Trail blazers fired on spirit of solidarity

I have not met anyone yet who does not like the hit song ‘You Raise Me Up’ — a song originally composed by the Norwegian-Irish duo Secret Garden, the music being written by Secret Garden’s Rolf Lovland and the lyrics by Brendan Graham.

The song is one of my favourites, not just because of the catchy tunes but more so because of the lyrics. I just love the lyrics. In fact, I love them so much that I adopted the song as the theme song for the Malaysia LNG Plant Turnaround Roadmap, called KITE (Keep Improving Towards Excellence), a roadmap which I initiated as my strategic response to the operating challenges that I saw when I took over the job as the MD/CEO of the MLNG Group of Companies in 2007.

In particular, the powerful lyrics of the song are as follows:

“When I am down and, oh my soul, so weary

When troubles come and my heart burdened be

Then, I am still and wait here in the silence

Until You come and sit awhile with me.

You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains

You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas

I am strong, when I am on your shoulders

You raise me up to more than I can be.”

The words powerfully resonated with me and my team and we leveraged on the words and the song as the rallying call for all to come together and act in solidarity and common purpose, to achieve our KITE goals.

KITE memento: Plant Turnaround Roadmap for MLNG Group of Companies.

In fact, it was the equivalent of the unofficial ‘national anthem’ for MLNG Group at that time, sung at all company events and functions and led by a choir group comprising every level of staff — from the operators to the management level in the hierarchy.

Imagine everyone singing and reinforcing the feeling and ethos of solidarity when they sang the words:

“I am strong, when I am on your shoulders, You raise me up to more than I can be”!

Indeed, we raise each other up. That is the winning spirit.

I believe the same spirit of solidarity and common purpose is what drove our forefathers and predecessors to persevere and succeed against all odds, and despite many difficulties, setbacks, opposition, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, that they have had to face.

One such group I’d like to highlight here is the generation before mine. I’d like to use the metaphor of ‘walking from the darkness into the light’ to portray a sense of their epic journey. Yes, within their lives they have practically traversed from the iron age to the jet age in one generation!

My father’s generation was born in the early 1920s, by backward extrapolation from 1945, the end of World War 2 (WW2). There were no written records of births and deaths then. Well, not in the middle of Borneo, for sure.

People recounted history by linking the times to momentous events, happenings, and movements like migrations. They used ‘knotted rotans’ as their equivalent of calendar or diary.

As were several other young men of his age, Jalong Langan (that was the name given to my father at birth) was recruited to be part of a ragtag band of native guerrillas to support the Allied Forces behind the enemy lines in the deep interior of Borneo.

I assume that they were in their prime of youth, circa 19-20 years old, when this certain white man by the name of ‘Tuan Darisun’ aka Major Tom Harrisson, and his men literally flew down (actually they parachuted down) from the highlands sky out of the belly of a silvery metal bird which dropped them from on high onto the wetlands and plains of Lam Bah (lit., ‘In the Wetlands’).

Jalong Langan and his several other compatriots were recruited to play a critical part in the Semut Operations during the violent WW2 that had suddenly intruded upon their hitherto idyllic young lives. They performed very well and their feats have been told and recorded elsewhere. Suffice to say that they were deservedly recognised through the conferment of war medals after WW2.

In trying to understand their upbringing and background, I did ask my father one day about how they grew up and what the things that they normally did were. He told me that one of their favourite pastimes was for the young and able men to go to the jungle to catch civet cats and bear cats with their bare hands!

Yes, with their bare hands, sans weapons or blowpipes and poison darts. It was a form of ‘nature sport’ called ngerunut — where a small group of able young men would organise themselves to roam over the nearby forest looking for civet cats or bear cats on their daytime naps, high in the trees. The cats sleep in the day and forage and hunt at night.

As soon as one is detected, the young men would form a big circle around the particular tree and then one of them would get to the base of the tree and start banging on the trunk either with a stick or his machete.

Jungle trekking.

As soon as the civet cat hears the commotion, its natural tendency is, of course, to flee from the perceived danger. It will inadvertently jump to the ground from high up in the trees from whenever it was rudely awakened from its slumber.

It would not flee through the tree branches and trunks. And that is exactly what the young men below have been expecting and were waiting for. Their goal is to grab it as soon as it lands on the ground or if it somehow succeeds to run lose — evading the ‘dragnet’ that the men have made around the tree — to give urgent chase to it all over the forest floor until it is caught.

Once they have caught one, they will move on to look for more, until they have caught enough or simply when they were just too exhausted to do more ‘hunting’ and running in the forest.

Hearing the stories as narrated and being a curious boy intending to know more of the techniques they used, I asked my father, “Dad, what do you do after you catch it?” It’s a wild animal with a nasty bite for sure.

He replied, “Well, you are supposed to catch it by the tail, away for its mouth, and then swing it at the nearest tree or branch in order to stun it cold!”

As the image of a man swinging a civet cat played in my mind, I continued with my inquiry, “But what happens if it eludes the first attempt of catching it after it lands on the ground, after jumping down from the tree top?”

“Ha ha, that is when the fun really starts,” he added. “Everyone will chase it all over the forest — running around trees, sometimes taking a hurdle jump over a fallen log, or ducking under low hanging branch that has somehow suddenly appeared along your intended running path!”

And he went on to describe in rather precise details, the vivid jungle setting which made such a lasting impression on my young mind. Ever curious and excited, I would ask him again, “But dad, what about all the thorns and sharp things in the forest?”

“Aaah, you don’t care about such things, your ears or nose may be accidentally stuck in some thorns but trust me you won’t feel it, because you are so determined on nabbing your quarry — and wanting to be the first person to catch the civet cat, all else didn’t matter!”

The image of one of my uncles having his long ears caught in some rotan thorns flashed through my mind. In other words, for this jungle sport of ngerunut the winner or hero of the day, the first amongst equals, would be the man who managed to catch the fleeing and obviously terrified beast of that day! That was the gold medal standard.

Now, in hindsight and reflecting on their special sport of ngerunut, I kind of understand better why the Kelabits were generally athletic, good at sports and even managed to produce an Olympian hurdler in the person of the late Kuda Dita (lit., the tall horse) at the 1966 Tokyo Olympics.

Kuda Dita (the Tall Horse). Photo: James Ritchie

Obviously, they have been practising jungle hurdling and endurance trekking all their growing up years! Even during my times growing up, taking hours or the whole day trekking in the jungle was the norm. Without cars, and the like, one has to walk on foot everywhere!

Which brings me to the topic of trailblazers. In the lush and thick jungles of a tropical rainforest, the skill of trailblazing and cutting paths to traverse the jungle is a necessary survival skill.

It is learnt only in the school of hard knocks — in the outdoors. That is, in a setting where your inherent faculties are brought alive, not by choice but sheer necessity. And in the process, your awareness of nature is heightened to a very impressive degree.

I am sure if we were to ask anyone whom they would like to enumerate as their trailblazers they will give you the names and narrate the feats and achievements of some truly remarkable individuals from the generation before them.

All cultures have their trailblazers. These are individuals on whose shoulders the subsequent generations have been hoisted upon and whose steady arms have raised their followers to be whom they have become. So, to the trailblazers in our lives, we salute you.

The first Kelabit Olympian, second right. Photo: James Ritchie