BOOK REVIEW Most Malaysians living in the peninsula are unfamiliar with the cultures and the living conditions of East Malaysian natives; hopefully, Baru Bian’s book ‘The Long Awakening’ will bridge the geographical divide.
The self-published book, which was authored by the PKR state assemblyperson for Ba’kelalan with the help of a former journalist, Deborah Loh, was supposed to be a joint project with Selangor speaker Hannah Yeoh. Both had studied law in Australia before.
Yeoh’s book has received a very good response from her supporters, with people queuing up to buy autographed copies at Canaanland, a local Christian bookshop in Centrepoint, Bandar Utama, but Baru’s book has yet to receive similar coverage in peninsula Malaysia.
However, the PKR man has been featured quite prominently inMalaysiakini and a number of other portals lately.
Window into East Malaysia
Writing like a novelist, Baru has shed some light into the cultures and living conditions of his own people, the Lun Bawang. Honestly, before reading the book, I was only aware of the bigger groups such known as the Ibans and the Bidayuhs (the Dayak Laut and Dayak Darat) and perhaps, the smaller but much-publicised Penan tribe.
Like the Penan, the Lun Bawang is currently labelled as ‘dll’ (short for ‘and other races’). Whether all the native groups in Sarawak will be labelled as ‘Dayaks’ is yet to be seen, especially since the DAP has recently filed a motion to classify all native communities to be officially known as Dayaks.
Although we are supposed to be one nation, the East Malaysians have been abandoned, while we were pursuing modernisation and building skyscrapers in the federal capital. Growing up in the peninsula, most of us have ‘forgotten’ about our East Malaysian brothers and sisters, and they, too, do not give a hoot about the politics of the day in the Klang Valley.
After all, Kuala Lumpur or Putrajaya are far too remote from their local lifestyles, where natives customary rights (NCR) are becoming popular these days, thanks to the hard work of lawyers like Baru and non-governmental organisations which are trying to protect the rainforests in Sarawak.
What Baru’s book described as primitive life when he was a young boy is no different from what I saw with my own eyes when I visited one of the Iban communities in Sarawak at the end of last year.
Instead, their native lands have been taken away from them by loggers who are politically-linked. A hydroelectricity dam may be just a few kilometres downstream, but the community at Nanga Sumpa is still depending on generator sets that supply electricity from 7pm through 11pm.
The wealth of their lands has been taken away from them, while they continue to live in poverty.
Corruption is to be blamed for the people’s living conditions.
Even recently, Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem had to publicly declare that in his term of office, he would leave behind a different legacy from former chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Critics say the new chief minister’s words were nothing but rhetoric because the state election is round the corner. Talk is cheap. You can show some actions to fool the people, especially when the election is round the corner, but until you can go after your brother-in-law and have him return every sen belonging to the people, there is no credibility even in Adenan’s words.
Sarawak, being a vote bank for the ruling coalition, is supposed to be one of the most resource-rich states in the country, but most people are still living below the poverty line. Baru’s book gives a good insight why the people continued to vote for the ruling coalition, despite being left out.
Awakening to grim reality
Thanks to the political tsunami of 2008, most Malaysians have been awakened to the grim reality - after nearly 40 years after Merdeka - that we find ourselves in as a nation.
Largely attributed to the efforts by the Pakatan state governments in Penang and Selangor which were the first to declare Malaysia Day as their state holidays, Sept 16 was finally declared as a national public holiday.
Historically, this is, in fact, a more important national holiday compared to Merdeka, because it was in 1963 that Malaysia was formed, comprising the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. It marked the birth of a new nation.
Baru’s book explains in detail how the Sarawakians were also awakened as a result of what happened in West Malaysia. In the early days, Baru observed that “the lack of Dayak unity is one reason for the constant turmoil in Dayak politics”.
“It is to the detriment of the native constituents. Over time, the tribal communities deep in the interior have become disenfranchised and unaware of their rights. Their leaders are busy conspiring against one another instead of educating the people,” Baru wrote.
“If people wonder why the level of political awareness in East Malaysia is not up to speed with peninsular Malaysia, I believe it is the long years of entrenched disempowerment in native mindsets and the constant infighting. Logistical issues like the great distances between interior areas and towns, and lack of communication infrastructure and access to information, are also major impediments.”
In an email correspondence with Baru, he wrote: “Today, undeniably Sarawakians, since until recently, we are still categorised as ‘Lain-Lain’ in official documents. How Malaysian can one get under this kind of atmosphere?” As a result, the natives in Sarawak felt they have their own lives to live and they could not care less about what happened in what they call “West Malaysia”.
Baru’s recommendation will help to bring about the wind of change in Sarawak. “Political education,” he wrote, “had to continue until people were able to see the bigger picture - a change of state government is necessary if they wanted better policies for their native customary lands.”