Mah Meri Bridge over Langat River or Menara Temuan in downtown KL?
MARCH 30 — It’s under 300 kilometres through the mountains, Ipoh to Kelantan’s Kuala Krai. No discernible petrol station till Gua Musang town, commuters are advised to fill up. Highlands with primary jungles, ravines and a dash of vegetable farms.
It feels like the middle of nowhere and empty of people, but there’s plenty around, just not visible from the road.
Within, the country’s largest concentration of Orang Asli (the peninsula’s aboriginal people) — well diffused around the lush jungles. But spread over three parliamentary constituencies in three states: Tapah in Perak, Cameron Highlands in Pahang and Gua Musang in Kelantan. They’ve been made invisible by isolation and distance from where identities are decided.
Sixty years of Malayan independence has all but rendered them forgotten in our national consciousness.
Ignored, side-lined and perennial assimilation targets, so they are bunched with those who arrived after them in political parlance. And in time, truly invisible even from history.
It is shameful that most Malaysians — this columnist included — can barely write a short paragraph of what they know about the Orang Asli.
For instance, most are unaware they are not one group but several major groups split into sub-communities, with their own languages and they would prefer to be referred to as Orang Asal (Original Natives) rather than Orang Asli (Genuine Natives).
This is not a blame game but Malaysia has to admit it was by design.
An aerial view of the Pos Balar Orang Asli settlement in Gua Musang December 28, 2022. — Bernama pic
New start with new names
How to correct the situation? The solutions are myriad though symbolic actions were possibly spurred by the change of government last November.
This government seeks to amend past errors. The prime minister is personally aware of how history can mistreat when one is at the wrong end of a power equation.
Malaysia’s head of government is himself an outright victim. He probably can better than his predecessors identify with Orang Asal pain. The PM has already put the first elected Orang Asal MP, Ramli Mohd Noor, as deputy speaker for the Dewan Rakyat.
There is much to do, in terms of protecting their land, their languages, the preservation of their cultures in school and civil service delivery, to allow their children to advance with better healthcare and education to be part of an ever-so connected world without losing their world.
Yes, those are massive undertakings and there are amazing people from the community and friends who are working to raise the dignity of the Orang Asal.
While those efforts continue and are bulked up, symbols can be erected. To up the visibility of the Orang Asal as much as their identity, relevance and future.
By naming things after them.
Up to 1968, the Australian government did not recognise their aboriginal people as part of their census. They were part of the flora and fauna.
They fixed that, and steadily even if slowly made amends. In 2023, the Anthony Albanese government puts a referendum to Australians to recognise the legal voice of aboriginal people to its parliament and government. Sixty years is long to make up.
The referendum and other efforts to symbolically place the first peoples of the island continent does not fix all the horrible errors of the past, nor forgives the Western colonisers. It is restitution
It’s always work in progress.
Malaysia needs to do its own, or at least kick off more with greater desire.
If there is doubt, let’s repeat, symbols matter.
For example, these native/aboriginal references have been adopted in the US, Canada and Australia: Shikaakwa, Meskonsing, Woolyungah, Alakshak, Adawe and Tkaronto.
Adjusted to in order: Chicago (capital of Illinois and one the largest cities in America), Wisconsin (an American state), Wollongong (a town just out of Sydney), Alaska (America’s largest state), Ottawa (the capital of Canada) and Toronto.
There are various idiosyncratic reasons these places have the names they have but they do the job of sustaining a visibility of their aboriginal peoples.
For the naming of key places with aboriginal names creates an awareness about aboriginal peoples.
These symbols can promote debate and discussions about the status of those communities.
If replicated in Malaysia, what fits the description?
There are two places which come to mind: the Merdeka/Warisan Building (second tallest in the world) and KLIA’s (capital’s airport) rebrand. But that would be overreaching since Malaysia has not had the temerity to name rural schools and buildings with Orang Asal names.
So, baby steps then.
Detractors may point out that forest points have Orang Asal references. True, but the intention here is to bring awareness to the population centres, and various Orang Asal communities remain in areas which have ATMs and McDonald’s today.
There is more than just the Orang Asal of Pulau Indah or the Mah Meri in Carey Island.
The private sector can do its bit too. It can name services, loyalty programmes and buildings after the Orang Asal. That’s a different thread but it is the easiest CSR to adopt. It might sell more condos than naming them after random Western names.
Government has every chance to adopt Orang Asal names and bring the community and its causes into the mainstream.
There will be the obvious question, what names?
The columnist is dumbstruck too.
There is so little presented to Middle Malaysia for people to be aware of the names beyond the tribe names of the Negritos (Kensiu, Kintak, Lanoh, Jahai, Mendriq, and Batek); Senoi (Temiar, Semai, Semoq Beri, Chewong, Jahut, and Mah Meri) and Proto-Malays (Temuan, Selemai, Jakun, Orang Kanak, Orang Kuala, and Orang Seletar).
Names would be easier if Orang Asal language and culture are bestowed to us in our education system and public discussions. For now, with that still not available, the communities themselves can propose names to be adopted and suitable to their ways.
Tricky tickets to salvation
Outside Melbourne Airport, a plaque explains why it's Tullamarine Airport also.
The Wurundjere people lived in those parts of Melbourne. Tullamareena, a community, was present when Britisher John Batman secured by writing the area.
Later he was in court facing charges for stealing potatoes and suitably he burnt down the jail he was incarcerated in before being released.
Folklore says he walked more than a thousand kilometres to where the airport is today to cast a spell.
It confuses that Melbourne Airport has another name. Some tickets just show Tullamarine rather than Melbourne and fears of going to the wrong airport compounds. Millions are inconvenienced every year so they are made aware of the duality in identity. It is an insightful provocation.
Malaysia could use a few more inconveniences related to the Orang Asal to learn about its past.
A tower in the city might be inadequate to capture the richness of a people or compensate for struggles imposed on them for centuries but it brings them closer to Malaysia’s discussions, which result in other societal changes. At least they won’t be invisible.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.