By DEBRA CHONG and SU AZIZ .
New Strait Times.
15 MAY 2007.
The five Amazing Malaysians selected for their brilliant heritage programmes are (from left) Irshad, Pak Saad, Joan, Judeth and Voon Fee. Be amazed at what they do. DEBRA CHONG and SU AZIZ write on the aspirations of five outstanding individuals.
DiGi recently announced the five nominees for its third Amazing Malaysians 2007 project. The five amazing Malaysians were nominated by the public for their passion and dedication in heritage conservation.
Throughout the year, they will be working with children from within their communities to “help create awareness of their own heritage and the significance of preserving these traditions”.
Read on to find out more about these Famous Five.
CHEN VOON FEE, THE TREASURES KEEPER OF KUALA LUMPUR
Although he is no longer a practising architect, Chen Voon Fee spends “110 per cent of his time seeking, researching and writing”. His architectural consulting service was founded in 1982 for the main purpose of writing, documenting and researching architectural treasures.
Not forgetting conservation planning and development. During the same year, along with other like-minded people, Voon Fee set up Badan Warisan Malaysia (Heritage of Malaysia Trust) to conserve Malaysia’s built heritage, and was its president until 1995. So, how did he first get interested in conservation? “When the old, familiar buildings started to disappear in the early 1980s.” He goes on to name some favourite heritage sites both here and abroad.“Parts of Penang, Malacca, Taiping still carry on in authentic settings. Then there are Luang Prabang, Laos, the Cultural Triangle in Sri Lanka and Dusun Dukuh Bali which is a private site, not on any heritage list.” What is his DiGi Amazing Malaysian project?
“To seek and map the heritage values of Brickfields through the eyes and sensibilities of the schoolchildren there. “There is no shortcut but to work passionately and creatively to arrest their interest. It is very important to show that once a cherished place or thing is gone, it is final, period. No amount of money can bring it back; it’s like some loved one dying, so it is vital to safeguard and treasure what we love.”
Apart from heritage projects, Voon Fee also enjoys “classical music, old films, new books, travel, food and friends … although not necessarily in that order!”. Does he think DiGi’s Amazing Malaysians projects a good idea? “Yes! It helps to keep heritage alive, in the forefront of public attention.”
IRSHAD MOBARAK, THE JUNGLE WALLAH OF LANGKAWI
Irshad Mobarak started out as an athlete during the days when banks hired athletes to play in their in-house teams. “I played rugby and had too many injuries. When the sport stopped, I found that the banking world was just not for me.”
Today, Irshad calls Langkawi home and has done so for the past 17 years. He is the resident naturalist for Datai Hotel. “It gives me time to work with people who want to be naturalists and guides,” explained Irshad.
The Datai’s privileged guests are worlds apart from the fishermen he educates on sustainable fishing.
“A lot of the hotel guests are in a position to make a change. For them to be aware of conservation is great. Perhaps in their corporate worlds, they can incorporate business with environmental responsibility and nature conservation,” explains Irshad. Irshad’s love for our islands and its inhabitants stemmed from a trip to Tioman Island. “It got me hooked on conservation,” he said. “That was around 1985!”
For the Digi Amazing Malaysian project, Irshad will be getting 100 children to “come over here and be in the mud. Perhaps the experience will spark in them an interest to become conservationists. Let them see what deforestation does, the fragmentation of habitats and the fact that this island’s flora and fauna have lost 48 per cent of its natural habitat.”
PAK SAAD HARUN, THE RHYTHM MASTER OF NEGRI SEMBILAN
“When I returned from the army after serving in the Unit Perisai for more than a decade, I had to re-join the village community,” recalled Pak Saad. “There was already a Randai group in existence and I had always been interested in our kebudayaan (culture). In fact, the Randai group was started in the 1970s but we re-organised it and ran it in a more efficient manner.”This father of four is a farmer by day. “I have banana trees, goats, and I also tap rubber,” explained Pak Saad, who has been the leader of the Randai group since 2000.
“The group has 50 members to date. They are made up of both men and women, from the schooling-going age to the mid-50s and over. Randai is a tradition of my ancestors. As you know, Negri Sembilan is rich in Minangkabau culture and this intricate performance combines, music, dance and silat. It is only found here in this State,” he continued.
“So, when I heard that I was one of Digi’s Amazing Malaysians, I realised what a terrific opportunity this would be for Randai to become known by others in Malaysia.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he asked, “Did you know about Randai before you spoke to me? See what I mean? For my project, I intend make Randai known to about 80 or 100 school kids. Through them, I hope, Randai will live on.”
JOAN MARBECK, THE KRISTANG POET OF MALACCA
After opting out of the teaching profession in 1989, Joan Marbeck set her sights on recording the language and stories of Malacca Creole Portuguese, resulting in the publication of two books: Ungua Adanza (An Inheritance) and Linggu Mai (Mother Tongue).
“Someone had to register this unique language and I challenged myself with this arduous task after inspiration and encouragement came from Pierre F.G. Guisan, a linguist from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.”
Instead of recognition, she was instead lambasted by the native Kristang community after the books came out.
