Malaysia was as mysterious to me as Gaza is probably mysterious to many others.
I knew nothing about its history, geography, politics and people until I accepted an invitation to speak at the Freedom Film Festival. After a month in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Borneo in East Malaysia, I have a new appreciation for the value of travel.
“Naila and the Uprising” was the perfect opportunity for me to prick the public’s conscience about the plight of the Palestinians. Naila and the Uprising (here’s a list of future screenings in the U.S.) is a true story about the role of women, and one woman in particular, who leads her people under very difficult circumstances with strength and moral courage.
My host – Viva Palestina Malaysia – arranged an interview with Juliet Jacobs on BFM Radio’s Feminist Fridays. What a treat that was! Juliet had obviously done her homework before I entered her studio. Our conversation about Gaza, the Freedom Film Festival and my interests in social justice advocacy flew by quickly. Here’s the link to the interview.
The power of filmmaking to spur social change must not be underestimated. I didn’t fully appreciate that fact until I heard Joakim Demmer, an internationally-acclaimed documentary filmmaker, speak about how to bring a local story to an international audience. His most recent film “Dead Donkeys Fear No Hyenas” is about the new green gold, the massive global commercial rush for farmland, in this case in Ethiopia. My conscience was pricked.
“Hoping for export revenues, the Ethiopian government leases millions of hectares of allegedly unused land to foreign investors. But the dream of prosperity has a dark side – the most massive forced evictions in modern history, lost livelihoods of small farmers, harsh repression and a vicious spiral of violence. Contributing to this disaster are the EU, the World Bank and DFID, providing billions of dollars in development money.”
During a break at the festival, someone pressed a copy of (the just published) Sarawak Report into my hands. I couldn’t put it down! Investigative reporter, Clare Brown, uncovered massive corruption with a trail leading all the way up to Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who was ousted from office just a few months before I arrived. The corruption involves the deforestation of Sarawak, Borneo on the east side of Malaysia, and a global money-laundering scheme worth USD Billions, with the U.S. now seeking extradition of an ex-Goldman banker from Malaysia.
From Kuala Lumpur, I took the train north to Penang Island near the border of Thailand. The Gift of Rain (2007) and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) by Tan Twan Eng had captured my imagination and I wanted to see for myself how this area had survived the Japanese invasion in WWII.
I learned about the delicate dance between the Chinese (about 60% of the population of Penang Island) and the Malays (32%). There’s a national law giving Malays preferential treatment over the Chinese in education, jobs, etc in an attempt to equalize the perceived inequities between the two groups. I met some serious high school students at the public library quietly studying on a Saturday morning amidst displays promoting study abroad in the USA, including at my son’s alma mater, the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The construction cranes were perched everywhere on Penang Island, a testament to the rapid growth and development occurring there. I met with representatives from Think City, a “community-focused urban regeneration organisation working closely with the local authorities, communities, institutions, private entities, and global experts to rejuvenate cities and solve contemporary urban issues with an emphasis on historic city centres.” I walked, walked, walked everywhere in the old center city of Georgetown and felt the energy of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to the amazing hawker stalls selling an extravaganza of food with names I can’t begin to pronounce, I also tasted the infamous Durian, a native fruit with such a malodorous smell that hotels, airlines and public buses warn people not to bring the Durian inside!
On my last day in Georgetown, I was invited to attend a press conference where a local environmental group (Penang Forum) was challenging the environmental impact report prepared for the new highway proposed to cross the island. Astonishingly, no alternatives to this mega-project had been analyzed even though it appeared to have already received the stamp of approval from the authorities. I expressed my dismay and shared that an EIR with no alternatives wouldn’t pass muster in the United States. Of course, as the “expert,” my opinion made it into the local paper the next day.
During my last week, I decided to visit Bario, a community of 13 – 16 villages in the Kelabit Highlands in Sarawak East Malaysia. I was drawn to Sarawak because of the book by the same title, but I was also blessed to have an introduction to a family in Bario by my hostess in Kuala Lumpur. I was routinely asked throughout my travels about my age and whether I was traveling alone, which must have struck many as very strange. I told everyone that I had angels with me everywhere I went. Flying into the remote Borneo highlands in a small plane full of men required no courage at all.
The Kelabit are an indigenous people in the Borneo highlands whose agricultural practices and rice paddies are very much the same as they were hundreds of years ago. Their families live together in longhouses built above ground on stilts to avoid the flooding.
I learned that most Kelabit are Evangelical Christians. On Sunday I attended a long church service and sat next to an old Kelabit woman who asked me to pray for her (through an interpreter) because her husband died recently. She also asked me to send her a copy of the selfie we took. I was captivated with the youth group’s singing.
The next day I walked down the road to the school and asked if I could visit a classroom. As luck would have it, many of the teachers in this secondary school were away attending a conference and I was enthusiastically welcomed to teach three classes (in English of course) that morning. The students come from the surrounding villages and live at the school except for the holidays when they return home to their families.
I learned about their dreams and aspirations and was surprised how much they knew about the U.S. — both politics and popular culture. Some were shy, others were inquisitive, and all of them were very polite.
After school, I walked to the public library near the school to donate my copy of The Sarawak Report. I was disappointed to see only children’s books on the shelves and asked the librarian why there were no adult books. She said the adults aren’t interested in the library, and only the children are patrons who come regularly with their classmates. It still seemed appropriate that The Sarawak Report should end up in the Bario public library.
Leaving Bario, I flew over Sarawak and saw the devastating impact of deforestation and introduction of palm oil plantations. It seems to me that the Kelabit have so much to teach the world about sustainable farming and living gently on the land in this era of climate chaos, but outside forces are rapidly overwhelming the landscape and the people, I fear.
The people I met, even more than the landscape and places I saw, were the highlight of my travel to Malaysia. Alhamdulillah!