Friday, June 6, 2014

The Path to Pulau Buah (In Memory of Bidar Chik, Batin of Pertak)

Bidar Chik, Batin (headman) of Pertak, breathed his last today around 10:30 a.m. I dedicate this chapter from TANAH TUJUH ~ Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos to his fond memory.

Bidar Chik was appointed Batin of Kampung Pertak in 1994, the year I took up residence in the High Hut.
Initially we had our differences - when he allowed loggers into the area - but we became close allies during
the campaign against the Selangor Dam a few years later.
 My parting gift to him was this garland.


PULAU BUAH, the Isle of Fruits, is the Temuan paradise, the Garden of Eden we knew as Home before the... what? The Fall? The Great Flood? Even Seri Pagi wasn't too sure what terrible crime we had committed as a species to have warranted banishment from Pulau Buah. Surely the gods would not introduce sexual reproduction to the human race only to punish us for it? (No one seemed to have given this any thought. Indah merely told me the tale she probably heard when her first period arrived: the one about Tuhan finding menstrual stains on the Stairway to Heaven and deciding to seal it forever to humanity.)
    
“Sometimes we can still visit Pulau Buah,” Seri Pagi said, “but only in dreams, or if we're very ill and in a sort of coma. In the old days, we had dukun (shamans) who were powerful enough, and pure enough, to travel there without losing their physical connection to the Earth. Nowadays, we only tell stories about Pulau Buah.”
   
Mak Minah said her great-grandmother used to travel to Pulau Buah in her dreams. “She told us there was a great tree in a beautiful clearing by a crystalline stream. The tree was laden with ripe rambutans (a hairy-skinned, succulent, juicy fruit) - only these were no ordinary rambutans, they were enormous! And best of all, she could reach up and pluck a fruit from the lowest branch without any effort. The spirit of the tree told her not to throw away the peel after she had eaten the fruit. Instead, she had to carefully place the peel on the ground below the branch where the fruit had been growing. One fruit was enough to satisfy her, it was so large and so delicious. The next time she returned to the spot, the same fruit was back on the branch, ready to be plucked and eaten!”
    
Nadi Empok & his wife Lumoh in 1994
Penengah admitted that he had tried to visit Pulau Buah in his youth, and failed. “Before you can proceed, you must go to the foot of Gunung Raja and wait for an invitation. If the guardian favors you, you will somehow find yourself going up the mountain. I've heard the old folks telling of signs and special spirit guides that can show you the path to Pulau Buah, which is not in this world. I didn't even get beyond the foot of Gunung Raja. If the guardian doesn't want you to enter the sacred realm, the mountain itself will move away, so that you find yourself somewhere else. 

Well, that's what happened. I was there with a few friends. We were certain it was Gunung Raja. Then there was heavy rain and strong winds and strange sounds that really frightened us. Of course, it could have been a tiger or leopard, but even if it was, you can bet it was no ordinary tiger or leopard. When the weather cleared, we realized we were nowhere near Gunung Raja. We turned around and somehow found our way back to the village. We were glad to be alive.”
    
Nadi Pak Empok may have been on that expedition. Or he may have made a separate attempt to scale Gunung Raja. He spoke reverently about the very special atmosphere that pervades the Royal Mountain, even around its base. The beautiful birds and plants he saw along the way, the mysterious cries of unknown creatures. “We heard the musical voices of maidens calling to us. It was hard not to obey their call, it was so seductive. But one of the group suddenly told us to flee for our lives, and we did. I don't know what would have become of us if we had tried to find the source of those haunting cries.”
    
Utat Merkol a year before he left for
Pulau Buah in 2007
Soon after the Selangor Dam project was announced, I found Utat lying feverish on a mat in Indah’s house. “I dreamt about Pulau Buah,” he whispered. “I was there, at the peak of Gunung Raja, and I saw Mamak and Inak Bongsu.” I was all ears. Anoora’s uncle Utat rarely discussed his dreams, being an exceptionally private and shy man, but he revealed that he had twice been summoned to the Sacred Mountain by the Temuan’s tutelary gods - a signal honor for any Temuan.
    
