"I hope that Malaysians, even when they are not familiar with the term Orang Asli, can try to understand each other and get to know each other. Do not easily label people. With the change in mindset, Malaysia can have more diversity. Otherwise, we could lose one of our treasures, because an Orang Asli’s voice is rarely heard (in society).” - Vicky Eluq
We are delighted to speak with the Orang Asli representative, Vicky Eluq A/L Achom. Vicky is an Orang Asli Semai where his father is from Semai Pahang and his mother is from Semai Perak. He is also married to an Orang Asli Mah Meri, a unique Orang Asli tribe which is well-known with its dance, mask embroidery and craft. We get to know that most Orang Asli are in West Malaysia and if there are those in Sabah and Sarawak, that means they are married to the people in East Malaysia.
We learned a lot from this session with Vicky, as he shared his culture and traditions - from festivals and weddings to folklore and taboo. Despite the stereotypes and challenges faced by the Orang Asli community, Vicky remains positive as the community progresses. We were inspired by his vision and hopes that you find this piece insightful.
What traditional craft is your community most known for?
Gelang rotan (rattan bracelet) which is worn on the hand, ring made from rattan as well which is known as simpai. The size is small and usually people use it for decorations. Most visitors or foreigners would enjoy such decorations.
Another craft would be Sumpit. Orang Asli in the olden days used it for hunting but now they use it for decorations.
What are some of the traditional games you played when you were young?
It is called Chek Rijnuej. In Orang Asli Semai’s dialect, Cek Rijnuej means something that is misleading. This game uses two rattan, and in the middle there is a string, it is more or less like a puzzle, and people usually say that the game is from the olden days when they went hunting. They will bring this so that they don’t get disturbed by the spirits in the forest. Based on the teachings from the older generations, if you are lost or you can’t find the way home, we play the game so that the spirits become focused on the game, and would not disturb the people, and the people can find the way home. I would usually play this game when I was young, but I have not experienced being lost.
What are some of the festivals celebrated in your community?
New Year, which is known and translated as jispai, is celebrated at the village.
Harvest season, which is called as bakpai. The new rice grain will be shared together with the people in the village.
Fruit season, but it is rarely being practiced now because as time passes people do not practice it.
Usually these festivals are celebrated in the early year or on the 3rd or 6th month. Specifically, we will see the areas because there are areas that celebrate these festivals on different dates.
We will begin by eating and praying. The prayers are usually conducted by the people who are more experienced, like the eldest, also known as Tok Halak. The purpose of this prayer is to ask for good things throughout the ceremony.
Speaking of festivals, is there any traditional song, instruments, or dance that is practiced in your community?
One of them is called sioi, or also known as pensol and most of the time this instrument would be played using the nose. There is also the rang’oit. The rang’oit is mostly played using the mouth. Another one would be Kereb. Kereb is like a guitar or ukulele and is mostly played by women.
How are weddings organised in your community?
For Semai, there are stages. The guy will meet the family of his future wife to discuss. If they are interested, the guy will undergo an audition by staying 3 days at the girl’s house. If he does not pass the “audition”, the father will ask him to return home.
If he passes, the guy needs to find and come up with basic essentials to be used for hantaran (wedding gifts). One of the items is, if I’m not mistaken, a cap shaped like a songkok (Malay headwear for men). When the items are completed, the elders will discuss and decide by smoking leaves with original tembakau (tobacco). Tembakau will be covered by leaves and they need to smoke it once and they are all set to become husband and wife.
One of the activities would be gotong-royong (communal work). If there is a wedding ceremony, villagers will divide tasks like what to cook, etc. Then after cooking, they will eat and get to know each other's family members together.
Is there a special ceremony for a newborn baby?
Bath them, and put some medicine. For example, forest’s root to strengthen body immunity so that the body can avoid bad things such as bad spirits, at about 6 days or the term in Orang Asli Semai Pahang, 6 haram. Next, Tok Halak, a person who is good at healing and becomes the intermediary with spirits, The bidan (midwife), usually women, will sprinkle a mixture of roots and fruits which are tied together from the forest to the baby. One of the roots and fruits that are used such as Selaq Bird, Daun Calun, Bantaq or known as rotan bantang, and Selaq Selboq because it is cooler.
When there is a death in your community, how are the funeral arrangements like?
When a death occurs, it will be informed to the Tok Batin (village head) first. The family members are not encouraged to go out during the first day of the death. Villagers will hold a mourning ceremony for at least 6 days. This term was used by Orang Asli Semai Pahang in the olden days which is known as 6 haram. On the 6th day of mourning, a process such as loosening the soil of the burial ground which is known as Tenamag. On the 7th, which is known as Tujuh Jureh, is a day full of blessings. Next, there will be a discussion between customary institutions and the family members of the dead to choose the custom rituals. They have two options: either Cucaw or Tenamoh ritual.
