RECENTLY, my teammates and I attended training in Taman Negara, Pahang. Among the activities was visiting Orang Asli who lived along the river at the park. Most of us knew very little about them. For example, how many tribes are there? What are their daily lives like? One important thing I learnt was that they can teach us about preserving nature.
The Orang Asli are the oldest inhabitants in Malaysia. They make up about five per cent of the population, with the majority living in the dense rainforest of Peninsular Malaysia.
There are three main groups of Orang Asli consisting of 18 tribes — the Negrito in the northern peninsula, the Senoi in the central region, and the Proto-Malay in the south.
The ones in Taman Negara are called the Bateq tribe of Negrito group. To get to the settlement, we had to cross Sungai Tembeling in a traditional wooden long boat.
A boy from the Bateq tribe playing with a swing in his house made of bamboo.
Each village comprises about only a dozen families, who live in raised, rectangular bamboo huts on stilts with traditional leaf-thatched roofs. Perhaps because of the high humidity along the river, they wear little clothing.
The Bateq tribe have unique a culture and traditions. Men are responsible for building huts and hunting for food in the forest using their blowpipes.
The village chief, tok batin, demonstrated to us how to use the blowpipe. The womenfolk make the thatched roofs. Besides fishing, thatching is a required skill for them to learn before marriage.
When a man is interested in a woman, he will show his accomplishments, which is marked on the blowpipe. It shows his strength and readiness to take care of the family.
To know each other, the couple will sleep together for one night to observe how their future spouse behaves. In the morning, they can choose to call off the engagement or proceed. If they choose to proceed, they will sleep one more night together to complete the marriage ritual.
They get married at a very young age, about 15, and they have, on average, about eight children. Those who have fewer are considered lazy.
We asked our guide why the Bateq get married at a young age. Humorously, he answered because they do not have Internet access like modern people do (no Facebook, or online chatting and games) so they are less busy.
They also have a rule of not mixing vegetables and meats when cooking. Sharing food is considered a moral duty because they believe that food belongs to the forest. Similarly, they believe the land does not belong to them. Hence, they move regularly to allow the forest to replenish itself.
Most Orang Asli are animists who believe in spirits. When someone dies, they believe that he or she must be returned to the forest. The body is wrapped using the bark of a tree and tied with long rattan. It is then brought into the deep forest and hung some 50m high on a “tree-house”.
The deceased’s flesh will be taken away by nature and the bones will be returned to the ground. Additionally, they will burn the house of the deceased and, sometimes, a whole village will move to avoid bad luck.
However, modernisation has influenced their lifestyle.
They now trade with urban people by selling products such as knives, axes and salt. I saw several Orang Asli wearing clothes. Even the tok batin used a red Swiss Army knife to make the darts for his blowpipe!
They are a humble, simple and caring people.
The forest is their home and they preserve it the best way they can.
Ahmad Faizuddin, International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak, Selangor NST Letters 17 JUNE 2014 @ 1:47 PM