The topic of place as a countermonument in the case of the Penan community in Malaysia would not only be interesting but also challenging in terms of its conceptual applicability. In taking this task, I would like to start by introducing who is the Penan community, which I think most of us at this conference do not know much about.

The Penan community is “the last nomadic group in Malaysia” . Most of the indigenous groups in Malaysia are already living in settlements or being semi-nomadic. However, there are a few clans in the Penan community that are still maintaining the identity and tradition of living nomadic life.

The community is living in Sarawak, a Borneo part of Malaysia. Since its independence in 1963, the Penan community has been under pressure by logging activities for development purposes. But today less than 10 percent of the primary forest is left. The area is inhabited by nomadic Penans.

As a community that is considered primitive in its way of life, the Penan community has faced difficulties in demanding self-determination. If the Penan community claims their Native Customary Rights (NCR), then a question is raised: where is the evidence to substantiate their claims?

As a primitive community, their identity is totally based on oral culture. Their history and memory are inherited based on the structure of segmentation differentiation, which emphasizes living in non-modern conditions compared to the life of modern society which is already experiencing functional differentiation.

The way in dealing with nature is the manifestation of the differences between segmentary society and modern society. In this case, the Penan community adapts themselves to their environment, while modern society exploits the environment for them. This contrasting view of understanding the world is evident through deforestation activities.

For the Penan, deforestation signifies the exploitation of nature which is certainly not in line with the natural view of the community. Instead of development based on exploitation, the Penan community internalizes sustainability development through the cultural tradition of preservation.

To systematically explain this matter, therefore, I will elaborate in a few steps. Firstly, (i) I will talk about Penan and their attachment to the forest, secondly (ii) what is the impact of deforestation on them, thirdly (iii) why the proposal of Penan Peace Park is vital for their survival, and fourthly (iii) I shall introduce the concept of place as a way to understand the world, (iv) finally place as a countermonument in the case of the Penan community.

Penan and Forest

The popular perception towards the Penan community is that “they move aimlessly in the forest without establishing any permanent relationship to the land” (Langub 1996). This view is not correct. However, the Penan community has a concept of a place. It is their forest, which has been their own foraging area where they hunt and gather food and other necessities to live and survive.

Here, the Penan community defines territorial boundaries which follow streams, watersheds, mountain ridges, and landmarks. Boundaries are recognized and respected by the community, from generation to generation.

The nomad Penan do not cut the forest to establish NCR. However, they utilize the forest for hunting animals and gathering wild sago and fruit, in a sustainable way. In doing this, according to Langub (1996), the Penan connection with the forest is one of stewardship. Here the connection is “in “the sense of mission, a sense of obligation that they are ordained as custodians of the forest.” In others word, the Penan community act by being “the guardians of the forest in a manner that has won the admiration of those who understand them and their way of life” (Langub 2006).

Penan and Deforestation

Independence in 1963 could be viewed as a dark side of modernity for Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia, including the Penan community. Since then, economic development through the exploitation of natural resources became a key agenda within the new socio-economic development of Malaysia generally and Sarawak particularly. Some urban centers took advantage of this economic expansion, but the promise of just and sustainable economic development remains elusive at best to most in rural Sarawak.

On the contrary, most of the indigenous communities of Sarawak have been dispossessed. In this case, their rights to land have been denied, and they are still suffering from unjust and non-sustainable social and economic development. As a result, they have become poorer in terms of socio-economic perspectives.

The tropical deforestation in Sarawak has increased at an alarming rate since the 1990s when the establishment of palm-oil plantations as the replacement for the forest has caused many disputes. The disputes primarily center on the non-recognition of Native Customary Rights (NCR) lands and where there had been selective and reduced recognition of NCR lands.

While many of the remaining forest communities struggle to use their remaining natural resources in a sustainable way and are trying to protect the forest with biodiversity arguments, the private logging and plantation companies have exploited the forests. Although the government acknowledged the importance of indigenous rights and took the historical decision to sign the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples” (UNDRIF), indigenous communities of Sarawak continue to be marginalized in the name of state-sponsored development.