“How did they appear to you, what did they look like?” I prompted Utat.
    
“They were absolutely splendid, more beautiful and much, much grander than kings and queens. They looked human, but in a more luminous, far nobler form.” (Lothlorien and the High Elves immediately came to my mind.)
    
“What did Mamak and Inak Bongsu have to say to you?”
    
Utat was silent for a moment. “They said they were very concerned about the destruction that is about to take place. The dam. It makes them angry and they want me to warn people that this desecration is loathsome to them. They have the capacity to destroy the dam, but they do not wish to harm anybody.”
    
“Well, are you going to tell the rest of the tribe?”
    
Utat shrugged and was silent. “People won’t believe me,” he finally said.
  
“WHEN SOMEONE DIES,” Penengah said, “their soul wanders around familiar places for a while before a longing to go home takes them towards Gunung Raja. After a while, they will find themselves at a fork in the trail. One path leads to Pulau Buah; the other... well, the other leads nowhere.”
    
How does one identify the correct path?
    
Penengah seemed reluctant to reveal the signs that would indicate the correct path. Then a gleam appeared in his eye and he whispered: “We don't usually talk about this, but I think you will understand why. For years people have tried to sway us from our beliefs. They wanted us to convert to Islam or Christianity or whatever. But our ancestors warned us about this. They told us there is a black dog guarding the path to Pulau Buah. If the soul is destined for Pulau Buah, the dog wags its tail and shows the way. But if the dog growls, it means the soul has accumulated too much sin (dosa).    
    
What happens if someone takes the wrong path?  
    
“They find the path easy going at first, very well maintained and attractive to behold. But at the end of the trail, they find themselves on an illusory bridge that goes nowhere.”
    
Can you describe what happens to someone who tries to cross the bridge?
   
“Well, they drop into a pit when the bridge collapses. A pit full of rats and cockroaches, creatures of the dark that devour anything that falls in.”
    
Sounds like hell to me. Is this the influence of Muslim and Christian eschatology on the Temuan belief system? Or is the Heaven-Earth-Hell configuration a common denominator of all human cosmogony?

Bidar (left) officiating at the engagement ceremony of Anoora's pretty niece Halus in 2010

ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF A LETTER FROM BIDAR CHIK (BATIN OF PERTAK) TO ABDULLAH AHMAD BADAWI (PRIME MINISTER OF MALAYSIA)

Batin Bidar Chik
No. 1 Kg Pertak
Batu 8, Jalan Gap
44000 Kuala Kubu Baru
Ulu Selangor

13 April 2004
Y.A.B. Perdana Menteri Malaysia
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
Pusat Pentadbiran Kerajaan Malaysia
Putrajaya 62502

Sir:

Why do so many Orang Asli lack motivation?  Because we feel homeless in our own homeland.

1. We congratulate and welcome you as our new prime minister.  It is our hope that with a fresh beginning, a new era of justice and wise governance will dawn.  I am only the humble headman of a small village of Orang Asli from the Temuan tribe in Ulu Selangor, voicing my thoughts and feelings.  But I have faith that my voice will be heard by the Honourable Prime Minister.

2. The beauty of the Pertak Forest Reserve where our small village of 43 houses is located has attracted many visitors from far and near.  Now that the Selangor Dam is complete, even more people are coming here to fish from the artificial lake.  We are glad that people appreciate the beauty of our ancestral homeground, birthplace of the Temuan tribe, indeed, our “pusat negri.”

The High Hut at Lata Puntung where I lived from April 1994 till October 1999

3. When we were resettled by the dam project, the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) assured us that each family would be issued an individual grant for our new houses, along with some dusun land.  However, nothing was said about the 400 acres approved for gazetting in 1965 as Orang Asli Reserve Land.  After 39 years, the status of this land remains uncertain.  We would like this matter clarified in writing.

