Sitting in the roof top bar with a jug of Tiger overlooking the Sulu sea we discussed the events of three years prior when local pirates kidnapped two people dining at a local restaurant. We learn later that the woman was released after a large ransom was paid. The man’s fate was not so lucky with a brutal decapitation giving the story a horrific twist.We’re told people have been leaving the eastern coastal city of Sandakan in fear. There are streets of shuttered shop fronts and shops absent of commerce, clientele or shop keepers. At one point it’s described as a ghost town. The city that was once modeled on an era of beautiful Hong Kong architecture is now looking dilapidated and deserted in many parts.Pirates are bad for the economy, but their presence create unexpected positive consequences for the environment: there’s less industrial fishing which helps increase the local aqua biodiversity and there’s is less tourism which means less developments into forested spaces.We also get to meet some folk who despite all the odds have a vision for a rejuvenated city. The Forever Sabah crew are a force of nature in their own right and we wish them continued success in their projects.
This is our first night in this city of Sandakan. With good friends we mark our first visit to the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. Sabah is one of three countries that make up the collective state Malaysia. It seems there’s a prevailing political, and maybe social idea that Malaysia is singularly the Malayan peninsula, ignoring both Sabah and Sarawak. Or that peninsula Malaysia delivers itself preferential treatment or penalises the other two territories. We’re told Sabah was withheld ALL state-allocated funds for nine years when it refused to turn pristine primary rainforest into an open cast mine. Also 95% of all profit from oil and gas ends up in peninsula Malaysia with only about 5% returned to Sabah to maintain infrastructure.During those nine years there was major deforestation to simply sustain the country. Now much of that land is planted in Palm Oil trees which proves for interesting and complex conversations.Palm oil has a bad name. It is also one of this country’s major industries. Prior to palm it was acacia and rubber trees. Internationally palm is condemned, among other things, for the destruction of livable environments for orangutan. Local orangutan experts suggest that view is not entirely accurate as Orangutan can live in Palm, and it has it’s own integrated ecology and biodiversity. In addition we discuss how Palm is an alternative to fossil fuel and is possibly a significantly cleaner fuel source than oil. We are also told that the acquisition of palm ranches by corporates seem to have ceased and instead small holding/family crops are being planted to create incomes. Observing the shade produced by these huge trees it’s hard to imagine Palm Oil production as more destructive and harmful to the environment than the bare, parched paddocks back home stripped for the production of cattle. Palm’s not without it’s negative impacts for sure, but it’s apparent it’s a highly complex conversation with many nuances. It’s easy to take a moral position from an international level but if sustainable solutions are not considered, identified and supported in partnership with local communities then is not much more than moral grandstanding.
We land in Kota Kinabalu, the country’s capital, and leave early next morning for Sandakan. It’s 6-7 hours drive east to the coast through beautiful rainforest and past Mt Kinabalu, the highest peak on the island which is full of legends and ghosts attached to old lore, it is a place with seven heavens and one hell. After many hours of forest the road weaves its’ way through mile on mile of Palm oil. The back seat of the 4WD feels like a fairground ride, as the constant jolts and judders rearrange our spines.
The first few days for us are rest days. We spend one checking out Sun bears and Orangutan in local rehabilitation centers. The animals in both these centers have been rescued from poor conditions and captivity. The goal of the center’s is to rehabilitate them back to living in the wild. In fact the back of the orangutan center has no back fence, it opened directly onto the rainforest which means the apes decide when to leave. We also learn about a Human/Elephant Conflict Resolution program being run by a lock NGO that works to find ways to manage Pygmy Elephant, once their habitat has been destroyed, and humans, who have both destroyed said habitat AND then had their habitats invaded by said pygmy elephants.We travel into the mountains, visit temples, eat taro ice creams, get to go behind the scenes at the amazing insect department at the Rainforest Research Center and catch a glimpse of the massive and sometimes gargantuan insect biodiversity that calls this place home. We visit food courts, derelict buildings, watch skilled hands opening of the insect- looking durian and sample it’s sinewy flesh. We also get to visit to a water village. Communities built on stilts and floating platforms above the continuously calm bay. Here people make their livelihood from the sea and trade with the plains people and mountain folk. The result, the melding and merging of distinct cultural practices and traditions at markets and on street corners.
The following day we spend a full 12 hours inside the rain forest enjoying the canopy on walkways and towers to 50 meters above the ground. The forest is full of fruit after an explosive mast year, an extreme flowering which happens between every 5-10 years. We take a night tour when different species come awake seeing flying squirrels, slow loris, giant ants and luminescent beetles.Not bad for quiet days of rest!We return to the west coast were we stop in at a studio where our friend I-Lann is working with local women weavers to create a massive 16 metre mat to be hung in the Singapore art gallery. A truly impressive work which aims to make visible hidden voices and untold stories.From there we go onto Keningau, first we meet another amazing women, Mami Ita, friend of I-Lann’s and our host for the evening. Then we head to Nosebleed Garage, our venue for the next show. It’s about 20 minutes east of Keningau, in a small and beautiful kampong where we are welcomed by many cows occupying the road.Nosebleed Garage is in an abandoned shop on the main street of the village which has been repurposed by local youth as a DIY punk inspired space housing a performance/practice space, a small distro shop and an exhibition space for people to show their creative expressions. We’re told it has the consent of the village elders, who although may not like the grindcore or punk music, appreciate the space as a positive addition to the kampong for it’s young people. We meet the mother of the show organizer who was welcomed and included in all the evening’s events. The bands are enthusiastic in their performances, from a Nirvana cover’s band to an atmospheric and sonic post-punk outfit. The audience is supportive and engaged. We have the best time! Venues like this, self-initiated, organized and managed, are majorly inspiring examples of self organisation, learning as you go and lifting up those around as you go.
Next day we head back to the capital Kota Kinabalu for our 2nd show in Sabah. The afternoon is quiet. Rambutan are attentively scoffed. The venue, MarsKK, which is about to celebrate its 1st year anniversary, is located over two floors. An internal performance space and a rooftop bar. It’s a festive night and an interesting line up with two bands who have come to KK from Brunei. There are no venues for assertive bands in Brunei, the main place to play is often house parties. The music spans from Blink covers to nu-metal like compositions. Was a real pleasure to meet these crews and find out more about this different circumstances in which people live.
A massive thanks to I-lann and Joe for encouragement to come and visit Sabah. Such a beautiful opportunity that we’re so happy that we took it! Not as much rest as required but certainly a nutritious experience, that’s rejuvenating! And who knew Sabah had the best roundabouts in the world!!