Survival at stake

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Mary Magdalen reminds us of the plight of our Orang Asal. She proposes that we move quickly to develop a special curriculum to cater to their special education needs.

"I am of mixed parentage.  My father is an Orang Asal (Indigenous Person) and my mother, an Indian.  I have dark skin.  I look Indian and I carry an Indian name.  I could easily pass off for an Indian but I must say I am proud to be an Orang Asal,” said Pushpa, a mother of four.

She added, however, that when she looked at the young Orang Asal children around her today, it is a different story.  The young ones are steadily losing their identity.  They are ashamed to be identified as Orang Asal.  They speak in Bahasa Malaysia and avoid speaking their own language.  Some have embraced Christianity or Islam and prefer to be identified as ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim’ rather than an ‘Orang Asal’. 

Pushpa said this saddens her and she dreads to see the day when the Orang Asal are absorbed  into mainstream society, such that there is no trace left of them.

She spoke with much pride and dignity, and the deep-rooted concern she had for the survival of her tribe and her people was evident. As she spoke, her comrades nodded together in agreement, affirming for themselves what she had expressed.

“I believe we cannot put the blame totally on one party or the other,” intervened Jati, a young Orang Asal woman in her forties.

Jati acknowledged that those who come into the indigenous communities, come with good intentions to improve, modernise, develop and help the Orang Asal rise to the challenges of mainstream society.  She conceded that the Orang Asal cannot deny they need the expertise, support and resources of mainstream society to help them meet these challenges, be it in the fields of socio-economic development, education, health or sanitation.  But, she added, when we take a deeper look we begin to see how these kinds of lifestyles, philosophies, religious convictions and development trends have silently and subtly created an environment that builds walls, distancing the members of  one community from one another and eventually dividing them. 

A spirituality close to Nature

When Jati speaks, one feels a deep reverence for the capacity she has to be bold enough to withstand the hard knocks that come from the front-line to promote the cause of her people.  At the core of her fervour, there is a gentleness and an attitude of “there is a time for everything and each will come to its fulfilment in its own time and with its own wisdom”. 

It is hard to imagine that encased within her petite frame is a raging ball of fire, enveloped in a gentle character.  Yati has dedicated the prime years of her life to forming a crop of young Orang Asal to take up the cause of their community in an effort to protect the rights to their customary land and to preserve their tradition and culture. 

Listening to these women speak got me listening to my deeper self.  I believe every religion speaks of God who manifests himself in the beauty of creation.  And if this is so, do not the Orang Asal with their traditional beliefs, who pay respect to the spirits of the air that they breathe, of the forest and the trees, of the rivers and rocks, venerate a God who is so close to them and present in their lives?  In comparison, it appears to me that many of the organised and structured religions of modern society take us far away from a God of freedom and creation to a God whom we have enclosed within brick walls. 

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And when we impose our structured religiosity on the Orang Asal, they are slowly led to forget this inherent sense of God or the Spirit that dwells in the nature and things around them, because this belief goes against these new-found faiths. 

Yet, the practices of the Orang Asal have been around long before Islam or Christianity. Even the traditional art of weaving among some tribes is dying out because the motifs of the spirits of creation, of the forest and the lakes depicted in their handiwork purportedly go against the new faiths that they embrace.

 

A mental map 

Within the demographics of the Malaysian population, the Orang Asal are a minority group and within this group one finds 18 tribes, each with its unique practices, rites and dialects.  Scattered throughout Peninsular Malaysia and east Malaysia, the Indigenous People have to contend with the geographical distances separating their communities –  a major hurdle in trying to keep the links and connections between one community and another. 

Moreover, the extensive and aggressive development that is taking place in and around these indigenous communities is pushing the Orang Asal further into the interiors. In some instances, they are being uprooted from their places of origin and moved to new settlements and locations that are foreign and unfamiliar to them.

In some relocation programmes, the Orang Asal are given some land to develop and to build their houses.  But this is a far cry for a people who live from day- to-day and  from  season-to-season,  sustaining their lives on Nature’s bounty by gathering herbs for their medicinal supply; shoots, roots, fish and small animals for their food source; and building materials for their shelters. For the Orang Asal, the forest is like a mother’s womb that sustains them for their every need and protects them from harm. 

Unfortunately, the Orang Asal in Peninsular Malaysia cannot lay claim to the land that they and their ancestors have been living on for generations. The legislation that is supposed to protect the 18 sub-groups of the indigenous community in Peninsular Malaysia – the Aboriginal Peoples Act 1974 – implies that all Orang Asal land belongs to the state, thus making them tenants at will.

The Orang Asal are a people with an oral tradition.  They do not keep a record of things in black and white or on hard copy but they carry a mental map of their customary land. This mental map is passed on through practices and rituals and through  word-of-mouth  by  the elders  from generation-to-generation.  Their customary land is often demarcated by burial sites, water catchment areas, rivers and their tributaries, rock outcrops, fruit trees, hunting grounds, areas for cultivation and places that have a spiritual significance to the community.  So, against the powers-that-be, with their land titles and topographic maps, the Orang Asal feel defenceless.

