Sarawak Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu made some claims about the Penan while lashing out at NGOs. He said the NGOs were taking advantage of the plight of the less than three per cent of the Penan population who were still nomadic. This excerpt from the Borneo Post:
“They (negative NGOs) are living off the misery of the few, and manufactured lies. This is what we must fight.
“I have known the Penan community for more than 40 years. They are striving for advancement. Only less than three per cent are still nomadic.
“And it is this three per cent that the negative NGOs speak up for. Is this a fair representation when we have another 97 per cent of Penans who have settled down?” he asked.
He said most of the Penans were successful people after they had followed government programmes to get them out of poverty.
He said the role model for the Penans was entrepreneur Datuk Hasan Sui while the role model for the Penan villages was the one at Suai in Ulu Niah where most of its residents were driving twin-cab 4WDs.
“As the Penans are members of the Dayak community, I do not want to see them being exploited,” he said.
And now the reality, which I learnt from a reliable source:
None of the communities featured in the report (by a government sponsored NGO team probing allegations of sexual abuse of Penan women and girls) are nomadic. Some were, back in the 1980s, but all are now settled communities.
True, only some 3 per cent remain nomadic, but none of the recent publicity – whether it’s about the rapes, the food shortages or the recent blockades in the Patah – has been about the nomadic Penan.
But the 3 per cent who remain nomadic are more representative of the experience and perspectives of the vast majority of the Penan than the 2 per cent in Suai. Indeed, if the state had had its way, those in Suai wouldn’t be where they are now. They had to fight and filed a suit – despite the fact that they had evidence of the area having been gazetted for them. It took a judge (Ian Chin) who advised a settlement.
The Suai group was already settled at the end of the 19th/early 20th century.
As for poverty, it’s Jabu’s imagination to think that “most of the Penans” are not in poverty. If anything, they are more impoverished today than they were: previously, they may have been cash poor and services poor, but not food poor; today, they are still cash poor, services have hardly improved, and they are having difficulties even with self-provisioning with food. The present wave of forest clearance will make them even more impoverished.
The Penan are not only exploited, they are also oppressed by the state which continues to insist on its own definition of customary land, despite court decisions to the contrary. Thus, according to the state, most Penan have little or no customary land since they didn’t clear the land before 1958.