Cucaw is aimed to avoid ‘badi’ of the dead to stick with the nearest family members. This ritual is mostly done by Tok Halak where he/ she will spread or take a bit of forest’s roots and herbs ingredients to the body parts of the family members - also known as Sempet. After this ritual ends, Tok Halak will listen and see his surroundings. If there are any signs of weird sounds heard, such as a big tree falling, all villages need to move to another place because the dead maybe had done something bad in his/ her life or still have an unsettled business on earth and wanted someone to be with them in the next world. This ritual is done in just one day and in brief.
Tenamoh is a ceremony to entertain and cure the passion of the dead person as well as their families so that the dead can go in peace and harmony. This ceremony is done for 6 days and 6 nights. The beginning of this ceremony is Cagoh which is like a prayer, led by Tok Halak. This is followed by Cucaw. Traditionally, this ceremony seems to give our respect to the dead.
Who usually leads the rituals and ceremonies in your community?
Usually men. Women will be supporting, like as the back up dancer.
Is there any "pantang-larang" that is still observed in your community? How are they being shared or passed down?
Serlok which means do not break promises. In Semai, for example, if someone invites you to enter the forest for food at 3 o’clock, if you don’t go, then something will happen. For example, a bad spirit will transform into your friend and we are actually entering the forest alone. Some people say that you can fall into the river. This is still implied in the village context, while in cities, it is still practiced but not often. If you’re making promises with the elders, do not take it for granted as we are afraid something else might happen. It is still practiced, mostly in villages when we are dealing with the elderly because they have practiced this since they were young.
Could you share with us a well-known folklore in your community?
One of them is called Cermor, which means fairytales. One of them is Bahluj where it is usually used as lessons or a good example to be followed. Back then when there was no TV, this was their entertainment and lesson. Most old people will tell this story, they will sit in the kitchen at night with the campfire, and share stories. Most Bahluj are siblings and he is the youngest one. It gives you hope and brings luck for the community. This story has many versions and one of it is when he saved his siblings from being eaten by the tiger.
What are the common stereotype(s) said about your community?
People thought that Orang Asli are still left behind, similar to how people in the 60s and 70s were thinking. But this depends on the area or the village. If the area has some developments, then the mindset of the community is different with the people who live in rural areas.
What are the current challenges faced by your community?
The challenge is on how to change the mindset of an outsider, who might still think that Orang Asli is still lame.
In the community, it’s more about how these people want to get out of their own comfort zone and develop themselves, while still maintaining the culture. Sometimes when we want to help, they will think that we want them to change and forget about their origin.
What are your hopes for your community and for Malaysia as a whole?
My hope for the Orang Asli community is to develop and help our own community and contribute to the nation. I hope that Malaysians, even when they are not familiar with the term Orang Asli, can try to understand each other and get to know each other. Do not easily label people. With the change of our mindset, Malaysia can have more diversity because we are afraid that we lose one of our treasures, because Orang Asli is rarely heard (in society). Today, we can slowly see that the community is progressing.
I hope Malaysians become more aware and be more inclusive when it comes to broadcasting, like having Orang Asli in advertisements when you talk about diversity and unity. Sometimes when returning to villages, cousins will feel left and hurt when Orang Asli is not mentioned on the TV.
How can Malaysians get to know each other better?
Maybe with the involvement from different races in a program. For example, Merdeka. Maybe we want representatives from each race so that we can all know. Also in the school textbooks, highlight more on the racial groups that are rarely being spoken about, so we can teach our children how diverse our community is. For the elderly maybe it will be a bit hard because they were shaped like that, but we can try using different ways for them to get to know each other as well.
How would you want us to remember you or your community?
Maybe one word, Ma igah. This word is from the Orang Asli itself, which means how are you. When you go to kampung Orang Asli Semai, you can use this word to interact as some people might be shy. So this can make it more happening in the connection.
Throughout the interview, we could not stop our ‘wows’ and ‘ohs’ as Vicky continued to share his cultural background and ideas on increasing the awareness of the plight of Orang Asli in Malaysia. Although Vicky felt special and unique as an Orang Asli Semai, he could not help but feel that the Orang Asli tribe might be left behind at times.
Malaysia is a diverse country that should celebrate and appreciate the uniqueness of the Orang Asli tribe. As Malaysians, we agree that the Orang Asli is a national treasure (khazanah) and we should do our best to be more inclusive.
Mufida Qatrunnada Azzahra & Melissa Yau Pui Yi, supported by Alex Oi and Ramisha Adil
Mufida Qatrunnada Azzahra & Melissa Yau Pui Yi