) They all grinned and simultaneously said “Tidak lah. Mana ada...” (Lit. “No, of course not”) Then I asked them why the blockade then? The guy from Long Kerong quickly answered my question:

“A lot of you people don’t understand why we do the blockade. When the logging company came into our area in the 1980s, many of us Penans had never been to school. The only influence we had from the outsiders – apart from the peritah – is the church. No one talked to us about the kompeni. When we asked the peritah for piped water, we got it in 1980. When we asked for zincs Blockage2for our house roof, we also got it. But we never asked for the kompeni to come into our area.

“But they came, nevertheless. They never asked for our permission to fell the trees in our area. We did not know how else to deal with them because they were not like the peritah. The only thing we know is to erect blockade. And the blockade was not initially a sign of protest against the kompeni. It’s…how do you say….a sign of we, Penans, are willing to sit down and discuss these matter thoroughly with the kompeni.

“But they never listened. They didn’t want to discuss. They said our land belongs to the peritah and they have the license to log the area. If it belongs to the peritah, then how come we never see the peritah hunting in the jungle? Or bath in the river? Or fell the jakah (sago tree)? Or plant paddy? So, we let the blockade stay as a sign that we’re always willing to negotiate. The kompeni, the peritah people see it as resistance. We see it as our desire to negotiate with them. Our blockade is not like the grill you put in your house.”

The guy from Long Win continued his friend’s statement, saying:

“Many people think that we Penans are always going against the peritah. We are not. They say we don’t want pembangunan (development). Who doesn’t want pembangunan, I ask you? Of course, pembangunan is good. It’s bangun bah…(laughter). But how do you feel if your land is taken away from you without proper or fair negotiation? How do you feel if your rights are not secured in your own home? Is this pembangunan kah? Kalau begitu siapa mau itu pembangunan? (Lit. “If that’s development, then who would want it?”)

The guy from Long Pusit, the youngest among them, added:

“People say we Penans are anak mas (favorite child). How can we be anak mas if we’re treated unjustly by the peritah and kompeni? Have you ever seen emas (gold) being treated badly kah?”

All five of them agreed that although land rights is the prime issue affecting the Penan communities today, there are other every day concerns that people should be aware of. One of those is the lack of access to medical facilities. None of the settlements is located anywhere near a clinic or hospital. They have to travel to Miri, Marudi or Limbang to get treatment and this can sometimes take 2-3 days. The problem does not end there, however, as they have to find the money for transportation and accommodation while they accompany their relatives to the hospital in town.

Because of this, some of the Penan families decide to move to town in the hope of finding cash employment. For example, there are about 10 Penan families from Long Kerong who are working in Miri. Many of them work in one of the vegetable farms belonging to a Chinese on the outskirts of Miri. One of them is also working as a plumber, on daily-paid basis without paid holidays and job security etc.

When I asked them how they felt about leaving their village settlements, they told me that it was difficult because they still had their parents, and even young children, living in the village. But they have to find the cash to support their family and also other families in their village.

“We still maintain the cultural tradition of petulat (sharing) although we don’t live in the village. If people need help in the village, we have to share our burden to help them.

“The younger Penan generations who have left for schooling in town is slowly forgetting our petulat custom. We used to share wild boar or deer meat with the whole village every time we return from hunting. There is this old guy, who’s now deceased, and who used to live in the jungle away from our village. Every time he killed a wild boar, he would walk all the way to our village to share his kill.

053_Meat_Penan_SarawakSekarang, mana ada orang bikin itu macam lagi. Semua hantar babi pergi kompeni. Bukan dia orang kompeni tau apa itu petulat. (Lit. Nowadays, people don’t do that anymore. Every one sends his wild boar to the logging camp. What do those people in the camp know about petulat?)”

These are just a few excerpts from our conversation. These realities are theirs and since it’s not “sexy enough” for the media to highlight this or worth talking about among us urbanites, the portrait of Penan life is painted in another light.

One thing that we tend to forget is that, minus that ethnic taxonomy “Penan”, we often comfortably regard them as “the other”, never see them as human like us; and so we forget that we all share the same rights and realities as fellow human beings.

Powerful politicians and greedy crony capitalists have long painted a twisted public perception of the Penans and their way of life, as if they are sub-human.  That way it is easy to marginalise and exploit them.  It is our collective responsibility to return to them their right as fellow human beings to narrate their own stories about how they see the world.

Perhaps we can even learn something from their wisdom.

“Hornbill Unleashed invites readers to email us at hueditor@gmail.com with leads or other specific information on issues or individuals involved in or related to the article above.”



