In celebration of World Press Day, August Man pays tribute to the following individuals and collectives for their unwavering commitment to upholding the values and spirit of a free press, and telling stories that need to be told.
On The Frontlines
In a career that spans more than two decades, Channel News Asia’s senior correspondent Melissa Goh has seen, first hand, the impact of numerous global crises – the 1998 financial crisis, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the financial meltdown in 2008. This time around, she is on the frontline of a pandemic that has resulted in an unprecedented global shutdown. For the first time, she admits to feeling “handicapped” as she has to balance between the demands of covering a story while at the same time making sure that the crew remains protected. “This is going to be for the long haul, the battle against Covid-19,” she says. “We need to pace ourselves, avoid getting burnt out, take breathers in between, stay hydrated and load up on vitamin C.”
What We Have Seen Is Unprecedented, What Was It Like For You As A Journalist?
If only we can all go into hibernation and wake up when the war against Covid-19 is over and a vaccine has been found. Wouldn’t that be great? Unfortunately, there is no running away. We all have to live through this nightmare one way or another. While healthcare workers are forging ahead to test and treat, and the government is tinkering with policy responses to mitigate the impact, life as we know it has changed so much and it has caught us all unprepared. Many things that we are used to taking for granted were taken away in an instant. As a journalist, I feel compelled to tell these stories and I don’t have to look hard for good stories. Almost every camera angle is fresh, almost everyone I spoke with has something interesting to say or share, whether behind the barbed wires in areas under lockdown, to people waiting patiently for their turn at the grocers. It is truly an interesting time we are living in.
What Interesting Things Have You Observed During This Period?
For once, I can’t really go into a detached mode like I used to be able to when covering natural disasters, air crashes, financial or political crises because it does affect me and my work. My family, my children and I see a myriad of responses from the people and from politicians across the board. I think due credit must be given to the newly formed government under Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin who was sworn in on March 1 and his cabinet on March 9. It’s baptism of fire for his entire team. While politicians would try to impress and endear themselves to the people, they can’t as it is a time when any social contact is frowned upon. Some are also unusually uptight and sensitive given the circumstances in which they have risen to power. Decades of divisive race-based politics have become part of some politicians’ DNA, who have no qualms of resorting to the old rule book of intimidation and sewing hatred to silence their critics or cover their shortcomings. Among the Malaysian public, some have turned to become more inward looking and lost sight of the big picture that we as a community is only as strong as our weakest link. The marginalised must be made a priority regardless of race, religion, social background or nationality. The virus doesn’t discriminate any of the above. Similarly, the public and policy response must be equally blind to all of them. I also see courage and compassion demonstrated by many Malaysians who have volunteered their time, and spared no effort and expense to help those in need. Not everyone gets to be on the frontline, but to those volunteers I met at homeless shelters, and also those busy making PPE and fighting roadblocks to deliver armour to our frontliners, I take my hat off to them.
Most Have A Pessimistic View Of The Future, How Do You Remain Optimistic?
I guess without me knowing, I actually absorb tremendous strength and energy from what I see and report each day. I guess you can say it is a sense of purpose that keeps me going and I hope to impart that spirit to viewers and readers and also to my family and children.
It Has Been A Crazy Period. How Do You Keep Yourself Motivated To Be On The Go Like You Have?
In December, while I was busy crafting the ‘Year Ahead’ report for CNA, I was already gripped by a sense of trepidation. Indeed, 2020 is turning out to be annus horribilis. From the devastating flood in Indonesia, to the political drama that altered the mandate of the people in Malaysia, to the Covid-19 pandemic that brought the world to its knees, and all this in just the first four months of the year with the worst of the economic fallout yet to come. But there is no running away from it, so the best way, as director-general Dr. Noor Hisham once replied me on WhatsApp, is to embrace it, and don’t resist; fight it with facts, not fear. Indeed, no one is alone in this. It, too, will pass. I will be there to cover it every step of the way, so have courage.
What Keeps You Excited About The News?
I am a news junkie but I think most of the time it’s the adrenaline talking. Despite being in this line, doing what I am doing for over a quarter of a century, I still think being able to bear witness to the moments, historic or otherwise, and tell the story for what it is, is a privilege and a responsibility.
How Would You Describe The Current Crisis To Others You Have Seen Before?
