By S. Sivaselvam
Pix by Mohd Hairul Azmi
BANGI, 17 Nov. 2011 - While relations between Malaysia and the Czech republic were established 40 years ago, an eminent Czech anthropologist had pioneered people-to-people ties back in the 1920s, and UKM is presently showcasing a photographic recollection of his travels in the Malay peninsula.
Paul Schebesta, who died in 1967 at the age of 80, was in the peninsula in 1924 and 1925 to study the Semang community, among whom he lived in their jungle world and learnt to speak their language.
Schebesta worked in the areas of physical anthropology, ethnology and linguistics. He did not accept that the pygmies were a variation or subspecies of ancient mankind but were in fact a species of Homo Sapiens.
Neither did he accept, as others did then, that pygmies were a degenerative form of humankind and defended their primary-primitive status as a category in its own right.
The main contribution to pygmy ethnology made by Schebesta was to be the first to give a rich description of the culture of the pygmies of Southeast Asia and Africa.
In addition to the academic side of his research, Schebesta also set out to help his small forest friends uncover the way they fit into the large picture of the development of humankind lest they be crushed under the wheels of modern civilisation, according to a biographical note on him.
In 2008 two young Czech explorers, Milan Danek and Alena Slezakova, undertook the “Expedition Orang Asli” to retrace Schebesta’s journey and bring prominence to the contributions of his fieldwork among the indigenous people of the Malaysian rainforest.
Photos taken of the anthropologist journey are being exhibited at the UKM Chancellery Foyer until this Sunday. The Paul Schebesta Photo Exhibition is organised by two UKM institutes, the Institute of Occidental Studies (IKON) and the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) with the cooperation of the Czech Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
IKON Director Associate Prof Dr Rashila Ramli, who launched the exhibition on behalf of UKM Vice-Chancellor Prof Tan Sri Datuk Wira Dr Sharifah Hapsah Syed Hasan Shahabudin, said the exhibition was important because Schebesta’s anthropological account offers a rich interpretation of Malaysian cultural and societal heritage.
Two universities in the Czech Republic, Charles University and the Metropolitan University of Prague, are keen to have collaboration and exchange programmes with UKM in European Studies and Asian Studies.
“The uniqueness of the Czech Republic in terms of geostrategic position, cultural heritage and political evolution present many opportunities for a two-way exchange,” she said.
The collaboration could encompass staff and student exchanges, formation of research groups and virtual linkages.
There are currently some 300 Malaysians studying medicine in Czech universities.
IKMAS Director Prof KS Nathan said at the launch that at least one Czech university has expressed interest in collaborating with IKMAS, and he felt this would help forge relations between the two countries beyond the diplomatic front and enhance bilateral academic collaboration.
Also present was the Czech Ambassador to Malaysia, Jan Fury.