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Peter Kallang in Ulu Baram. Photo courtesy of Peter Kallang

Peter Kallang, the Sarawakian activist who almost became a Catholic priest

The story of Peter Kallang is a story of a boy from Sarawak’s interiors who fought his Goliath that came in the form of mega hydroelectric dams and won. He is recognised throughout the world for his work and has received international awards. He spoke to Journey With Us recently about his early life, the Baram River, his church involvement and how he almost became a priest. (Photos courtesy of Peter Kallang)

JUNE 16, 2020: It was 1961 and Peter N.J. Kallang was 11. He was leaving his family to attend the English-medium school that was closest to his village in Long Ekang and live at the hostel there. His new school and hostel was at the Good Shepherd Catholic Mission in Marudi, the nearest town, set up by priests from the Mill Hill Missionary Society (also known as the St Joseph’s Missionary Society of Mill Hill). Long Ekang has four long houses and the majority of those living in them are Kenyah while the rest are Kayan.

Kallang (front row, first from left) and the other children from his village sitting on the steps of the Long Ekang school building. Taken around 1957.

It was a two-hour trip by out-boat and three hours by motor launch down the Baram River to Marudi where the mission was located. These vessels plying the river were usually laden with agricultural and jungle produce from the villages to Marudi and they ferried basic consumer goods, building materials and farming tools back to the villages. From Long Ekang went banana, coffee beans, dried coagulated rubber sheets, rattan, wild illipe nuts, dammar (a type of resin) and jelutong (a latex from a wild tree indigenous in Borneo).

Kallang was just a child when he started going to the Baram River to swim, and only nine when he started fishing in the river for food. “I used banana as bait,” he told Journey With Us in an interview using online streaming from Miri where he has been living for the past 47 years. “It’s impossible (to fish) now. Because it’s polluted, oxygen level is affected. No more fish now. Now, you can only fish in small streams.” The Baram River would shape his destiny in years to come.

This is the first school in Long Ekang and it was built by the villagers in either 1947 or 1948.

This is the school building that replaced the earlier one. This was also built by the villagers as a private school and later supported by the Catholic Church. In the late 1950s, this school was taken over by the government. Now there is a new school building.

Life in Good Shepherd Catholic Mission

School-hostel life was regimented. There were the 6am daily masses conducted in Latin by either one of the three priests stationed at the Good Shepherd rectory. One of these three priests was also the school principal. Besides his duties at the school, he also performed his pastoral duties in Marudi. This was necessary since the parish priests were on regular pastoral duties to rural areas, covering the large and remote corners of the parish by boats.

“There was also a third priest who did pastoral work among the Iban communities. He too spent a lot of time in the rural areas at the Iban villages in Baram. So for most of the time, Good Shepherd’s Mission was being cared by our school principal.”  

Early morning masses were not easy. “There was no electricity and it was dark in the church. For the morning masses it was just the candle light from the altar. We had to squint to read (the Latin text). So, we learnt it all by heart. The one who can, serves mass. It’s an honour to serve mass,” he said. “However, for the evening private studies we used the pressure lamp with kerosene as fuel.”

There were more than 60 student boarders who stayed at the school dormitory and they were all boys. Some came to the mission as young as seven years in Primary 1. Some like Kallang came when slightly older. There were no girl boarders at the Good Shepherd Primary School at that time.

“There were very few rural girls or girls from among the indigenous people who were studying in schools when I was there. The few would be day schoolers who stayed with relatives or friends in Marudi. In 1965, a convent built for the Franciscan Sisters was completed. Part of the convent provided facilities for girl boarders,” he said.

Tins like this were used to hold kerosene. The unidentified person in the photo is pumping kerosine into a bottle and from the bottle the kerosene was poured into pressure lamps. Kerosene was the fuel for these lamps.

When asked about supervision, he said the priest was there to make sure there was discipline, schedules were adhered to and cleanliness was kept but the priest also had his pastoral duties to do. The missions were generally short of resources and there was hardly any provision for dorm supervisors and that was why the children had to fend for themselves. “The teachers were not assigned to look after us.”

