Review of Malaysia’s Original People (ed. Kirk Endicott)

August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

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(A shorter version of this review is in The Star.)

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 US. His bio states that Endicott has carried out fieldwork with the Batek and various other Orang Asli groups since the 1970s; hence, this anthology naturally features other academics and researchers who have spent many years with the Orang Asli in various capacities. 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 nationalist framework.

Published by the National University of Singapore, the book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. However, as the writers are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; so 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. In fact, this displacement occurs under the guise of “modernisation”; but as Duncan Haladay shows in his essay, “Notes on the Politics and Philosophy in Orang Asli Studies”, around the 1980s, within the rubric of development, the Orang Asli “were subjected to resettlement and pressures toward acculturation, and their sanctuaries were subjected to appropriation and extensive deforestation”. It cites a case study from 1997 that “government policies … appear to be transforming Orang Asli into a demoralized rural lumpenproletariat”. Not the words you’ll see in local media reports on Orang Asli, which, as multiple essays in this book point out, often quote government officials tied to the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which is in itself is part of the problem.

Not quoting these words in a review of this book will be intellectually dishonest; from start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil 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. As such, states that claim to protect minorities often make decisions in favour of profit and surplus value to the detriment of its people. This is standard anti-capitalist critique; for many Malaysians, however, the ideas might seem new, even ludicrous. We are often encouraged to think of “development” as an abstract idea that is for the greater good, but the Orang Asli were aware of the rampant consumption of resources required for development as a potential ecological and natural disaster from decades ago.

Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics and the non-specialist reader might find certain words and terms going over her head. While the essays on Orang Asli religion are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it merely regurgitated a string of words in Orang Asli languages, couched between linguistic concepts, terms, and phrases. Despite these occasional hurdles, 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 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. As such, blaming indigenous practices of slash-and-burn on the yearly haze, for example, is outright falsification by logging and oil palm companies and stakeholders in order to maintain their image.

Orang Asli practices are managed for the greater good of the community that abhors greed; a key tenet is that one group or family should never have more than the other. They see their biological and spiritual wellbeing as tied to the land and the trees, the rivers, and the wildlife. An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting nonhuman 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”. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, is built on profit and works within a system that rewards people who gain more at the expense of others. Whose practices do you think is destructive to the environment?

Another key point is the practice of nonviolence 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 threw the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a concomitant 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 as these are anthropologists and not Marxists, it’s not explored in detail.

Malaysia’s Original People is required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a detriment to some. It’s too bad that such information is not widely available to local readers by local publishers at affordable prices; 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 from more than a mile away. However, they continue to struggle against oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them as “the original people” in theory, 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. Forced out of the forest by an intricate legal framework that gazettes their ancestral land for “wildlife reserves” (oh, the irony) and development, and forced to assimilate into Malayness (an official “secret” until the 1990s, as Diana Riboli’s essay makes clear), 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. We, like the Orang Asli, should learn how to say no.

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