© 1999, Robert Knox Dentan, All rights reserved
TO TAME, TRANSFORM AND ANNIHILATE:
ASSESSMENTS OF MODERNIZATION BY SEMAI AND TEMUAN
(ORANG ASLI [= indigenous people] OF PENINSULAR MALAYSIA)
Human nature, obstinate and fundamentally rebellious, is in fact represented in the colonies by the bush, by mosquitoes, natives, and fever, and colonization is a success when all this indocile nature has finally been tamed. Railways across the bush, the draining of swamps and a native population which is non-existent politically and economically are in fact one and the same thing
The economic planners...envisage the systematic elimination of the peasant... For short-term political reasons, they do not use the word elimination but the word modernization. Modernization entails the disappearance of the small peasant (the majority) and the transformation of the remaining minority
into totally different social and economic beings. (John Berger 1979:209)
To sedentize dispersed and alien indigenes... he exhorted private individuals [to invest] and helped communities build temples [to Roman deities], market-places, [and permanent Roman-style] houses.... Wearing our clothing became an honor, even togas a lot of the time. Gradually [the natives]
succumbed to our vices...And to that the conquered gave the name of "modernization," which was actually part and parcel of their enslavement (Tacitus 98 A.D.: ch .21.1-2, RKD tr.).
Rmpent's View of Economic Development
In the spring of 1992, Bah Rmpent, 9, was an active and witty Semai boy living at 'Icek along the Teiw R'eis, "Root River," Malay Sg. Rias. The Malay name is the homonym of a word that means "banana stem pith," a traditional metaphor for something you can pierce easily. But their name for the river seems to be just a version of the Semai one. It doesn't mean anything, not really. This drawing represents Rmpent's impression of the superhighway which the Malaysian government was building through a settlement about a mile downstream from him. The land had been guaranteed to Semai, but that didn't mean anything either, not really.
On the near side of the road in his sketch is a betelnut tree, Areca catechu, bluuk in Semai. Semai plant this tree in gardens within their settlements, near their houses. Rmpent's rendering is quite accurate. Look at the photo in Ivan Polunin's "Plants and Flowers of Malaysia" [pl. 154, p. 147] if you don't believe me. The kid has a good eye. Next in the sketch comes the road, unpaved red raw earth at the time, strewn with garbage left by the work crews. Along the road rattles a bulldozer, followed by a truck carrying rock blasted from the steep limestone tors that impede the roadway. Semai boys Rmpent's age loved the bulldozers, although the operators made it clear that they did not love the little boys. I have a collection of bulldozers-smashing-things pictures by Rmpent, who sometimes voluntarily took on the task of teaching me, making it clear to me (as his Malay teachers apparently
made clear to him) that teaching stupid and culturally deprived students was a thankless task which would make a saint impatient. Despite his flamboyant dissatisfaction with my performance, however, he persisted in his self-selected task, coming back to try again every few days. On the far side of the road in Rmpent's picture is a rubber tree, with a rubber-tapper sketched in at its base, less detailed than the rest of the picture. The road in fact cut through Semai rubber and durian fruit orchards, separating the trees from the village by half a dozen lanes of what was to be heavy traffic, with no provision made for getting safely across the highway. The compensation the builders offered for the
destroyed trees was substantially less than the compensation paid to Malay communities for the destruction of the same number of trees of the same species.
Above the tree, by the bulldozer, the blobby mass represents an explosion, blasting loose the rock. The other pictures Rmpent drew regularly were of warplanes bombing and destroying, helicopters blasting away at people. Same blobby explosions.
