Hornbill Unleashed

July 21, 2010

Penans not ‘NOBLE SAVAGES’ but our ‘FELLOW BEINGS’

By Sim Kwang Yang

The political, cultural, and journalistic climate in Malaysia has improved after all, and the long-suffering Penans have begun to attract national attention.

While I was the sole opposition MP in Sarawak, I began to take on the lonely cause of fighting for the indigenous people of my homeland. There was massive infringement then of their land rights, first from loggers, and then from the plantations.

No newspaper in Sarawak dared carry any of the news and press statements because of their fear of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. He was and still is the big patron behind the loggers, the plantation companies, and most other big businesses, including those that owned the newspapers.

The national press was also not in the least interested in this issue for reasons best known to themselves. Massive numbers of the native people in Sarawak suffered untold misery of dislocation and marginalisation in silence for decades.

In sharp contrast, when I toured Europe to lobby for the anti-logging platform in the early 90s, including an appearance in the European Parliament, I discovered to my delight that the plight of the Penans was the cause celebre for the green politicians and NGOs there.

I had to conclude that foreigners had more empathy with my indigenous brethrens in Sarawak than Sarawakians and Malaysians elsewhere. My fellow citizens in my own country – especially those in the urban centres – were too obsessed with the issue of race to develop their ultimate concern for citizens of other ethnic origins.

Journalists at their best

That was nearly two decades ago. Things must have changed since then, with no small thanks to the advent of the alternative media. Leading the pack of alternative journalists, are the brave souls in Malaysiakini and Hornbill  Unleashed finally giving the indigenous people of Sarawak a persistent voice emitting from their forgotten jungle. It is inevitable that this new found voice of conscience should find its way into the national media as well.

The work of Hilary Chiew and her presumably young colleagues in the Star belong to the type of journalists after my own heart. Thanks to them, the story of the rape of Penan girls in the heart of Sarawak’s forests has come alive for millions of Malaysians, pictures and all. That type of journalism that I had dreamed of two decades ago has arrived. The Star, despite its MCA ownership, is still much more than totally useless. I salute the editors.

What is even more gratifying is the analysis given by Jules Ong in Malaysiakini entitled Occupation and terrorism, at home. It is a wonderful critique of the 36-minute documentary made by Hilary Chiew and Chi Too entitled What rainforest? That film had its debut showing at the 2008 Freedom Film Festival .

I have not watched this film, but I am familiar with the issue. That is why I appreciate Jules Ong’s contribution to the debate.

The beginning of his review reminds me of  Foucault’s postmodern criticism of the act of naming and categorisation as an exercise of power that often distorts the truth. The categorisation of What rainforest? as an “environmental” documentary is objectionable because, in Jules Ong’s words:

“As environmental issues become mainstream, its messages becomes simplified and stereotyped…. and boring. Add the indigenous people, and the Hollywood theme of Guardian of the Rainforest gets even more tiresome.”

I agree. Environmental protection has become a vogue now, with government powers leading the discourse. You know how it is. Recycle your newspapers, and save the world; your disquiet about your environmental footprint will be appeased. In the consciousness of many people, the environment is never going to be a bigger issue than the problem of race-relations, so why should the media give it prominence indeed.

Jules Ong has offered his own angle of looking at the issue of the indigenous people of Sarawak. He sees the loggers’ infringement of the Sarawak natives’ customary land rights and the subsequent victimisation of the local inhabitants as an act of occupation and terrorism. Unlike that occupation and terrorism of the Israeli forces in Palestine, the source of this occupation and terrorism inflicted on the Penans is home grown.

This interpretation is novel, and fits into a certain variation of the Subaltern Theory often bandied about in postcolonial discourse.

Oppressed minority groups

Homi Bhabha gave his working definition of subaltern groups as “oppressed minority groups whose presence was crucial to the self-definition of the majority group; subaltern social groups were also in a position to subvert the authority of those who had hegemonic power.”

In the context of Sarawak, that hegemonic power is in the hands of the economic-political elite that have replaced the former British colonial masters after independence, only to emerge as the post-colonial colonial masters to the indigenous people in the Land of the Hornbill.

This core of political class has cast a wide network of cronies, subordinates, and various subservient interest groups throughout the state. Sitting at the apex of this food chain, is the Chief Minister operating almost as an absolute dictator in all things Sarawakian.

The CM claims to be elected by majority acclaim, but even in the name of the majority, he still requires the poor undeveloped and “primitive” indigenous Sarawakians for his self-definition. In the name of bringing development to these groups, he earns the moral authority of ruling the state in ways more sweeping than the three white Rajahs put together in a hundred years.

The reality is much more stark. This ruling class groups have been using their political control to wrest fabulous wealth from this resource rich state – anything that falls under the jurisdiction of the state government, all the land, forests, minerals, and now hydropower. This ill-gotten wealth has entrenched their hold on power; during every state general election, cash floods the remotest longhouses and kampongs.

