Orang Asli of Malaysia– Sons of the soil
Orang Asli refers to the indigenous people of peninsular Malaysia who are not Malay muslims- Malaysia’s biggest ethnic group. The Orang Asli ancestors settled on the Malay Peninsula long before the predecessors of contemporary Malays. Nevertheless, many of the statesmen of the country today claim that people like the Orang Asli that lived in primitive huts in the forests and had no form of “civilization” could never be considered the indigenous people of Malaysia.To solve this “problem” the government has tried in the past to impose a policy of assimilation of the Orang Asli which would mean that they can be “saved” from having the wrong status of indigenous people.
The Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954 is perhaps the most important piece of legislation governing all aspects of the lives of the Orang Asli in Malaysia today, including land rights, education and who can be defined as Orang Asli. This law effectively sets up the Orang Asli as wards of the state and thus limits their rights as full citizens. The Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954 is unique in the sense that it is the only piece of legislation that is directed at a particular ethnic community.
Traditionally, the Orang Asli are forest dwellers. During the 1st millennium AD, they were the main suppliers of forest products such as rattan, bamboo and resins in the maritime trade that linked Southeast Asia to markets in the lands of China, India and the Middle East.
Today their land is coveted by powerful interest: for its timber and minerals, for conversion into oil, palm or rubber plantations, golf courses, hydroelectric power plants, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and other development projects that will benefit the main Malay population. Many government policies aim at drawing them into the “mainstream of society”, into the right place and time.
But who is to say what is the right way to live?
They are sons of the soil; people whose hearts and minds are so closely linked to nature, whose bodies vibrate with the eternal rhythm of the land. If one tries to put them in a concrete box in the smog-clogged jungle of today’s metropolis, they will perish like a broken flower. To this deeply mystic people who have for millenia inhabited the rainforests of Malaysia, the earth is an abode for more than the diversity of plant and animal life.
The world’s oldest jungles, dense with mystery, are the playground of spirits, both good and bad.
When your winding road has somehow brought you to their serene land, the best thing you can do is sit down on a bamboo mat, and surrounded with smiling children to lose yourself in an age-old fairy tale! The act of story-telling is a sacred tradition here, passed down from one generation to another. It is a ritual of interaction between a story teller and his audience, amazed and mesmerized by recounts of wondrous fates and battles.
And the story is ever changing and ever true; it does not matter so much its authenticity but the way its words are woven together by the master of tales, for it is tales that connect us to the world we live in.
The Orang Asli believe that one’s soul, or life force, travels abroad during sleep and dreams are the record of the soul’s adventures. It is such fragments of old mythology that breathe life into the peoples that walk this earth. That make them cherish and respect nature because she is made of soul and souls are made of nature. We are one, indivisible, eternal entity that pulsates in all of the creation.
Sometimes it may surprise you that hidden in such quiet place in a distant land, you may find resting undisturbed the most coveted secrets of the world.
The Orang Asli would not even be surprised by Darwin’s evolution theory – they tell a story in which snakes descend from bamboo!
The sun is setting behind the horizon, the fabled colonies of fireflies rise above the wetlands heading on an unknown mission and you smile at the inner tingle you feel when your soul is thanking you for letting it become one with the soil.
By Lina Petkova and Smaranda Sandulescu