The imaginary boundary | Selangor Times
Issue 118


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The imaginary boundary
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 07 Sep 2012

Work takes me to Sabah and Sarawak quite often lately, home to two of the longest rivers in Malaysia. 

My recent trip brought me to Sukau where I stayed in a lodge overlooking the second longest river in Malaysia, the Kinabatangan River. 

The Kinabatangan is a natural treasure as not only does it host protected habitats and indigenous species, but also plays a crucial economic role for the communities who are dependent upon its resources and an important source of tourism revenue.

Like the blood vessels in our bodies, rivers are the lifeline of a population. Civilisations grew from riverbanks and populations prosper as the abundance of the river life and fertile plains provide sustenance for livelihood. 

Some of the world’s greatest civilisations emerged out of river valleys; Nile, Indus, Euphrates and Tigris. 

Here in Klang Valley, the Klang River is central to our making. 

Looking at the state of the Klang River, it’s easy to underestimate its value as a heritage site. 

From the muddy confluence of Klang and Gombak Rivers rose the thriving metropolitan we know now as Kuala Lumpur. 

Flowing from the highlands in Gombak through Kuala Lumpur and Selangor into the Straits of Malacca, this 120km body of water was the gateway for tin miners and eventually boomed into a mining town in the late 1800s. 

Once an important mode of transportation, the Klang River is now a mere drain.

In some areas, rivers mark the political boundary between states. The Mississippi River formed the borders between Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee on the east side and Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas on the west. 

Some rivers mark class structure like the River Thames segregating North and South London. 

Some rivers are the gateway to exploration, settlement and economic opportunities. The Hudson River was named after Henry Hudson, an Englishman who explored it in 1609. 

Its strategic location allowing for an entry point into the inner parts of America made it highly coveted between the English and the Dutch. 

Indeed, the Europeans saw value in gaining control over rivers as geographical boundaries were marked based on topographical features.

Rivers are physical manifestations of boundaries. It is easy to segregate power with a visible and tangible waypoint.  

Boundaries are agreed upon, or in some instances, fought over, by political powers interested in expansion and gaining access to resources. 

Boundaries are often drawn not by the local communities but by colonialists. 

The Dutch, Portuguese, British, French, Spanish, were all drawing boundaries on maps claiming their territories. 

In some instances, the local communities don’t recognise these boundaries; suddenly communities who used to be nomadic and roam freely from one place to another found themselves centralised, unable to cross over an “imaginary” boundary. 

Many of humanity’s greatest problems began this way; some of which, poverty, diseases, refugees, statelessness.

While I was working in Kinabatangan, one of the villages was in a dispute with the Forestry Department regarding the boundary between their oil palm farms and a forest reserve.  The villagers had claimed that they were allocated 15 acres of land by the then government to cultivate oil palm but since they had limited financial resources, many of them only managed to cultivate up to half of their land. 

What apparently happened was that the uncultivated land was annexed into the forest reserve which borders the village. 

Of course, once the land is considered a forest reserve, the villagers could not cultivate anymore should they wish to expand. 

My colleague at the time, Stephen, who was tasked to look at High Conservation Values (HCV), was just as baffled about the conflict. 

He kept on saying, “But it’s the same forest.” I didn’t get Stephen’s logic for a while. 

I was too caught up in the “boundary” dispute. Yes it’s the same forest, but if the villagers claimed that they were given 15 acres of land and are able to prove it, then they have a right to cultivate their land. 

After a while, I realised the point Stephen was trying to make; there is no boundary. Like the rivers and drawn territories on maps, natural resources undergo the same process. 

To develop a certain area, people decide what’s okay to bulldoze and what’s okay to keep as “protected”. 

You end up with highly fragmented forests because people develop the in-betweens. 

If the villagers get their way, the “protected” area will continue to shrink into a mere dot on a map (right now it’s like a 10 cent coin, but this is on a scaled down map).  

Already the forest reserve is an island amongst development, fragmented by roads and a sea of oil palm plantations.

But plants and animals don’t recognise these man-made boundaries. They found themselves, like the centralised nomadic communities; limited in their mobility and their population threatened. And as we continue to cut up the world; slicing portions to reserve and to develop, and continue to fight over borders (like the Israelis and Palestinians and God knows everywhere else too), we continue to contribute to the demise of our own population. 

And we are doing so over what? Over something imagined, manifestations of our own greed and selfishness we call “boundaries”. 


 Selangor Times



Also by Sharyn Shufiyan:

It’s all in the lyrics

WHEN you listen to a song, what is it about that song that would hold your attention for four minutes? 

Syncretism of cultural beliefs

WHEN different groups of people exist in the same environment, integration often takes place. 


The end of the world?

Will love or faith prevail?

WILL love or faith prevail? That is the premise of “Nadirah”, a play written by Alfian Sa’at and directed by Jo Kukathas staged recently at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

Pluralism is not a bad thing!

Last month, my partner and I checked out our friends’ ongoing community arts project, Have a Holy-Day! in Brickfields. Like first class busybodies, we hung around for about an hour or so and snapped some pictures as proof that we were there.

Response to the Responses of Suara Cicit Tunku Abdul Rahman

Sharyn Shufiyan takes a detour from talking about current affairs to talking about her current affair. 

The universality of fasting

It’s that time of the year again when Muslims test their patience, refrain from worldly desires, and increase their piety.

Displaced by development

Naked or nude?

What is the difference between being naked and being nude? Do they both mean the same thing, to be without clothes, to let it “all hang loose”?

Branding Politics

Raving about Rave

Rave isn’t really my scene but I will enjoy a good night out anytime.

A Thai in our midst

"It was way back in 1956, at a time when the then Malaya was on the verge of gaining independence that the idea of building a sizable Buddhist temple close to the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur was first conceived. The temple was also to reflect the status of Buddhism as one of the major religions in the country, and also serve as a symbol of the long standing close relationship that existed between Thailand and Malaya.”

Reaching new heights

Walking into the concourse of Batu Caves, one is greeted by majestic structures of Hindu deities, temples and swarms of pigeons flapping just inches above your head. Macaques blend into the landscape amongst worshippers and tourists, making their way up the 272 steps to the Temple Cave.

Please flush after use

November 19th was World Toilet Day! What better way to celebrate World Toilet Day than to address our toilet habits?

Aren’t we all dirty minded?

Taking shelter from the rain, I walked into a Chinese coffee shop occupied by uncles playing mahjong. In small towns like Kuang, an outsider stands out like a sore thumb. At one point while I was on the phone, the uncles stopped playing and stared at me. “They thought you are a police,” said Uncle Chong, who came to sit next to me.

Picking on the right hemisphere

I’m the worst early riser, ever. But on that particular Saturday, I was actually looking forward to it. The plan was for us to gather in front of SK Sentul Utama. Walking up to the school, I could see the field marshals wearing cute tentacles on their heads, checking in other enthusiasts and assigning them into groups.

A play of lights

As we turned the corner, bright lights greeted us from a distance. With the dark of the night in the background, shades of red, blue, green and white burst into view. We were entering a neon forest.

Leaving and arriving: The non-place

A Caucasian couple with a toddler on tow walked out of the arrival hall. As the parents’ attention was focused on a row of men holding up name placards, the toddler, lying face down, dragged himself along the marble floor, as if licking it, then got up and mischievously scurried away.

Making use of the great outdoors

When I first heard of Broga, I thought it was in Spain or Latin America. It didn’t sound local to my ear. Located on the border of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, it is believed that Broga earned its name from Buragas, a mystical beast that lives in the forest.











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