IN the Belum-Temenggor forest of north Perak, Kampung Air Banum’s village head Tok Batin Abu’s heart aches each time a lorry passes by, laden with fat logs ripped from the forest.
“It is difficult to find the herbs we use as medicine these days because logging has destroyed everything. Now, I have to go very deep into the jungle to try and find the herbs. Soon that too will be gone,” worries the medicine man who uses herbs to help women give birth, and treat diabetes, high blood pressure and a host of other ailments.
He makes a few ringgit now and then when he has extra herbs to sell.
He gained knowledge in herbal medicine from his ancestors who also lived off the jungle, says Abu from the Jahai tribe, a sub-group of the Negrito, one of the indigenous natives of Malaysia.
Another worry is the pollution of the stream where his village gets its clean drinking water.
“Our water used to be so clear and pure. This is our ancestral land and we are the original people here. Loggers are encroaching into our land and destroying it,” says the 60-something.
Also furious at the uncontrolled logging is Azizan Selewe, 30, who lives in the neighbouring Kampong Raba, another Jahai village.
“They are destroying our source of income. The rattan, gaharu (agarwood) and herbs are gone and our water is muddy and contaminated. We rely on the jungle for food. If our jungle resources are finished, what are we going to eat?
“When I see this much logging here, I get scared because it is dangerous. It reminds me of what happened in Pos Dipang,” he says, referring to the mudslide that struck an orang asli village in Perak some 16 years ago.
In that 1996 incident, the mudslide swept over the orang asli village in Pos Dipang near Kampar, Perak, killing 44 people and destroying over 30 homes. Logging uphill was said to be the main cause of the mudslide.
According to Azizan, the loggers encroaching on their land in Belum had not bothered to meet the village heads or show any official documents to prove they have the approval to log there.
“But we are not going to put up road blocks to stop the loggers because that is not our way. We just want to remind the authorities of their responsibility to the orang asli. We want the logging to stop and get compensation for their intrusion and destruction of our land,” he says.
Azizan says the villagers are grateful to the government for providing schools to the indigenous people and the two rounds of RM500 BR1M but “we want PM Najib (Tun Razak) to come personally and meet the Jahai people.
“We want to see his face, shake his hand and tell him our situation. He has been all over the country but he has never come to see us in Belum. We are voters too.”
More than a year ago, when I needed a break from the city, I had headed out to Belum where I felt instantly energised and mesmerised by its pristine beauty and tranquility. But I was also stunned to see lorry after lorry loaded with huge logs making their way out to either Gerik on the Perak side or Jeli in Kelantan.
A year later, it seems little has changed.
Omar Ramli, 42, who has been a tour guide in the area for 15 years, says he sees the lorries all the time.
“The loggers don’t touch the Royal Belum forest reserve because that has been gazetted a state park but they log in other parts of the forest reserve that have not been gazetted as a state park,” he says.
The Belum-Temenggor forest complex is the oldest rainforest in the world dating over 130 million years. The Royal Belum forest reserve and the Temenggor forest reserve make up this 300,000 ha forest complex, and are off-limits to loggers.
It is the ungazetted areas, including Abu and Azizan’s villages – despite objections – that are open to logging.
Still, Omar thinks the indigenous people of Belum enjoy immunity and have “very special privileges”.
“If we enter the Royal Belum area, we can’t take out any jungle produce. We can’t bring out gaharu, wood, herbs, animals or fish but the orang asli can. On the boats, it is compulsory for everyone to wear a life jacket but the orang asli don’t need to.”
He recalls an incident where the villagers had caught and caged a bear.
“When the Wildlife and National Parks heard about it, they came to rescue the bear, but the orang asli refused to hand it over. In some ways, they are more powerful than the Wildlife Department!”
Omar, a PAS member, feels the government has been doing plenty to help the orang asli of Belum.
“Their allocation is huge. They get money every month. They are given clothes, a house (though this looks more like a hut), a boat, generators, water filters, and a box of food every month for their family containing bread, flour, sugar, and other basic necessities, even vitamins.
“If we say it is because they are poor, there are other people in the country too who are poor but don’t get help like this.”
Omar, who was born and grew up in Gerik which is about 40km from the Belum forest, admits that he hasn’t decided who to vote for.
He reveals he used to be an Umno member but found them to be too materialistic, so he switched to PAS a few years ago. However, he finds that PAS hasn’t fulfilled his aspirations either.
“Pakatan Rakyat complained that Barisan Nasional was not managing the state right but when they held power for that eight or nine months, they didn’t manage it well either,” he says.