"Get the Fucking Job Done"
"At present violence isn't a problem here. By 2020 [when the Malaysian government plans for the country to be "developed and industrialized] the Humans [Semai] will probably be violent. We're not violent now because we're still primitive. We still have places to flee to now, but by then we'll be shut out of all those places. We don't want to fight, but when we have no alternative,
no place to flee to, we'll be forced to." - Shaman, Teiw Waar, 13 March 1991
"The government's motives in setting up Regroupment Areas [RPS] like Teiw Kniik may be good but the effect is that they're bad for our way of life. When people are crowded together like that, you have to have private property lines and that makes people take sides. Also being given things to plant, like rubber and oil palms, increases dependency and in the long run works against people's becoming progressive in their thinking." - "Busu," Semai leader, 8 May 1992
"Still, speed, mobility, gratification of the will; those were good things, modern things....That was all that really mattered...get the fucking job done.... Regrets, consequences, disappointments; to hell with them all." - Lisa Mason, Arachne (1990:39,40)
Along the River R'eis runs an all-weather road the British built, following an old bullock-track that carried the north-south trade in Perak. Malay and Chinese settlers followed the road into Semai
territory. The Sultan of Perak and H. D. Noone, his British advisor on aborigines, set up "Sakai Reserves along the road. The word "Sakai" means something quite like "Nigger." But in this case the colonial dyarchy meant "Semai." Each Semai headman still has a map of his reserve. They know the maps are important, any piece of paper from the outside powers is important, and keep the maps with their "letters of authority in little bamboo tubes which they tuck into the thatch for
safe-keeping. By 1992, some were pretty ratty. I took the maps to the nearby Chinese market town of Kampar and got several photocopies of each, giving some copies to headmen and sending other copies to the Orang Asli Association for safekeeping.
But the maps and letters aren't worth much. Noone said, back in the 1930s, that they are just pieces of paper designed to "delude the people into "thinking that they are secure. The British approved
opening a tin dredging operation on one of those reserves near the present day Semai settlement of Pangkaad. Through the reserves, along the road, they set up a huge hydroelectric power line, pylons bestriding the land like skeletal versions of the Semai thunder god, a vicious ludicrous tyrant. Semai say: maybe there's a skull beneath each pylon. This land belonged and belongs to Semai, but only until someone else wants it.
Later the British built another road to the west, roughly parallel to the old bullock path. The commerce went along the new road, leaving the Semai in a relatively undisturbed eddy in the stream of progress. But Chinese and Malay settlements slowly expanded up the old road. Nowadays, almost all the land west of Pangkaad along the road is in Malay hands, with a few Chinese enclaves. The government has dispossessed and removed most Semai from that area to Kniik "Regroupment Scheme, a few miles away from the road, down a rutted path barely passable to motor vehicles--in order, government spokesmen say, to deliver services more efficiently. The land the people used to live
on was turned over to developers.
In the accumulating wet heat at the bus stop where the Kniik path meets the all-weather road, you can see two clumps of people waiting for the rackety buses. One group, a little taller maybe, the women a little more likely to have their hair covered, Malays. The other maybe a bit darker and shorter, but not much, Semai. You wouldn't notice the visible differences if the people talked to each other and didn't stand apart. You can hear the difference: mellifluous Malay, vowel-consonant-vowel -consonant-vowel-consonant, versus staccato Semai, consonant-vowel-consonant, consonant-vowel -consonant. Malays say Semai just squawk and cluck, like chickens.
Spewing clouds of particulates and carbon monoxide, the bus rattles and jitters to Kampar, just north of the Semai settlement of Mncaak, where R'eis people have some relatives. In the other direction, roughly southward, the road goes to Sahom. There it narrows abruptly as it enters Semai territory, before it reaches the settlement of Pangkaad. The bus service stops there, although people at Pangkaad, looking across the desolation of new highway construction, can see Sahom in the near
distance. The Chinese owners of the bus company give free rides to Malay schoolchildren. Coming home, the Malay kids put their bookbags on the seats so that the Semai kids will have to stand until the Malay kids get off. The Semai kids, who live further east along the road than the Malays, have to walk a mile or two or three to catch the bus. Even when their kinsmen give the Semai children lifts on their motor skooters, they can be drenched by the rainsqualls that sweep in from the Indian Ocean, sheets of chilly water shattering as they hit the ground, soaking the children's hair and clothes.
