First published in VOX, May 6, 2001
Dream Becomes Nightmare
WHEN I MOVED to Pertak, Ulu Selangor, in April 1992 my life took on a dreamlike quality. Beyond the reach – or so I believed – of the monstrous machinery of industrial society, my thoughts grew quiet and my spirit expanded. Watching the river gush along its cheerful way on sunny days, and then seeing it transform itself into an angry, roaring dragon in full spate, it was easy to free oneself from the mundane moorings of the third dimension. The River, for me, had become the central metaphor of Life itself: an everflowing current of pure vitality, utterly unperturbed by human notions of time.
And as for space, the constant view of distant hills gave one a sense of endlessness, just as seeing the horizon when gazing out at sea frees the imagination from petty concerns and reminds one that the human world of art and artifice is by no means the only available reality option.
The large house I was renting was perched on a hill overlooking the Chiling River. Mondays through Fridays it was a heavenly hermitage, with no neighbours around, and hardly any traffic noise from the road about 300 yards away. On weekends friends would turn up loaded with goodies and provisions, all set to let down their hair and party. One couldn’t ask for a more idyllic lifestyle. For me the next step would have been to acquire a long lease on the property – perhaps even buy it over as a cooperative – so that we could begin to build the ecospiritual community I had long envisioned. We needed to look into the possibility of solar and wind power generators so that we could be self-sufficient in energy.
Many friends had promised to contribute to the grand idea of Magick River as a self-sustaining autonomous community dedicated to healing of self and Mother Earth through a love of nature and the arts. Permaculturists would come and live with us for a year, and help set up our gardens of perpetual abundance. Architect friends were enthusiastic about helping us design and build simple, eco-friendly dwellings on the 3-acre grounds – adequate shelter for up to 30 people so that we could provide basic hospitality to a transient population of writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, botanists, herbalists, poets, and other refugees from the insanity of mindless, money-driven progress.
It would, in effect, be a nursery of alternative visions benefiting from close proximity to the wholesome influence of the local Orang Asli community. Prior to this I had never had the privilege of meeting and befriending these humble, gentle folk. Now they were my nearest neighbours and I looked forward to learning whatever I could from their traditional lore and unassuming ways. It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of my pre-conceived notions about the Orang Asli had to be drastically modified. For one thing, this particular community had been among the first to be culturally impacted by rapacious intruders – simply because they were in Selangor, the fastest developing state and fairly close to the dynamic hub of a rapidly modernizing nation.
The first thing I noticed was that the women and children possessed an irresistible charm but the men – especially the younger ones – were a fairly dispirited lot who sought in vain to replenish their feelings of self-worth by getting drunk and hanging out at the snooker parlour. True, they seemed enormously strong when it came to transporting great loads of bamboo and cane for miles through the forest. Physically they were impressive in their agility and stamina, but psychologically they weren’t at all sure of themselves or of their tribe’s future. They just didn’t want to deal with the painful truth of their cultural and political disenfranchisement. Man-made decrees had effectively turned them into mere squatters on ancestral hunting grounds entrusted to their guardianship - according to their oral traditions - by the Creator.
I was forced to move out of paradise when the property changed hands but soon found myself another perfect spot near a small waterfall a few minutes’ hike from Pertak Village. There I had a roomy two-storey hut built that was mostly one big verandah and it became my home for the next five years. My days were spent gazing in wonder at the dreamy flight of spotted lacewings as they glided gracefully above the trees to the neverending song of the waterfall. An underground spring supplied me with an abundance of crystal clear mineral water and a modest vegetable plot provided angled beans, pumpkins, bananas, papayas, tapioca, sweet potato leaves, and chili padi. During the season durians (a highly prized local fruit) came rolling down the hill onto my kitchen floor. There was no electricity, no phone, no landlord. Which meant I could live fairly comfortably on a few hundred ringgit a month for supplies, transport, and phonecalls made from Kuala Kubu Baru town (about 7 miles away). Simply by writing an occasional magazine feature or churning out a few cartoons, I earned enough to feed myself and my little family, plus several dogs and a cat.
This dream of rustic splendour and serenity lasted all of two years, until the loggers moved in. I had read about deforestation and its debilitating effects on the ecosystem, but that was all academic. Suddenly I found myself forced into environmental activism, in defence of the beautiful area I now called home. The battle to beat off the loggers exposed me to the dark side of state bureaucracies and the deeply entrenched corruption that has grown fat on generations of public indifference. I dicovered, to my chagrin and horror, that state forestry officers view themselves mainly as collectors of jungle excise and haven’t the foggiest notion of conservation. Their main function, it appears, is to assign a monetary value to each variety of hardwood. Logging is considered illegal only when the state derives no revenues from the destruction – or when the unofficial commissions are considered insufficient. In this particular instance, nature intervened and stopped the logging with one massive flash flood that swept away a whole stretch of road and inundated the new township of Ampang Pecah.
