Saturday, 29 September 2018

17 Days in Malaysia: Part Six - Indigenous Matters and Sarawak

It's been over three weeks since I returned from Malaysia - longer than the time I actually spent away - so I'd best wrap this up, with my final post in this series!

Before flying to Kuching on Friday, I downloaded the Grab app onto my phone. Grab is basically Uber, but you pay cash to the driver, and when you're overseas and unfamiliar with the lay of the land, and can't necessarily rely on language skills, it's made such a difference. And like Uber, it's also cheaper than taxis.

So, when I arrived at Kuching Airport, I was able to dodge the usual gauntlet of taxi drivers, and its minefield of negotiations and potential scams, and instead request a Grab on my device - knowing exactly how much I'd be paying in advance. Arriving in the early evening, I checked into my hostel, and unwound by wandering up the Sarawak riverside, watching the sky turn with the sunset. As a regional city, Kuching is a lot more laid-back than Kuala Lumpur, with a huge Chinese influence in its businesses, architecture and, of course, street food - which I took in with enthusiasm.


Saturday morning came and I set off for the Sarawak State Library for Day One of the Indigenous Matters satellite meeting. The proceedings kicked off with the usual welcome speeches, and a performance of local indigenous dance in full traditional dress, which was wonderful and performed by local school students. Around the room there were stands set up showcasing crafts and traditions of the various local indigenous groups, from the local Iban, Bidayah and Orang Ulu people. What is fascinating is that Sarawak has over 27 different ethnic groups - though this number varies as sometimes different groups are categories together as sub-groups.

Moving into presentations, the first speakers were from the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS), Malaysia, discussing the digital platform that they'd developed for documenting the cultural heritage of the "Ring Ladies" of the Embhan community in remote mountainous Sarawak. After collecting thousands of items of visual data, there were challenges in compiling this information systematically, so they developed E-DIVO, an app designed specifically for labelling and describing visual images as cultural and ethnographic knowledge.

The next presenter was Dr Madeline Berma, from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (Consultancy), who gave quite an impassioned speech about the troubled state of Indigenous populations in Malaysia, often referred to in a wider sense as "Orang Asal". She started off talking about how in her lived experiences, people assume that she is of Chinese Malay origin, or possibly Burmese, given her name "Berma". But the reality is that in Malaysia, the mainstream is to think in terms of the three prevalent identities (Malay, Chinese, Indian), but don't consider the possibility that people might be of an Indigenous identity, and so they effectively become invisible in the community. They are often ignored when it comes to national representations of Malaysian cultural heritage - except when it comes to dancing for tourists, as more of an exotic addition to the mix. She then went on to talk about the usual socioeconomic problems that Indigenous people encounter - which are very common to First Nationals people around the world. Her overall point - culture is politicised, and in Malaysia, it is the Malay Muslim peninsular culture that dominates all others, effectively erasing Indigenous culture that is devalued and forgotten. If we're serious about development, then we cannot talk about development without talking about sustaining traditional communities and their knowledge.


This was followed by a visit to the Sarawak Biodiversity Centre, where we were served lunch, learned about the ways that they collected traditional knowledge related to local plants and wildlife, and visited their ethnobotanical garden.

After a late afternoon break, we were picked up from our hotels and taken to a dinner reception, where we were treated to cultural performances, an array of local dishes, and invited to participate in some "traditional" dancing (which was strangely almost-identical to the Electric Boogie / Slide).


Sunday morning began with a keynote presentation from Camille Callison of the University of Manitoba and the IFLA Indigenous Matters committee. She spoke at length about the work that she'd done with the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) in establishing Indigenous Matters working groups, improving Indigenous representation from across all provinces and territories, and developing their own protocols for sharing and communicating Indigenous knowledge.


This was followed by a tour of the Sarawak State Library, including a separate children's area, computer study area, American Corner and maker space, reading rooms, and special collections of local history and local publications.

After lunch, the final event was a panel session with members of the IFLA Indigenous Matters standing committee, where there were many topics discussed, but to be perfectly honest, I was starting to run out of steam. One clear message I do recall from this discussion stuck, though, and that was that before we can decolonise our collections, we need to first decolonise our practices, attitudes and ways of thinking as professionals. Which sounds obvious when put like that, but we still have a long way to go.

I felt privileged to be able to attend the first ever satellite event of the Indigenous Matters section, and to meet and get to know those involved in the standing committee, being from Canada, USA, New Zealand, France, and Sweden. There were not-so-subtle hints that they'd love to have somebody from Australia, and I promised that I'd mention it when I returned home - especially as they're calling for new committee members in the near future. I was also excited to hear that next year, Indigenous Matters is running a joint satellite meeting with the Library Services for Multicultural Populations section in Georgia, and between the opportunity to visit Georgia and the diverse discussions that are bound to be explored, I am already primed to book my ticket to go!

Most importantly, though, with the end of this session came the realisation that... I was finally on holiday! I had four full days, which I used to explore museums and cultural sites, visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary, cruise the Santubong wetlands, and explore Bako National Park. My pro-tip: organised tours are expensive, and you can visit most of these places on public transport for a fraction of the price. Just make sure you give yourself time. But Kuching was the perfect city to be based whilst doing day-trips in the region.



A post shared by Andrew F (@lib_idol) on

Thursday evening came, and with it, the long arduous journey that consisted of four flights from Kuching to Kuala Lumpur to Singapore to Sydney and finally, Canberra. It was pretty much the most painful part of the trip, with its share of delays but none of which resulted in a missed flight. At midnight on Friday, I arrived back at my apartment, relieved to finally be home.