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August 22, 2012

The Pride of Sarawak

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – On Friday morning last, Malaysia awoke to the news that happened while most were asleep because of the time difference. Nobody expected a young woman from rural Borneo to earn a Bronze Medal in 10-meter platform diving because, in the past, Malaysia had only placed in badmitten, never any other sport.


To top things off, as if it couldn’t get any better, she was from a small group of people known as the Bidayuh. They have their own language and customs, borne from centuries as a gentle agricultural community now moving into the world of business, education and forestry, taking their rightful place in this rapidly developing part of Malaysia.


However, these “gentle agricultural denizens “are known to be great warriors when rattled. They have taken many heads in the past and have fought gallantly and with great bravery.”


Pandelela Rinong Pamg became the first woman ever to win an Olympic medal for Malaysia. At 19, this small lady, just under 5’3” and 109 pounds, brought a torrent of pride and respect from London. Amazingly, she defeated most who were supposed to win, bested by only China (gold) and Australia (silver).


The prime minister awarded her a free college education, worth $100,000, a fortune for her, plus the honorary title of Datuk, similar to the title “Sir” in England. She received a tumultuous welcome on her return from London at Kula Lumpur’s ultra modern airport.


The local Bidayuh organization has bestowed the title “Bidayuh Bratak Warawati Bung,” meaning female warrior of the Bratak people, a great honor. The Bratak are a subgroup of the Bidayuh, with its own customs and dialect.


There will be a huge dinner in her honor. She has requested Sambal Petai as the main course, a concoction of guppies (my term for very small dried fish), fire-hot red pepper and chili, shallots, shrimp paste that is all pounded together and then fried with oil and with something like stinky long beans that grow in the jungle. Okay! Okay! I know, but Westerners eat limburger cheese and other revolting smelly stuff like fried liver and McDonald’s hamburgers.


A typical teenager and sporting a T shirt that read “I’m FAMOUS because of my MOM” in blue lettering on a white background, she answered questions on Yahoo! Malaysia’s Question Time. As reported in The Borneo Post, her favorite band is the Korean group “Big Bang” with “Alive” being her favorite song. Commenting on the Chinese gold medal winner, she said, that Chen Roulin was a full time athlete “while I have to study while training.”


Asked to complete the sentence “I am proud to be a Sarawakian because,” she replied “of their fighting spirit that will never give up.”


Sarawak is a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, a hidden pearl of the Orient. Known mainly for the population of orangutans, the area boasts incredible beauty, friendly people and delicious food. In most areas, water, electricity and cell phone service is available. Roads are paved and are being built throughout the state. Education and health care are provided at a nominal cost. One national university serves the area, but there are several private ones.


For the residents, beaches, jungle trekking, museums, lectures and movie theaters abound. There are a host of local sports teams to cheer for. Modern airports dot the region connecting the island with flights to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur for many international connections.


It may seem strange for countries that have won 90+ medals to understand why such celebrations are in order for one Bronze Medal. For a small country with a fraction the population, resources and monies, the name Malaysia now resonates throughout the world. And connected with this, Sarawak, where most of Malaysia thinks of it like Americans do West Virginia, it proves we are not a backward state with people swinging through trees. Above all, the feat provides a “Yes we can” role model for the young.


Imagine somebody who studies and trains in diving and wins an Olympic medal and is a woman. A feat, I daresay, not many Olympic participants can match.


…Life is good. . . . .


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