What Rainforest?

The Star ‘StarMag’ 20 July 2008
July 22, 2008, 1:37 am
Filed under: Campaign, Media Reports

Sexy freedom– exposed

What is freedom? Is it the right to capture the fickle male gaze with skimpy skirts? Or the liberty to speak out when something is not right about society?

THE Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF), held last weekend in Santubong, Sarawak, served up not just fabulous music but also fascinating insights into the different kinds of freedom we have in Malaysia.

For instance, do you think our young ladies should be allowed to dance and make merry to throbbing African tribal drums while wearing bikini tops and hot pants? While also swilling beer or tuak (traditional rice wine)? In an open-air government-owned venue?

Yes, that is precisely what happened at the Sarawak Cultural Village, the venue for the festival, 30 minutes from Kuching.

Can you imagine the same thing happening in other government-owned tourism complexes in Peninsular Malaysia, such as Malacca’s Mini Malaysia or Kelantan’s Cultural Centre?

It’s intriguing to observe how we can be one country, yet have such differing standards of freedom.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against sexy women prancing around. Like any other red-blooded male, I rather enjoy the spectacle.

At times, it seemed as if half of KL’s beautiful people (and wannabes like myself) had been exported from the national capital’s Zouk, Passion and Rum Jungle night clubs to rock the tranquil forests around the Sarawak Cultural Village.

But apart from such sexy skin-deep freedoms, what about other rights?

Once again, events at the RWMF were instructive.

Last Sunday night, as music lovers were filing through the main gate, some 60 indigenous folk, led by the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (Sadia), staged a peaceful candle light vigil to highlight their complaint – that their ancestral rainforest lands are being encroached upon by logging and oil palm companies.

They were not, shall we say, overly enthusiastic about being transformed from independent landowners into subservient labourers plucking oil palm for RM15 a day.

And so they distributed flyers with the website http://www.whatrainforest.com with a tongue-in-cheek “invitation” to the “The Sarawak Oil-Palm World Music Festival”. Within five minutes, a large contingent of policemen surrounded the demonstrators and removed their placards, while security guards tried to confiscate leaflets distributed earlier to tourists, leaving some puzzled about Malaysia’s “freedoms”.

Here, too, we can learn about the different nuances of media autonomy. My friends in Kuching who work for Borneo-based newspapers tell me that logging is one of the “highly sensitive” topics there.

However, the peninsula-based newspapers seem to have a bit more “leeway” on this. For instance, a story from The Star, published last October, highlighted how the rainforest upstream from the controversial Bakun dam, which was supposed to be preserved as a “water catchment” to ensure a supply of clean water, was being converted into oil palm plantations – raising fears of a water shortage (as experienced in Selangor and Malacca in recent years) for the hydro-electric turbines during the dry season.

Yet, if we’re honest, for most of us in the peninsula, issues about Iban rainforests and land rights are a little “far away”, just as I was told Sarawakians view the current KL brouhaha of “statutory declarations” and allegations of injustice to be an irrelevant Orang Semenanjung melodrama. Who cares?

So, was the Rainforest World Music Festival the best place to highlight issues about, err, the rainforest?

An article in The Borneo Post newspaper the next day disagreed:

“This is the wrong time and the wrong place to do it. This festival actually helps the tourism industry. These people are just barking up the wrong tree. This is a music festival where people come together as one.”

The article may have been right — some of the spaghetti-strapped crowd, plus the odd wannabe or two — seemed irritated that our sovereign right to a “rainforest” party had been dampened by, of all things, issues about people in a real rainforest. Who cares?

And can you blame us? It’s the sexy freedoms that capture attention, not “tedious” environmental rights – unless a pop star makes the latter “hip and cool”. Besides, surely it was asking too much of us relatively affluent city-and-self-centric KL folk to be concerned about some impoverished (or worse, unfashionable) natives living in unheard-of villages deep inside Sarawak?

In the meantime, the “emancipation” of lowered necklines and raised hemlines may be one of the few true liberties that we have left.

A music festival where “people come together as one”? We may live in one country, but the rural-urban divide across the South China Sea seemed too deep and wide to bridge during that night’s incident.

Similarly, if our rights – such as the freedom to party away in KL’s nightclubs with skimpy clothes – were to be removed one day, we should not expect other Malaysians to speak up on our behalf either.

Teh tarik is an irreverent brew concocted occasionally by an author who wishes that our social rights can be as sweet and sexy as bikini tops.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

To be honest, I feel that you are just jealous that we can enjoy such an event with such heights in Sarawak, yet in the Peninsular, it would be shot down long before it is scheduled to happen.

I am all for the liberal Sarawak and I d\guess you are just jealous of how harmonious the Sarawakian people are.

Comment by canon

YES! Dear Canon, you are right! I do admire, indeed celebrate, the fact that there is more “cultural freedom” and better inter racial harmony in Sarawak compared to the peninsula.

Have you wondered WHY that is so? Is that cos of the racial model of politics practised in the peninsula?

My only wish is that we Malaysians can really unite and that peninsula people can also care about Sarawakian issues and vice versa. Cheers!

Comment by Anonymous

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