THE saying goes that before one judges a man, one should first walk a mile in his shoes.
Over the past eight years, veteran journalist Paul Malone has walked countless miles into and across the Sarawak heartland to learn more about one of the smallest but most controversial indigenous tribes in the state.
He has hiked for hours through thick jungles to reach remote villages and settlements accessible only by foot.
He has sat in a growling four-wheel drive on muddy tailbone-jarring logging trails as well as felt the cold spray of water on his face in longboats traversing the clear-water and silted rivers that connect the mountains to the sea.
All this so he could meet the many Penan who call these hard-to-reach places home, and spend hours recording, listening and asking questions.
Among the results he has to show for his efforts is a simple but sure-fire method (“I should patent it,” he joked.) to foil the seemingly indefatigable legions of leeches that inhabit the jungles from attaching themselves to his skin.
The other is his new book ‘The Peaceful People: The Penan And Their Fight For The Forest’, launched in Kuching recently.
Seed of an idea
The outspoken Australian journalist told thesundaypost the inspiration for his book had its roots in a brief encounter with a small group of Penan along the Baram River in 1974.
It was Malone’s first visit to Borneo. At the time, he was travelling with Prof Kathryn Robinson of the School of Culture, History and Languages at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific, who was investigating possible places to do her doctorate in anthropology.
He thought little of that incident until 2006 when he returned to Sarawak and Sabah with his daughter who was keen to see the wildlife.
He was surprised when the travel agent in Miri told them there was nothing to see further up the Baram whereas he remembered it as what he described in the preface of his book as “a tourist’s paradise”, inhabited by tribes and peoples rich in culture, covered by luxuriant forests, and rivers teeming with colour and life.
There and then, the seed of an idea was planted and Malone vowed to find out more. Upon his return the following year, he sought out local contacts who could put him in touch with the Penan.
One thing led to another, and he finally arrived at Long Kerong where he met and interviewed Kelesau Naan, the village headman and an outspoken Penan land rights activist.
Malone returned to Australia and his article based on that interview — ‘Last Stand In Sarawak’ — was published in The Canberra Times.
Little did he know that just months later, Kelesau’s disappearance under unexplained circumstances and subsequent discovery of the Penan elder’s skeletal remains would fuel speculation of foul play and thrust the said article into the international spotlight.
The peaceful people
Heeding his journalistic instincts, Malone returned to Sarawak again to find out what happened and subsequently published more writings about the Penan.
He also began to delve deeper into the Penan people’s history and culture. The more he learned, the more intrigued he became, particularly with their distaste towards bloodshed despite their well-deserved reputation as skilled hunters and trackers.
It was an unusual contrast against the more aggressive stance of neighbouring tribes.
“Penan struck me as different to other people. I document in my book that Penan were massacred on at least three occasions and three times they decided they would not retaliate.
“Anybody else would say, well, if an enemy passes through here we’ll just fire a poison dart and they’ll never be seen again. That’s what other people would do. Or they might revenge raids, but the Penan didn’t.
“I’ve talked to old missionaries who have lived with them in the 50s and people who have had contact with them for over 50 years. They are a very peaceful people.
“It doesn’t mean they don’t argue. Someone once told me he saw a Penan smash a blowpipe against a tree in anger and apparently they are very, very stubborn and take a lot of convincing to do anything. But they don’t actually go out and kill each other or other people.”
Malone was also struck by their persistence towards holding on to their land and their way of life despite the many hardships that came with a nomadic existence.
“There are numerous quotes of them repeatedly saying ‘We don’t want money, we want our forests’. They’ve also been extraordinarily stubborn about being persuaded to settle down.
“There are accounts going back to the 19th century of people trying to get them to settle down. In the 1900s, people were building them longhouses and they still wouldn’t occupy them. It’s all there in the documentary evidence of the Sarawak Gazette,” Malone noted.
“By the way, I’m not romanticising it (living in the jungle). You walk out there, you get covered in leeches and get bitten by all the little things – insects, hornets, not to mention the chance of slashing yourself with a parang or getting gored by a wild boar.
“It’s not easy. It’s no paradise. But it was their life. And they stuck to it very, very rigidly.”
Pride and prejudice
As one of the smaller groups among the minority indigenous peoples of Sarawak – just under 18,000, according to figures Malone obtained from the State Planning Unit in March – the Penan today are at a great socioeconomic disadvantage when compared to other ethnic groups, perpetuated in part by the Penan’s relative isolation for so long due to the remote location of their traditional lands, and also the prolonged dispute over Penan land rights.
In this respect, the views which Malone encountered during his travels provide much food for thought about Penan attitudes towards logging, resettlement, education and land rights, as well as the wider public and government attitudes towards the Penan.
It cannot be denied that a significant portion of what is publicly perceived about the Penan’s present situation has been shaped by the contentious discourse surrounding the anti-logging protests and barricades that have taken place over the past four decades.
On one side is the refrain that the anti-logging barricades are the result of Penan being manipulated by NGOs and outsiders with ulterior motives.
On the other side, many NGOs and activists contend that Penan leaders appointed by the government are just puppets who do not represent the actual views of the majority of the Penan. Both claim to represent the best interests of the Penan.
However, these views tend not to acknowledge the other end of the argument, thereby often glossing over the fact that the Penan, like any other community, do not consist of one single voice or experience.
“What I’ve done in my book is document attitudes to the logging, the companies and the government. In one part, I’ve highlighted the attitudes of those adamantly against the logging and the government such as Long Lamai and Long Sait — and also most Penan, virtually the vast majority of the Eastern Penan.