I need to remind myself not to get carried away and expose not just me and the crew to unnecessary risks of infection. I have to think about my family, my kids. As soon as I get home, I need to sanitise my equipment, hit the shower, wash my hair, have a fresh change of clothes. It’s a lot of work. But we mustn’t become complacent, especially with the invisible foe lurking.
Let’s be honest, how many liberties can we really take when it comes to free speech? A group of local artists have experienced being virtually silenced for expressing their opinions through art. The collective, Pangrok Sulap, consists of indigenous Dusun and Murut artists, musicians and social activists based in Sabah. They are dedicated to empowering the rural communities through their art that depicts a narrative relating to pertinent issues in Sabah from illegal logging to official corruption.
What Inspired The Formation of Pangrok Sulap?
The word ‘Pangrok’ means punk rock and ‘Sulap’ is a hut where farmers take a break. Founded in Ranau around 2010 by Rizo, Jerome and Mc Feddy, we were inspired by the use of wood carving from the Indonesian collective, Taring Padi as a platform for us to create and convey messages today. Everything we do is based on our core values: sharing knowledge and building friendship. The idea behind the collective is to empower the community through the use of art. In the early years, we focused more on charitable works around Ranau, especially in rural areas. Every piece of our work is fully utilised for our sustainability and is also being contributed back to the community in need. Without the support of our community and friends around us, we cannot do what we love.
Did You Expect The Collective To Have The Reach It Has Today?
We never thought we would get this far, let alone being invited to exhibit our artworks in big galleries and conduct workshops abroad. When we first formed, we just wanted our voices to be heard, to empower our community. The last decade has inspired us to continue learning and improving ourselves as well as our lives. Sharing everything we know is our goal, in order to learn from others.
What Inspires Your Artwork?
Most of our inspiration comes from our surrounding community and its environment such as the lives of the villagers, nature, and wildlife. What we feel, hear, and see always give us ideas to respond in different perspectives. As artists, although we cannot provide solutions, thus in our artworks we are hoping that the audience will think together and find solutions to social, political, and environmental issues. Moreover, the collective consciousness is in the fight for cultures and traditions as they have become our idea to sustain these elements for generations to come.
How Does Social Climate And Politics Influence Your Artwork?
Social and political climates are not issues faced in Sabah alone. We have seen the damages and harm faced as a result of our own cupidity and rapacity that we have fallen victim to. Not to mention, the politicians who violate human rights and are increasingly complicit. We truly believe art is a powerful tool for us to respond to this situation. It can also be used for us to relay our thoughts, to be critical while educating the public.
How Has And Does Media Censorship Affected Pangrok Sulap?
Censorship of ideas and works in a country that is under the guise of democracy is crazy. We expect the conflict will always exist and will never end, and we must deal with it. But we never look at it as a barrier to weaken us, to stop us from making art. The censorship is not a reason for anyone, especially artists to not be creative. Instead it’s a driving force for us to challenge our creative limits. The only way to beat it is by not looking at it as a disadvantage but as an opportunity to create something that we can look back on and be proud of.
Has There Been A Shift In Enabling Artists To Be More Outspoken, Especially Locally?
Yes, we are truly grateful for the art community, the curators, and NGOs who have stepped up to discuss these issues in public. Even now, there are still artists that face the same issues like we did and it’s a serious situation that needs to be faced. There’s a difference between hate speech and free speech which needs to be considered if we want to talk about media censorship. Dialogues and forums about these issues can be talked about and discussed openly together with the decision makers. After all, there’s no intent to inflict any physical harm. However, if truth cannot be spoken openly, then there’s definitely something wrong that has been going on.
How Do You Give Back To The Community During The MCO?
The current MCO has given us the opportunity to start a fundraiser by selling our artworks, in which 50% of the proceeds go to helping affected individuals and groups during this global crisis. In addition, we also made DIY face shields and donated them to the frontliners. Throughout this MCO, we’ve been continuously uploading artworks in hopes to inspire and entertain the public, so we can get through this with a little bit of sanity.
