Saturday, April 25, 2009

In danger of dying out

Sunday April 26, 2009
In danger of dying out

With various orang asli tribes dwindling in numbers, the need to document their cultures becomes even more pressing.

UNTIL very recently, I was unaware of the rich diversity among the cultures of the orang asli tribes that inhabit Peninsula Malaysia. All that changed when I followed a team from Muzium Negara charged with documenting the traditions of the Semai, an orang asli tribe found largely in north-western Pahang.

I stayed for a couple of days at Kampung Kabang. a Semai village on the outskirts of the Kuala Lipis district. During that time I was able to observe some of the unique traditions of the Semai, including communal dancing and the playing of instruments such as the nose flute. However, due to the demise of a neighbouring village elder, many of the festivities planned specially for our visit were scrapped. Nonetheless, I was determined to find out more about the orang asli. After speaking to a number of experts, I realise their situation is critical.

Bahbola a/l Bahnap, who is proud of his kampung, playing the nose flute at the Semai settlement of Kampung Kabang in Kuala Lipis.


There are nearly 150,000 orang asli today, representing about 0.6% of the national population. Did you know that they are divided into three main groups ‑ the Semang (Negrito), Senoi and Proto-Malays? And under these groups there are 18 distinct tribes, each with its own language and traditions?

Some of these tribes are relatively large – there are over 30,000 Semai and about 20,000 each of the Temuan and Jakun peoples. But groups like the Mendriq, Lanoh Jahai, Bateq and Jahut number between 200 and 3,000 people and, as such, are in danger of becoming extinct.

JHEOA director general Mohd Sani Mistam, through his public relations officer, said: “Of the three main groups, the Senoi have a population of about 79,000, the Proto-Malays, 58,403, and the Semang (Negrito), 3671. However the Negrito has always been very small compared to the other groups, and the JHEOA feels that their communities can grow. We encourage them to have legal marriages and try to make sure that their health is well-looked after so the communities can prosper.”

Outsiders often encroach on orang asli villages, bringing with them new religions. - Sanjitpaal Singh

Jabatan Muzium Malaysia (JMM) director general Ibrahim Ismail feels that as an archivist, his job is to document the orang asli cultures as meticulously as is possible. “It is important in a multi-cultural nation like Malaysia that the traditions and practices of Orang Asli like the Semai are not forgotten,” Ibrahim says.

“As museum archivists, our job is to capture the unique qualities of each individual Orang Asli group, whether they be musical performances, healing rituals or even communal cooking. We try to archive artefacts and, nowadays, also record rituals live on video.

“However, in practical terms for the future, village leaders have to work together with government officials to ensure a balance between progress and the preservation of the traditional way of life.”

Dr Colin Nicholas
Rahmat Bahnap, the leader (known as Tok Batin) of Kampung Kabang, acknowledges that this is not an easy task. “We want to preserve our identity, but of course when our young people are exposed to the glamour of the outside world, they are drawn to it. Development has many benefits like health and education, but it also takes my people further away from their roots. Now even in a Semai village many youths speak Malay to each other.”

A brief history

A celebrated researcher of orang asli traditions is Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Hood Salleh, principal fellow and director of the Academic Heritage Museum at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Environment and Development (LESTARI). Hood is currently trying to establish a traditional knowledge digital library (TKDL) to protect the intellectual property of the orang asli.

“For a long time the orang asli were subjects of much research by foreigners,” Hood says.

“More than a hundred years ago the likes of Ronald Braddell, Walter Skeat and Charles Blagden were researching and writing about the Orang Asli. Throughout the colonial period, British anthropologists were interested in what was considered primitive cultures. Their religious beliefs, their relationships at home and even how they viewed possessions were of great interest.”

Semai musician Bahbola Bahnap, 33, is an articulate proponent of the orang asli way of life.

“Outsiders come to us with Islam and Christianity and we respect their beliefs, but they should also respect ours. Some don’t understand our system of raising children, yet other cultures have multiple marriages too. We look at it like this ‑ you have a responsibility to your family and children. As long as you can help look after them, what is the problem?”

