Hornbill Unleashed

November 23, 2009

Letter from the Sarawak rainforest

By Sim Kwang Yang

THE disturbing news of the rape of Penan schoolgirls by loggers in Sarawak briefly caught national attention. But the flicker of conscience among Malaysians was soon doused by the deluge of reports of power struggles among the high-and-mighty in Malaysian politics.

It is hard to prolong our attention span on the Penans. They are so few in number: 12,000 in all. They mostly live in the remote, almost inaccessible, headwaters of the two greatest waterways in Sarawak, the Rajang and the Baram Rivers, far away from “civilisation”. There, they pursue their way of life: either settled, or so-called “primitive” nomadic.

They are of interest to few, such as the odd anthropologist from the West. Their lives and problems are incomprehensible to their fellow citizens living and working in the Klang Valley. Klang Valley would look, sound, and feel like a different galaxy to a first-time Penan visitor.

The letter

(© b79/sxc.hu)Distant, remote, and even exotic as the Penans may be to us, we are nevertheless connected to them. This link found its way to my desk in the form of a letter written by a Penan man. His wife signed the letter with her thumbprint, which is not unusual in rural Sarawak.

The narrator of the letter is the husband. The letter was addressed to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam), and copied to the Health Minister.

The following is my English translation from the original Bahasa Malaysia. The names of individuals and specific locations have been removed to protect the couple and their community:


Dear Sir,

Re: Baby ****’s death after birth

I would like to lodge a report that my baby ____ has passed away on 6 July 2007.

Ms ____, who was already ripe in her pregnancy, experienced labour pains on the night of 5 July 2007. She asked the nurse, ____, to open the ______ Clinic to deliver her baby. The nurse did not seem to acknowledge the urgency and we had to wait for 10 minutes.

My wife delivered the baby on the cement staircase of the clinic. During that time, the light was not on.

The baby did not cry during delivery.

The nurse held the baby by the legs, and beat its back to make the baby cry. The nurse was squatting on the cement at that time.

The baby fell from the nurse’s hand and dropped onto the cement floor from a height of half a foot. My brother and I witnessed this.

(© Benjamin Earwicker/sxc.hu)After that, the baby cried for three minutes. The nurse took the baby inside the clinic and my wife could feel the baby move, but it could not suckle milk for the entire day.

We named our baby son ____. He was getting weak. I asked the nurse to send ____ to Marudi, but she said: “No need, we will only send him there if his situation gets worse.”

After sundown on 6 July 2007, the clinic assistant asked the nurse to give oxygen to the baby, but was told: “No need, even if we give, he will die.”

We were left in the dark room. There was not even a kerosene lamp. My wife held the baby in the dark.

____ died on 6 July 2007. Dresser ______ came back to the clinic from Marudi or Miri at noon on 7 July 2007. He didn’t say anything. The dead baby’s case has not been reported, even though the nurse was aware of it.

Pastor ____ buried our son on 7 July 2007. The clinic assistant apologised to us but the nurse did not say anything.

The couple sign off here and the letter ends.


Read between the lines

Those who have ever met or worked with the Penans (myself included) would count them among the nicest — and shyest — people on earth. The word “greed” is not even in their vocabulary. They would not even have a harsh word for people who treat them like trash — though that does not mean anybody should treat them as such.

When you read the letter, you have to fill in the blanks with your imagination. Concentrate on what is not said between the lines. Note that the word “complaint” is not even mentioned once.

Certainly, women who have given difficult births would know how 10 minutes waiting for a lumbering nurse would feel like an eternity.

You also have to imagine the physical toll, the length of time, and the expense borne by the father walking from his settlement to the clinic, and moving his baby from the clinic to Marudi.

Rainforest activist Bruno Manser (left) (© Bruno-Manser-Fonds)I had some misgivings about reproducing the letter here. The many Little Napoleons working in the God-forsaken mountains and forests of Sarawak might want to victimise the couple for causing trouble because of my action. Nobody can hear you cry if you die there in the jungle. I wonder if that is what happened to the rainforest activist Bruno Manser, who was last seen journeying to the Sarawak rainforests in May 2000, and was officially declared missing in March 2005.

Then again, we tend to use high-sounding words in discussing the suffering of the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and the marginalised among us. Readers could get slogan fatigue.

Though no names are provided, perhaps this letter can give human suffering a personality, a face, a wife, alongside a dead baby who did not have to die. If only I had a photograph of the man with his wife and child! But in their part of the world, a camera might not be a household item.

I was also worried that the original letter may not have been received by Suhakam or the Health Minister (one never knows with Pos Malaysia). When this letter is published by The Nut Graph, perhaps somebody will forward it to these intended recipients.

The death of a Penan baby in the Sarawak rainforest may be no big deal to the rest of the world. But it must have felt like the end of the world for the grieving parents. After all, they are human, too, just like you and me.

A Penan family (© Tom Taylor @ Flickr)


  1. These honourable and admirable people, the Penans. I have contributed to the emergency fund, but I wish I could do more. Their life is a *really good* way to live, in all respects. Be ware, o rakyat Malaysia. The only good Malaysian in the eyes of the ruling clique is a docile worker/consumer. All others will be exterminated.

    Comment by Kentut Aji Bulan — December 14, 2009 @ 10:39 PM | Reply

  2. the penans suffers more than any sabahan or sarawakians…its REALLY A BIG deal among malaysians!

    Comment by joss — November 23, 2009 @ 11:39 AM | Reply

  3. […] Letter from the Sarawak rainforest Taken from https://hornbillunleashed.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/4990/#more-4990 […]

    Pingback by Letter from the Sarawak rainforest « I Came,I Saw and I Conquer……. — November 23, 2009 @ 5:20 AM | Reply

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