4. In February 2004, we were informed that our new houses stand on State land for which we have been granted a 99-year lease.  We received a letter from the Land Office asking us to pay an assessment of RM540 by 11 May, 2004, or our land and houses will be forfeit.

5. There are few families in Kg Pertak that can afford to pay this amount in three months, or even six.  I cannot imagine what will happen to my sister-in-law, a widow who receives a monthly cash subsidy of RM70 from the Welfare Department.  How will she pay the assessment? 

6. The JHEOA told us not to worry about it.  They said Splash Sdn Bhd, the dam operator, has offered to pay on our behalf.  As nothing is in writing we have only their verbal promise.  Nearly a year ago the JHEOA organised a 3-day workshop on Fraser’s Hill for a group of villagers.  Each participant will receive RM50, they said.  Those who went are still waiting to be paid.

Bidar Chik came into his own as tribal chief 
during the 1999 campaign against the Selangor Dam 
7. Our ancestors have dwelt here from the dawn of time.  Nobody knows how long the Temuan have been here, but it is safe to say we have been here for a thousand generations.  Now we are told the land is on a 99-year lease, and we must pay an annual rent to live here.  When my great-granddaughter’s children reach a ripe old age, the lease will expire, and the tribe’s future will be decided by the Land Office.  If they choose not to extend the lease, our community will die out, for the life and identity of the Orang Asli are tied to our ancestral lands.

8. The Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli has existed for 50 years since the Emergency.  Their duty is to look after Orang Asli interests, not to belittle us.  To be honest, we Orang Asli do not have much trust in the JHEOA.  They seem set on destroying our way of life and our beliefs.  In the past they have joined forces with loggers to exploit our forests and pollute our streams.  Now they have turned us into rent-paying tenants on land we have inhabited for thousands of years.  We are not happy about this.  The JHEOA have had 50 years in which to rob us of our dignity, pride, confidence, and self-reliance - not to mention the ground beneath our feet.  For Orang Asli, the Emergency is not over yet.

9. Honourable Prime Minister, we humbly request that you intervene to save us from the JHEOA, which treats Orang Asli like unwanted stepchildren.  They never listen to us and they do not understand or respect us.  They tell us to let loggers clear our beautiful jungle so we can cultivate cash crops.  In the 1960s we were told to plant rubber trees but when they matured there was no demand for latex.  Now they talk about oil palm, but we do not understand the business, and do not wish to be at the mercy of middlemen and unstable market prices.  Most importantly, the forest must be preserved, not only for Orang Asli, but for all who value God’s creation.

10. We would rather be given the Reserve Land promised us 39 years ago so we can hunt and harvest fruit as we have always done.  We can also start small-scale ecotourism-related projects that will preserve the forest, and that will give us a chance to be our own bosses.  Younger Orang Asli who wish to seek their fortune elsewhere are encouraged to do so.  But as long as we have our ancestral lands, they at least have something to return to.

11. We urge that you investigate the unresolved issue of the 400 acres approved for gazetting in 1965 as Orang Asli Reserve Land, and instruct the Land Office to issue a communal title deed.  This is surely not too much to ask, as our ancestors originally roamed the whole of Pahang, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan.  But without the sense of permanency granted by official recognition of our customary lands, our people will be in despair and lack direction.  Grant us the land our ancestors left us as their legacy, and free us from the heavy-handed control of the JHEOA.  This is how we can regain our self-esteem, our spirit of independence, and our ability to prosper from the fruits of our own initiative.

12. The rest of the nation won its independence from colonial rule 47 years ago.  We feel it is time we Orang Asli, too, are allowed to taste the dignity and joy of freedom. 

13. A copy of this letter will be handed to Persatuan Orang Asli Semenanjung Malaysia (POASM) to be shared with my fellow Batins.
Yours faithfully,






Bidar Chik
Batin Kg Pertak
Ulu Selangor

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