“TRUST US, WE KNOW BETTER THAN YOU DO”
Brown-brown arrogance is the new standard
Bishop Sotero Phamo argues that “the only way for our rural people to join modern society is through education.” Speaking enthusiastically in his diocese headquarters, which houses what is certainly the best school in the region, Bishop Sotero adds “I have 1,500 students to look after. Ornaments such as neck rings just create social barriers.”
I seek out a Padaung student to get her views. Beneletta, 17-years-old, is shy and attractive, with neat bangs and a Pepsodent smile. She wears a green sweatshirt and a faded sarong. “Yes, one or two girls in the village have neck rings,” she says. “And they’re still there – they’re too shy to leave. “When I was five or six some people in the community urged my parents to put the rings on me. My father refused; he didn’t want me to become a prisoner in the village.
Although the Bishop’s stringent no neck-ring policy might disappoint culture trippers, it probably is the right thing for the youngsters in the tribe.
Yet it smacks of a paternalism that one finds wherever someone in power sets the rules for those without power.
In Asia, the classic arrogance is white vs brown, the anthem of which is Kipling’s famous “white man’s burden”, which he penned on the occasion of America taking possession of the Philippines. He warned that when victory is near “Watch sloth and heathen Folly/Bring a your hopes to nought.”
While I lived in Asia I wondered why it was generally accepted that American Peace Corps volunteers, like me, were sent to Asia, but Asian countries never sent volunteers to help Americans? Why couldn’t Malaysian community development experts set up youth employment schemes in Los Angeles, or Iban community reforestation experts from Borneo help create town parks in Detroit?
Yet in today’s Asia, brown-brown arrogance is much more prevalent.
Take for example the message promoted by some Asian tourism boards which encourages foreigners to experience “native cultures”. This is an evolution of the African game park concept, but instead of judging the success of the holiday by whether the visitor sees elephants and lions, the cultural-safari tourist will go home content having bagged an all-night rice-wine blast with sons of headhunters in Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the island of Borneo
I sought out James Wong Kim Min for guidance.
Dato James is concurrently the Sarawak State Minister of Tourism and Local Government and one of the state’s biggest timber tycoons, a combination that might befuddle a lesser man.
Although pasty of complexion, he was bursting with energy. “What do you want to talk about? Penans?” he asked, referring to the controversial group of several thousand hunter-gatherers who live in the interior of the state.
James Wong loves to talk with foreigners about the Penan, whom the foreign press has idealized as a group of innocent, down-trodden, blowpipe wielding, loinclothed people who are wise in the ways of the forest but hopelessly naive when faced with modern Malaysian politics.
At least no one can accuse James Wong of shrinking from a good debate. “I met with Bruno’s Penans in the upper Limbang [River],” he said, referring to the Swiss Bruno Manser who lived with the Penan for several years and who allegedly encouraged them to blockade timber operations and fight for their rights. “I asked the Penan ‘who will help you if you’re sick?’ Bruno? The Penans now realize they’ve been exploited. I tell them the government is there to help them. But I ask them ‘How can I see you if you’ve blocked the road that I’ve built for you?’
I asked if he had a message for his critics
“This is my message to the west. If they can do as well as we have done and enjoy life as much as we do then they can criticize us. We run a model nation. We have twenty-five races and many different religions living side by side without killing each other. Compare that to Bosnia or Ireland. We’ve achieved a form of Nirvana, a utopia. Economic development, racial integration, and religious tolerance.”
Well, sort of. The state suffers from massive deforestation and massive corruption at the highest level, which has had a severe impact on the social structure of the country. Nevertheless, leaving aside the downtrodden and dispirited Penan for the moment, Sarawak is, in many ways, a model society. People’s lives are improving. Education is important. Health services are common. It may be poor in spots, but in general Sarawak is one of the most harmonious places I’ve ever lived. You can walk anywhere safely, and see smiles and eat good food cheaply and buy whatever you need and … well, forgetting the forest destruction, corruption, vote-buying and related social and environmental dilemmas for a moment, it’s a pretty good corner of the world.
I explained my experience with Penans who had been encouraged by generous government incentives to resettle into longhouses. How their natural environment had been hammered, how their faces were devoid of spirit and energy, how they had seemingly tumbled even further down the Sarawak social totem pole.
In reply, James Wong lectured me, as I have been lectured by numerous Asian officials when I raised similar concerns. In effect, he said “We just want our cousins the naked Penan to enjoy the same benefits we civilized folk enjoy.”
“We are very unfairly criticized by the west,” he added. “As early as 1980 I was concerned about the future of the Penans.” To prove it he pointed out a poem he had written:
” O Penan – Jungle wanderers of the Tree
What would the future hold for thee?….
Perhaps to us you may appear deprived and poor
But can Civilization offer anything better?….
And yet could Society in good conscience
View your plight with detached indifference
Especially now we are an independent Nation
Yet not lift a helping hand to our fellow brethren?
Instead allow him to subsist in Blowpipes and clothed
in Chawats [loincloths]
An anthropological curiosity of Nature and Art?
Alas, ultimately your fate is your own decision
Remain as you are – or cross the Rubicon!”