Tan Ean Nee
Keeping The Valley Of Hope Alive
The Sungai Buloh Hospital may have recently made headlines as a dedicated health centre to tackle the Covid-19 outbreak, but its specialty in infectious disease control has in fact been put into practice since 2004 with the establishment of the National Referral Centre for Infectious Diseases. Over the years, it has fought various outbreaks to world renown including the Nipah virus, SARS and H1N1. With the incorporation of the country’s historic National Leprosy Control Centre (PKKN), its history can be traced even further back in time, all the way to the 1920s – a history of both triumph and sadness that has now become the personal pursuit of former ntv7 journalist Tan Ean Nee, who first approached the Sungai Buloh Settlement in 2006 along with a colleague to investigate the demolition of the settlement’s heritage structures. While making a documentary of the events (The Everlasting Valley of Hope), she took her investigation further by researching into the settlement’s storied past as the world’s second largest leprosarium. Through her research, Ean Nee soon learned that while the centre had greatly contributed to the treatment of leprosy, it has sadly left behind an isolated community of survivors. Touched by stories of patients separated from their family members, Ean Nee, along with a group of volunteers, decided to document their plight and has since taken on the huge task of locating descendants who were taken away for adoption at the time of the quarantine, all of which are recorded in the online museum and book The Way Home. For her tireless work, Ean Nee earned a place in the leprosy survivors- only Sungai Buloh Settlement Council. Today, she carries on her work in the form of an online gallery at www. valleyofhope.my, with initiatives that include students’ workshops, public talks and seminars, heritage tours, exhibitions and community service projects, all of which have successfully brought the settlement to life and reconnected its residents with modern society. In addition, she is lobbying UNESCO to designate the settlement as a World Heritage Site. In the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Ean Nee has volunteered herself as part of a PPE support group to the Sungai Buloh Hospital. In the interview below, she speaks about her ongoing journey with The Valley of Hope and her supporting role to the medical front-liners.
What Did You Learn About The Isolated Community Of Leprosy Survivors When You First Came To The Sungai Buloh Settlement, And How Has Their Quality Of Life Improved Since?
Often in the past they were ignored or turned away by vendors, but since the 1960s and 1970s, with a thriving community of nurseries, a livelihood introduced by a kind medical superintendent from India by the name of Dr. Reddy, more and more people have begun to better understand their situation and support their businesses. When we came in about more than 10 years ago, we started to organise a lot of community projects, inviting the public and students to participate in our communal work and to engage the survivors in conversation and various activities such as story-telling, massage, etc. This, along with the hearty support of open-minded parents, life in the settlement has completely changed. We even have volunteers who come and teach different things like English, writing, painting, pottery, etc. In the process, we have discovered many talented artists among the residents, and have organised various charity exhibitions selling their artworks. We’ve taken them on trips to concerts, recreation parks, even the seaside for seafood. All this has helped them to regain their dignity along with a new sense of purpose and reconnect back with society. They feel less like a victim and more like a member of society, capable of contribution.
How Big Is The Community Now, And Will It Only Get Smaller In Time?
There’s approximately a little over 100 people residing here now. To preserve the history of the Sungai Buloh Settlement and its significance, we’ve submitted our nomination to UNESCO for a World Heritage Site designation. Having fulfilled four out of six criteria, we are tentatively shortlisted for further review. While it is still a functioning facility, particularly now for Covid-19 patients, we aim to preserve the original living quarters for historical reasons, as well as from being demolished to make way for development. The government is in favour of our initiative considering the increasingly lack of historical sites in Selangor.
What Do You Do As A Volunteer In Support Of The Frontliners?
I’m in a PPE support group. We work with factories and material suppliers, and raise funds for PPE supplies in support of Hospital Sungai Buloh. Manufacturers have come forward as a non-profit initiative to contribute PPE to the medical front-liners. We have a meeting everyday to take inventory and find out what needs to be replenished, and run around sourcing and collecting the required materials and donations. The hospital consumes up to 1,500 sets of PPE daily.
What Do You Feel Looking Back At Your Your Journey And Sungai Buloh’s Long History, And The Challenges It Faces Today?
Our aim has always been to keep the history of the Sungai Buloh Settlement alive and bring new hope to its forgotten community, from uncovering the history behind, to tracing family ties for the surviving patients, to reconnecting them with their family and society, to pushing for the preservation of the historical site. The advent of Covid-19 has incidentally brought our Valley of Hope back into notice and, together with the Sungai Buloh Hospital, has allowed the nation to see its ability to tackle the crisis with commendable preparedness, thanks to its long history. This has made us feel very proud and made it all the more important for us to push for its World Heritage Site designation and preserve its history.
Check out Part 1 of our feature below: