Penan — A 40-year journey of progress

He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.

—  Harold Wilson, ex-UK prime minister

In June 1991, I accompanied then Infrastructure Development Minister Datuk Abang Johari Tun Openg to Upper Baram at the height of the anti-logging blockades.

It was one of my many trips into the Penan hinterland in the early 1980s when I accompanied Prof Dr Paul Chen from the University of Malaya’s social and preventive medicine faculty to a poverty-stricken Penan enclave.

Dr Chen discovered that 85 percent of the community suffered from malnutrition, of which 11 percent was acute.

He told me: “One out of every five Penan babies below the age of one died from malnutrition.”

In 2016, Dr Chen, 85, kept his promise and wrote a book titled The Penan: Forest Nomads of Sarawak in Transition.

During my trip to Ulu Baram with Abang Johari, who was chairman of the Sarawak Cabinet Committee on Penan Affairs, we visited Long Lamai, one of the remotest semi-settled Penan settlements.

Long Lamai was established by two Australian missionaries, Phylis Webster or “Runggui” as she was known, and Marjory Britza (Renai) as a Bible college in the early 60s.

Thanks to these two ladies — one of them a centenarian — they planted the seeds of literacy in the community.

But it was only 30 years later, Independence Day, that the Sarawak government took matters into its own hands and began upgrading the facilities and amenities in the rural hinterland. 

In the 80s, then Chief Minister Datuk Abdul Taib Mahmud tasked Abang Johari with a difficult mission — to coax the semi-settled Penan to accept change.

On Jan 19, 1992, the RM500,000 service centre was launched, enabling the surrounding villages, namely Long Leng, Long Latei, Long Palo and Long Beluk, comprising 650 people, to enjoy its facilities such as a school, health clinic and agricultural office.

The government also started a Penan volunteer system to attend to the complaints of the predominantly illiterate semi-nomadic community.

By the late 90s, the Penan mindset had begun to change and they interacted with government staff as there were hostilities brought upon by the blockades.

But under the leadership of then Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Alfred Jabu, a Bintulu Penan businessman, Datuk Hasan Sui, was handpicked to help in changing the community’s mindset.

A resident of Kampung Jambatan Suai, Hasan started to pursue education vigorously.
First, he sent his oldest daughter Mareia to study at UUM in Kedah followed by Sarina who went as far as

Drexel University in Philadelphia, USA. Both ended up becoming the first two Penan graduates.

Hasan rose to become Sarawak’s inaugural Penan Temenggong (paramount chief) and eventually the first Penan millionaire when he developed his ancestral land into a palm oil plantation.

By the early 2000s, two more Penan, Ezra Uda from Long Lamai and Nyurak Keti from Bintulu applied to study at Unimas, the state’s first university.

As public relations officer in the Chief Minister’s Office, I took it upon myself to help them apply for their studies.

Nyurak recently rose to become the first Penan Resident of Kapit Division.

Ezra joined Mareia in the Chief Minister’s Office together with a Belaga Penan, Awi Abang, to formed the first Penan unit at Wisma Bapa Malaysia.

Another Baram Penan, Philip Unga, went on to study at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Geography.

Later I chaperoned two dozen government-sponsored Penan from Baram sent for a nursing course in Kuching.

From 50 Penan with tertiary qualifications, the figure has doubled over the last decade with at least one Masters graduate.

During the initial years, the government organised a variety of programmes such as carpentry, tailoring and agriculture for youth.

We even arranged a study tour of 20 Baram village “Tua Uma” chiefs to Kuching.

Over the years, the government has appointed six Penan “Penghulu”.  A lot of water had passed under the bridges to progress, but the Penan have been able to take the challenges in their stride.

Even the recent demise of two Penan women from Ulu Baram has not dampened their spirit as they can now walk tall and hold their heads high!

The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.