WHEN the R.AGE team of senior producer Elroi Yee and journalist Shanjeev Reddy first arrived at the Sungai Kejar orang asli village, the tribesmen greeted us with blowpipes in hand. They’ve been known to attack disrespectful outsiders with their poisoned darts.

But the reason for the frosty reception, as we would quickly learn, is not just because of their traditional territorialism, but also because of the deep distrust they’ve developed towards the outside world.

During a research trip with Universiti Malaya anthropologist Kamal Solhaimi Fadzil, we learned that an unusually high number of children in Sungai Kejar were dying of a disease locals call serawan (mostly described as a growth in the mouth and throat). When we approached the various authorities about the matter, they didn’t seem to know much about it.

We returned on a separate trip and stayed with the orang asli for close to a week, slowly earning their trust, and the stories we uncovered at Sungai Kejar were astounding.

In 2007, a state park was gazetted over their land, and suddenly many of their traditional forms of subsistence became illegal. They’ve had 36 elephants translocated into their backyards since 2010 (doubling the elephant population in the area) and – most importantly – we had documentary evidence of at least two children dying of a disease nobody seemed to know much about, or even care to figure out.

An infant believed to have contracted serawan. Doctors who were shown this picture say the white spots in the infant’s mouth is oral thrush, which usually occurs when the immune system is weakened by disease. Photo by: ELROI YEE/The Star

An infant believed to have contracted serawan. Doctors who were shown this picture say the white spots in the infant’s mouth is oral thrush, which usually occurs when the immune system is weakened by disease. Photo by: ELROI YEE/The Star

Thankfully, the stories and videos we produced from our trip spurred some authorities into action, and *ahem* bagged us a silver award for Best Feature Story at the Asian Media Awards (AMA).

We were in Manila last week for the AMA ceremony along with some of the biggest news publishers in the entire continent. No pressure, then.

The ceremony itself was spectacular. It was held at Fort Santiago, one of the country’s most important historical sites. It’s kinda like if someone closed off A’Famosa for a private party. Asia’s Got Talent winners El Gamma Penumbra kicked things off with one of their mind-blowing shadow play performances, and the night ended with them on stage again while fireworks lit up the sky.

Everything in between was a bit of a blur for us because we were pretty nervous. And we have to admit, we were disappointed we didn’t get the gold award. We’re kiasu that way here at R.AGE.

But when Elroi and Shanjeev were in Sungai Kejar, running from rampaging wild elephants and roughing it out in the deepest jungles, awards were the last thing on their minds.

All we wanted to do was tell the orang asli’s stories and to show everyone the very real struggles they face, struggles which we as a modern society could easily help with, but we often ignore out of convenience.

The immediate reaction to the story from the various authorities and stakeholders at Sungai Kejar was, sadly, very predictable.

They gave all kinds of excuses – the orang asli are exaggerating the number of deaths, they don’t keep proper records of births/deaths, they are afraid of modern medicine, they confuse all kinds of diseases for serawan, and so on.

Instead of taking the opportunity to show that they are doing something (which some of them are entrusted with responsibility AND public funding to do), they seemed more eager to discredit the story, and the source of it. One of the researchers who helped us with the story even had his research permit revoked.

What we do know is that the state health department organised a fact-finding mission to Sungai Kejar, with an entourage of around 40 people, mostly members of the media.

They were in Sungai Kejar for a full 45 minutes, and they visited one settlement. We visited SEVEN over five days while we were filming. Whatever. It was a good start. The health department promised to increase medical support and education in Sungai Kejar.

We decided to give it a few months before we go back to see how our orang asli friends are doing – if the authorities will still let us.

We guess that’s as good as we could’ve hoped for – though the AMA gold award would’ve been nice as well.

Other awards we’ve won:

The Curse Of Serawan


Ian is the editor of R.AGE. He hates writing about himself.

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