Peter Kallang and family (Petrus Kallang is in the white suit, Peter is next to him).
It isn’t easy to be in the forefront of a controversial home-grown campaign to stop the 12 mega-dams from being built in Sarawak. After all, you would have to stand up against the most paramount leader in the State, and as most Sarawakians know, this is a pretty big deal.
For Peter Kallang, however, being the chairman of SAVE Rivers network, a coalition of indigenous peoples, and NGOs to stop the 12 mega-dams in Sarawak, was a no-brainer.
Born and raised in Baram, Peter feels that the plan to flood the Baram area, of 41,200 hectares (half the size of Singapore), is a huge travesty to thousands of indigenous peoples who would have to be relocated to new lands.
This would not be the first time local communities are relocated to make way for a mega-dam in Sarawak, and promises of a new better home with a prosperous lifestyle, reneged by the government.
When I sat down with Peter in early September to learn more of what inspired him to take on his momentous task, he had just returned from a visit to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) office in Miri.
Peter and the rest of the SAVE Rivers network submitted documents as part of their complaint against the CEO of Sarawak Energy Bhd, Torstein Dale Sjotveit. They are saying that he abused his power to award contracts to family members of the Chief Minister of Sarawak.
While Peter himself isn’t convinced that MACC will do a thorough investigation on the SAVE Rivers complaint, he explains that it is nevertheless an important step to expose the massive corruption taking place in Sarawak.
We are sitting in what he affectionately calls “coffeeshop politik”, a corner shop canteen in the middle of Miri town that amusingly sells nothing that the large wall menu advertises.
“When they took over from the previous owner, they never took the wall menu down. I guess they like it.”
A reminder of Sarawak’s idiosyncracies; where appearances are not what they seem.
Take Peter Kallang, for example: I was curious to know what made him decide to get involved in the SAVE Rivers campaign as he didn’t appear to be your run of the mill activist with an NGO background.
“Oh, I have always been like this [active in civil issues] all my life” he laughs, “My father in fact inspired me to look out for the welfare of others.”
Peter’s father, the late Petrus Kallang, was an industrious Penghulu (headman) of three Kelabit longhouses in Lower Baram: Long Ekeng, Long Banyo, and Uma Akeh. Petrus Kallang also started the first school in the area after World War II in 1947.
Petrus’s pioneering work has been chronicled in the book, “Borneo People”, published in 1956. The author, Malcolm MacDonald, then the British Commissioner-General for South-east Asia, describes his visit to Petrus Kallang’s longhouse: when he had enquired about the blackboard in the Kallang’s bilik, he was informed that it was for classes for the longhouse children.
Petrus Kallang also started the first co-operative in Baram, where each family donated a certain amount of harvested padi and the combined proceeds were then used to buy an electric generator for the longhouse. It was the first longhouse in the Lower Baram area to run on an electric generator.
Born on September 24, 1950 in Long Ekang, Baram, Peter Kallang went on to study electrical installation in Miri in 1971. In 1975, while working for Shell, he joined the labour union to advocate for workers’ rights.
Peter remained active in the union where he was elected to be a three-term president, until 1984 when he moved to England to study power plant engineering for two years. When he returned from England, he was promoted to senior staff but remained loyal in looking out for workers’ rights by sitting on the senior staff council of the labour union.
It was exciting to be in England at that time, especially for someone like Peter with a strong social conscience. The coal miners of the UK had gone on a prolonged strike in 1984, a major industrial action against the country’s coal industry.
The strike ended in March 1985, nearly a year after it had begun. The committed strikers and their families experienced extreme hardship for they had no wages during that long period of civil action. Many picketers were reported to have been subjected to intimidation, and sometimes violence by the police.
Peter Kallang was greatly inspired by the UK coal miners’ dedication and symbolic struggle. He was especially inspired by the head of the National Union of Mineworkers, noting that while the coal miners’ strike had received much coverage in the press, it was Margaret Thatcher and her political party that received the best press.
Peter’s passion for meaningful interaction with people remained true throughout the years, and he opted to take the Shell package for early retirement in 1999, to embark on a new career of network marketing. It was an opportunity to travel around Sarawak and to train people on how to optimise their income.
In 2006, he decided to concentrate more on church and social work, and thus formed the Kenyah Miri Association (Persatuan Kenyah Miri). He is also the president of the Orang Ulu National Association, and remains active in his church men’s group, the Rights of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and the Sarawak Shell Retiree Association.
With a man so active in social work, you would expect that Peter Kallang would have been approached by political parties. After all, politics is in his blood: his father, the former Penghulu, was one of the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) co-founders in Baram. Peter admits that he has been courted as early as in the late 1970s by political parties from both sides of the divide.
When pressed to confirm rumours that PKR had offered him to be their Baram representative for the next general election, he laughed it off. Peter explains that if he had any interest in politics, he would have joined a long time ago. For him, there just isn’t any ifs or buts or maybes surrounding the “will you ever join politics” question.
“When you join a political party, you have to toe the line. I can’t do that. I’m a man of principle,” Peter laughingly explains.
Besides God, Peter’s source of strength is his marriage of almost 30 years to Maria Usuna Ajang of Long Palai, Baram. Together, they have four children: Petrus (25 years old), Pius (24 years old), Polina (20 years old), and Priscilla (15 years old), all of whom are just as active as their parents in church and social work. Peter remarks with pride how well-travelled his children are, having travelled to India and the Philippines for church youth retreats.
His extended family is just as proud and very supportive of his work with SAVE Rivers network: Peter’s laptop and PA system were donated by fundraising from his siblings and cousins.
Peter recounts the generosity of a cousin whose husband had just passed away; she donated RM1,000 without question for his hard (unpaid) work in SAVE Rivers. All the funds were channeled into equipment and travel expenses for the campaign.
With Malaysia Day coming up, I asked Peter his thoughts of being a Malaysian.
“Malaysia is a nice concept but not practised in reality. They [West Malaysians] don’t treat us like an independent country that joined the Federation [along with Sabah] to form a new country. They look down on us in fact. There is no equality in Malaysia.
“I’m a Sarawakian, and only a Malaysian when they start treating us as equals.”.