Since this ruling class has the cultural hegemony of monopolising all channels of public discourse, the indigenous people have become the silent, faceless, passive recipients of the daily harangue that issues forth from Kuching, Sibu, Bintulu, and Miri. Worse still, their human subjectivity has been stripped, since in the eyes of the post-colonial colonial masters, there are mere objects of administrative and political measures. They have become subaltern groups.

Subaltern groups are also given all kinds of derogatory names, to make them sub-human. The towns Chinese in Sarawak call the Dayaks “lakia” meaning “Barbaric children”. In West Malaysia, some people call the Orang Asli “Sakai” for similar effect. When they are so named and have become subhuman, it is easier to oppress, bully and even rape them. It is certainly easier to keep a blind eye to their sufferings.

Penans not ‘noble savages’

Whenever logging or plantation interests invade the land used by the indigenous people for their daily survival for many generations, there was little recourse for the native people to seek justice. The police, the media, the government machinery, and even the courts are superstructures for furthering the interests of state sponsored capitalism. The Penans have borne the brunt of this invasion, because they live where the timber resources are the richest, because they are only 16,000 in number, and because they are so far removed from “civilisation” that it is difficult for social agents of change to reach them.

But the Penans’ problems – including the rape of Penan girls – are not isolated problems of an isolated ethnic community. As a subaltern group, they share the same fate as all subaltern groups in Malaysia, like the members and supporters of Hindraf, the exploited underpaid salaried workers in towns and cities, the disenfranchised farmers and fishermen across he land, and yes, the helpless conscientious idealistic reporters and journalists seeking a living in the culture industry.

A single thread runs through the life of the Penans and other subaltern groups: the half-century old political culture of soft authoritarianism, corruption, abuse of power by those who claim the support of the majority while feathering their own nests.

Penan Support Group (The 36 NGOs ) that had formed an alliance in support of the Penans’ cause is a noble phenomenon. Increasingly the civil society groups have to work together across the boundaries of race, gender, and agenda in recognition of their common goal: to debunk manufactured myth and to dismantle the structures of orthodox cultures for their own liberation and the self-liberation of all subaltern groups – including the Penans.

The Penans are neither Rousseau’s “noble savages” nor Hollywood’s exotic “guardians of the forests” in essence. They are fellow Malaysians and fellow human beings.

John Donne said it best in 1624:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”


  1. […] Penans not ‘NOBLE SAVAGES’ but our ‘FELLOW BEINGS’ […]

    Pingback by An Ex-MP’s impression of Penans « Sarawak Indigenous Community News — September 2, 2010 @ 3:00 PM | Reply

  2. I am intrigued by arguments on what SKY should write… Just let his eloquent penmanship enlighten us!
    Please get well soon SKY. We all need your dose of wisdom on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

    Comment by 3rd Mile Kopi Tiam — July 27, 2010 @ 2:22 AM | Reply

  3. Thank God for the new media. Now the government cannot hide the truth from the ‘rakyat’ anymore.

    Let’s pray that the truth shall prevail and judgement due for the wicked.

    Comment by PH Chin — July 22, 2010 @ 12:54 PM | Reply

  4. This comment has been deleted because of its hopeless stupidity.

    Comment by Ayabush Kahmar — July 21, 2010 @ 7:40 PM | Reply

  5. Maybe we should be honest with ourselves and not pretend to be like them. We are urbanites and they are foresters. Whatever we do would be deemed wrong, e.g REDD (corporate spin), Reforestation (chop down more trees), Resettlement (can I bring my ancestors’ graveyard along?), Politics of Development (corporate land grab), Activism (I understand what they tell me but the nearest town is a 1000 miles away!), etc. All of these are seeing things our way. How about their way, e.g the forest is my home, take some give some, there are other ways to live besides apartments and high speed commuters, there are no office hours so do whatever you want, there are no complicated people, etc.

    Comment by Bourgeois Revolution — July 21, 2010 @ 5:36 PM | Reply

    • Najib might still spend a day with the Penans. How do you think he might look in a cawat?

      I’ll bet the Penan ladies can hustle up a Martha Stewar’s apam balik for tea with the 1st family.

      Comment by Watcha — July 21, 2010 @ 11:36 PM | Reply

      • Robert De Niro’s cool but Rosmah is not. Let’s bring in Dave Letterman and Monday Night Raw superstars. That’s supercool!

        Comment by Bourgeois Revolution — July 23, 2010 @ 4:33 PM | Reply

  6. http://taibandfamilyspublicwealth.blogspot.com/

    may be of interest, still a work in progress as there is a lot to read.

    Comment by Hello — July 21, 2010 @ 5:03 AM | Reply

    • That’s a treasure dig there, friend, thanks!

      Surely there’s masses and masses of more.

