Blinded By Greed: Pertak Bulletin, July 1996

A quiet but significant battle is raging in the tranquil green sanctuary of Pertak - an edenic forest reserve en route to Fraser's Hill, crisscrossed by clear mountain streams - and ancestral home of the Temuan (one of Peninsular Malaysia's 19 aboriginal tribes).

On one side we have the socio-culturally and economically marginalized Temuan, for whom the entire bioregion is a sacred site, prominently featured in their creation myths, and whose right to uphold their hereditary status as de facto Keepers of the Rainforest has been in a legalistic limbo for generations. And we also have the Earth healers, adventure seekers, jungle trekkers, nature lovers, ethnologists, botanists, ecotourists - not to mention the hundreds of campers and picnickers who make a weekly pilgrimage to Pertak for some welcome respite from the pollution and stress of the Klang Valley.

On the other side we have the money-crazed loggers, developers, and heavy-handed bureaucrats whose Vision of Progress is measured exclusively by the GDP, Five-Year Plans and nebulous statistical surveys - and for whom Political Correctness translates as a secure retirement plan.

The current crisis in paradise stems from the little-known fact that the Orang Asli ("First Peoples") are not given the option to elect their own Batin  (Headmen). The position is appointed by the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA), which has maintained a jealous monopoly on Orang Asli affairs since 1957 - having taken over from the Colonial government's Department of Aboriginal Affairs as an auxiliary of the Home Ministry at the height of the Emergency. After the Communist Party surrender in December 1989, the JHEOA was placed under the aegis of the National Unity and Social Development Ministry.

In the case of Kampung Orang Asli Pertak - the smallest and greenest of several Temuan settlements in Ulu Selangor - the Batin has chosen to play "enemy of the people" by getting entangled in dubious business schemes, aided by invisible partners who are probably not Orang Asli - and certainly not Orang Halus (elven folk).

On April 1st  the Selangor Forestry Department approved an application to log an area approved for gazetting in 1965 as Orang Asli reserve land. The permit was issued to a business entity called Kawasan Orang Asli Pertak Enterprise ostensibly owned by the Batin of Pertak. The problem is that none of the other Orang Asli in Kampung Pertak was party to the scheme. They only learned about the existence of K.O.A. Pertak Enterprise when some families were paid RM500 as "dividends". The batin explained that the cash was "duit saguhati"  (which translates literally as "consolation money") accruing from a fictitious "Koperasi Orang Asli" (Orang Asli Co-op). What they were NOT told was that their Batin had sold the logging permit to an agency called Reaksi Rezeki Sdn Bhd, working in partnership with a Chinese contractor. The Batin, when questioned by reporters, disclosed that he had been paid RM70,000 - plus a RM600 monthly personal stipend - and that a sizable "commission" had gone straight into the pocket of his JHEOA "adviser." In a classic example of administrative hubris, the Batin had sold  the logging rights to his tribe's ancestral home - and "in line with" the government's firm policy of "Leadership by Example," he hadn't bothered to to consult or inform anybody except his wife.

This would allow the logging company unlimited access to over 300 acres of high-grade timber with an estimated market value of RM3 million or more. In physical terms the concession would effectively devastate two-thirds of the acreage approved for gazetting as Orang Asli reserve land.

Logging concessions in the past decade - many facilitated by JHEOA officers working through their puppet headmen - have caused horrific damage to the forested hills and magical rivers of Pertak, as well as other formerly scenic parts of Ulu Selangor. Massive erosion has occurred, with millions of tons of sand and mud and dead trees crashing down the raging rivers in frighteningly frequent flash floods - adding to swiftly worsening flood disasters downstream.

The latest logging concession, which began operations on 10 July (three weeks before its August 1st official date of commencement), has already contaminated the village water supply at its source. Instead of crystalline virgin water, Pertak villagers now  find a greasy, yellowish ooze trickling out of their mud-clogged kitchen pipes.

Understandably, the natives are getting restless and irritable. Apart from the immediate health threat of contaminated water, many of their fruit trees have been destroyed by bulldozer activity deep in their ancient hunting and burial grounds. As they have not been officially granted permanent tenure on their rightful land, they can only gripe about short-term losses. But deep within their marrow, they all know that their spiritual legacy and traditional way of life are gravely endangered. For their true home is the unbounded rainforest teeming with an uncatalogued variety of flora and fauna - not the ramshackle shanties in which they cook their meals and bed down.

The Temuan appear mysteriously detached from the eminent prospect of cultural death. After all, their nenek-moyang (ancestors) did warn them about the possible destruction of the world. This would be signalled by the naga  - the dragon animating the geomagnetic forcefield - unleashing its fury. They believe that when the aboriginal tribes of this Earth are no longer visible, the rest of the human race will be exterminated by another cosmic-scale catastrophe. Nonetheless they live in the hope that Earth will merge with Heaven, ushering in an age of abundance for all - if the pendatang  (newly-arrived humans) learn to value their indigenous communities before it's too late.

The JHEOA seems scornful of the Orang Asli's pagan beliefs. It sees its mission as that of Chaperone to the Orang Asli, as the nation marches full-tilt towards wholesale industrialization. JHEOA officers wax lyrical about firmly guiding their wards towards market-oriented farming or small-scale entrepreneurship - or at least changing their poor attitude as regards steady employment in the lower echelons of the brave new socio-economic order. As it is, so much revenue has been flowing out of the country through the burgeoning migrant labor force of Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Filipinas.

