In the hinterland of Borneo an old lady is perched on a couch improvising into a microphone. A chorus of about 50 people, cross-legged on the floor around a small amplifier, chimes in at the end of each line with a harmonic drone.
“God made this land for us to enjoy,” the old woman sings. “But the devil, through Taib Mahmud, has taken it away.” The group erupts into laughter at the characterisation of Sarawak’s Chief Minister as the agent of the Devil and the skilful rhyming it has been phrased with.
But the singer’s intricate melody is a melancholy one, and the words, sung in Kayan — one of over 30 indigenous languages in the Malaysian state — are a lament for the loss of the life she once had. Fifteen years ago, 10,000 people were moved from their land along the valley of Sarawak’s biggest river to make way for the Bakun dam — a hydroelectric project with a reservoir the size of Singapore, which was labelled a “monument to corruption” by Transparency International.