THE moments in the lives of the Penan, captured by former Deputy Education Minister Datuk Hon Choon Kim, are great photography works.
On May 29, the former politician launched a book titled The Penan through the lens. The 151-page book features 118 photographs and eight short chapters in Chinese and English on the Penans.
Hon said during the launching he hoped the pictorial book would succeed in creating awareness of the situation and future of the Penans among his readers.
“This book of photographs faithfully records the life of Penan people, the challenges during the time of living with them, mosquito bites as well as other insects while living at some of the villages without water and electricity which takes hours of walking to reach. Nonetheless, I have enjoyed every single trip and every moment as the Penans have already had an important place in my heart.
“Besides taking photographs, I strongly believe that photographers also have the responsibility to capture the unjust social happenings so as to initiate a change for the better.
“I agree with Lewis Wickes Hines, an Americian photographer, when he pointed out that photography should not just capture beautiful things but also things that need to be changed.”
Hon was two terms Member of Parliament and also the Deputy Minister of Education from 1999 to 2008.
Since retiring from politics in 2008, Hon has taken up photography, travelling around the world to capture unforgettable moments through the lens.
He chanced upon photos of the Penan people in 2010 and was attracted and first visited the villages in 2011 and returned there on 13 different occasions.
From his 13 visits, he learned of the difficulties faced by the Penans – from livelihood to education.
He knew that for the Penans to reach the secondary school, they had to take a five-hour drive on an off-road vehicle to Long Lama, followed by a three-hour journey by boat to Marudi.
His eyes were opened that the parents did not have the financial resources to foot the transportation charges. So the Penan children are deprived of opportunity to receive education. He also knew that the majority of the 16,000 Penan population still lived in Sarawak’s interior out of necessity as they were not equipped with the skills needed by an urban society.
“They need the help of both civil society and the government. It is a transitional phase for them right now.
“We need to help educate the younger generation so that they can acquire skills suited for urban society. This will help move the community closer to cities,” he said.
While scrolling down the screen of some of the photographs featured, I could not help but asked as the Deputy Education Minister for eight years why did Hon not pay one single visit to these villages? If he did, why had he not seen the situation of the rural people in Sarawak and done something about it?
When he was in the government, he had the whole government machinery available to him to make right many things and help the Penan community.
Had he done so, he would not have to now raise money from the sale of the book to help Penan children for transportation to school. How much can be raised? How much work can he do?
I am not belittling the charity that Hon is seen to be doing but just pointing out he has missed the golden opportunity.
Hon has said photography is like life.
“Occasionally, you can be disappointed. But you always hope for a better shot. And it happens.”
Hon has missed the moment and he may not find himself in front of a beautiful scene like how he described photography – that by pressing the shutter at the wrong time, one may still end up shooting at a beautiful sunset!
I may be pessimistic.
It was reported that he was asked at the exhibition what the government was going to do about the Penans, what future awaited them, how was the government going to help the Penans in their education?
After all, he is seen as a politician more than a photographer when the event was hosted and graced by many MCA politicians.
The report did not carry his comments. Probably, he had said he was no longer in politics and at 68, he is enjoying his retirement years, looking at things through his lens.
Indeed, many politicians like Hon who were in the positions of power and walking the corridor of power have missed the opportunity to do the “right” things while they can.
They came and went – without leaving footprints worthy of mention in history books. Look at Sarawak alone, five decades later, the Sarawakians are still shouting outside the door – we want autonomy, what’s ours is ours.
Now that they have retired or are out in the cold, they turned nationalists, either to keep themselves relevant or it is sexy and trendy in politics today.
A photography book of Penans’ life may evoke public conscience to correct things – which Hon said he hoped to.
He may be inspired by the work of Lewis Hine, the American photographer who took pictures of child labour in the 1930’s which become instrumental in the abolition of child labour.
The truth is Hon and many other politicians have missed the opportunities to do many good things for the Penans and Sarawak after over five decades of the formation of Malaysia.
I am more inclined to salute the hundreds of nameless doctors and nurses from our hospitals who had and are still volunteering themselves, taking their own initiatives to organize to reach out and visit the Penan villages to provide healthcare services regularly, for the last decade, and those individuals, groups and churches that are running pre-schools in the faraway Penan settlements all these years.
A columnist of Oriental Daily has rightly said: “The plight of the Penan, the shame of the government.”