Datuk Dr Hood Salleh
Hood himself has been working with the orang asli for nearly 40 years. After completing his studies he set out to do field work.

“From 1971-1973, I went to live with the Semelai at Tasik Bera in southern Pahang. Coming from a modern Malaysian town it really was a case of learning the hard way. I learnt about their medicine and their religion,

Hood acknowledges that even within the academic community, the study of aboriginal people such as the orang asli is a double-edged sword. “There is always this dilemma facing conservationists because you want to conserve things as they are. You know there is no future without education. With education comes a sort of contamination. When I was there, I could see the orang asli wanted to get an education.”

“During the colonial era there was the concept of protection, but the results were mixed. The missionaries did some good work but also a lot of damage. In the post-colonial era they were left to fend for themselves. There have been cases of extreme action, and inaction. And of course, in terms of the country’s move towards industrialisation, the effect on displaced orang asli settlements was drastic and, in some cases, quite brutal.”

As opposed to their generally light-hearted attitude towards life, the history of the orang asli in Malaysia is quite sad. Despite having been in the region for millennia, they generally kept to themselves. However, in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were enslaved by marauding gangs of Malays. In fact, the Malay hero Raja Maharajalela was allegedly a leading slave trader of his time!

Mohd Sani Mistam

Hood (who explains that he is named after the Islamic prophet Hud, and not the heroic English outlaw Robin Hood) says: “There was some degree of slave trading. The orang asli are the real bumiputera and there was a time when they were exploited by the Malays. I’m afraid the Malay attitude towards orang asli has been harmful through the ages. They look down on the latter because of their beliefs.”

The slavery phase eventually ended, but the orang asli were drawn into the conflict between the Communist Party of Malaya and the colonial forces in the 1940s and 1950s. In his book, Ethnic Relations in Malaysia, former Universiti of Malaya Prof of Sociology and Anthropology, Dr Syed Husin Ali, touches upon the political realities facing the orang asli.

He explains that during the Emergency, the CPM were forced “to withdraw into the jungle, where they managed to gain support from groups of orang asli. The colonial government then implemented a strategy of resettling these indigenous peoples in a number of confined areas. After independence, most of the indigenous peoples remained in the jungles or away from towns and continued to be neglected, exploited and poor.”

Dr Syed adds that attempts to form an independent political organisation to represent orang asli rights have met with little or no success.

Nevertheless, over the years, the government have made some positive attempts to improve their lot.

Examples are the establishment of an orang asli department, the Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli (JHEOA) in 1954; the appointment of an orang asli Senator (currently Osman Bongsu), and the establishment of an Orang Asli Museum in Gombak, Kuala Lumpur. But are these enough?

Communal bonds are strong among the orang asli, who often engage in daily activities together. - Sanjitpaal Singh

In recent years, the greatest threat to the orang asli has been the desecration of their environment, as their reserve land is often reclaimed for industrial development.

Just last week, Kota Damansara assemblyman Dr Nasir Hashim highlighted the case of an orang asli community that was relocated from its reserve land at Bukit Lanjan to Desa Temuan in 2002.

Fortunately, the present Selangor state government has set up a land task force to prevent further encroachment of land currently occupied by the orang asli.

Another huge problem is health care. Two years ago, fellow journalist Chin Mui Yoon wrote an award-winning piece (“An unhealthy state of affairs”, StarMag, April 15, 2007) about how poverty-stricken orang asli communities succumbed easily to diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy, due to malnutrition and lack of access to medical facilities.

No improvement

Dr Colin Nicholas, coordinator of the Centre for Orang Asli Concern, is frustrated that the situation is not improving.

“I just got a report of an orang asli death caused by, in my opinion, negligence. We had a patient who went to the hospital in the morning, was kept waiting hours for treatment, and then sent home with Panadol. Two days later he died from dengue!”

JMM director general Ibrahim Ismail participating in the cooking rituals of a Semai settlement. The Semai are the most populous of 18 orang asli groups in Peninsula Malays

According to Dr Nicholas, every study shows that figures for orang asli infant mortality and life expectancy are far worse than the national average.

