Surviving Borneo: Brawn & Brain

By Dr. Shen Goh

Borneo started a TV cult in the United States.

In 2000, an American reality show called Survivor televised a group of strangers as they outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted each other in order to win a million dollars. The premise of the show was to maroon 16 people on a remote island and film their survival skills.

Since the physical hardships of trying to build a shelter, make fire, boil water and find food was not challenging enough, the show added the mental strains of trying to win competitions or build alliances so as not to be voted off the island. The competition to be the last survivor on the island and the winner of a million dollars was riveting enough to attract over 50 million viewers in one episode and up to $600,000 in a commercial.

All this took place on Borneo, an island described by a contestant (Sue Hawk) as filled with snakes and rats, both of which symbolised two other contestants (Richard and Kelly):

“This island is full of pretty much only two things: snakes and rats. And in the end of Mother Nature, we have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey; and Kelly, who turned into the rat that ran around like rats do on this island, trying to run from the snake. I believe we owe it to the island spirits we have come to know to let it end in the way that Mother Nature intended: for the snake to eat the rat.” – Sue Hawk on Survivor: Borneo (aired August 23, 2000)

The fact that survival skills could be considered physical hardship and make for riveting television, or even be rewarded with a million dollar prize, may come as a surprise to the indigenous peoples of Borneo. After all, the indigenous peoples have survived for many generations – possibly as long as over 40,000 years – in the rainforests of Borneo. To them, the island is certainly more than just snakes and rats: it abounds in a rich variety of delicious ferns, flowers, fruits, leaves, roots, vines, fish and meat.

The instant success of the reality show only underscored the viewers’ sense of loss and nostalgia for such a close connection to, reliance on, and understanding of Mother Nature. Their fascination, however, was not just with the brawn but also with the brain to be found on Borneo.

In 2007, a Survivor show contestant became an American favourite even though he did not win the million dollar prize. He was Yau-Man Chan, a 54-year-old who weighed only 140 pounds:

“He stands only 5-foot-8 with his floppy fishing hat atop his bespectacled noggin, and possesses a physique that is scrawnier than some hat racks. He has neither the knockout looks nor the sizzling youth of your typical TV star.” –Chuck Barney, East Bay Times (published April 10, 2007)

The Chief Technology Officer at the University of California, Berkeley had grown up on Borneo and quickly put his survival skills to use by teaching other contestants how to open coconuts, find oysters, and boil sea snails. He also proved that brain could beat brawn when his knowledge of science helped to make fire with his spectacles, as well as opened a wooden crate of supplies by dropping it on its corner (the weakest point of any box) after younger and muscular contestants had failed to do so by repeatedly smashing it with rocks.

And who can forget the times that the Borneo native won competitions by using intelligence instead of brute force? In a javelin competition, he defied low expectations and overcame mocking jeers to go on to win because he was the only one who knew that a running start would help the javelin to hit the target. In a blindfolded maze competition, he won again by remembering a robot competition where speeding along the walls had proved to be the best way to avoid going in circles.

Although the American reality show tried to pit brawn against brain, that was not what its viewers remembered. Instead, what captured the hearts of viewers was the reality of how special this island and its people are.

Dr. Shen Goh is a Canadian lawyer lecturing on business law at Curtin Malaysia. Prior to Curtin Malaysia, she was a lecturer in the Faculty of Law of York University, Canada. Her research interests include intellectual property, branding and international trade.