Following massive deforestation, the Penan clans have only recently started to settle down and learn to farm. Even if their lifestyle has changed a lot over the last decades, they remain faithful to their identity and tradition and still want to live in harmony with the forest. Although they have tried to protect NCR, the destruction of the forest is still taking place in front of their eyes.

After several decades, the social, economic, and ecological impacts of the exploitation of natural resources are too obvious to ignore. The disappearance of our food source, medicinal and other plant and animal species, the pollution of soil and drinking water resources, soil destabilization through the destruction of natural forests, and problems related to our health and social welfare are just some examples.

In further human cost, they have had uninvestigated deaths where young girls and women had been raped by timber workers. They continue to be in such a grave situation unless Native Customary Rights is recognized by the Government.

Having struggled for claiming NCR, the Penan community is now taking an active influence to create a better future by proposing the Penan Peace Park.

Penan Peace Park

What is the Penan Peace Park (PPP)?

The Penan Peace Park is a proposal of the Penan community to claim Native Customary Rights. The concept was conceived upon a series of discussions among the eighteen villages engaged in struggles to protect their forestlands, particularly against the intrusion of the logging companies.

Here, PPP is an alternative to materialize their struggles that started in the early 1980s with logging blockades. The collective action was followed by court case filing. In order to break the deadlock of these both legal and extralegal measures, the Penan community has to look for a long-term solution.

After two decades of exhaustive efforts, many of the other ethnic communities lost strength due to non-ending corporate ‘threats and bribes’ tactics, corruption, and the State’s pro-deforestation policy which disabled them from sustaining their struggle. In 2009, the leaders of the 18 Penan communities began to put their minds together and concluded that they must do something else rather than passively waiting for the court’s decisions. This is the origin of the proposal for Penan Peace Park. This proposal is helped by another twin project which is the Penan community Map.

The maps detail the local environments, highlighting the locations of rice paddies and gardens and primary forest and forest recovering from timber extraction, as well as schools, airports, bridges, and camps. They also highlight the locations demonstrating the Penan’s connection to the land

However, at the moment, the proposed area is land the government has allocated as a forest reserve or permanent forest estate, and can therefore be logged by concession holders. To make the matter worse, until today, the government shows no sign of entertaining the proposal and it may end up nowhere.

Overall, this proposal has eventually become communities’ bottom-up collective initiative. Objectives of the Penan Peace Park is set to aim at improvement for the communities in three main areas, i.e:

  • to safe-guard indigenous rights and self-determination
  • to respect and protect the natural environment
  • to capture economic development opportunities.

These areas are based on the core values of the UNDRIF, which Malaysia has subscribed to. To code the aim of the proposal, “The PPP is prospected to be a place where humanity and nature are living in harmony, where the quality of life and livelihood are secured for both present and future generations, and a place where economic and human development are socioculturally and ecologically sustainable.”

Therefore, if we refer to contemporary English usage, monumental means large, important, and enduring while monument means to honor and having durability. Hence, the Penan Peace Park, I think, suits the definition of countermonument where the Penan community aims to challenge the mainstream perspective on who is the real owner of the forest.

Place as a concept

Place is not just a thing of the world but more than that it is “a way of understanding the world” (Cresswell 2015). It is common to design place in the context of neighborhoods, cities, villages, etc. However, we could also assign the concept of place to a quite small in scale such as monument, park, cemetery, etc.

However, I would like to broaden this concept into the territory by applying the concept of place. Here, place has a cultural meaning to a particular community. This will say that there is an inevitable connection between territory and culture. Thus, I argue that territory goes hand in hand with the culture developed within it. According to Yi-Fu Tuan, we know the world through places. This is the innate capacity of a human being via perception and experience.

For example, the term “topophilia” was developed by Tuan to refer to the “effective bond between people and place” (Tuan 1990). This sense of attachment is fundamental to a particular community as they see place as “a field of care.” To complicate this matter, Tuan defines place through a comparison with space. He suggests, as mentioned by Cresswell (2015), “space is amenable to the abstraction of spatiality and economic rationality, place is amenable to depending on the intensity of valuneness and belongingness.”

