For Diana Ross Diaman, a Mah Meri from Kampung Sungai Bumbun in Pulau Carey, Malaysia, the culture and traditions of her community have played a significant part in her development as a person, as well as in her aspirations in life.
“Growing up in my own community, it was fun. My parents taught me about the [Mah Meri] culture, about the arts, and I’ve fallen in love with it and it’s beautiful, that’s why I’m here,” Diaman said.
“My aspiration is [to be] a teacher, then be a model, but now, it’s a role model for my own culture,” she added.
The Mah Meri are among the oldest inhabitants of Peninsular Malaysia, known for wood-carving skills that have UNESCO recognition.
Considered part of the Orang Asli (original people, a term for the indigenous tribes of Malaysia), they number in the low thousands, and live in small, scattered villages on the fringes of cities and on Pulau Carey.
Diaman, one of the few Mah Meri people to receive a university degree, said that getting her education was terribly difficult and tough.
“To access my education is very hard and tough because I need to declare myself as Orang Asli before I got scholarships, and then I’m the only one [who got] scholarships, and then I managed to [finish] my studies,” Diaman, who is now the manager of the Mah Meri Cultural Village, said.
For far too long, indigenous groups in Malaysia have been fighting to preserve their traditions, and at the same time provide better economic opportunities for members of their community, without losing their cultures and belief system.
While Malaysia is a Muslim nation, the majority of Orang Asli identify as animists, or those who believe in nature and spirits in objects. However, as these Orang Asli assimilate into Malaysian culture, many have also converted to other religions.
Some Orang Asli were also forced from their traditional lands where their tribes had lived for centuries, having to adapt to new areas as part of relocation programmes.
Education has also been an issue for the Orang Asli, with many not receiving a proper one and becoming reliant on JAKOA, the government department for Orang Asli affairs.
The Mah Meri tribe, along with other Orang Asli indigenous peoples, is now calling for more concrete action from the government and other concerned agencies to address poverty among these groups.
Rashid Esa, the director of the Mah Meri Cultural Village, said that for much of the 30 years, he has not seen any real changes in the lives of the Mah Meri people.
“I do not see any real changes … a lot of them [Mah Meri people] are in the low-category workforce; education-wise, you see a few which have made it, and at the same time they’re losing their culture. So these are the things which are very, very sad to see,” Esa said.
“We want them to be practising their culture [and] educated at the same time, and then have a very good job. This is something everybody desires, but the way it’s heading now, it’s unfortunately not the case,” he added.
Corporate social responsibility programmes, Esa said, are a good way for the Mah Meri people to benefit from the wealth that their community creates, which could then pave the way for the development of their area and the lives of the people.
He also contends that advancing the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples, which make up around 13.8 per cent of the total population of Malaysia, is in the country’s national interest.
“It is very important to preserve any culture for that matter. If we destroy some of the cultures or if we stop them from practising for whatever reason … This will bring down the whole community. If [a] community system breaks down, the traditional one breaks down, then it will be a disaster for the community in a way that they will not have any self-belonging, they will not have self-determination for themselves, they will depend on others to even feed them,” he said.
“We cannot afford to destroy any culture especially related to their belief system,” Esa added.
Marvin Joseph Ang is a news writer who focuses on politics, the economy, and democracy. His advocacies include press freedom and social justice. Follow him on Twitter at @marvs30ang for latest news and updates. The views expressed are his own.
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