Sunday, April 18

‘Belum’ and after


“WHERE are you going?” is asked exponentially as the year-end approaches, and there are those who migrate to favourite destinations for the countdown.

For me, an unimpeded view of the decorated Kuala Lumpur skyline is sufficient. However, I recently took advantage of an invitation up north to visit an extraordinary place.

First it was to Sungai Petani, where the Rotary Club had invited me to speak at their Youth Leadership Awards Training Programme.

“Being routinely late is among the worst habits of Malaysian leaders,” I began, “but our national carrier failed to load my bag onto the flight to Penang” – and I needed the crucial Rotary tie before being admitted entry.  It eventually arrived, after the issuance of a ‘Property Irregularity Report’ – baggage is never ‘delayed’ or ‘lost’, just ‘irregular’.

Leaving the fertile and historic area near the Bujang Valley (now witnessing a surprising extent of industry and scale of development), I headed east past Baling (site of the 1956 peace talks between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng), then paralleled the Thai border southeast to Gerik, and then took the East-West Highway to arrive at EMKAY Group’s Belum Rainforest Resort on Pulau Banding, surrounded by Malaysia’s first man-made lake, TasikTemenggor.

My late Uncle Zul once commanded the soldiers that protected that area of the 130-million year-old Belum-Temenggor forest complex.  It was a thoroughfare for communists based in southern Thailand to access the rest of the peninsula, but after the flooding of the area following the construction of the Temenggor Dam in 1972 to generate hydroelectricity, the terrorists targeted those working on the highway that was to reduce the Butterworth-Kota Bharu road distance by two-thirds.  Despite the army pillboxes (one has been converted into a gallery), terrorists did sometimes succeed – a memorial for the victims stands beside the highway.

The Hat Yai Peace Accord ended the Second Emergency in 1989, and in 2007 part of the forest complex was gazetted as the Royal Belum State Park, into which today the Belum Rainforest Resort serves as a gateway.

From the middle of the lake atop a bamboo raft – tubes of bamboo lashed together, a split tube serving as a paddle – the view was postcard-perfect, but this serenity was dispelled by the revelation (having jumped into the lake) that there are truck-sized giant snakeheads lurking inside, as well as submerged hastily abandoned villages, because the flooding process occurred much faster than predicted.

The next day it was into the rainforest proper, to see a Rafflesia in the final day of its bloom, a salt lick frequented by elephants, tapirs and deers (and supposedly one of thirty wild tigers in the area preying on them), and a famously gorgeous waterfall.  Without the lake, these locations would have taken days to reach, but access was hampered by constant rains causing the levels to rise higher than had previously been seen.

The most educational part of the day was visiting a Jahai Orang Asli community, recently settled at a lakeside location, Kampong Seri Murni, consistent with their semi-nomadic lifestyle.  I find it uncomfortable anywhere when visiting so-called ‘indigenous people’, as if some people had a greater right to observe the lives of others just because they are defined as such, but the chief enthusiastically insisted for me to sign the guestbook, which comforted me somewhat.

The evidence of a rapidly changing lifestyle was abundant: once entirely dependent on local resources, there were sacks of rice and gas canisters for cooking, people playing Candy Crush on phones (with no reception), and a chubby pet cat taken from the market, now living in a traditional bamboo-and-palm Jahai house.

The great demand for agarwood and fish has utterly transformed the economy and the ambitions of the community’s younger members.  At such moments, you are torn between romantic notions that such communities should be ‘preserved’, versus the belief that individuals and communities have the right to shape their own destiny. But then, the key question is how much coercion and deception are being applied by external stakeholders within this contest.

We nearly saw a triumphant Harimau Malaya that evening on television, but the Thai War Elephants were victorious.  Coincidentally, we later encountered eight pachyderms crossing the highway, narrowly missing vehicles that were furiously flashing their headlights.

The last weeks of 2014 have been dominated by a battle between camps who think they held the key to Malaysia’s future.  But there’s nothing like a trip to the rainforest to inspire a truly long-term dimension to the question: “Where are we going?”

As I write this, I’ve just learnt that Kampong Seri Murni has been totally submerged. Its inhabitants are among the tens of thousands whose lives have been terribly affected by the downpours. According to my brilliant guide that day, the authorities have taken pictures but so far, no aid has arrived.

Still, millions of Malaysians are once again showing their generosity to help their fellow citizens with money, food and clothes. With so many concerns predicted for 2015, let us hope that spirit would live on and ever strengthen in all areas of citizenship.

Tunku’ Abidin Muhriz is Honorary Member of the Rotary Club of Pantai Valley and President of IDEAS.