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Romancing the Orang Asli

(c) Thinking Aloud

......an orang asli who just couldn’t grasp the concept when asked “do you get lost in the jungle?” ....

I have always had a fascination with the orang asli (“original people”) or rather the concept of the orang asli. My notion of the orang asli is that of a people totally at one with nature. They are a part of nature rather that apart from nature as most people are. Of course, I am aware that this is a romanticized and idealized concept not necessarily reflecting reality.

My fascination for the orang asli was kick-started when I read a classical ethnological account about the Semai of Malaysia. The account on their “economic system” totally blew me away! Can you imagine an alternate economic system apart from our current one? I am zeroing onto real basic fundamentals like concept of price, concept of exchange, buying & selling, monetary value, scarcity of resources, private property, etc. We tend to accept these concepts unquestionably but in the orang asli “economic system”, it is shown that there are alternatives.

The classic example is that of a hunter returning with the catch of the day, say a sambar deer. The hunter automatically cuts up and divides the deer among the community. Is the hunter being generous or altruistic? No! The concept of generosity or selfishness is alien to them. The catch is being distributed because the hunter cannot consume it all and fresh meat cannot be kept for long. Sharing the catch with others comes naturally, there is no charity involved. In fact, not sharing would be considered very unnatural and against their internal logic.

This absence of personal attachment to the catch is also extended to their notion of private property or rather the lack of it. They don’t consider the forest, the land, food, water, their dwellings, and other material things privately owned like in our “modern” concept of private ownership. These material things are just things to be used when needed and given up when not. In the absence of our conventional concept of ownership, the conventional notions of “exchange” and “giving” are also absent as you can’t give or exchange away something you do not really own in the first place. Extrapolating, the concept of buying & selling, price and monetary value is even more removed from this “economic system”.

On a different angle, I remember in another reading about an orang asli who just couldn’t grasp the concept when asked “do you get lost in the jungle?” Obviously, this question is akin to asking “do you get lost in Georgetown?” to a Penangite and this orang asli was dumbfounded that such a ludicrous question was put forth.

Fascinated as I am, I am only too aware that this orang asli “alternative economic system” might only exist in the past for the most part. 15 years ago I could still encounter nomadic Batek orang asli in Taman Negara wearing loin cloth and carrying blowpipes (in the middle of the jungle, mind you, not at some performance stage at park headquarters). Currently, I understand that the “orang asli” in Taman Negara are no longer the local tribes but “transplanted” orang asli from Perak. In Cameron Highlands, I have encountered an orang asli who speaks Cantonese having worked in Kuala Lumpur. In that same orang asli settlement, I asked a bunch of school children whether they go into the jungle and was surprised when they replied, “takut, nanti sesat!”. During a recent hiking trip in Penang Hill, we encountered orang asli from Sungai Siput, Perak being employed to prepare a “traditional” stage and to perform shows for the tourists.


Orang Asli Hut at Methodist Centre,
Penang Hill

Well, I guess the orang asli are integrating and adapting to modern mainstream culture and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. The romantic notion of the “original people” that is part and parcel of nature is fast receding into a rose-tinted theoretical ideal. Nonetheless, we can still cherish the thought that an “alternative economic system” does exist that could potentially be more suitable and sustainable for all.

Thinking Aloud
3 Sept 2007

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