WHEN an orang asli villager in Sungai Kejar of Perak’s Royal Belum State Park was asked how many people in the area had been lost to the disease they call serawan, his answer was: “Satu ratus, dua ratus ... tiga ratus!”
Given that the Sungai Kejar settlements have only around 300 inhabitants (according to official numbers), the man’s claim was likely to be wide of the mark.
As the district officer of the health department overseeing the area said, the orang asli there are uneducated – they’re not great at keeping records. They rarely report births or deaths either.
So most of the time, when dealing with the orang asli, authorities like the health department or Orang Asli Development Department (Jakoa) are working with anecdotal evidence.
Is serawan even the killer disease the locals say it is? Even among the orang asli, there are different descriptions of the disease, which has confused doctors.
The only way to find out, it seems, would be to have medical personnel stationed in Sungai Kejar, and wait for someone to develop the first symptom – oral thrush, the one thing the doctors could agree based on photographic evidence – so they can get a diagnosis.
While some parties have sprung into action after R.AGE’s report on serawan, others have questioned the validity of these stories, as well as the claims made by the orang asli interviewed in the accompanying documentary.
But what we do know is this – an eight-year-old girl named Malini died while the R.AGE team was there.
Another infant had oral thrush during an earlier research trip, and a father showed his daughter’s death certificate. She died on May 17 this year. She was 15.
We also know that almost every family in the area has a story of a young child dying, and some even showed where they buried their children.
Even if we were so callous as to disregard most of what the Jahai said, there are things we know for sure.
What if this had happened in a school in Kuala Lumpur?
Would we be debating the validity of the statistics? Would we be arguing over the semantics of the words? Would we be busy pointing fingers?
Not likely. We would at least look into it first.
The orang asli – those in Sungai Kejar and elsewhere – are as human as the rest of us and deserve the same treatment as everyone else.
In fact, many of the orang asli don’t even want help.
Some believe doctors harvest organs from orang asli corpses, and they run off when they see mobile clinics coming.
But surely something is wrong when orang asli have developed such a deep distrust towards the outside world, that they would rather have their children die than seek help.
Like the anthropologist said: “When you are a public servant, you’re entrusted with a responsibility. It’s your job to find out; it’s not your job to blame them or your job to dismiss them. It’s your job to find out whether there is some element of truth to this narration (narrative).”