In the 2008 election, Pakatan formed the government in Perak when it won 31 seats over Barisan’s 28.
It was not without a whole lot of drama which saw one Barisan assemblyman cross over to Pakatan giving it 32 seats, only to re-defect into Barisan later.
And after a series of wooing, three Pakatan assemblymen defected and declared themselves independent, giving both Pakatan and Barisan 28 seats each in the state assembly.
But the three pledged support for Barisan, tilting the equation in Barisan’s favour and causing the Pakatan government to collapse in February 2009.
Then Barisan swooped in and a new Barisan government was sworn in.
This time around, Omar wants to see the candidate first before deciding on his vote.
Further down south at Kuala Sepetang (formerly known as Port Weld and a 40-minute drive from Taiping), fisherman Lee Bok Seng is keeping his cards close to his chest. “If the government is looking after the people, then we can give them another chance,” he says, before promptly complaining about clogged-up drains.
“There are lots of mosquitoes because all the drains are blocked. When it rains, it floods because the water has nowhere to go. Why are they not sending people here to dig and unblock the drains?”
Beh, 41, who is back in his hometown to spend the Chinese New Year holidays, feels the same way.
When he comes back, he says, he does not only make sure he sleeps under a mosquito net, but also uses an electric mosquito zapper.
Beh doesn’t believe the solution is by a widespread spraying of mosquito repellent in the area. “The mosquitoes are there because the drains are clogged and this is because the people are throwing rubbish into the drains. They are not taking care of the area.
“What we need to do is to improve their knowledge so that they won’t throw rubbish everywhere and also to plant flowers to make the area look nice.”
Beh shares that he had packed his bags and left Kuala Sepetang as soon as he turned 20.
“You can’t do anything here unless you are a fisherman or run a small business so most young people leave and go elsewhere to work,” he says, pointing out that there is no playground, proper field or facilities for the people to exercise or carry out recreational activities. Even the public bus runs only once every hour, he complains.
As I walk towards a row of shops, I peek into one of the foul-smelling, clogged drains (there are plenty around!) near the school. The stagnant water is black and filled with empty drink cans and packets, two soap boxes, food styrofoam packs and even a book.
Lim (not his real name), a retiree in his 60s, perches on a bicycle near his friend’s stall selling cut fruits. He too has lots to say about the clogged drains, uncollected rubbish and irregular public bus service.
He is very pleased to get the RM500 for BR1M – “Who doesn’t want money?” – but wonders where the money is coming from.
“Maybe I’ll give my vote to whoever gives the most money,” he says.
“But if they keep giving away money like that, will the government go bankrupt?”
If the government really takes care of the people, adds Lim, “even Singapore can’t challenge us.”
But he feels that it is people with “strong connection cables” using the “back door” who get projects that enrich themselves and “the rich” who are benefiting.
What Lim, who has diabetes, high blood pressure and a heart problem, appreciates most in the country is the free government hospitals.
“The service in the government clinic and hospital is very good. They don’t discriminate when treating patients and give us all the medicine we need,” he says.
In Taiping, Thavarajasingam, 57, who chose to settle in the quiet town for its slow pace and low cost of living worries that things will change with the planned developments.
Calling it a retirees’ town, he shares that Taiping is quiet after 8pm but it suits him.
The crime rate is very low, he says, and you can still get a bowl of noodles for RM2.50 to RM3.50 and rent a whole house for RM400.
But he thinks that once the electrified double-tracking project is completed (Taiping is one of the designated train stops), prices will shoot up.
In fact, he says, prices are already going up. He used to be able to rent a terrace house for a little over RM200 a few years ago but now he is paying RM400.
His friend Anthony, 48, a lorry driver whose wife runs a beauty salon, agrees.
He tells that people now are willing to pay RM500,000 for his bungalow, which he bought for RM195,000 three years ago. “But I am not selling,” he says, adding that he has never depended on the government for anything.
“So, only when I go to vote will I decide who to choose.”
Thavarajasingam feels strongly about education and believes an individual should have the right to study what he or she wants.
“There shouldn’t be a quota in public universities because then you are depriving other qualified individuals of a place. The quota for Indians is very small.”
He thinks Malaysians today still live in fear of another May 13 (1969) when there were awful racial riots in the country.
“Nothing should be taken for granted,” he says.
But Thavarajasingam who loves Malaysia to bits remains optimistic.
“If I have no confidence in the country, I wouldn’t still be here. I wouldn’t trade it – not even for a billion dollars,” he says.
> Shahanaaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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