Tuesday, May 01, 2012

East Is East

Six days in Brunei was enough and so I set off for Sarawak. One of the reasons I stayed so long was that I wanted to do a trek to Gunung Mulu national park, just outside the Bruneian border and accessible from BSB. It is famous for housing one of the largest caves in the world which is home to a population of several million bats as well as some magnificent primary rainforest and karst terrain. To be able to afford the tour though I had to find other people with whom to split the costs of transport, guides and porters, but unfortunately I had no luck. Such is the way when travelling solo: sometimes it is not possible to do certain activities because you need a group of people and they just aren't available. Instead I had to make do with the caves at Batu Niah, also in Sarawak, but only a dozen kilometres from the main highway instead of requiring several days' hike (or a trip by plane). The main cave there is also staggeringly huge and is home to several species of bats and swiftlets, whose droppings, like in caves throughout the region, carpet the floor and give it a characteristic, overpowering odour. What perhaps makes the caves at Niah special are that they have been home to humans for some 40,000 years, with some of the oldest archaeological finds in all of southeast Asia. And they have been continually used for that entire time up to the present day, where local tribes collect swiftlet nests. Although it's not the season for collection the bamboo scaffolds used by the collectors are still up and extend vertiginously 50m or more up to the roof of the cave, seemingly held aloft by a single, narrow pole, somehow defying the laws of gravity.

Looking back at the entrance to the main cave at Niah. You can see that plants manage to grow for a little distance into the cave, but then lack of sunlight allows only a few hardy mosses to grow and then nothing.

The first thing I noticed about the towns here in Sarawak is that most of the inhabitants are Chinese. Many shopfronts and street signs are in Chinese characters and the chatter in restaurants and cafes is almost entirely in the staccato tones of the prevalent Hokkien and Cantonese dialects. Sarawak and Sabah feel very different to Peninsular Malaysia, and in general the people are more relaxed and laid back. First of all there is a distinct local identity (especially in Sabah) different to that of the Peninsula, due in large part to a greater ethnic diversity. There are a myriad different ethnic groups and no one forms a majority, with indigenous groups being most numerous, followed by the Chinese and then the Malays. The reason that the Chinese are more visible is that they are more urban than the local tribes, who still mainly live in rural villages. There is a greater diversity in religion too, with a distinct Christian majority and more relaxed attitudes to drinking and other vices that are very much frowned upon in the staunchly Muslim Malay heartlands of the peninsula.In fact there is a good deal of resentment towards mainland Malays and the federal government in Kuala Lumpur across much of East Malaysian society (at least from pretty much everyone I have talked to, including ethnic Malays).

Signs in Sarawak are often in both Chinese and Malay (and usually English too), such as here at Sibu's bus terminal.

The dislike for the government has its roots in two major causes. The first is a combination of ethnicity and religion. When Malaysia first gained its independence in the 60's the ethnic Malays, who formed a slight majority overall, were relatively disadvantaged both economically and educationally compared to the Chinese and Indians. So a law was put in place whereby the bumiputras (lit. "sons of the soil", which also includes some indigenous tribes) would be positively discriminated for higher education positions, housing, government jobs and business in general (bumis must hold a 30% stake in any enterprise). Although the standards of Malays have risen, it is hard to tell whether this would not have happened anyway. There are, though, very concrete consequences of the law: it created a number of millionaires among the well-connected Malay elite; it has led to a bumi population that in certain regards has become lazy because it feels entitled to everything (non-bumis often complain of being unable to get into university as their places are taken up by less-qualified, and often indolent, Malays); and it has led to the imposition of Malay culture and religion on a truly multicultural society. Malays make up just over 50% of the population but their language and culture are promoted and they have a stranglehold on political power and the civil service. Similarly only 60% of the population is Muslim (although for Malays they have no choice, as they are automatically considered Muslim and are not allowed to change their religion under any circumstances) and yet not only is Islam the state religion, but there have been recent announcements by leaders stating that it is an Islamic country. That's not to say that Malaysia is a hotbed of ethnic tensions and conflict, and East Malaysia even less so, but there is an ever-increasing disenchantment with the system, which was initially supposed to be only temporary. Adding insult to injury is the recent programme launched by the government called 1Malaysia, exhorting the populace towards unity, harmony and other laudable goals. A bit rich calling for unity, say the detractors, when there is a privileged class within the country who are favoured at the expense of the others.

The second bone of contention is to do with money. East Malaysia is exceedingly rich in natural resources and produces the lion's share of the country's oil and gas, timber and palm oil, which are all major exports. 95% of that money though goes straight into federal coffers and locals say that they see precious little in return (according to locals their region is the least developed in Malaysia). Despite the negative feelings towards the mainland there is no talk of secession, instead there's a great distrust towards government, and the high corruption that is endemic there, and a desire to regain greater autonomy that they feel entitled to according to the agreement that was drawn up when they acceded to the federation.

Here you can see the fine scaffolds used by the birds' nest collectors that soar up to the cave ceiling

Whether the simmering resentment will lead to something greater I doubt, but the way that one group and its culture are given primacy over the others is the one facet of Malaysia that sticks in my throat. It may not be visible at first glance, but pandering to the nationalism of a very slim majority (which, according to my friends, has only gotten more extreme) is the wrong way of bringing about a truly multicultural country where the different ethnic groups intermingle (whether economically, socially or romantically). Luckily here in East Malaysia they disregard the more conservative currents of the Peninsula and proudly plough their own furrow.

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