The boys had to cook, wash their clothes, clean the classrooms, compound, dormitories and toilets Including cutting grass with machetes, on top of going to school and doing their homework. The boarders formed their own cooking cliques. They collected firewood from the nearby jungle and the abandoned rubber garden to use as fuel to light the stove. Collecting the week’s supply of firewood was one of their Saturday chores.

Parents gave the priest a certain sum of money who then gave each of the boys RM1 on Sundays after mass and RM1 on Wednesday afternoons and they were then allowed to buy grocery and supplies from the shops in Marudi. They bought onion, cooking oil, salt, ikan bilis (dried anchovies), MSG and vegetables and returned to the mission by 4pm to cook dinner. Kallang kept aside 20 sen and on Wednesday afternoons he rented a bicycle from the bicycle rental shop and went on nice long rides around the town.

“We had nice vegetables for dinner on Sundays.” That’s because they had just come back from the shops. They cooked dinners and made sure they cooked extra rice. The next morning, the leftover cold rice with ikan bilis (dried anchovies) and cold water was their breakfast. Lunch was also leftovers. Once they ran out of vegetables, they looked for midin, wild fern found in swamps. “That was our staple.” And there was also the Baram River. Kallang and his friend fished in a nearby lagoon off the river. “We would catch the fish with our bare hands. Good meal that day.”

Meal preparations were done communally and cooking was either self-taught or learnt from the older boys. Water for cooking and washing came from the Baram River. Each day, the boys would go down to the river to bathe and on their way back to the mission which was on top of a hill they carried water using recycled kerosene or biscuit tins as buckets. Kallang said the tin was half his height and by the time he carried it up the hill “three-quarters of the water would have spilt along the way”.

The classrooms were on the ground floor and the dorm was on the floor above the classrooms. The toilets were far from the dorm and at night many of the younger boys who were afraid to walk to the toilet alone would pee out of the window. Throughout the school term the patch of grass that received the golden showers would be dead. “When we returned to the mission after the school holidays, the grass would be green again.”

Kallang (circled) in a class photo in 1963.

Great admiration for priests

Though challenging, Kallang still has vivid and fond memories of his school days. The teacher-priests had an impact on him. “I have great admiration for them. But I was scared of them. Because their disciplining method was different then. I was scared of them more than anything.” One of them was Fr Lester J. Lonergan, an American Mill Hill priest who is now 90.

The late Brother Alberto Rottensteiner

And then there was Mill Hill Brother Alberto Rottensteiner, who passed away at 87 in Italy on April 29 this year. Kallang saw in him someone who went the extra mile. “He built a school in Long San, one of the remotest parishes in the Miri Diocese. He built the first micro hydro in Sarawak.” Kallang had known him for 55 years. “I spoke to him about 18 hours before his death. I was Skyping with him.” 

The micro hydropower plant Brother Alberto built in 1980 supplies green electricity to the school and church in Long San. A micro hydro generates at 15kW which is enough power for a small community. It uses natural flow of water with little to no harm to the environment, and is much cheaper to set up.

Marudi to Miri to (almost) priesthood

“But there were many priests who guided me as spiritual directors over the years since I was a teenager. Among them were Bishop Anthony Galvin, Fr Matthew Carpenter, Fr Guido Gockel – they were all Mill Hill priests. After that there were a number of local priests, Fr Anthony Wan and Bishop Emeritus  Anthony Lee too.” Bishop Anthony Dennis Galvin was a Mill Hill prelate, who became the first Bishop of the Vicariate of Miri when it was formed from the Diocese of Kuching in 1959.

“He was a good priest and he showed a good example. Very prayerful, very spiritual and at the same time very human and approachable.” Kallang said: “Dennis Law, a friend of mine who was a well-known photographer and journalist, once said ‘The Ulu folks looked at Bishop Galvin like a god. I understand them because when he walked in you can almost feel the aura’.” The communities that live along the Baram River are referred to as Orang Ulu, or Upriver People.

