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Borneo Notebook

After a week in the jungle, it is perfectly clear to me that in any contest for creepy-crawly capital of the world, Borneo would be right up there with no questions asked.

27 August 2011

6:00 PM

27 August 2011

6:00 PM

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After a week in the jungle, it is perfectly clear to me that in any contest for creepy-crawly capital of the world, Borneo would be right up there with no questions asked. They tell you about the mosquitoes. What they don’t tell you about are the leeches, which are everywhere. The ordinary brown kind lie in wait on the path, rearing up like two-inch mini-Godzillas full of gangster attitude and the will to win. Used to chomping through boar and mouse-deer hide, they made short work of my hiking socks. They pump up from matchstick to chipolata size in a few minutes if you don’t catch them quickly, and inject an anticoagulant so you end up bleeding for hours after the bite. But worse are the tiger leeches: nasty little blighters with go-faster stripes, which shimmy up into the trees and drop down on to you. I haven’t yet had one down the back of my neck, but it’s only a matter of time. Still, you’ve got to admire the aspiration.

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The jungle has other delights: pit vipers, spiders, termites, poisonous thorns, itching leaves and tendrils sticky enough to take the hat off your head when you pass. The local Dusun tribesmen hunt rabbits, deer and boar by blowpipe, using bamboo darts tipped with venom from the nipoh tree. To get the right strength of venom, they boil the bark in water: two hours for a rabbit, seven for a boar. In the old days, once they had killed a boar, the hunters would build a fire, roast the animal and feed the entrails to the dogs — now they just get on the mobile phone to their mates. Needless to say, the mobile coverage is better, a lot better, in the jungle than in my constituency in Herefordshire. It’s about time the telephone companies and the regulator started to treat our rural areas with the same energy and focus that one finds everywhere in the so-called developing countries.


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Mind you, boars aren’t the only big targets. The Japanese invaded Borneo almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, and were unsparing of the inhabitants. One of the elders in the nearby village of Kiau still has a photograph of a Dusun impaled lengthwise on a stake and roasted over a fire (and allegedly eaten) by the Japanese during the second world war, and anti-Japanese feeling still runs high among the older generation. The biggest head-hunters in Borneo were the Murut tribe, further south. But Kiau was a local centre for head-hunting and virtually every one of its 600-odd families has a collection of three or four heads, said to bring good luck to a house, or to mark a rite of passage for a young man into adulthood. So when the Japanese came, the reaction was simple: the silent death of a blowpipe dart.

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As in the rest of Asia, the gap between traditional culture and modern branding and self-image is vast. Yet they seem to get along OK. I would guess that 70 per cent of the under-30s in Kiau support the same football team, Manchester United, and Dusun tribal tattoos sit easily beneath shirts emblazoned with the names of Rooney or Nani. In Malaysia as a whole there are more United supporters than in the UK. So it’s hardly surprising that Manchester United have just announced a $1 billion initial public offering of shares — in Singapore, right next door. When a Malay finally makes it into the United first team, the partying will be epic.

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Stories of local corruption abound, encompassing every conceivable commercial opportunity, including the tourist concessions on the sacred Mount Kinabalu. The standard approach is for the family of some politician to set up a series of dummy companies to bid for government contracts, half of the value of which they then siphon off. As with the jungle, its scale and exuberance knocks its British equivalent into a cocked hat, but Malays seem remarkably sanguine about the whole thing. One has to wonder how long the present mixture of aspiration and corruption will last.

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Many years ago I ran an educational charity working behind the Iron Curtain. I recall the late Albert Hirschman speaking simply but brilliantly at a conference in Warsaw in 1990 about the ‘tunnel effect’. Imagine you are stuck in traffic in a tunnel. If the other lane moves, your initial reaction is hopeful: not long now before you start to move, too. But if the other lane keeps moving and you don’t, your hope will turn to anger, or worse. The combination of crony capitalism, thwarted aspiration and rampant materialism puts us all at risk—as we’ve just discovered.

Jesse Norman is MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire.


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