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Sunday, February 20, 2011

KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES


By Howl Pillai

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, my fellow academicians. Good Morning !

It is indeed an honour to address this august gathering of the most learned minds of the land. On first being informed of this singular honour of delivering the keynote address, “Unity Among Great Apes”, I was overwhelmed by the temptation to whoop with joy and  dance on my knuckles. But I resisted this natural inclination with all the will I could muster. That temptation is but a mere fragment now but a fragment nevertheless - for I cannot entirely set aside the DNA of my forefathers. I am, in case you have not noticed, an ‘orang utan’ . The more observant of you will  have noticed the disproportionate length of my arms though I am wearing a full formal suit. You may have also been struck by my deeply  resonating  voice. And of course, the shave I had this morning took care of my facial hair. On this matter of facial hair, I note in passing that many of you here today have returned to the fashion of our common ancestor by retaining full length beards. My father was found of grunting, “different folks, different strokes” and I admit on this point that on account of my opposing big toe,  I find wearing shoes painful  but I will not make a fuss over that. All said, we  have to learn to live together, whatever our genetic differences. Now I must  return to the story of my incredible journey.........

About a hundred years ago a great ape and a gorilla called Red Peter was shot and captured alive in Africa. Red Peter is held in honour among us for being a true revolutionary. No, not for him the idea of merely being a rebel espousing many causes. He was single minded following his capture, of liberating himself from the bondage of ignorance. Imprisoned in a research station on an island off the coast this captive great ape studied the dominant and domineering ways of a fellow  great ape, Man. By degrees and in turn  these other great apes, all learned like yourselves, were captivated by Red Peter’s  grace, intelligence, humanitarian spirit and studious attitude. Franz Kafka, in a short account of these events, paints a delightful picture of the learning abilities and perseverance displayed by my relative. It took awhile for news of these epochal events to reach Red Peter’s relatives out here in the East. But when it did, it had a terrific impact on all of us. In our folklore he is referred to as “Peter Merah”. Well, he showed us the way and today I stand before you as a proud fellow great ape. So let me briefly speak of our similarities.....

We orang utans are the only exclusively Asian genus of the great apes. So we are more ‘truly Asian’ than you! Like you, we too have an opposing thumb. Uniquely, and only with you humans and not the other great apes, we orang utans  share similar dental structures, thick enamel, a thick posterior palate, a single incisive foramen, high estriol production, a beard and a moustache! For purposes of assimilation and integration,  what more can you ask of us! But wait, there is more...... on the social side, your love of hand phones is matched by our penchant for making long distance calls over vast jungle distances. We too like to wander and enjoy our solitary moments by traveling and ‘being one with nature’. Like you, we like the high lifestyle but of course our tree nests are no match for your condos in creature comforts.  We are susceptible like you to ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’, sexual favours and calculated reciprocity involving exchange of gifts and favours but not amounting to graft and outright commissions that you humans are so found of. We remain incorruptible! Notice that these days we are never caught by humans using the old ‘hand in the coconut’ trick.  On the other hand it must be said that we orang utans have noticed an  increasing numbers of our fellow truly Asians  being caught with their hands in the till! Like you we too groom ourselves and on the right social occasions  get all puffed up but I have digressed. One last comment on the sexes: like you humans, female orang utans are the sex that leaves the group at maturity. Many of you mistake that for promiscuity. Anyways all this shows that learning to be a human great ape  is not really that  difficult. And it all began with the fall......

At age two, the tree I was happily perched on was felled by a chainsaw of an illegal logger . As in your nursery rhyme, “down came baby, cradle and all”.  Mum fled in abject fear. This was the second time her cradle was chainsawed. Was taken 40 miles downriver to a village, treated for a fractured right arm and adopted by a childless old couple who had never given up longing for a great ape baby on account of which they named me Providence!  Primary school followed. Utter confusion reigned here ! First one great ape language and before I could master that a second was introduced. And then one subject was taught in one language and another subject in another. My adoptive parents were in despair. They even considered releasing me back to the jungle. But Mum was kindness personified and all perseverance. She tutored me at home. I complained of school and my fellow little apes. I am not a racist now nor then, but these other kids were monkeys ! And the teaching staff never gave up asking me what type of great ape I was and where I came from.  Soon the kids picked up from where the teachers left of. In defence I said that like Peter Merah, we were all Africans ! Years later I found out that I was indeed right in saying that .There was never enough play time and all of us were ‘fatties’ if not obese. None of us were good at climbing trees. Secondary school was little different but I found it surprisingly easy  to pass the school exams. Dad said I was getting cleverer. And I found a new method of learning and keeping up with the rest. I just aped the cleverer ones! Strangely, my teachers called it ‘copying and plagiarism’.  But I noticed and am honest enough to say it now, no one was failing any exam any more. We had all gotten cleverer together.

Then came  the time of learning about national slogans. Every few years the slogans changed. We wrote essays on the meaning of these slogans. Then came the shock. Soon I figured out that these slogans meant different things to the different human great ape races. Once I asked  mum what “1 Malaysia” was all about. She said I must learn to read the small print attached to the slogan.  It read :”Terms and Conditions Apply to Others. Discussions  Not Included”.  She said I will understand these things when I become an adult and can fend for myself. Then came the next shock. Some of us were abruptly told to fend for ourselves with immediate effect. We had to work or continue our education  using our own resources. I was one of them. My human great ape parents were heart broken. They were also faulted  for not giving me a religious upbringing and I was penalised for being born an orang utan.  I then  realised that religion answered  the million dollar question about who made apes and how we were to thank the maker for making us great apes great. The different great ape races have always quarreled over the name of this maker and often killed each other by the millions over this. My parents kept the simple faith that all apes great and small are brothers and sisters  but that was not good enough. Anyways all that is a long time ago.  We have made much progress in our understanding  of the great apes since then.

Today’s keynote address, “ Unity Among Great Apes” is therefore very relevant especially to our youth but I must end on a note of caution. There is a 99% or more match between our genomes. But the seemingly minor 1% difference at the gene level gives rise to all the difference so evident in our Parliament. This 1% difference accounts for all the racial and religious hatred and bloodletting through the centuries. Witness this very day the level of anger over the matter of whether male great apes should give flowers to the opposite sex at a certain time of the year. As a great ape I find this belittling for we seemingly  remain trapped in the harmful delusion that great apes are special instruments of the Divine Will. God In Heaven ! We must move on and stop aping our past !
Thank You.


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