SARAWAKIANS have rallied around the Penans. A newspaper’s allegations on Sunday of incest among the still semi-nomadic tribe have disgusted many of us in this fair state.
Yes, incest is wrong. No doubt. However, you do not publish such sensational allegations by naming an entire race, yet leave out crucial details including exact location, when the marriages occurred and not even quoting names in the article. Of course, reporters can’t publicly identify alleged victims in such situations, but could the reporter not interview at least one Penan expert on the matter, and then name that expert’s view in the article?
This was reporting in bad taste. The report headlined “My mother is my wife, my father is my husband” together with a side story “Brother marries his own sister”, was shoddily written.
The way it was presented was outright insensitive. Aside from bastardising the phrase “investigative journalism”, it has shamed an entire race unjustifiably. Even if incest has occurred, you do not single out the race. Incest and rape are ugly, but it happens all over the world. Of course incest occurs with higher frequency among poorly educated segment. That is a fact.
What is also a fact is that people steal and cheat, yet we do not go around writing articles with headlines like: “Chinese steal and cheat”. To single out races, label them with stereotypes and propagate misconceptions based on the actions of a few is racist.
That article was an exercise in selling newspapers and to get people’s attention. It certainly has, but for the wrong reasons.
The chatter online since Sunday – when the article was published – has been interesting. Among many from Peninsular Malaysia, there’s been renewed interests in old allegations of truckers who have sexual relations with underage schoolgirls in rural areas.
Among most of us from Sarawak, talk has been defensive. There are rebukes of rural communities’ alleged acceptance of incest. Most native traditions called adat strictly forbid incest. It is taboo and adat warns that incest brings with it suffering to the entire community.
To digress a little, what I’ve also found surprising is that in Peninsular Malaysia, the issue of sex is used to split the people, sex is so highly politicised there; here, this nasty allegation brought us together. Kudos to us. As far as I’m concerned, opinions of sex should be left as personal matters, while sex education must be taught in the classrooms.
A day after the allegations were published, the 17th Sarawak Legislative Assembly was called into session. At the opening, elected representatives and Cabinet members were asked of the allegations.
Assistant Rural Development Minister Datuk John Sikie Tayai said the allegation of casual sex and marriage between blood relatives among the rural community was news to him. “This is the first I’ve heard about this allegation. I really don’t believe it is like that,” Sikie said.
State PKR vice-chairman See Chee How said the writer of the article (who is from the peninsula) appeared unfamiliar with Sarawak.
“Firstly, Tinjar is in the middle of Baram and far away from Ulu Baram. Secondly, no nomadic Penan would build houses as shown in the photograph in the newspaper,” See told reporters.
“In fact, I’ve inquired with Telang Usan assemblyman Dennis Ngau, who confirmed that there is no Long Baram within his constituency. To say that there are incestuous marriages in 10 of the 15 families found in this mythical ‘nomadic Penan community’ is an absolute falsehood.”
The Opposition member also said the police should follow up on the matter, including obtaining statements and evidence from the writer of the article.
Welfare, Women and Family Development Minister Datuk Fatimah Abdullah was just as forthright. She said that any report was written from the “perspective of the writer”.
Fatimah kept relatively mum on the issue, reiterating many times that her stance was “non-judge- mental” until the allegations were proven, and even then, the context of rural life had to be understood first.
“Whatever it is, we take this (newspaper) report as the start (not the conclusive finding). You really have to look at it from their (rural people’s) perspective. You do not make any judgement. I’m not an expert in Penan culture, but generally, in any culture, if something is allowed, you should not be judgemental,” Fatimah said.
At the end of the day, sex is not the real issue here. What is key is education, and within that, easy access to quality education. Sex as a subject matter is simple yet complicated. At its simplest, sex is simply a fact of life; one with great ramifications depending on a person’s actions.
In a country like Malaysia, different segments of the public have their own opinions on how society as a whole should approach the subject. It is best that we leave it to experts, social scientists and educationists to help us deal with it.
A nasty report in the newspaper is only detrimental. — The Star, Sarawak Edition.