There was a two-year reprieve during which plans to establish a base for the Magick River community were resumed. A young friend spoke to the headman and got the go-ahead to begin building a few simple huts by the river, the beginnings of a modest hospitality business in which the Orang Asli could be directly involved. When the first structure was almost completed the headman did an abrupt turnabout and ordered the Orang Asli workmen to down tools; but since they had already accepted an advance on the project, they felt obliged to finish at least one hut. Feeling his authority threatened, the headman reported my friend’s project to the Orang Asli Affairs Department which decided to let the police take care of the “problem” in their own inimitable way.
One evening in late July 1998, my friend, who had been staying in my high hut, was visited by two policemen on motorbikes. They politely invited him down to the station “to have a chat with the superintendent.” It would only take half-an-hour or so, they said, and promised to provide transportation back. Trustingly, my friend agreed to ride pillion down to the local copshop where he was handed a bottle and asked to piss into it. He was informed that it would take up to 14 days for the results of the urine analysis to be sent back from Kuala Lumpur, and in the meantime he would be remanded in the lock-up with 50 other suspected drug addicts, car thieves, and illegal immigrants.
That was the turning point - when my lifelong dream of living in a beautiful and truthful community founded on peace, love, and harmony began to turn into a nightmarish reality ruled by deceit, cruelty, greed, and treachery.
On August 25 1998 my young friend was sentenced to two years in a rehab centre because traces of cannabinol had been found in his urine sample. How he got out of that ludicrous situation is another story - but from that moment onwards, I noticed a dramatic shift in the matrix of reality all over the planet. It was as if a predatory shadow had fallen across all our hopes for the future.
In October, 1998, we found out that the government intended to dam the Selangor River and create an artificial lake the size of Subang Jaya, thereby inundating a massive portion of the verdant river valley that had been for thousand of years the hunting ground of the Temuan tribe.
Within weeks hundreds of concerned citizens had rallied to the call to defend the beautiful Selangor River Valley. The Magick River website was activated in January 1999 and a campaign was mounted to persuade the government to consider less destructive alternatives to the dam. Soon, other websites were launched to help get the message across. By the middle of 1999, SOS (Save Our Sungai) Selangor had collected at least 15,000 signatures and thousands had written letters of protest to the Department of Environment. All our well-reasoned arguments fell on deaf ears (as to be expected) even though people everywhere are finally beginning to wake up to the fact that we can’t afford to desecrate what little is left of the natural environment.
By this time, my high hut was beginning to feel a little unsafe. I decided to build a sturdier structure on the same spot and stand my ground – come hell or high water. But fate intervened in October 1999, and a freak mudslide devastated the area, leaving my hut standing, though leaning at a precarious angle. Rocks the size of a Kancil, mud, sand, and old tree stumps had come crashing down the waterfall and raised the ground level by at least a metre. The mudslide was caused by heavy hillslope logging carried out in 1996. I had written to the chief minister, the Department of Environment, the Health Department, and several newspapers at the time, warning that the logging concession would ruin the water supply of Pertak Village and endanger the health of the villagers. There had been no response, of course.
And so I found myself living once again in a rented house in Kuala Kubu Baru town, amidst the maddening noise of idiot bikers and municipal grasscutters. Denied proximity to the sound of running streams and the uplifting sight of stately Raja Brookes, I turned to the dubious delights of virtual reality, spending hours at the computer and building a labyrinthine website.
In February 2000 the heavy equipment began to arrive. Initially I saw only a few bulldozers and excavators. Each day the area began to look more and more like an occupied zone. It was like the return of the Japanese Army. Hardhatted Gamuda engineers in Suzuki Jeeps arrived in force, supervising the systematic destruction of the most beautiful river valley I’ve yet to discover in the Malay Peninsula. Some made a feeble attempt to befriend the locals, while others displayed no emotion whatsoever as they went about their business. Cari makan lah. Everyone’s got to eat. But the defensive look on all their faces was a dead giveaway. Deep within their hearts they obviously knew that what they were doing was a crime against nature and their own posterity.
Although it’s a mere 15 minutes’ ride from town to Pertak Village, I found myself more and more reluctant to make the trip. Having had the good sense to arrive on earth after the Second World War, I had never seen brutal carnage on a scale as massive as this. Now I was witness to the methodical murder of thousands of mature hardwoods and fruit trees, not to mention other lifeforms: pangolins, frogs, snakes, bearcats, clouded leopards, tortoises, turtles, civets, porcupines, beetles, snails, flying lizards, agamids, skinks, sloths, pheasants, owls, bamboo rats, nestling birds of unknown variety, butterfly larvae, earthworms, inchworms, fireflies. It was all too much to bear. Within 6 months, the loggers and diggers and blasters had turned my vision of heaven into a veritable hell, an ecological holocaust. Some Orang Asli were paid cash compensations for their destroyed durian orchards - and wasted no time spending it all on new vehicles and bottles of Martell.
When the Selangor River burst its banks recently and flooded Rawang, I allowed myself a small smile of perverse satisfaction. If we’re too caught up in our petty preoccupations to appreciate and defend nature’s wondrous epiphanies against money-grubbing marauders, what we shall inevitably reap is eco-apocalypse.
© Antares (Kit Leee) 2001