To strengthen this point, Tim Cresswell (2015) argues that place is seen as “a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world.” When we look at the world as a world of places, we see different things. We see attachments and connections between humans and nonhumans, including places as a nonhuman things. Here, we see worlds in the web of meaning. As Cresswell mentions, place is space plus meaning.

Sometimes this way of seeing can be an act of resistance against rationalization, urbanization, and globalization of the world that focuses more on space rather than place. To think of territory in the view of place is a rich concept since it will invite many concepts such as meaning, presence, and memory in the discussion of place. In this case, the presence can catalyst meaning and create a memory.

Therefore, it is a mistake to think of territory as a perimeter or property of geography per se without considering the culturally rich in the territory. The culture is formed through a longue duree history and with struggles that shape the cultural mind of a particular community. With this in mind, place is not so much a quality of things in the world but a way of understanding the world through the lens of a particular community. This is the case for the Penan community.

Place as a Counter monument

It is well known that James E. Young (1992) proposes the concept of countermonument by arguing that the task of representation (or interpretation) is the burden of the observers (or viewers). With multiple observers, however, it allows for a multipecpectival approach. One of the striking points by Young is that countermonument aims to provoke rather than to console. Here I fully subcscribe Young’s perspective.

However, I would like to extend the perspective by suggesting, firstly, that countermonument, as deployed by Young (1992), focuses on memorials that “disappeared, changed form, or remained partially hidden when installed.” Here, I would like to enlarge the perspective by inserting that a proposal for a monument could be viewed as a countermonument as well. Therefore, countermonument applies to both, built monuments and proposed monuments. The question is: why the proposed monument is equally important to built monument?

The reason is: that the proposed monument contains a particular meaning to a community, which in this case is the Penan community.

The meaning —potentially– still has an ability to widen our perspective to the other which allows for universality, inclusiveness, and empathy. In this case, we can emphatically comprehend why Penan Peace Park is significant to the Penan community as a way for them to preserve their identity and tradition.

Secondly, I would like to extend the concept of countermovement to the concept of territory by connecting it with the concept of place. Here territory acts as a medium of governmental power as well as its primary object. Territory, in this sense, is a container that holds a bundle of individuals and resources. The contestation here is who is the real owner of the territory.

This dilemma allows for the idea of countermounment (as a provocative proposal) to create a dynamic relationship between the state and society. In this case, it allows the Penan community to exercise political authority in requesting a substantial amount of public land as long as they can argue in the functional system (legal system). Here, they should transform representation into event (Jeffrey C. Alexander 2012), memory into history (Pierre Nora 1989), oral culture into written culture, and presence culture into meaning culture (Gumbrecht 2004). In this regard, they have something to argue for the claim of self-determination. It would make them easier to define its territory through this transformation since they have faced the disappearance of stable ground for many decades.

With this extension, lastly, I think this suits one of our colloquium agendas which is to scrutinize the question of definition since countermonument is arguably a broad concept.


Alexander, Jeffrey. 2012. Trauma: A Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Cresswell, Tim. 2015. Place: An Introduction. Malden, Oxford & Wess Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. 2004. Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey. California: Stanford University Press.

Langub, Jayl. 1996. Penans and Their Surroundings, Hood Salleh (Peny.) Penans and Their Surroundings, Roundtable Dialogues. Bangi: LESTARI. Nora,

Pierre. 1989. Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire, Representations No. 26, Special Issue: Memory and Counter-Memory (Spring, 1989), pp. 7-24.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. New York: Columbia University Press.

Young, James E. 1992. The Counter-Monument: Memory against Itself in Germany Today, Critical Inquiry Vol. 18, No. 2 (Winter, 1992), pp. 267-296.

Presented at the International Conference of (Re)Thinking Countermonuments: The Evolution of “Memory Against Itself”, organized by School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds UK, June 21-22 2022


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