BY YEO KAI WEN
BY YEO KAI WEN
limitless expanse of hills – dark green with diagonal bands – stretched out before me in the misty morning light.
Suddenly, with a flurry of noise, a flock of yellow-vented bulbuls took off in unison over the cusp of the Sungei Palas Tea Estate, circling over the plantation gracefully.
Although Cameron Highland’s broad swathes of nature are always breathtaking, its small details are no less amazing.
This is probably best encapsulated in Gunung Brinchang, a colossal hill covered in montane forests.
The trees here teem with the sweet calls of fire-tufted barbets chirping over one another, and the murmur of the wind.
It is difficult to think.
A flutter of wings in the sea of gerok trees caught my eye, and I start towards its general direction before I catch myself.
For a moment, I had forgotten my purpose.
The valley does not release its enthralled guests easily.
I had decided to pursue my university final-year project at one of Malaysia’s renowned hill stations— having read extensively about the serious deforestation issue stemming from the expansion of Cameron’s agricultural and tourism industries.
Having visited the popular tourist destination on countless occasions, I found it extremely difficult to imagine what overdevelopment had done to nature’s paradise.
There were countless news reports by the Malaysian press documenting widespread landslides and flooding across the highlands over the past two years.
As a photojournalist, I had wanted to document the stories of those who had suffered from the floods, and so I came.
It was my first time in Bertam Valley, and even as I drove in by car, signs of the flood were everywhere.
Plastic shelters had collapsed by the side of the river, leaving sharp cliffs next to countless flower pots. Cars that were not evacuated in time were abandoned by the roadside, a ghastly reminder of nature’s destruction. Part of the main road had even collapsed into the river.
It seemed that no one could foresee their eventual eviction from the valley, even though the danger posed by the Sultan Abu Bakar Dam was evident.
Farmers I spoke to were worried about their crops, shopkeepers worried about business, and everyone was worried about how long the bad media coverage about the highlands would last.
It was hard for any local to forget what happened that night in Bertam Valley. The flood was a terrible reminder of the fragility of mankind, and how his appetite for profit-making through the plunder of the land was a path to self-destruction.
Everyone I spoke to was playing the blame game.
Some pointed the finger at Tenaga Nasional Board, the dam operator responsible for releasing the flood waters that night. Others blamed the farmers for the over-development of land upstream. Some claimed that there was poor enforcement by the local land office.
Amidst the sea of grievances and lamentations, one particular statement, repeated by almost every Cameronian I interviewed, struck a chord in me.
“Greed is the cause of all this.”
It was not an easy association to make with Cameronians, given the famed hospitality that is a big part of Cameron Highland’s allure.
Beyond its history and development, it was the people’s friendliness here that enraptured my heart. The locals had never failed to offer a smile, and sometimes, a cup of warm milo and homemade cookies.
One farmer I interviewed even insisted on giving me a large bag of vegetables and flowers when I was about to return to Singapore.
As Datuk Ho Yip Kap, the previous state assemblyman of the highlands put it, “At the end of the day, the people are just looking for a better life here.”
Throughout history, ever since days of the British, Cameron Highlands has always been seen as a paradise of sorts— sought after by different people for different reasons.
And after spending two months in the highlands meeting people from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, I realised that Datuk Ho was right after all.
The Disappearing Hills was exhibited at The Camera Museum, George Town, from 31 May – 30 June 2015. A permanent exhibition is being planned and will be launched in Cameron Highlands coming 2016.
The Disappearing Hills premiered at The Camera Museum, George Town, on 31 May 2015. It was also screened to a full house at The Projector, Golden Mile Complex, Singapore, on 1 August 2015 as part of Filament 2015, an annual film festival organised by the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.
No time left to protect Cameron Highlands
By R B Bhattacharjee for The Malaysian Insider (29 August 2015)
The Disappearing Hills of Cameron Highlands
By Patrick Lee for The Star Online (31 May 2015)
Documentary on Cameron’s Disappearing Hills
By Fernando Fong for The Rakyat Post (7 April 2015)
The Disappearing Hills
By Dr Cheam May Choo for cheammaychoo.com (3 April 2015)
Kai Wen has bathed in arsenic-contaminated water, travelled to the arctic's edge, and slept in Asia's largest slum, all in the name of telling stories. Through his photographs and videos, he hopes to better understand the human condition, and find himself in the process.