By this time, Kallang was working for an oil and gas company in Miri. He had come to Miri for his Form 4 and 5 schooling. Once completed, he stayed on to attend technical training in Brunei (1971-75) and was back in Miri to continue his employment. From 1984 to 1986, he went for further his studies at the Wirral Metropolitan College, Carlett in England.

Kallang with Fr Matthew Carpenter at the Miri Airport five years ago. Fr Matthew had stopped over on his way back to Republic of Ireland after serving in China for more than 20 years.

“Bishop Anthony Dennis Galvin had a great interest in anthropology. He went to great lengths to study the culture, social, rituals and religious tradition of the Kenyah communities in Sarawak. He wrote books and articles on those subjects. He was a faithful contributor to the Sarawak Museum Journal. He changed the traditional Kenyah tunes and chants to Kenyah Christian hymns. He was open and friendly and he was respected and liked by those who knew him. His circle of friends went much wider than Catholics or Christians. He was known, loved and respected by so many people.”

Then there was Fr Peter Major. “I came to know him as a pastor and friend when I was already working while serving as a lay leader in the church.”

Fr Matthew Carpenter was an Irish Mill Hill priest who was the editor and publisher of The Beacon, the Vicariate of Miri’s monthly newsletter. “Except for the picture pages, the rest of the pages were printed manually with cyclostyle machines,” said Kallang. He still is in touch with Fr Matthew who is now retired and back in his home country in Republic Ireland.

Kallang at the Mill Hill house in London in 1985. With him are Fr Peter Major and Fr Emile Fish (far right).

After his service in Sarawak in the 70s, Fr Matthew went on to become the rector at the Mill Hill Seminary, a minor seminary in Roosendaal, Netherlands. Kallang took unpaid leave when he was working for the oil and gas company to attend a course for skilled lay volunteers serving in mission countries at the minor seminary.

Kallang sitting on the lap of his uncle Patrick Kilah. On the right is his brother Michael and on the left is his sister Maria.

“Short of becoming a priest,” said Kallang. His plans to be a priest did not go down well at home. “My mother cried when I told her I wanted to be a priest,” he said. The family had already lost two children.

His older brother Michael had completed his seminary studies and was working with then Bishop of Miri Bishop Anthony D. Galvin. The two had jointly produced a Kenyah dictionary and were then writing prayers and hymns in Kenyah. “The hymns and prayers are still used to this day at the Kenyah masses and prayer services,” said Kallang.

But Michael died in a road accident soon after in 1974. Just before that the eldest of the Kallang siblings Maria died of cancer. Kallang himself escaped death earlier in January 1971 when an oil rig blast killed nine of his friends. He was off duty that day. “The Lord spared me on that day. For a purpose, I think.” But because he was now the oldest of the three remaining children, priesthood was out of the question for his family, he said.

Story on the oil rig blast that Kallang escaped.

“My active involvement in the different pastoral apostolates started when I came to Miri in 1968 for Form 4 and 5. I first joined the Legion of Mary and the Young Christian Students. In June 1971, I was accepted for an artisan training specialising in Electrical Installation Engineering at the Brunei Shell Petroleum Vocational School in Seria, Brunei. There I was a member of the Young Christian Workers at the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Parish in Seria, Brunei.”

In 1978, he and a few others started a prayer group and the following year they got hold of the manual on how to conduct a Life in the Spirit seminar from a friend who brought it from Sabah, and with that they started to conduct LSS in their parish.

Then Fr Anthony Wan, parish priest of Good Shepherd’s Church in Marudi, and he went to Bangalore for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal Convention that was attended by a few thousand people. They saw how it was organised and decided to organise one in Miri. “This was in 1981. There were more than 3,000 participants and they came from all over the Miri Diocese and beyond. Those participating were mostly Catholics with a good number of non-Catholics as well.”

Kallang (right) with Bishop Emeritus Anthony Lee. The two have been meeting up regularly over the years. This photo was taken last week when they met up after the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted.

