An internationally renowned Penan leader, Along Sega, died a week ago, in his late 70s. His passing went unnoticed by our mainstream media – the newspapers carried little more than the usual advertisements for Chinese New Year sales.
Malaysiakini alone carried the obituary of one of the most revered and courageous Penan chiefs in the history of Sarawak.
Along was a pioneer in the peaceful resistance of the Penan against the intrusion of loggers into the Penan lands over the past three decades.
He spoke articulately on the world stage, on behalf the Penan and Kelabit people of Ulu Limbang, who were being overwhelmed by logging.
He erected the first blockades across the logging roads, together with local Penan and Kelabit from Long Napir.
Along (centre) was also the mentor and adopted father of Bruno Manser (left), a maverick Swiss naturalist who lived with the Penan for more than six years and took part in their long, painful struggle against logging.
Manser’s global exposure of Sarawak’s logging excesses made him the nemesis of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Manser disappeared in the forests of Sarawak at the turn of the century, his death unexplained.
Jailed for erecting timber blockades
I met Along five years ago in a humble Penan settlement almost within eyeshot of the majestic twin peaks of Batu Lawi. He was a slight, wizened man, but unhunched, with neatly toned muscles on his arms. His voice was soft, but animated.
He had the customary Penan pudding-bowl haircut that makes Penan men resemble shorter, quieter versions of the Beatles. He was wearing a ceremonial rattan hat, decorated with hornbill feathers.
His earlobes had been stretched over years, in the Orang Ulu tradition, using wooden discs. Thin, elegant rattan bracelets, smoked to a black sheen, encircled his wrists. He was clad in a faded Western-style shirt, together with the more traditional loincloth.
Along’s exact age was unknown, even to the Penan chief himself, because he was born in the forest, with the jungle canopy as his nursery ceiling. He had lived a forest nomad’s life for most of his years, settling near Long Adang in the last decade.
“I remember the time when Queen Elizabeth was still a princess, I was a young man,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Bruno Manser Fund (BMF), an NGO that continues Manser’s work, supporting forest dwellers.
Since Elizabeth was crowned Queen in 1953, he would probably have been born in the early 1930s.
Along was imprisoned twice for opposing logging. According to the BMF, Along had received death threats, on several occasions, from employees of the logging company called Lee Ling Timber.
“When we started blockading, the company brought in some gangsters who intimated us with samurai swords. They wanted to fight with me, but I don’t want to fight with them,” he told the BMF.
“After the police dismantled the blockade, the company continuously logged the area. Later on, the Kelabit gave up their resistance and we were the only ones to continue.
“When we got arrested, (deputy chief) minister (Alfred) Jabu went to Long Adang and talked to the people to persuade them to give up the resistance.
“We want our forest to remain untouched, because only then we can go hunting. We cannot process sago without clean water. Now we are in a very difficult situation: we often have to carry the sago very far to process it. We don’t want the animals to get disturbed…
“The dart poison trees and the trees for the blowpipes have been bulldozed. Only very few of these trees are left. This is why many nomadic Penan are now getting settled.
“There is no choice. Our sago palms have been destroyed as well. The logging company destroyed all our area, even our graveyard, and they never paid any compensation for it. Sometimes they just come in, cut down all the trees and don’t even bother to take them out.
“After the first encroachment, there were still some trees left. After the second time, they even cut down the small trees and nothing was left. If they stop logging now, we still have a chance to survive. If they continue, soon there will be nothing left.
“We do mark our area and, from time to time, we set up some blockades. But these can stop the company at the best for a while.
“The only way to stop the companies from destroying our forest is if the Forest Department revokes the logging authorisation given to the company.”
The real savages
Along may have been considered a ‘noble savage’, as described by Rousseau in the 18th century. But he was simply another of us, a human being, albeit perhaps one with greater courage and resolve than most other Malaysians.
Who, then, might qualify as authentic Sarawakian savages? A look at the power behind the logging companies may provide a clue.
Sarawak’s high officials let the logging companies loose in the Penans’ forests. They know little about the Penan and care even less about them.
Nonetheless, these high officials, their courtiers and their businessassociates, are considered the noble elite, by virtue of their immense wealth: they carry around strings of titles and letters after their names, like jewellery.
I am told our noblemen have been the subjects of anthropological study themselves, just like the Penan. A friend, a distinguished writer, once described to me a meeting with an Oxford anthropologist who was planning to perform her research on the wealthy elite for her PhD.
Over time, my friend says, the anthropologist became disillusioned with the uncouthobsession of her research subjects with Tan Sri-hoods, Datukships and other titles, and their readiness to embrace black magic to achieve their goals. She admitted defeat and returned home.
Along Sega may have died without any kind of title, but he earned the admiration of people around the world.
In contrast to the prevailing, feverish state of fixation with race in our country, he stood up for all affected by logging: Kelabit, Penan and other tribes.
When he talked to the BMF about dying, he said, “I am the one who teaches the younger generation how to lead the struggle for our rights. When I die, they will continue with our struggle because I asked them not to give up.”
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org