Sunday, December 6, 2009

RECOLONIZING THE NATIVES


I UNDERSTAND the colonial mind extremely well. That's because the memory of having been a series of megalomaniacal empire-builders remains vividly imprinted in my deep psyche and prompts me to do everything in my power to warn the present generation against the insidious dangers of attempting to impose a rigid control grid over forces beyond our comprehension.

Perhaps this explains my visceral rejection of all forms of bureaucratic arrogance and misguided efforts to "civilize and domesticate" the natural world. Much as I love my sister, daughter #1, son-in-law, granddaughters, and all my beautiful nieces, nephews, cousins and grandnieces in Singapore - I'm always loath to visit the so-called Merlion City with all its infamous restrictions (no smoking in public places except where specially designated; and, in the old days, no longhaired men which necessitated my buying a shorthair wig just to gain entry).

Last month I had a close encounter with bureaucratic heavyhandedness which left a slightly sour taste in my mouth. It all arose over the hoo-ha a local businessman raised about the illegal road upgrading project in Pertak Village. This guy happens to be a member of PPP (People's Progressive Party) and a close friend of Dato' T. Murugiah (left), deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Department who oversees the Public Complaints Bureau.

I was surprised to receive a phonecall from T. Murugiah's personal assistant, a very pleasant lady named Shamini Bhaskaran, asking me for some background to the situation. So I wrote her a long email detailing the scenario and, before I knew what was happening, was informed that Dato' T. Murugiah was planning a visit to Pertak Village to see for himself what was going on. But before he could do so, he required a formal complaint to be lodged with his department, so I accepted the role - since Murugiah's businessman friend was unwilling to expose himself to the risk of losing the support of local bureaucrats who largely remain loyal to the Barisan Nasional.

On 15 September I had been visited by three Special Branch officers who informed me they were investigating a police report lodged against me by one Rapi Bata Abdullah - an Orang Asli Muslim convert and Umno member who had written a letter to Kuala Kubu Bharu state assemblyman Wong Koon Mun (right) requesting that the old logging trail through the Pertak forest reserve be asphalted.

To legitimize his request, Rapi had persuaded Bidar Chik, Batin of Pertak, to sign the letter. According to the SB officers, Rapi Bata had accused me of "obstructing" his road upgrading project (and thereby opposing "development" for the marginalized Orang Asli). He also alleged I was an agent of Western environmentalists and was harboring "Mat Salleh" activists - that's right, who are all jealous of Malaysia's success (yup, Mahathir has certainly left his indelible mamark... oops, I mean, mark on an entire generation of civil servants)!

This was followed by a visit from several high-ranking officers from the Selangor JHEOA (Orang Asli Affairs Department) who gently reproached me for bypassing them and going straight to the Public Complaints Bureau. I told them to their face that if it were up to me I would shut down their department without hesitation. Of course, I'd ensure that the people who worked in JHEOA would either be reassigned to other departments - or be given a generous payout so they could start their own businesses or acquire some useful skills.

Murugiah is crowned King of PPP in a party coup staged in May 2009

Dato' T. Murugiah's visit, originally scheduled for 30 October, was postponed for a week (his p.a. called up at the last minute and apologized on behalf of her boss, saying he was under the weather). My cellphone began ringing non-stop on the morning of 6 November. Reporters from the national news agency Bernama and Utusan Malaysia (Umno's much-maligned mouthpiece, famous for its acute ethnocentric halitosis) called up asking directions to Pertak Village.

It was amusing to see the media circus surrounding Dato' T. Murugiah's official visit. YB Wong Koon Mun was there accompanied by a cadre of MCA flunkeys in their North Korea-style paramilitary uniforms, along with reporters from Sin Chew Jit Poh and possibly Nanyang Siang Pau too. The New Straits Times was represented by a friendly but understandably jaded hack, while NTV7 sent a mobile unit and a very gung-ho crew to cover Murugiah's historic visit.

Even the district police chief, Supt Norel Azmi Affandi Yahya, was present with a platoon of senior officers (including the delectable Inspector Yusnita Samsudin who had "interviewed" me at the KKB police station at 11pm the night before, having sent a vanload of bullies-in-blue to summon me to her office).

When I was given the chance to speak, I voiced my indignation at the rude behavior of the policemen who had arrived at my residence at 10:30pm, demanding that I go down to the station to record a statement - and threatening me with arrest if I didn't comply.

They had clearly exceeded their authority in so doing, since I had commited no offence - and the urgency of the matter was entirely due to their dragging their feet on this case till the very last minute. They could have telephoned me anytime over the course of six or seven weeks, politely requesting that I come to the station at my own convenience to tell my side of the story.

In response, Supt Norel could only brag that the police in their zeal to perform their duties do not observe office hours. Such a smug and pompous old-school cop, he certainly would look the part better with a 19th-century-style handlebar mustache.

All in all, I estimate a total of 90 people were involved in this public relations exercise which was essentially an attempt to justify the RM200,000 roadworks through a forest reserve - and demonstrate how caring and generous the Barisan Nasional government was towards rural voters like the Temuan of Pertak Village.

My original complaint focused on the possibility of hanky-panky involving the misuse of public funds. YB Wong Koon Mun is, after all, a contractor and entrepreneur with fingers in many pies; and his Umno cronies have never been known to be overly concerned about how the Orang Asli are faring (indeed, the only thing that interests them is whether there are any logging concessions or resort projects they can apply for). Furthermore, Wong had instructed his contractor to start digging without obtaining the necessary permits from the District Office and Forestry Department.