Alienated in education

The Orang Asal also lag far behind other communities in education.  The media have often reported that their drop-out rate in school is high, that they have poor academic achievement and low self esteem.  But can we blame them?

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There are so many underlying factors that contribute to this sad state of affairs.  The Orang Asal are by nature hunters-gatherers, which means the elders often go off into the forest to gather what the family needs for their daily sustenance.  This leaves the responsibility of looking after the younger ones with their older siblings – a significant contributory factor to poor attendance and high drop-out rates in school.

Moreover, the curriculum offered to the Orang Asal children is basically out of context in relation to their lifestyle, their environment and the background from which they come. The current curriculum is one that is suited to the competitive nature of modern society, with its emphasis on obtaining good grades to secure a stable future with a good income.  An Orang Asal child who is obliged to follow this system will only feel alienated, naturally losing interest in school or education, not seeing the point of it all. 

For the lucky few who have persevered and managed to survive the system, the path has not been an easy one. As young Zohari relates with indignation, “When I applied for a loan to pay for my studies in the university I was given the run-around and sent from one department to another.  My first semester had already begun and still no response from the authorities on my loan application. Desperate to keep my place in the university, I had to borrow money from relatives to pay my first semester fees.  At one point, I lost my cool and, thumping my fists on the table of the officer-in-charge, I shouted, ‘What have you done to my loan application?’  It pains me to see that we have to overcome so many obstacles just to get through university, while others have it so easy!”

After overcoming various hurdles and getting through university, an Orang Asal graduate will find that finding work in a very competitive job market is yet another cup of tea!  What is offered to them are the ‘leftovers’ in the job market after the ‘best’ and the ‘rest’ have been taken.

New curriculum needed

There appears to be a glimmer of hope in an out-reach programme recently announced by the Education Ministry to assist Orang Asal pupils to register for special education classes.  Here again, it is of utmost importance to take into consideration a concept of school and curriculum that suits the Orang Asal’s culture and lifestyle.

The curriculum should be designed to meet their specific needs. More emphasis could be placed on subjects that the Orang Asal are familiar with such as the ecology, the environment, farming methods, sustainable agriculture, traditional medicines, seeds and grains, animal-rearing and water management. Most important of all, the curriculum must include the study of indigenous language, culture and traditions. Language is what holds the Orang Asal communities together and, if it becomes extinct, they will lose an integral part of their identity.

Often in the formal school system, pupils are tied down to a table and chair. The teacher ‘teaches’ and the student is expected to ‘learn’ what is taught and ‘regurgitate’ this information with the objective of gaining good grades. The free-natured Orang Asal children will definitely feel like fish out of water when subjected to this kind of teaching environment.

Thus, the methods of ‘facilitation’ should take into account the setting in which learning takes place.  Facilitators should be trained Orang Asal themselves, who can inculcate a sense of pride and dignity in being an Orang Asal. 

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Within indigenous communities, learning takes place in an informal atmosphere, at the heart of the community, at the heart of the family unit, where the pearls of wisdom and lessons of life are imparted and passed on to the younger ones by the elders, through day-to-day experiences of living and interaction.  In this way, life skills are passed on from grandfather to father, father to son, son to grandson and so on.  In a way, it is education for life and not education to earn money.

If outreach programmes are put together with some of these considerations in mind, they can create the space for our young Orang Asal to re-invest their knowledge, skills and values back into their own communities. This would ensure the Orang Asal’s progress and survival for the generations to come instead of finding themselves dropping out of school and struggling to find a job outside to earn a meagre living.

There already exist Orang Asal communities who have been taking the initiative in this direction  in recent years and have come up with tried and tested working modules for pre-school and primary children that are being used effectively.

The outreach programme for special education classes that the Education Ministry plans to launch must include input from such groups from the grass-roots level, if we are really talking about the development of the whole person and their communities.  Otherwise, it will be another futile exercise in trying to absorb the Orang Asal into mainstream society through our own perception of their educational needs.

 

A beautiful legacy

We need to identify what the Orang Asal want to improve in their lives and not impose what we want on them.   We need to be sensitive to how we can integrate this change within the social and cultural sensitivities of these traditional communities.

Our Orang Asal form an integral part of the multi-faceted Malaysian society that we are so proud of and the survival and progress of this special people is crucial for the beauty of the whole to shine forth. For this to happen, the Orang Asal from all levels must be given ample space to contribute actively and concretely in designing their future.

Like any of the other communities in Malaysia, the Orang Asal too have a rich and diverse cultural legacy and it is the responsibility of each one of us to ensure the survival of this beautiful legacy for the benefit of future generations.

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Mary Magdalen is a freelance journalist working with an NGO involved in advocacy issues. 

 

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