This article was first published here in the Malay Mail on 9 June 2010 .
MY father is a self-made man. I suppose that qualifies him as one of those people able to say that we can be authors of our own destiny.
I recall him explaining a Chinese proverb to me once, some years ago. The proverb tells of the destinies of two mice — one born in a sack of rice and the other, in a sewer — two similar creatures but with different fortunes.
The proverb assumes that their destinies were fated from the moment they came into being. I was reminded of this proverb when I took a road trip to Kampung Bertang Lama, home to a Semai community in Pahang, on May 22. We were there for the first MyConsti’s “Program Memperkasakan Orang Asli dengan PerlembagaanKu”.
What I saw was the imperfection of humanity and the ugly side of reality. Apart from being shocked, what I saw made me ask this question: Would I be who I am today, had I been born in this community?
The answer was a humbling one. I have spent the past six years working and living in under-developed countries in Asia and Africa.
At no point in time did I think that Malaysia is also a nation where there are communities in need of education and empowerment as the people I worked with in Timor Leste, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Cambodia.
I suppose the towering skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur somehow impeded my vision of the real Malaysia. Or I was too busy trying to reach the top of that mountain of rice that I failed to see the sewer just round the corner.
One of the most heart-wrenching images I have seen was the sight of an emaciated infant, no more than three years old, desperately trying to squeeze a drop of milk out of his mother’s deflated breast. The mother, equally hungry and weak, looked up imploringly to the sky, possibly praying that God will be merciful that day.
The only things getting fed were the flies that congregated by the dozens on the faces of the mother and child. That was Ethiopia in 2008.
In Kampung Bertang Lama last month, I saw children terribly malnourished walking around naked with distended bellies. They looked almost like miniature pregnant women far into their third trimester. Some of them wore what looked like angry-looking scabies all over their skin, including the soles of their tiny feet. What is a treatable skin infection is left to thrive because the whole village receives medical treatment infrequently.
I was informed that only two adults are literate in a community of more than 500 people. This information made our campaign booklets “The Rakyat Guides” irrelevant. It was not an exaggeration because when I tried to encourage a girl, aged six, to draw a picture of her village on a piece of paper with colour pencils, she shied away and giggled nervously. It became apparent that she had never held a pencil in her life when I clasped my palm over her tiny hands and guided her fingers onto the piece of paper. We both drew a flower together. She laughed with obvious delight at the result.
When I encouraged her to try it out on her own, an immediate fear seized her. She looked lost. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her name despite wanting so much to write her name down for her to see.
It was for the selfish reason that I rationalised it would be easier to leave later if I did not form any attachment to her.
Fear is as debilitating a disease as poverty, if not worse. Growing up in a society which placed great emphasis on education, I was informed there was apprehension by the Semai community that our formal, national education system offers little hope of retaining the Semai identity and cultural heritage. This fear is not unfounded.
According to UNESCO, while universal education programmes provide important tools for human development, they may compromise indigenous language and knowledge transmission. As such, it may inevitably contribute to an erosion of cultural diversity, a loss of social cohesion, and alienation and disorientation of indigenous youth (see: www.unesco.org).
According to some of the older Semai, they heard many horror stories of young Orang Asli leaving their homes and abandoning their cultural identities once they receive an education.
In the end, it is easy for them to conclude that education does not mean development, at least not for the community as a whole.
For the Orang Asli, their identity is often defined by their deep connection with their ancestral land, not economic migration or individual ambition.
* LIM KA EA is the executive officer of the Constitutional Law Committee (ConstiLC) of Bar Council Malaysia (www.malaysianbar.org.my/constitutional_ law_committee).
The views expressed in this article are personal to the writer and may not necessarily represent the position of the Bar Council.
The ConstiLC is running a two-year nationwide MyConstitution campaign launched in November last year. The campaign was born of the collective desire of the ConstiLC’s membership of more than 150 members made up of lawyers, academics, students, media persons and activists to increase awareness of the Federal Constitution among all Malaysians – “Untuk Merakyatkan Perlembagaan”.
A unique, first-of-its-kind “The Enlightened Rakyat Workshop”, jointly organised by ConstiLC and Leaderonomics, will be conducted on July 10 (9am-6pm) at Menara Star in Petaling Jaya, as a means of enabling Malaysians to learn about themselves — the choices you are able to make, the impact you can have over Malaysia and the skills you have as a leader. Youths are especially encouraged to sign up, and space is limited to 50 participants only.
Visit http://www.perlembagaanku.com/2010/06/the-enlightened-rakyatworkshop/ to register and go to Facebook page www.facebook.com/MyConstitution for more information, or Twitter at www.twitter.com/MyConsti.