Saturday, November 15, 2008

A letter from the Sarawak forest

Sim Kwang Yang
Nov 15, 08

The sprawling impenetrable primary rain forests in Baram in northern Sarawak is certainly not the place to lose one’s way, if one happens to be travelling through them. Nevertheless, that was what Ismail Salleh 31, and Rano Sani 26, did - losing their way in the jungle - in late October.

They were among 50 surveyors carrying out demarcation work for a multi-billion ringgit inter-state 500km gas pipeline project from Kimanis near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to Bintulu in Sarawak. Then they went missing on October 28. The police sent out search and rescue teams but they could not be found. They were in great peril.

Fortunately for our lost travellers, some Penans hunting and gathering in the jungle of Long Seridan found them and brought them to safety in their mountain settlement. For the Penans, the wild frightening jungle of Borneo is just like their backyard. They have been at the forefront of many such search and rescue missions in the past.

This story with a happy ending was reported in the Star on November 3 under the headline Penans decline reward. The Penans are a shy people; they would indeed never dream of getting a reward for doing what they see as a natural moral duty to help one another in the jungle in times of great peril. Being shy, they would shun all forms of public attention.

My question is this: when the Penans need help in their turn, how is the rest of Malaysia going to respond to them?

Recently, two letters found their way to my desk. I published the first one in another net portal The second letter is rather long, and so I have chosen to publish it below in my English translation of the original Bahasa Malaysia version.

The letter

The Letter is addressed to the the chairperson of Suhakam with a copy to the Ministry of Health. It was dated 9 September 2008. It goes as follows:

‘Dear Sir,

Re:A Penan patient untreated

We are writing this letter to complain about one Penan woman, J from Long B, 36 years of age, who had died due to bleeding from her private part after giving birth without getting proper attention from the Dresser (Medical Assistant) C.

Ms J had delivered her baby in November 2006. She was healthy after giving birth to her baby and there was no sign of sicknesses. Suddenly in the middle of December 2007, Ms J had found that her private part started bleeding like period, but the bleeding would not stop. She went to Long L clinic on the same month and her private part was washed and checked by a nurse named JA. After medical treatment, more blood came out from her private part in two weeks’ time. Two weeks after the treatment by the nurse, she felt very weak and almost fainted on the morning on 2 January 2008.

WKK (Village Health Committee member) Mr H went to Long L Clinic at 8.30am and met Dresser C. He told Dresser C to inform the doctor to send helicopter to save Ms J’s life because her private part kept bleeding and it was getting so bad that she could not move anymore. She couldn’t take the 40 minute boat trip from Long B to Long L because she was too weak.

Dresser C said “It is not easy to get a helicopter; it will cost us a lot of money. If the sickness is not serious, people will scold me. Just take her to Long L by today. I will go down to Marudi by today at 10.15 am by MAS”.

Mr H said “Ms J cannot reach Long L, and I was hoping you Dresser C to look after Ms J and give her some medicine while she is waiting for the helicopter”.

Dresser C said “Ms J’s husband didn’t take his wife to go down to Marudi while she was pregnant, as instructed by me, and so if she dies, perhaps that was his responsibility”.

Mr H, “Ms J did not have enough energy to go down in 2006. This sickness was not her choice either”.

Dresser C said the clinic phone was not working properly. Mr H was asking Dresser C to give him permission to use the phone at Long L’s School. He went to the said school. After that Mr H came back to meet Dresser C again just to inform him that the phone at the said school was working properly and the principal has approved its use, in accordance with Dresser CJ’s instruction.

Dresser CJ said, “I have no time and am too busy trying to go down to Marudi. If the bleeding has been going on for two weeks, usually there is no escaping death.”

Mr H said, “Ms J is still alive; she’s not dead yet. You have to try your best to treat her. She is a human being just like us”.

Dresser Charles said, “Perhaps, I might get the helicopter to Long L when I reach Marudi later, while you wait for it in Long B by tomorrow morning”.

Mr H heard from the nurse telling Dresser C that she couldn’t treat the said patient properly even if they take the said patient at Long L’s clinic. Then, Dresser C left for Marudi.

Mr H went back to Long L at 12.30 pm. Ms J couldn’t sit and talk anymore, but was still able to eat.

Finally, she died at 5.30 pm on 2 January 2008. There was no helicopter coming to Long L or Long B.

We hope there will be nobody who will not take care of the Penan people. We are not lying, if we say we do not have money to go to Marudi hospital for our medical care. We accept medical care and development with an open heart.

According to Mr H’s son, Dresser C even said to him “your father is not a good guy because he led people to mind the blockade to fight with the timber company. That makes it hard to have development in Long B.

Penan people are human too and their lives are as important as others. We disagreed with the timber’s company but agreed with the development that would provide us with the facilities such as medicine, education, clinic and MAS airport. Our land is our life.

H, Committee of Health Village, Long B

J J, Eldest son of J

The letter ends there.

Truth has to be told

I have no way of verifying the facts of the case, since the Penan complainants live in the deep jungle, and I, in KL. But I have verified with the person before whom the letter was written, and to whom the letter was entrusted. This witness is a long-time close friend whose integrity is unquestioned. Penans do not lie, except for those odd ones who have been bought by the timber companies or intimidated by the government.

I have hidden the identity of the medical offender in order not to cast aspersion on him unjustly. More importantly, I have hidden the identity of the Penan complainants to protect them from vindictive punitive actions by the local Little Napoleons. In the jungle of Sarawak, nobody can hear your scream when great harm descends upon you from behind trees. Bruno Manser found that out. And so have a few Penans in the past.

The story in the letter is told in typically Sarawak native fashion, long, winding, full of details, but forever respectful. You have to use your imagination to fill in the gap, for what is important is what is not said. You may even have to dig out the map of Sarawak to appreciate the vast expensive distances over very rough terrain that has to be travelled by the Penans between the places named in the letter.

The message conveyed in this long tale in the letter is an appeal for help. They do not need logging as their form of “development”, because logging destroys their heritage and their food source like wild game and wild sago. The forest to them is like the Giant supermarket to us, except that the forest never charges them any money. On the other hand, logging only produces fabulous wealth for the handful of politico-business elites.

The Penans do need development like schools, airports, and clinics, and infrastructure to get to their hospitals in the faraway major towns in northern Sarawak. For that, helicopters are a necessity.

I wonder whether this letter has reached the Ministry of Health or Suhakam. Frankly, I do not have much faith in either of these two agencies.

So I have decided to publish this letter on Malaysiakini. There must be some place where the Penans’ feeble and plaintive voices can be heard, so that the truth can be told.

The story told in the letter is also valuable, so that Penans’ suffering is given a human face and a name. Wherever they are, whatever their skin colour, ladies all over the world can feel the excruciating pain of the type of post-natal bleeding that attacked a fellow lady by the name of J. Perhaps, J did not have to die. As the letter writer H said so eloquently, J did not choose to get sick!

If you are lost in the wild dangerous jungle, you will jump for joy if you bump into some Penan hunters, and thank them as angels sent by God to rescue you. But what if the Penans sent out a letter for your help?

SIM KWANG YANG was Bandar Kuching MP from 1982-1995. He can be reached at


amoker said...

THanks for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

sad aint it? but the winds of change are descending into Sarawak. May the new CM remember this tragic incident so that more resources are channelled to assist them.
Forget about the present corrupt regime. They wont raise a hand to help but instead will continue to plunder the state resources.