Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present And Future Of The Orang Asli is a dense, far-reaching compendium of essays edited by Kirk Endicott, a professor with the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in the United States. The essays run the gamut – from pieces on Orang Asli religion, language, and culture to the legal battles and political situation that renders them displaced and marginalised within the Malaysian nationalist framework.

The book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. As the contributors are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; an essay on Orang Asli animism and cosmology, for instance, is also rife with facts about the history of oppression they’ve faced on the Malay Peninsula, starting from Malay and Indonesian slave raiders of the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is no beating around the bush here in an attempt to neutralise or even erase colonial British and Malaysian government complicity in the systematic displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli. From start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil palm plantation and logging industries, for example, and the bureaucratic nature of the capitalist democracies like Malaysia whose state interests are, with greater intensity and frequency, tied to the profits of corporations.

Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics, an insider’s conversation that might leave the non-specialist reader confused. While the essays on Orang Asli belief systems, for example, are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it throws together a string of words in Orang Asli languages couched between linguistic concepts, terms and phrases. Despite this, these essays demonstrate that Orang Asli beliefs about animism and interconnectedness between humans and non-humans are the key to how they manage the land and resources. It’s not that the Orang Asli abstain from eating meat or clearing land; it’s that they do it within a belief system that says they shouldn’t take more than they should, and that for what is taken, something should be done on the part of humans to restore the balance.

An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting non-human life. This is an idea that is almost alien to the money-obsessed, work-driven, middle-class urban professionals. To me, it demonstrates something beautiful; the value of words and ideas, and the effect it has on one’s own wellbeing and one’s community and family. This interconnectedness makes it hard to close one eye and sanction widespread ecological destruction through various excuses, such as “We need to modernise” or “The technology helps us in the end”.

str2_shg_subaoriginalR_sharmilla_1_coverAnother key point is the practice of non-violence among the Orang Asli; researchers who have lived with them for years explore how it is possible that they never abused their children or their wives, even when they disagreed. To me, this is astonishing: no child abuse, no rape. These disagreements are always sorted out verbally through intense discussions; and it’s never individualised, as all parties involved must participate. Some speculate that their adherence to non-violence grew out of a reaction to the brutalities faced by the Orang Asli when slave-raiders regularly tore through the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a related fact about their practice of non-violence is the communal nature of their societies. Private property doesn’t exist; in the instances where some Orang Asli groups tried to absorb capitalist values and enter into market-based living, earning more at the expense of others, their attitudes changed, and they became selfish. They hoarded what was theirs, which was alien to most Orang Asli. The connection between private property and violence is interesting here, but it’s not explored in detail.

Malaysia’s Original People should be required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a deterrent to some. Reading about these issues will engender a seismic shift in most Malaysians’ thinking and our ready acceptance of capitalist values as the best values for competition, innovation and development. Seen from the point of view of the Orang Asli, however, it looks different. They foresaw the dystopian future most of us are now aware of, with regards to climate change.

However, they continue to face oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them, in theory, as “the original people” but in practice, ensures that they remain irrelevant and on the margins, displaced in resettlement villages, and left out of educational opportunities that lead to better-paying jobs. Some of the Orang Asli have survived by retreating further back into the forest and refusing the state’s demands to assimilate, convert into another religion, and erase themselves. More Malaysians should learn not to accept what’s being done to them in the name of a so-called developed Malaysia. Taking a page from the Orang Asli mode of resistance, we should learn how to say no.

Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present And Future Of The Orang Asli

Editor: Kirk Endicott
Publisher: NUS Press, National University of Singapore