Church work took up most of his free time but there was a moment when he started to notice a certain someone. “At the end of 1980, a girl came to my youth courses and seminars in Miri. She was good, kind. She was in Fr Wan’s parish in Long Lama. A rural parish. I went there to see her, it was an eight-hour journey.”

“We got married in Miri on November 12, 1983 and immediately on the following day we joined a group of priests and lay leaders led by Bishop Anthony Lee to conduct three consecutive Life In The Spirit seminars at villages in the Belaga District. To get there, we had to travel on logging roads and longboats for two days.” 

Brother Pius Kallang (third from right).

They have four children and one grandchild. His son Petrus is a musician and another son Pius Kallang is a Capuchin Franciscan friar studying at University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. 

Baram River becomes a battlefield

Kallang’s father and uncle were community leaders in Baram, at a time when responsibility and not personal gains was the norm, he said. “They worked for the people. Different from now.” Kallang learnt how to serve the community and look into the wellbeing of the people from them.

It was the sense of commitment to people that he saw in his father and uncle, and Brother Albert and the priests that guided him when he was union president at the oil and gas company. He fought for fairer pay and other benefits for the local staff based on their responsibilities, skills and credentials and for all this to be comparable to what expatriates were given.

“I was also the Branch Chairman of the Orang Ulu National Association for five years. OUNA was a social, cultural and welfare for the Sarawak’s indigenous communities belonging to the Orang Ulu group, ” he said. “Then together with a group of Kenyah living in Miri, we formed the Persatuan Kenyah Miri (Miri Kenyah Association) focusing on providing information and promotion of educational and socio-economic opportunities, and conservation of the community’s cultural heritage.”

Then came a mega-hydrodam said to generate power to meet growing demand. Construction work on the Bakun hydroelectric dam started in 1996 and was completed in 2011 but with major technical issues. It displaced 20,000 people, destroyed the 71,000 hectares of rainforest and has excess electricity that cannot be sold.

“We saw how in Bakun, people’s lives are affected because they were displaced. Drug addiction and alcoholism. Completely disoriented.” Despite this, the government announced plans to build 12 mega-dams by 2020. The first of the 12 was the Muru dam completed in 2015. Next was to be the Baram dam. The battle just got closer to home for Kallang. About 20,000 people would be displaced.

Enter SAVE Rivers in 2011, a network of NGOs and communities affected by hydroelectric dams in Sarawak and Kallang was made chairman, a position he holds to this day. They started a huge campaign, focusing on organising and empowering the Baram communities, followed by blockades, police arrests, lawsuits against the Sarawak government and chief minister, public forums, lobbying and appealing. In 2016, then Sarawak Chief Minister Adenan Satem officially stopped work on the dam.  

This was a monumental victory for the people of Sarawak and for this, Kallang won world acclaim. He was the co-recipient of the Bruno Manser Prize for Moral Courage in 2016. Kallang and Penan rights defender Komeok Joe have the honour of being the first recipients of a new award to recognise commitment in defending environmental and human rights.

Kallang receiving the 19th Bishop Tji Haksoon Justice and Peace Award 2016.

Under Kallang’s chairmanship, SAVE Rivers was awarded the 19th Bishop Tji Haksoon Justice and Peace Award 2016 from the Catholic Bishop Conference of Korea. Kallang also received the 2019 Seacology Prize, which is an award that recognises the achievements of individuals protecting island environments, and the award was for leading the fight against the proposed Baram mega hydrodam project through SAVE Rivers.

But the battle is not over. Adenan Satem passed away in 2017 and Kallang is trying to make sure the present Chief Minister Abang Abdul Rahman Zohari Abang Openg continues enforcing the moratorium on mega-hydroelectric dams.

Kallang’s perseverance is not entirely community and environment driven. Asked what drives him, he said: “Our own Christian belief and respect for human life and dignity. How we are to extent our love to others.”

“I like the quotation from Mother Teresa where she said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, He will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather He will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?’.“