Statistics for 1997 showed that 60% of the women in Malaysia who died during childbirth were orang asli.

“What does that tell you? Even when they try to correct the figures by taking expectant orang asli mothers to the hospital a few weeks before delivery, the overall wellbeing is of the woman is neglected.”

Right now, they are dying of basic diseases like diarrhea and malaria, Dr Nicholas adds. The situation was better in the 1970s.

“Back then we had a scheme under which orang asli were trained as paramedics who could dispense basic medicines and work with the shaman (traditional healers). The Orang Asli Hospital in Gombak introduced a programme that treated whole families at a time and that produced better results.

Mohd Sani thinks the government is doing what it can. As examples, he cites the Gombak hospital and various health camps and mobile clinics that cater to those in the interior.

“According to the Gombak Orang Asli Hospital statistics, there were 434 malaria cases within the community in 2004, but this dropped to only 23 in 2007. This shows that the standard of healthcare for the orang asli is good.”

The orang asli have made some progress in the field of arts. Rashid Esa is an arts specialist researcher at the Muzium Negara in KL. He has won awards from UNESCO for his work in preserving and developing the arts and crafts of various orang asli groups.

Citing the Mah Meri tribe of Carey Island/Tanjung Sepat, Selangor, as a group that produces intricate carvings, Rashid laments that in recent years, projects have ground to a standstill.

“Now that (Minister of Information, Communications, Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Utama) Dr Rais Yatim has returned to this Culture portfolio, more attention will be given to the orang asli’s plight.

“We really need someone to look into the situation. I can say that despite the gains they’ve made, in terms of selling their artworks, the overall situation is not so great.

Rashid, who spent 12 years living with the Temuan, cited an encounter in Johor.

“I saw a suspected AIDS case there. Now, you can’t tell the orang asli that, because they will run away. You can’t tell the authorities because it will become big news. So I had to handle the matter sensitively by dealing directly with the Malaysian AIDS Council.”

Part of the problem lies in the lack of access to communication. Dr Sarjit S. Gill a social anthropologist at the Faculty of Human Ecology, Universiti Putera Malaysia, recently concluded a study on the orang asli’s access to information, communication and technology in of Selangor from 2007 to 2008.

“I am sad to say that if Selangor is a developed state, then the Temuan and Mah Meri communities in Bukit Lanjan, Ulu Langat and Carrey Island are being marginalised. The Education Ministry seems to be doing some good work, but the IT rooms of the 95 schools we looked at were often inaccessible.

“The problem is that JHEOA’S budget is too small. The JHEOA itself is very nomadic and has been under various ministries since it was first formed. Its officers should also be trained in sociology and anthropology as, currently, too many officers are not specialised.

“I was shocked to find out that over 2,000 research projects have been done on the orang asli, yet so little progress has been made! What is the problem? How long more will they remain a laboratory?”

Looking ahead

Mohd Sani feels the JHEOA still has a role to play in ensuring that the orang asli community benefits from the country’s mainstream development.

“The department has been given RM65mil for its poverty eradication programmes and RM25mil to upgrade the village roads. Also, RM200mil has been set aside to supply clean water to the orang asli villages.”

Hood says the orang asli dilemma goes beyond facts and figures. “In many ways, the orang asli are still adapting. They did not have a cash economy because they used the barter system. Their concept of time is quite different. They don’t view the rational world the way we do. For them the so-called supernatural world and the seen world are not apart. That’s why they can tell you, “The tree said this”, or, “My grandmother could fly.”

The orang asli of Malaysia share commonalities with displaced aboriginal/pygmy communities in Australia, New Guinea, Africa, India and South Africa. Their very lifestyle and philosophy are tied to a natural world that is fast disappearing.

“I definitely foresee that some groups, if not all, will one day be extinct,” Hood adds sadly.

I still recall Bahbola’s answer when I asked whether he preferred life in the city or his village.

“Of course I prefer the kampung,” he replied. “There is so much more to do there, people are friendlier and my heart is at ease. I am very proud of my kampung and like to show visitors how precious life is. I hope it will always be like this.”

- The Star -

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