Penans not 'noble savages' but our fellow (human) beings
By Sim Kwang Yang
2008-10-10 | The political, cultural, and journalistic climate in Malaysia has improved after all, and the long suffering Penans begin 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 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 recently.
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.”
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 flood 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 issue froth 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 derogative 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 court are superstructure 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 12,000 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.
The 33 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 Dun 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."