August 6, 2019, by Lee Mei Kee
At Tropical Summer School
Colin Nicholas and I sampled life as lecturers at Tropical Medicine and Beyond (TMAB) Summer School, at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. Twenty years ago, Colin could have gone on to the charmed life of a Professor of Anthropology, having won a distinction for his doctoral thesis on the politics, development, and identity of the Orang Asli. Instead, Colin continued to coordinate the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), an advocacy and research group he had set up in 1989.
“Orang Asli” – “the Original People” in Malay – is an official label for the 18 (or more) indigenous ethnic groups of peninsular Malaysia. Orang Asli, together with the Dayak in Sarawak and the Anak Negeri in Sabah, make up the Orang Asal, or indigenous peoples, of Malaysia.
Colin and I arrived on the morning of 16th July. Colin had lost his voice somewhere in the forests of the peninsula, during a long week. He had travelled down south to Kota Tinggi, then up to Sepang and the central spine of the peninsula, supporting local communities.
Colin and the COAC have been advancing the cause of the Orang Asli for three decades: developing arguments, writing books, and testifying as expert witnesses in landmark court cases, winning native communal land rights.
At TMAB Summer School, Colin flicked through beautiful pictures, introducing us to the lives of the Orang Asli. He talked about forced resettlement, and theft of native land for logging, mining and oil palm. He documented the authorities’ failure to deliver piped water, food security, education and health care.
Colin presented a case study on the recent deadly effects of measles, water pollution and poisoning from an iron and manganese mine, among the Batek in Kuala Koh, Kelantan. The nomadic Batek community there had been decimated in the past two months. They had suffered 18, mostly unexplained, deaths.
I was the second speaker. I talked about the Penan and other indigenous groups in Sarawak, whose communities I visit with paramedics, dentists, and doctors.
I shared the Women’s Ministry Taskforce Report from 2009 that had verified sexual abuse of Penan girls and women by loggers in Baram, Sarawak. There have been no prosecutions, because timber tycoons are politically connected.
The audience of 38 students from various Medical and Health Sciences degrees from UK and Malaysia Campus, some of whom appeared hung over from their activities over the weekend, looked bemused.
Colin and I had made similar presentations to Malaysian audiences before, describing the institutional neglect of Orang Asal. Most Malaysians, it’s fair to say, know next to nothing about Orang Asal. The Summer School participants, mostly from the UK, would certainly have heard even less of them. But unlike many Malaysians, this audience expressed interest.
A couple of lectures later, we sat with them in discussion groups. Learning together quickly became easier. Perhaps we ought to ditch lectures altogether. The participants, mostly undergraduates, asked intelligent questions, offered sound suggestions, and provided a spark.
We talked about first aid and health promotion manuals in local languages. We discussed rural statelessness, and the hardship caused by bigotry, and the registration of births in distant towns. We compared experiences with other countries’ telemedicine efforts, using cheap technology such as whatsapp, and more advanced solutions, including drones for delivery of medicines.
It can be argued that intelligence is over-rated. But Colin and I spend much of our time grappling with the wilful stupidity of an urban elite that crushes indigenous people, so we certainly enjoyed the dialogue.
We have high hopes that the young people attending this inaugural TMAB Summer School will run civil society organisations one day, or work for others through the National Health Service, the United Nations, Médecins Sans Frontières, and universities.
We learnt from TMAB Summer School, speakers and participants alike, thanks to Dr Aini Hamid, Prof Ting Kang Nee, and Prof Susan Anderson. We look forward to future Summer Schools, although we really have only two tropical seasons in Malaysia: Swelter, and Haze. The people at Summer School inspired us, and gave us ideas.
Article by: Xavier Sim
Rural Expeditions Assisting Community Health (REACH) physician