      Comment by Watcha — July 23, 2010 @ 4:37 PM | Reply

  7. It is well and good to write about the Penan tragedy. Don’t you think we should write about the root cause of all this (Taib?)
    I am disappointed you did not mention the “Sarawak Report” articles exposing the evil Taib. We know enough of the sorrowful Penan stories. What we want to know is who is behind this. Expose Taib!!! Make it an election issue.

    Comment by Whitetoe — July 21, 2010 @ 2:31 AM | Reply

    • “I am disappointed you did not mention the “Sarawak Report” articles exposing the evil Taib. ”
      Dear Whitetoe,
      Why should it be any disappointment at all while the exposure as such is praised in Bunga’s article, must it come from SKY?
      Believe it or not, we are still far from overloaded with miseries, and what acts behind is quite beyond any individual.
      Who are “we” anyway?

      Comment by Liumx — July 21, 2010 @ 11:04 AM | Reply

    • The Sarawak Report is important and its importance cannot be understated even to the extent of overflogging it.

      The “root” as you said, may be attributed to Taib and the State Government. Then we have the Natuional Institutions that stymie any attempt or effort to correct the situation and daily protray incompetency and gross ineptitude, as the recent visit of the Welfare Minister to a Tourist Resort instead of to the relevant place(s) in question has demonstrated.

      Exposing the “evil of Taib” or “evil Taib” as many might think is in the minds of very many Sarawak Malaysians, not just the Penans themselves but even among Taib’s cronies and Federal politicians across both divides (one less rival to stab). This being so, it could have happened decades ago. Isn’t that what healthy competition is all about?

      Simply put, when you take all the loose strands, decent Malaysians are getting together to elect a better new government. With the impending Sarawak State Election, the big challenge is on. It has been on for some while now since a decade ago. The challenge appears almost insurmountable as the system (our Government) is geared against its people, us! Take an interest in politics, NGOs, etc.

      The trouble with reports in Malaysia is they’re just words. In Malaysia we are very ‘wordsy’ (pardon ME) as all institutions have broken down. How could a Prime Minister with an unexplained fat budget of RM12.1 billion tell citizens to sacfrice and bite the bullet for RM750 million, a paltry sum of his Office indiscrimate spending. The House Speaker clapped his hands as many government MPs chose silence.

      We need your disappointment, we need your anger and we value every little bit anyone might have to lift us out this scourge and shame on us people, citizens, human beings!!!

      As the Report not only addresses the testesterone imbalance in people and the unacquired ability to control it, it also fairly illustrates the other imbalances in and among politician, personal or systemic, that are blatantly amplified in a nation that’s gone off its rockers.

      The Report isn’t just about rape but rather our whole country. Bare excerpts of the Report:

      CHAPTER 6: Recommendations

      6.2 To the Sarawak State Government
      6.3 To the Federal Parliament and the Sarawak State Assembly
      6.4 To Intergovernmental Bodies
      United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women,
      6.5 To SUHAKAM
      6.6 To NGOs
      6.7 To Bursa Malaysia – for infringement of corporate governance

      6.2 To the Sarawak State Government

      1) The Mission strongly recommends that the state government ensures the full and effective respect, protection, and fulfilment of native customary rights.

      2) The Mission further urges the Sarawak Government to review all its logging, plantations, and dam construction in line with the National Task Force recommendations and to withhold funding for projects which do not conform to these recommendations.

      3) The state government ought to recognise Penan leaders who are elected by majority vote by their communities and who thus should be allowed to represent their own communities.

      4) The Mission calls for concrete action to be taken to strictly regulate logging companies, their workers and other outsiders who seek to gain profit through exploitative means.

      a. Put into place stricter mechanisms to control the operation of loggers.
      b. Set up a mechanism by which complaints from communities against logging companies and their workers are effectively addressed.

      5) The Mission recommends that the Sarawak government debate both the National Task Force report and other fact-finding reports on the situation of the Penans and other indigenous communities in similar situations, including this report.

      1.Executive Summary of the Report
      2.Full Report – A Wider Context of Sexual Exploitation of Penan Women and Girls in Middle and Ulu Baram Sarawak

      Comment by Watcha — July 21, 2010 @ 1:09 PM | Reply

    • look at yourself, whitetoe, before u find faults in someone like SKY, whose selfless act can be easily found in public record.

      While u pointed at SKY, you had to do that from behind “whitetoe”. Wonder even if you are a registered voter and in Sarawak or not.

      It is people like u that Taib is still around – armchair critic. What have you done beside hiding behind Whitetoe and be an armchair critic?

      Look at yourself, first, please. Ask yourself what have you done, first, k? AT least u can start by just search on Hornbill Unleashed and the Internet in general to find out for ignorant yourself, of how much and to what extent SKY had wrote on and about Taib!!!

      Get the facts right!!!

      Comment by ah pek — July 21, 2010 @ 1:10 PM | Reply

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