  1. […] sempit” by Baharuddin Mokhsen, “What next in Perak…on a lazy Malaysian Sunday?” by SKY, “Painting Penan Reality” by John Riwang and “Big Bullies in Sarawak” were all excellent […]

    Pingback by What Difference Can a Year Make? « Hornbill Unleashed — January 4, 2010 @ 12:03 AM | Reply

  2. MasyarakatPenan perlu dibantu terutama dalam aspek pendidikan dan kebajikan.Sepanjang kajian pengkaji mendapati terdapatsebahagian besar mereka hidup dalam tahap ekonomi yang rendah,banyak maklumat yang dipaparkan tidak menepati realiti sebenar kehidupan masyarakat Penan.Dalam aspek kepercayaan pengkaji mendapati terdapat perubahan ketara dan rata-rata mereka beragama Kristian diikuti Islam dan minoriti yang masih animisme.Dari sudut interaksi menunjukkan tahap positif dan mudah mesra meskipun pada peringkat awal agak susah memahami budaya dan percakapan mereka.Pada kesimpulan pengkaji mendapati mereka ini perlu didekati agar masyarakatluar mampu memahami dan mengetahui proses transformasi yang sedang berlaku dalam aspek sosiobudaya mereka dan yang paling jelasdidapati sudah ramai yang berkahwin campurdengan etnik lain seperti yang pengkaji temui di Kg.Penan Muslim Bt.10, Kg.Penan Suai dan Kg.Penan Suburbun Jaya.

    Comment by Ustaz Nasir UPMKB — June 15, 2009 @ 3:56 PM | Reply

  3. […] excellent article, ‘Painting Penan reality’ by John Riwang on the ‘Hornbill Unleashed’ blog, provides some […]

    Pingback by The death of a Penan mother « The Potted Plot — May 27, 2009 @ 1:33 PM | Reply

  4. I didn’t realize how ‘sub-humanly’ treated the Penans were until I visited this community of non-Penans living closely to a Penan community. Hearing how the non-Penans in the area talk about the Penans as if they (the Penans) are lower than their own pets makes me sick in a stomach.. May be we should re-think our understanding of the words ‘civilization’ and ‘being civilized’…

    Comment by Gustri — May 26, 2009 @ 2:03 PM | Reply

  5. Hai Mr. John Riwang,
    Your comments on the Penan is a good start but you must remember the Penan issue has been there for years since the Government started leasing larege tracks of NCR lands to companies or cronies for Oil palm plantations and timber concessions.I know the ways of the Penans quite well and I tell you they deserve much more respect than what the government and trespasser (company) are giving them now.

    According to land laws as confirmed by the high court ruling earlier this month – the Penan actually has their rights to their NCR land and no one can enter let alone extract timber or plant oil palm without permission from the Penan. With the court ruling the Penan can now sue the companies and the Government for plundering the wealth of their forest, land and depriving them of their resources for their livelihood. May i suggest that you help to show them the way.

    Comment by Mohamad — May 25, 2009 @ 5:42 PM | Reply

  6. Aiyah, i think the blockade erected by the Lun bawangs stands as the most un sexiest of them all.

    Comment by agung — May 25, 2009 @ 5:39 PM | Reply

  7. I notice, John riwang, that you try not so much to paint a picture as to allow the Penan to speak for themselves and portray their own lives. Your call for all Sarawakians to treat them as just fellow human beings is hugely welcome. We can never hope to see through their eyes, but we can try. Your writing is an important start.

    Comment by Pak Bui — May 25, 2009 @ 3:02 PM | Reply

  8. I met a foreign friend who told of a friend of his who frequent Sarawak. He observed interestingly how element of democracy and communism co-exist in Sarawak natives’ community.

    Having live a communal life, one that is individualistic is rather alien to the Penans.

    Comment by dee — May 25, 2009 @ 11:33 AM | Reply

  9. I have always admired the Penan, and I have met a few, though I haven’t gone so far as to bother them in the woods. They are the only non-headhunting Borneo people.

    Natives want two things: land, and to be left alone. It seems to me most of us could agree with this, and that makes us all Natives.

    Comment by Sebuyau Pelanduk — May 25, 2009 @ 7:56 AM | Reply

    • Your second wanting “thing” perplexed me, maybe I am not as Native. 🙂

      Nobody is an island. I guess Penan likes to share their view in spite of “left alone” as it is. It’s the high-hailed “privacy” I guess?The kompeni on the other hand just can’t seem to appreciate the offer from Penan, following their story related by John Riwang.

      Comment by liumx — May 25, 2009 @ 10:27 AM | Reply

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