by Michael Singer '09
This journey for me has been one of great discovery. Initially when I applied for the grant with Professor Latrell, I was a bit apprehensive about traveling to the other side of the world. As a small town boy from suburban New York, the furthest I've been outside the States is Canada or the Bahamas. I knew there was going to be culture shock, but I had no idea what was in store for me.
When we initially touched down in Bangkok, I was extremely taken back by the densely packed population and lively, sometimes almost intrusive, street life. Bangkok is an interesting city, one that I believe is caught in a cultural crossroads. Steeped in tradition and home to some of the most famous Buddhist temples in the world, Bangkok seems to accept its heritage, but longs to develop a "western" image. Billboards use Caucasian models, and American multinationals are developing a stronger foothold in the city every day.
Singapore, on the other hand, is, as Professor Latrell puts it, "A western response to the west of southeast Asia." Singapore has surged forward economically making use of a semi-socialist system of government in which the people sacrifice certain individual rights for the benefit of the state, while incorporating certain elements of democratic governmental structure. And though semi-authoritarian regimes of the past failed, this particular system is flourishing.
Singapore has rapidly become one of the world's leading refining stations, importing raw materials and exporting finished products. Basing its economy largely on trade, Singapore has directly benefited from an expanding global economy, although, as the professor I interviewed at the National University conceded, this leaves it particularly vulnerable to market failures of other nations.
Similar to New York but much greener, it has a bustling and pleasant downtown district, a world famous zoo, and beautiful English colonial architecture.
Yet nothing could prepare me for the adventure that lay ahead of me in East Malaysia, comprising the northern part of Borneo Island. Our first stop in the city of Miri was very pleasant. Eventually, when I returned from the jungle, I was able to get a better sense of this growing oil town which has long been a center for petroleum with many citizens employed by Shell Oil and the government-owned Petronas. About halfway through our trip we embarked for Longlama, a small village on the Baram River in the heart of Sarawak. In order to reach Longlama, we drove for about 4 hours through jungle and oil palm plantations along a bumpy, gravel road. The logging that has proved detrimental for a number of the native villages was impossible to ignore as we all too often passed stretches of jungle that had been decimated by logging companies. Imagine a desolate wasteland where once a beautiful eco-system had thrived, it's truly a horrible sight to behold.
Longlama would serve as our base of operations for numerous ventures to a variety of longhouses. Among those tribes we visited (the Penan, Iban and Kayan), the Penan seemed to be experiencing the most severe difficulties finding a place in contemporary Sarawak. Residing deep in the jungle, the Penan have traditionally relied on hunting wild boar and farming, particularly sago (tapioca) as their main source of income and way of life. Although complicated feuds over land ownership have occurred, the government prevailed, and it has seized tribal land and sold it to multinational logging companies that have subsequently destroyed former Penan hunting and farming grounds. Many of the remaining animals have been driven away, and the Penan (along with other tribes), in an attempt to stop the logging, have built blockades along the roads. Though the blockades are not very sturdy, the Penan understand that the message may be more important than the immediate result. They are willing to risk years of imprisonment to protect their longhouses, which, compared to the other tribes we visited, are the most traditional. The Penan are suffering greatly and are in desperate need of food and medicine. Helicopters used to visit some of these remote villages but the visits have been suspended, and the poor roads make it difficult for any help to access the longhouses.
Driving home that day, I was extremely angry as I tried to find an answer to their problem. What could save the Penan? Perhaps a better infrastructure, improved roads and helicopter access? Perhaps the involvement of international wildlife and environmental protection agencies? Yet everything seemed to lead me back to the government (which controls the media by the way) which would likely prevent any attempt by the Penan to gain outside help. My journey into the jungle that day was both rewarding and frustrating, and one I will never forget.
The Longhouses we visited along the Baram River while operating out of Longlama were polar opposites of the Penan villages we had seen the previous day. Home to the Kayan, these villages were extremely peaceful, hospitable and clean. The people seemed healthy, in high spirits and content with their way of life. Their only regret, and this applies mainly to the village of Umam Bawang, was that many of the children leave the village to pursue a better education (obviously a good thing) but that once they escape the region, they return infrequently, turning away from those traditions that distinguished their unique culture for years. Ironically, the other riverside longhouse we visited (when we were caught in a driving, tropical rainstorm in an uncovered longboat in the middle of the river), Long Laput, experiences constant population increase. The largest longhouse in the region, Long Laput is also the wealthiest, as the headman has a house that rivals mansion status, a result of ownership of a Shell Oil station in Miri. With a population that exceeds 1,000, Long Laput is home to more than 10 shops and two churches.
On our way back to Miri, we stopped at an Iban longhouse during their preparations for Gawai Eve, the equivalent of our New Year's Eve. The Iban struck me as an extremely friendly people; at each house we visited we were greeted with a glass of Tuak (traditional rice wine) and an invitation to stay for lunch. The atmosphere was festive, but it's difficult, even in such a positive environment, to ignore the living conditions that would strike any westerner as troubling: the residents depend upon the rain as their only source of drinking water.
As I reflect on my journey to southeast Asia, a number of thoughts enter my mind, but mainly I consider it a period of great discovery. Afforded the opportunity to study in a unique environment, one that I probably will never get the chance to experience again, I believe I made the most of my time in Borneo, learning all I could about the native people, their struggles and their successes. I discovered how globalization has left a positive mark on southeast Asia in cities like Singapore and towns like Miri, but has decimated cultures like that of the Penan who continue to struggle to protect their way of life.
But most importantly I discovered a lot about myself, and my own ability to adapt to a foreign culture so different from my own. It was a great test of my own strength, to travel to the other side of the world, and leave behind the comforts of western civilization in the hope that I would learn and grow as a person as well. Thanks in part to Professor Latrell's guidance, I believe I was able to do these things and leave Southeast Asia a better person than when I arrived.