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Highlighting plight of the Penan

Highlighting plight of the Penan

SATURDAY, June 04, 2016

LONG WIN - It is a wonder how life in a cluster of villages several hundred miles away from the nearest city resembles how man used to live centuries ago.

Being semi-isolated, urban development has yet to touch Long Win, a village located in the most remote area of Sarawak inhabited by the aboriginal Penan.
They have no access to electricity and piped water supply but 68-year-old photography enthusiast Hon Choon Kim decided to slog it out to meet the elusive Penan people.
What Hon discovered was a peaceful race whose livelihood depended on each other, and they lived contented and happy.
 “It is an ideal society where there is no gap between the rich and the poor. The people here share everything from their hunting spoils to groceries,” said the former deputy education minister. Since retiring from politics in 2008, Hon had immersed himself in landscape photography, travelling the world to capture its sceneries on camera.
He chanced upon photos of the Penan people in early 2010 and took them as the central theme of his photography.
Since his first visit in 2011, Hon had returned to the villages there on 13 different occasions.
He photographed moments in their lives and documented how they lived in a book titled The Penan Through The Lens.
Throughout his visits, Hon grew more attached to the Penan.
With his experience as a former educationist, Hon is trying to instil the importance of education among the Penan.
However, with the closest secondary school being nearly 10 hours away from the village, many families among the indigenous tribe are reluctant to send their children so far away.
“To reach the secondary school, they have to take a five-hour drive on an off-road vehicle to Long Lama, followed by a three-hour journey by boat to Marudi,” he said.
Hon added that many parents simply did not have the financial resources to foot the transportation fee, along with the daily expenses of their children.
Most of the Penan people sustain themselves via a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and money is hard to come by.
To encourage more Penan children to receive education, Hon is in the midst of gathering funds to help foot the transportation costs, as well as their daily expenses so that finances would not be an obstacle for them to go to school.
He pointed out that some of their students were very bright.
“I met three SPM school-leavers last year. I am trying to get one of them into Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and the other two to technical schools,” he said.
Hon added that the majority of the 16,000 Penan population still lived in Sarawak’s interiors out of necessity as they were not equipped with the skills needed by an urban society.
However, their hunter-gatherer lifestyle is being increasingly threatened by the incessant logging that is happening all over Sarawak, he observed.
“Many of them tell me that game is not as easy to come by nowadays. It takes longer to hunt and to fish. Moreover, many of the sago trees have been cut down, depriving the Penan of their staple food,” he said.
One of the most memorable photos Hon took was of a Penan man holding a 500 ringgit (US$120) BR1M voucher.
“The government is trying to give them financial help, yes. But he does not have the financial means to go to the nearest bank in Limbang to exchange the voucher for cash,” Hon pointed out.
The poverty and challenges they faced each day motivated Hon to highlight their plight and educate the public on the Penan’s way of life.
“They need the help of both civil society and the government. It is a transitional phase for them right now.
“We need to help educate the younger generation so that they can acquire skills suited for urban society. This will help move the community closer to cities,” he said, adding that city life would also mean they would have access to modern medical facilities.
Hon will be holding an exhibition at Blossom Arts Festival at Wisma MCA between June 6 and 15.
To raise funds, he will sell the book The Penan Through The Lens for 100 ringgit a copy, as well as give talks on his experiences visiting the Penan people.
Proceeds from the sale of the book will be channelled towards funding the education of Penan children.