“They refused to accept that Kristang (as the Creole language is called locally) was an endangered language. Some challenged me to appear in the Portuguese Settlement and would have tomatoes thrown at me because I, so to speak, was giving a wrong impression of the Kristang Language,” she recounted.
One suspects it might have to do with her ancestry. Some too may regard her as an busybody “outsider”, since she currently resides in Negri Sembilan, not Malacca.
“Although it appears that I have run away from Malacca, my heart is still in Malacca and will be reunited in soul when I bring back and share the dreams I had in that truly historical, mystical and magical town,” she declared passionately. She sees it as her mission to unite all Eurasians under the Malaysian-Eurasian banner and get them to “speak Kristang again”. For the DiGi Amazing Malaysians project, Joan hopes to revive Kristang by introducing children to its music, dance and drama.
JUDETH JOHN BAPTIST, THE CULTURE-SEEKER OF SABAH
Judeth John Baptist readily admits that she is a fierce creature. “I’m a Tiger (under the Chinese zodiac) and a Leo (her Western horoscope), which makes me doubly garang,” said the bubbly 45-year-old, albeit with a glint in her eye. But for the hardworking assistant curator at the Sabah Museum, it couldn’t be a more auspicious or appropriate star. She has worked to publish several academic papers detailing insights into the lifestyles of the various communities, including the Lotud and Bajau peoples.
The irrepressible Judeth has also helped found a cultural troupe, the Persatuan Seni Budaya Sabah. The performing arts group, made up of mostly youths, is held in high regard. For the DiGi Amazing Malaysians project, she is working with the East Coast Bajaus in Semporna, to create a “continuous, sustainable, vibrant culture to be appreciated by the younger generation; and to market its authenticity so people can appreciate its true value as an heirloom. “I am a positive person. I believe that everything can be done …by whatever means possible.”
A WORD WITH MORTEN
MORTEN Lundal, chief executive officer (CEO) of DiGi, talks about the DiGi Amazing Malaysians project and what they have learned from it after two years.
Q: How did the Amazing Malaysians project come about?
A: We wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to the community, and felt we could achieve that by focusing on heritage. Through heritage, we felt we could put substance into progress and technology.
Q: This is the project’s third year. What are some of the challenges DiGi faced during this amazing journey?
A: We’ve been incredibly fortunate in that our Amazing Malaysians in the last two years have been wonderful to work with.
In fact, it is thanks to their dedication and passion that our projects have been as successful as they are. Many challenges we anticipated, such as having children drop out, were averted simply because our Amazing Malaysians truly inspired the children and captured their imagination and interest. Another challenge is sustaining the projects in the long term. Again, we have managed to achieve this primarily because the local communities and NGOs see the value of the work the children do with their Amazing Malaysian, and get drawn to the projects, eventually taking ownership of them. This ensures that the heritage work continues in the long term.
Q: We noticed that the Amazing Malaysians started out with quite predictable candidates but in Year 3, there have been some really interesting surprises. How does DiGi find them?
A: This year’s Amazing Malaysians, as well as last year’s, were nominated by the public. We felt the more people we involved, the greater the chances of “unearthing” heritage practitioners who are doing really great work. It also increased the chances of discovering those who go about their work quietly, and therefore, are not high-profile.
It is people like these, ordinary people doing extraordinary things, who would benefit most from our support. Towards the end of last year, we ran a series of advertorials in three language dailies (including the NST!) in which we explained what our Amazing Malaysians programme is all about, and in which we directed readers to our website to send in nominations.
Q: On a more personal note, who is the most amazing person you have ever met? It doesn’t have to be a Malaysian.
A: Oh, I have met many interesting people in many interesting places, but I would like to focus on Malaysia, and here I have had the privilege to get to know the artist Ibrahim Hussein, who strikes me as being a rather amazing person in addition to, of course, being an amazing artist. Two of his works hang on the walls of the DiGi office, D’House.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the best thing about this project?
A: It’s hard to name just one “best thing”. For one, we’ve found there’s just so much to be amazed about in this country. Take the tiny village of Tellian, a three-hour bumpy ride from Sibu in Sarawak. Here, there’s a magnificent ‘tallhouse’, like the ones Melanau royalty used to live in. It was built by our Amazing Malaysian Diana Rose, who’s keeping Melanau lifestyle and culture alive.
There are also so many amazing stories waiting to be told in Malaysian towns and villages – pockets of local lifestyles that are hidden to the average eye. Just about 30km away from KL is an ‘island’ where time seems to have stood still. The Mah Meri in Carey Island have remained connected to their traditional culture and environment.
I’ve also been amazed by the enthusiasm and engagement of my DiGi staff. Whenever we open the door to our staff to volunteer for the projects, we’re flooded by their response, so much so that within a few hours, we have to stop taking in any more names.
Finally, it’s been simply amazing the way in which our projects have brought people together. I see this in DiGi and I see this in the communities we’ve worked with. For our wetlands project in Kuala Gula, children from Tamil and Chinese schools worked together with children from the national school for the first time ever. In fact, all the residents of Kuala Gula turned up to help in the project.
Photo: (From left) Amazing Malaysians: Irshad Mobarak, Pak Saad, Joan Marbeck, Judeth John Baptist and Chen Voon Fee.