Pertak Villagers Meet the Loggers and the JHEOA
As the ominous invasion of bulldozers continued destroying their fruit trees and churning their durian trails into mudbaths, the enraged Temuan began muttering threats against their Headman. An emergency meeting was convened on l6 July at the community hall, presided over by two JHEOA officers, a smooth-talking logging company spokesman named Mat Rosli, and a visibly beleaguered Batin.

The villagers were eager to ventilate their ill feelings towards their Batin over past and present grievances. However, the senior JHEOA officer declared that the issue was strictly between them and the logging company, which was ready to entertain all reasonable claims. He went on to impress upon the villagers that they should rouse themselves from apathy and get aligned with Mahathir's Vision 2020 (hailed by some as an ambitious crash course in ultra-modernization, unprecedented in the history of industrial civilization - and reviled by others as a high-cost, low-value Death Star project modeled after George Lucas's neo-mythical Evil Empire).

"Your land will soon be worth a lot more than you realize," said the JHEOA officer. "Especially with the growing demand for country-style housing in scenic spots. Just look at the success of our infrastructural upgrading scheme at Bukit Manchong." He used the word "infrastruktur" a great deal, caressing each consonant with his tongue.

Kampung Bukit Manchong is located on the raggedy fringes of a sprawling new housing project cynically named Bukit Beruntung or "Profitable Hill." Its 500-strong Temuan population was recently rewarded with electricity and piped water, plus food hampers and cash, after half the community agreed to embrace Islam. To drive home his message, the JHEOA officer added, "One day your area might be worthy of the name Pertak Heights!"

It would appear that the JHEOA envisions a bright future for itself as business advisor to the Orang Asli and manager of their land resources. Which may be well and fine, considering that most Orang Asli are remarkably resistant to book learning. As Temuan shaman-singer Minah Angong quips, "The parang is our pen!" No self-respecting Orang Asli ventures into the forest without his or her trusty machete.

However, it is difficult to imagine such an arrangement working to the Orang Asli's advantage, since the JHEOA has yet to show any genuine consideration for, or even interest in, the Orang Asli worldview and their highly instructive cosmogony. The extraordinary fact is, JHEOA officers hardly ever spend more time than necessary in the company of their wards - unless there is a business scheme afoot, like the phantasmal "Koperasi Orang Asli"- or the headman's dubious logging company, "K.O.A. Pertak Enterprise" - which was obviously set up for him by some scheming JHEOA officer.

The Pertak villagers did not reveal any enthusiasm they might have felt about the JHEOA version of a Glorious Future in the Making. There was no audible response when the JHEOA officer concluded his sales pitch with the question: "Does everyone here agree?" Instead they vociferously reiterated their annoyance at the damage inflicted on their dusun (smallholdings) by the would-be loggers. They also complained that the Batin was in the habit of withholding gratuities due them.

The loggers' spokesman Mat Rosli (an ex-commando and jungle scout who knows every acre of loggable land in Ulu Selangor) had come prepared with huge amounts of cash. The rest of the meeting was taken up by a clamorous quarrel with the batin over the extent of "goodwill payments." Obviously the loggers were not at all keen to stop work, having already invested a fortune in acquiring the permit, legitimate or not.

Earler I had raised the question of water supply, but the JHEOA officer simply passed the buck over to the Batin, who was heard to remark: "So what's the big deal? Clear or murky, it's still perfectly drinkable!"

Before the JHEOA officers left the proceedings to embark on a Pajero tour of the logging concession, I had felt compelled to voice my feelings about their proposed scenario of development for Kampung Orang Asli Pertak. Having witnessed the ugly side of profit-driven housing schemes and the ecologically unsound effects of "scientific" agriculture, I politely suggested that the JHEOA view the Orang Asli value system with greater sensitivity and receptivity. Alternative visions of "progress" must be examined. For instance, opting for soft rather than hard technology; "soft" meaning minimally invasive and non-destructive of the natural environment.

The JHEOA officer heard me out - and then he questioned my right to participate in the affairs of the Temuan. A few villagers shouted, "He's married into the tribe." At that he raised his eyebrows: "But do you all accept his living here?" To which there was a resounding, "Yes!" The Batin looked like he was about to say something. Then he shook his head in disbelief and looked utterly bored. The senior JHEOA officer directed his gaze at me and said, almost sympathetically: "I grew up in a kampung myself, but you're talking about turning the clock back 50 years. Anyway, you're a newcomer, so don't talk too much!"

It was quite clear that his bureaucratic sights were rigidly focused on bringing Progress and Development to the Temuan of Pertak, whether they wanted it or not.

At one point I asked to see the logging permit, and Mat Rosli very civilly complied, assuring me that it had been personally approved by Selangor Mentri Besar (Chief Minister) Tan Sri Muhammad bin Muhammad Taib.

Which, I suppose, makes it all aboveboard - despite the Department of Environment's strict ruling against logging on hillslopes.

(Copyright 1996, Antares)
Excerpt from TANAH TUJUH, for permission to reprint please email