Malaysia is often touted as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural land that is inclusive and inviting of all people. While it's true that we live in relative harmony with our brothers and sisters (until it comes to politics and dining options), there seems to be a dip in the integration of people living here. A spectrum of people who are so often alienated that we had to research a whole video about it before some of us in this office realised who the dan lain-lain on official forms were:
In our video we spoke at length about the common misconceptions people have towards the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and the issues they faced, i.e., marginalisation and subsequent thievery of ancestral land. And during the making of the video, we realised that there were so many more stories to tell about our fellow Malaysians. The everyday lives of people who are being pushed further and further into the fringes of our cities and forests. The people who aren't only dressed in loincloths, spears, and blow pipes.
Jamil anak Atong and his wife at their village in Kemensah.
Towards the effort of humanising the Orang Asli, we spoke to Kenny Loh. He's a photographer who travelled around Malaysia for three years documenting the lives of everyday Malaysians, living with them and photographing them for his book, Born in Malaysia. He is in the midst of publishing his second book, Born in Malaysia: A Story of Kuala Lumpur, but it is his third effort, Born In Merdeka: The Orang Asli Story which caught our eye. Here is the preface to the book:
Born in Merdeka chronicles the lives of Malaysia's tiniest minority, the Orang Asli who are also the earliest inhabitants of the Malay peninsula.
Through the ages with the arrival of new migrants, invaders and colonialists, they have fled deeper into the 130-million-years-old jungles at Asia's southern most tip. Some have been enslaved, captured and made serfs and guides and only knew total freedom as equal citizens when Malaya became independent in 1957.
But that freedom has shrunk through the years. Laws restricting use of jungle produce and leasing as logging concessions to outsiders have equally shrunk the only home they know.
Newer migrants have rights for culture and language but not the Orang Asli community. They're seen as wards of the state, unable to care for themselves almost equal to the flora and fauna of the country.
This is the story of a people who know more about the jungle, their home, than others but are unable to be as free in their backyard as other Malaysians are. This is the story of being born in freedom but unable to exercise it.
This is the story of Born in Merdeka, the Orang Asli of Malaysia.
Preface for Born In Merdeka: The Orang Asli Story
The following are stories from the book that Kenny is writing with his team:
Circumcision Ceremony in Temerloh
In this photo, Hamdan bin Akau (in black) is carrying (in black) his nephew, Norhakimi bin Halim, around the graves of his ancestors.
The Jahut tribe in Pahang are the only Orang Asli tribe who practise circumcision. The circumcision ceremony takes place over 2 days and attracts villagers from other villages too. Boys who are old enough to be circumcised will be encouraged by their parents to participate in the ceremony. In the 2 days leading up to the actual circumcision, the boys are treated like royalty. There is a whole series of ceremonies leading up the final day. In this photo, they are being carried to the graves of their ancestors to pay their respect.
"How will I feed my children?"
Leana a/p Bah Sok, 28, of the Semai tribe in Gombak
Leana is a young Orang Asli woman from the Semai tribe who currently lives in Gombak with her husband and 5 children. Her situation is desperate as they live in a hut with a leaky roof, no electricity and no running water. She spoke of times when the family did not eat. Her cousin who also lives in the same village said that everyone in the village looked after each other and food would be shared. But there would be days when even she did not have any food to share and everyone would starve together.
“Would you work for someone if he took advantage of you every single day?”
Leana’s husband, Soley bin Bah Rata, 34, tries to feed his family by hunting for food by the Karak highway but not every hunt is successful. He used to work as a labourer with a contractor but his salary was often only a fraction of what was promised and the hours were also long. He asked, “Would you work for someone if he took advantage of you every single day?”
Media in Malaysia highlights the plight of refugees but yet, in Kuala Lumpur, we have Orang Asli who live with no electricity and running water. Perhaps it is because the Orang Asli are naturally shy and in an environment where whoever speaks loudest gets the most attention, their plight has been overlooked. It is time to question where our priorities lie for a group of people who are the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia.
The Fringe Dwellers
Asip bin Tipah and his family, in Kampung Sinai
Most of Orang Asli living in Kampung Sinai are Temuan, who work in the nearby rubber and oil palm estates. The village is fairly isolated and without proper roads so one can only reach it via four-wheel drive, motorcycle or on foot. After heavy rains, the track is so muddy, nothing can get through.
“... sometimes it is impossible to send their children to school.”
This isolation and inaccessibility has had a detrimental effect on the children’s education. Parents understand the value of education but sometimes it is impossible to send their children to school. To overcome this, many of them send their children to boarding schools run by the government or NGOs.
Show your support
If you'd like to contribute to the making of the book, you can head to their website, www.born-in-malaysia.com or email Kenny at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like more information on the collaborators, you can head to their indiegogo page where they also spell out the amount of effort its going to take and the distribution channels for the stories that they are going to collect.
A girl from the Jahai tribe in Belum
A Mah Meri tribe villager is covered in rice powder and is being blessed during a ceremony called Hari Moyang
This is Tiatira a/p Bah San, a Semai who works as an activist for SEMOA Bhd, an NGO that educates Orang Asli children and operates a dormitory in Pahang
We all play in a part in telling the Orang Asli story; you as a reader (who hopefully shares this story) and storytellers like Kenny, who take the time to listen.