When the Selangor state government learnt about this, a stop-work order had been issued through district councillor Chua Yee Ling - but, as to be expected, that only delayed MCA Wong for 3 or 4 days - the time it took for him to erect an official signboard announcing the road upgrading project.

This was clear proof that the Pakatan Rakyat state government is being undermined every step of the way by deadwood bureaucrats who haven't yet understood that Barisan Nasional wasn't appointed by Allah to forever misrule the country and enrich itself at public expense. It's a very serious issue that must be addressed. But how? Only a complete change of government at the federal level will resolve the problem.


Nevertheless, if an expensive "infrastructural upgrade" could be conjured out of thin air, these Barisan Nasional types become suddenly very anxious to help their indigenous brethren assimilate into the modern world (never mind lah that most of them remain stubbornly heathen) And, of course, what better emblems of modernity than asphalted roads (complete with speedbumps), cellphone towers, and - serunai fanfare plus a brief burst of kompang, please - STREETLIGHTS! Yes, the very things one requires to live comfortably at the edge of a forest.

MCA Wong described my protest as Greenpeace-inspired activism. Thanks for the compliment, Wong!

Rapi Bata Abdullah was the featured guest star of the day - a showcase Orang Asli with all the correct-correct-correct attitudes. First he had become a Muslim (at least in name); next he had joined Umno and seen the light. He understood all about commissions and cost overruns and how to instigate environmentally ruinous projects. Above all, he was loyal to the Barisan Nasional government and was aware that "militant tree-huggers" like me are the Enemies of Progress (as measured in the shallowest and most superficial terms).

In his desire to be seen as "progressive" Rapi had unwittingly turned himself into the Orang Asli version of an Uncle Tom. For a few official favors (and some quick bucks by way of payoffs) he had severed his own ancestral connections to the sacredness and inviolability of the land and was proud to be paraded before the crony media as an Orang Asli ready to embrace "modern values" - as represented by physical trappings such as asphalted roads, piped water, electricity, satellite TV, mobile phones, streetlights, neatly-mown lawns - and endless bills to pay.

The way the mid-level bureaucrats fawned and fussed over the visiting deputy minister, one would have imagined him to be at least a royal emissary, if not a king.

A century ago, T. Murugiah would probably have arrived on elephant back, with a full panoply of ceremonial guards and a bugle brigade. He would have been carried in a gilded palanquin to inspect the roadworks whilst being fed exotic tidbits by native girls bedecked with multicolored hibiscuses in their perfumed hair.

This is precisely what's wrong with the Barisan Nasional misgovernment. They're too enamored of pomp and circumstance. They love a splendid display of extravagance (city streets festooned with flashing lights and giant ketupats every Hari Raya) and, of course, the demonstrations of almighty grandeur and worldly power the Sultans have made their royal trademark.

(courtesy of SabriZain.org)

Can I blame the Brits for this, I wonder? After all, it was they who handpicked the most corruptible and compliant amongst the contending Malay chiefs to be crowned as Sultans (an honorific conveniently borrowed from the Turks). It was in their own interests to cultivate a narcissistic, self-serving species of native leader who would be so aloof and detached from their own subjects they would pose few problems for the colonial masters, who would then supplant the Sultans as the real government of the land.

When the Brits created a Malay political class to take over the lower echelons of bureaucracy, they taught them how to keep the hoi polloi at arm's length and present an unassailable façade of divinely ordained authority. Indeed, if you observe how Barisan Nasional ministers like to be fêted and fawned over wherever they go, you will certainly conclude that they all believe that being voted into public office gives them the divine right to be treated like pseudo-royalty. Hence, they view it as their religious duty to squirrel away massive amounts of non-declarable lucre in some offshore account whilst keeping just enough to set themselves up in palatial style.

And now, some 50 years after the Brits have returned to their swiftly shrinking, once-great imperial home, their political heirs, the Umno fat-cat bureaucrats, are faithfully maintaining the colonial legacy by recolonizing the original natives of this fair and bountiful land.

If the Orang Asli Affairs Department is allowed to continue existing, it wouldn't surprise me to find a future generation of Orang Asli behaving as corruptly, myopically, and arrogantly as their Malay mentors. By then they would willingly have exchanged their Orang Asli status for the dubious privilege of being lumped together with the Sumatran, Javanese and Bugis descendants of brigands, pirates and refugees from tribal wars.

As for Dato' T. Murugiah himself, I found him fairly intelligent and suave, oozing with effortless charm and self-confidence - but, alas, too typically a Barisan Nasional politician to be taken seriously as a human being. A few weeks after his visit to Pertak Village, I read in the news (online, of course) that Murugiah was in the process of being thrown out of the PPP. Should that happen, he would become a partyless deputy minister, and therefore vulnerable to vicious attacks from his cannibalistic colleagues in the increasingly irrelevant, insufferably arrogant and irredeemably corrupt Barisan Nasional.

Indeed, Murugiah might even lose his cabinet seat. Well, if that does occur, his p.a. has my phone number. I'd be happy to offer him some counseling on how to regain his human core and child-like spontaneity - and charge him ten times my usual fee.

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