Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Kuching, Borneo - General Impressions

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the other Malaysian province on the island of Borneo besides Sabah.  The country of Brunei lies between the two on the coast, although the two Malaysian federation states border behind the small nation in the back as well as both bordering on Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  Kuching is the cultural capital of the northern part of the island, and is a delightful city with a lively modern riverwalk and fascinating modern architecture.

It is called the City of Cats and cat sculptures are placed in strategic locations around the downtown area.  While Miri’s waterfront wasn’t developed and Kota Kinabalu’s was a working harbor, Kuching’s is for pure enjoyment.  River taxis and tourist boats ply the waterways taking people from the market area to the park by the multi-leveled round roofed legislative building.  At night the buildings and the river are lit creating a dream-like atmosphere. People come to stroll along the boardwalk to enjoy the local musicians, some singing Elvis Presley songs from the early 60s and others performing on indigenous instruments like the Sabe, to taste some of the dishes from local vendors or to shoot twirly umbrellas up into the star-filled sky and watch the blue spokes float back down to earth. 

Kuching is also home to Chinese temples and the Sarawak Museum.  As it lies in a basin very near to a number of national parks, it makes a perfect base for a variety of activities.  Sarawak has 12 National Parks and 32 Wildlife Sanctuaries. Most of the wildlife sanctuaries are closed to the public, but are available to those who want to do research.  While there were far too many activities to undertake in the region, we concentrated on one national park, Bako, and one wildlife center, Semmengoh in addition to the Cultural Village and Museum.

Kuching has the typical Malaysian cultural mix of ethnic groups with their own sections of town.  The Chinese live in the south of the city, while the Malay are in the north. When one looks at the surface, all seems to be harmonious, as it looked in KL.  The Malaysian government has a massive, and very effective to the uninitiated, P.R. campaign going on promoting the country’s rich religious diversity in the media and on stage.

Behind the scenes, however, it is a distinctly Islamic country.  People in the rural communities who do not belong to any official religious institution, as they are animists, are classified as Muslim on their ID cards. Everyone needs to say what religion they are and that is clearly identified on their IDs.  Sometimes the government makes a mistake, such as with our driver who is actually a Christian but his ID said he was Muslim.  He had to go through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to get it changed.  His father, who still lives in the Iban longhouse near the Kalimantan border, has an ID that mistakenly classifies him as Muslim and has the wrong birth year on it, but as he is a “villager” it supposedly doesn’t matter that the information (& therefore the census) is incorrect.

We were told there is a distinct advantage to being Muslim, which extends to admission to the university, to obtaining a government (= well-paying) job, to getting loans.

Malaysia has a National Service that is based on a lottery like basis.  When called up they serve for three months during which time the young men (women are not involved) are required to attend mosque or church services and pray.  Those who have no religion are punished and if they refuse to serve in the army they can be imprisoned or, at the very least, heavily fined.

An example of the preference for Islam over other religions in this officially tolerant secular state was what happened to a local hero.  Dakat (sp?) was a title given to a famous Malaysian Muslim seafarer by the government to honor his many global expeditions and service to the country.  The story I heard was that when he was caught in a storm he saw a vision of Jesus.  In some of his normal speaking engagements, he spoke about the experience, which did not sit well with the Islamic oriented government in Kuala Lumpur. He was stripped of his title, and eventually had to move to Singapore.  Singapore is an independent city-state which split from the Malaysian Federation two years after its formation.

Federation of Malaysia is a officially a secular government.  Malaysia gained independence from Britain on Sept. 16,1963. Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore agreed to join the Federation based on a promise that their lands and culture would be preserved.  Even today West Malaysians (those from the mainland peninsula) can only stay in Sarawak or Sabah for 30 days and they aren’t allowed to purchase land unless it is in cooperation with a local, which is the same policy as with all non-Malaysians. 

At airport security non Borneo-Malaysians are treated like foreigners, and the check points function as if Borneo were a separate nation. The two Borneo provinces joined the Malaysian Federation because otherwise Sabah would have been given to the Philippines (which is the reason behind some of the terrorist activity today in the NE part of the territory), and Sarawak was supposed to join Indonesia. They didn’t want this as at that time Sukarno, the dictator, was in power; going with Malaysia seemed by far the better alternative as they weren’t going to be allowed self-rule.

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