Wednesday, March 20

Wandering thoughts

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Israeli manager of Soda Stream, Daniel Birnbaum, collects plastic bottles at the beach of Roatan, Honduras. The Local Authority must ensure that the beaches at Telok Melano are plastics free. — AFP photo

THE great thing about being a passenger is that one has all the time in the world to think of many things. One’s mind wanders far and wide.

A driver has to concentrate on the task at hand: eyes on the road and hands on the steering wheel; a pilot, on the weather and possible UFOs.

That was exactly the freedom of thought I was enjoying a fortnight ago when I joined a family picnic to Telok Melano, a Malay village near the southern end of Sarawak.

On the way to Lundu – taking the coastal road – the two-car convoy passed by the Wild Life Centre at Matang. I had planned to drop in at the Centre so that our Kiwi guests might be able to see an OU (Orangutan).

I offered to be the tourist guide for the day. They declined saying they were told by their tour agents that the animals there were living in a cage.

Not an attractive sight! Anyway, they had been to the Wildlife Sanctuary at Semenggoh the previous day, where they saw the ‘Orangs’ in their natural habitat. They loved that!

While thinking of the rights and privileges of the OU and crocodiles under Malaysian law compared to freedom of the humans, wild ideas – at times odd or even bizarre – came to my mind that day.

In the poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by Lewis Carrol, we read that ‘The time has come to talk of many things’: of shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages, kings and whether pigs had wings. Why can’t I ramble on about something that is more important than the colour of shoes for students? Say, something of freedom, rights and privileges?

Has anybody else thought of it – that our OU and the crocodiles have more freedom and privileges than many people in Sarawak have? Odd, would you say, this question on the freedom of thought?

Under the Sarawak law – Wild Life Protection Ordinance, 1998 – the orangutan are amongst the primates on the verge of extinction and therefore need to be protected by the law. Not only that, they are also protected under an international treaty – the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), 1975.

When, twenty-three years later, on 28th May, 1998, our own wild life legislation became operative, our orangutans and our crocodiles and several other less known forest dwellers were totally protected, until two years ago, when the crocs slipped out from Appendix I into Appendix II of CITES, meaning that they can now be culled and their meat and skin sold, with the necessary licence, of course.

However, our beloved OU are still up there, secure in Appendix I, and enjoying the privileges which many people in Malaysia do not have.

Every morning, the OU of Semenggoh get breakfast of fresh fruits, and High Tea at 3 in the afternoon. Guards are standing by to ensure personal security of the OU as well as that of the people paying to watch the celebrities of the forest.

In this sense, compared to many Homo Sapiens in Sarawak, the OU are better treated in terms of the Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

There is mention of the rights of Malaysians to life and property in the Federal Constitution. Curiously, there is no mention of this right in the State constitution.

It is assumed that other laws such as the penal code and related legislations protect the citizens of the country in various ways. Against enemies of the country there are the security forces of the country to protect the population.

I wondered why this special treatment of the OU – protection by law and regular meals without working for them –was necessary.

The driver, obviously reading my thought, ventured an answer without it being sought for.

“No specific legislation is necessary, Uncle, because Sarawakians are not an endangered species”. Aren’t they now? Ha ha ha!

Our guest chipped in: “The orangutan attract tourists to your country; a tourist like me has to save money for some time before I could afford to come over here to see your monkeys”.

For those of our countrymen who worry about personal protection – well, there is a Human Rights Commission (Suhakam). It was formed in 1999 – better late than never- to protect and promote human rights or to prevent violations of those rights by even the government itself; from the use of draconian laws like the Internal Security Act now abolished.

Many indigenous peoples of Malaysia would be grateful to the Commission if it could enlighten them on the accession by the Government of Malaysia to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, 2007 (UNDRIP).

Of particular interest to Sarawak is the provision of Article 26 of the Declaration which deals with the legislation of the rights of indigenous peoples to own, use, develop and control their lands, territories and other resources which they have traditionally owned or occupied or otherwise acquired.

Incidentally, with reference to another human rights issue, may we enquire about the outcome of the Inquiry by Suhakam into the disappearance of a Christian pastor together with his followers. Where are they and how are they faring?

I was asking myself this question as we were approaching Sematan and thinking of the soft-skinned crabs that the place is famous for.

Where could they be found? I mean the missing Christians, not the delicious crustaceans.

Freedom is a great thing indeed. At the Telok Melano village, I was enjoying the breeze in the shade of a tuck shop whose owners had gone to Lundu to do some shopping, leaving me to ‘man’ the store. I did my job of showing the tourists from Bau the direction to a public toilet – a 2-starred facility.

The shop owners were anticipating a brisk business at their shop when a big crowd would be present now that fake news about an impending visit by a minister had become a reality.

A few more ringgits of extra income for the family would be good; more business is good for the morale in a village which until now had been accessible only by boat on a fine weather.

The Borneo Highway has reached the village and visitors from as far as Bau and Serian have started to go there for a picnic and a swim. The beaches are beautiful and clean. No plastics, for the time being.

On politics

On the way home, my thoughts were on politics. Freedom of speech and whether there will be freedom after the speech. For me, it was freedom of thought and freedom after thought.

Post script: I think that the Borneo Highway has not been officially declared a safe road and open for private vehicles – so, folk, drive on it at your own risk.

If you are not sure, consult your insurance company regarding your car or the PA coverage.