“But I’ve also interviewed those who have decided to go along (such as) Long Beruang who said they are going to cooperate with the government and the companies,” he said.
Malone also spoke against the condescending attitudes which certain segments of society have towards the Penan.
He argued Penan are perfectly capable of thinking and choosing for themselves as individuals and as a community and are well aware of the threat to their culture and people if they do not adapt to the demands of modern society.
Virtually all the Penan Malone met want their children to go to school so that they would have better opportunities than their parents.
Many of the elders and leaders he interviewed are also aware of the challenges their rural communities will face to preserve their culture and values.
“Like a journalist, I have written what (the different) sides have said. I haven’t treated these people as simpletons. When I interviewed them, I asked for their name, their age and then I asked them questions. I listened, wrote down what they said and treated it as what they said they believed. I don’t try and re-interpret.
“Some anthropologists say ‘Oh, the Penan say they are against logging but then they go work for the logging companies’.
“But when I ask the Penan about it, they say ‘What choice do we have? No choice. There is no food, we need some resources the only work here is with the palm oil or logging companies. We have no training and we can’t go and become a doctor or a journalist, or so on’.”
Bridging the divide
While only a handful still practise a nomadic lifestyle today, “a vast majority” would still like to see the forest preserved as they consider it essential to their way of life even as they continue look for ways to integrate their traditional culture and way of life into the modern world.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. Even if they wanted to, the forests have been so degraded and destroyed, they could not return to the old way of life simply because there is not enough food and resources there,” Malone noted.
“Change is happening. I think there is a reasonable compromise in preserving and maintaining part of your traditions at the same time as having your children educated.
“There is no reason why a Chinese person can’t go to a temple and their child can still learn advanced calculus and nuclear science. They are not in contradiction. There is no reason why a Penan can’t have access to a village at Long Lamai or Long Kerong in the forests, and go back on holidays to walk in the forests with their father or grandfather and learn how to hunt and which plants are which and at the same time be a nuclear physicist.”
The younger generation of Penan are adapting quite fast to modern living and learning skills such as conversing in Bahasa Malaysia and English.
With the introduction of rural Internet centres and the spread of mobile telecommunications, they are no strangers to computers, smartphones and the world outside their villages. Some are studying in universities while others have found employment in urban centres and also outside the state.
Making things right
However, many of the challenges afflicting rural Sarawakian communities such as lack of jobs and education opportunities, rural-urban migration and alcoholism are also present among the Penan.
Difficulty in obtaining identity cards remains one of the largest impediments to improving their socioeconomic circumstances.
Some villages are slowly managing the transition from nomadic to modernism more successfully than others which continue to struggle to provide a meaningful way of life for both the older and younger generations.
Change won’t happen overnight, and they need time as well as help to adjust.
Some are forced to increasingly rely on outside assistance and this, in turn, is creating a disempowering culture of dependence on handouts — and expectations that handouts will be given.
The Penan, especially the younger generation, urgently need help to access and utilise basic rights, facilities and opportunities that more urbanised communities often take for granted.
To emphasise this point, Malone shared accounts of Penan parents unable to help their children understand their school work as they themselves have not had the chance to go to school, and of village elders unable to get used to not being able to forage in the jungles to provide for themselves, while their youths struggle with low self-esteem because they are unable to find employment even if they have finished basic schooling.
“There need to be legs up to enable their children to do things in a modern society. At the same time, it doesn’t require destruction of the forest or their homeland.
“They are entitled to their homeland and a good education. If they get a good education, they can go back to their villages as they want to and they can go off to KL or London or Paris as they want to,” Malone said.
He also spoke against the fallacies, equating the fight for recognition of Penan land rights to opposition to development, as well as the inherent injustice in the actions of unscrupulous parties who take advantage of the Penan’s socioeconomic vulnerabilities to entice them to give up their birthrights.
Thus, it becomes increasingly critical that the Penan be enabled to choose what’s best for themselves and empowered to pursue those decisions or else they remain trapped at the mercies of external forces and unable to achieve self-sufficiency.
Events in motion
Malone has been returning to Sarawak every year since 2006 to interview sources and conduct research.
Not surprisingly, his book contains details of recent events right up to this year, including the impoundment of the Murum Dam, the on-going protests against the Baram Dam, and the long-term impact of the Bakun Dam and resettlement.
While he was happy to share stories of his experiences with thesundaypost, he was somewhat reluctant to comment when asked what the Penan could do to put themselves in a better position to benefit from the changes happening around them, saying it was not for him to say.
He supports the proposal by 18 Penan communities to establish the Penan Peace Park in the reaches of the Upper Baram among one of the last few remaining patches of virgin rainforest because of the many positives and benefits it can bring to the Penan.
In addition to allowing better cultural preservation and access to facilities like schools and clinics, it will help support socioeconomic activities to allow the Penan to become more self-sufficient.
He opined that recognising Penan land rights, issuing land titles and awarding them the rights over resources would be a significant boost to efforts to lift their socioeconomic circumstances, much like what is presently taking place for the indigenous communities in Australia.
Asked if it would be a good example for Sarawak to follow, Malone stressed the Australian model was not perfect and there were many things the Australian government got wrong.
“I think it’s a model. Whether it’s the best, I don’t know. It certainly is a precedent … I think the first major step is to give them land. Let me say this in relation to indigenous people in Australia — nobody has all the answers.
“Things have not always worked well — in many ways it has worked out very badly. In many respects, the government here does things well or even better than in Australia.
“But what I would happily say in many respects, in relation to indigenous people in Australia, is that things are not ideal but one thing we did get right is recognise their rights to land.”
‘The Peaceful People: The Penan And Their Fight For The Forest’ is published by the Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.