Along the road to Kampar are telephone poles with wires along which small groups of red beaked raucous kingfishers perch in short rows, screaming. But the telephone and electric wires also stop at Sahom. Semai have to use car batteries for electricity, in the shadow of the huge hydroelectric pylons. The postal service stops at Sahom too. People at Pangkaad and Icek, the first couple of Semai settlements up the road, collect their mail at a Malay shop in Sahom. I wrote a letter for them in Malay, to the head of the post office in Kampar, asking very politely and humbly that the service be extended the quarter mile to Pangkaad. But he did not reply. Every service stops at Sahom, where
When I was there, the government was blasting the new North-South superhighway through the orchards belonging to the Pangkaad "Sakai Reserve. I lived at Pangkaad for a month in 1991 with my longtime mentor Ngah Hari, in a new house his son Sudeew had built. It was of cheap brick-red brbow wood (Intsia sp., Malay "merbau) on the rocky refuse from the blasting. Sudeew built a house there to stake a claim to the new land before someone from the adjacent Malay settlement registered it as his own property. That happens a lot.
During the day, the house was stifling. Old fashioned Semai houses are of flattened bamboo or woven attap palm leaves, so that the air actually circulates through the walls. This house was a prefab box,
like a freight car, with two doors and one window, no circulation. The choice during the day was to swelter or to choke on the dust from the construction. The children's clothes and hair were all reddish with dust. People snuffled and coughed constantly because the dust clogged their noses and throats.
From eight A.M. on, huge bulldozers rattled and banged constantly. Every now and then a siren would shriek, there would be a pause, then a BOOOOOM as the engineers blasted through the limestone tors, followed by a patter and crash of rocks. You could still look out from the house, across the red trash-strewn wasteland of the superhighway and see the forested hills on the other side. In the quiet mornings, before the bulldozers got there, you could still hear the bell-like hoohooing of gibbons. By 1991 the big hardwoods were all gone from the forest, of course, every one, to make salad bowls and knickknacks in Japan and the West. But there were still some huge white puleey trees, so big that
if you tried to photograph a person standing by one, just to dramatize its size, you couldn't fit both into the same shot without dwarfing the person into insignificance. And you could still feel the drop in
temperature as you entered the woods.
When I came back I lived a mile or so further down the road into Semai territory, at Icek, where the children still fled screaming from strangers and the road construction was just a rumble in the distance, advancing towards us. The settlement backed up towards the Forest Reserve, also denuded of hardwoods but still home to pigs and tigers and king cobras. But no gaurs, or rhinos, or elephants.
On the very edge of the mound of shattered tailings where Sudeew's house sat a single tree survived. It wasn't a very interesting tree, nor a valuable one, though in the old days there were hardly any forest trees of which Semai made no use. About the thickness of a man's upper arm, this tree canted out from the side of the road at a sharp angle, so it didn't get in the way of the bulldozers that flattened out the scree the red-dusted dump trucks left. The heavy equipment gashed and flayed its bark, tangentially, but not enough to kill it. The new mound of shattered rock partly engulfed its base but left it standing, leaning away from the new hill.
On the last day the workers spent flattening the hill to stabilize it, towards the close of the afternoon, a dozer operator, hardhat gleaming yellow in the setting sun, began to take the tree out. It was a hard job, because he couldn,t get a straight shot at the tree. He would make a run at it, diesel engine tomtomming and puffing black particulate clouds, and crash the side of the blade into the tree. Then he would pull the cutting edge up, ripping fibers away from a small area of the trunk; back up (beepbeep beepbeep beepbeep) at a slight angle; finally the thumping dozer would shuffle at the tree again, spraying gravel like buckshot. It went on and on. I kept thinking he would stop, it seemed
such a waste of energy and effort, but he persisted until the tree broke and fell, rolling clumsily down the rocky slope as the sun melted red in the West.
Wheel Pits and Dragons
I think I know why now, why he didn't stop. It's part of something else. Robert Frost wrote a poem about it (1964:179), The Vanishing Red. This is all there is to the poem. It's a story.
He is said to have been the last Red Man
In Acton. And the Miller is said to have laughed--
If you like to call such a sound a laugh.
But he gave no one else a laugher's license.
For he turned suddenly grave as if to say,
Whose business,--if I take it on myself,
Whose business--but why talk around the barn?--
When it,s just that I hold with getting a thing done with.
You can't go back and see it as he saw it.
It's too long a story to go into now.
You'd have to have been there and lived it.
Then you wouldn't have looked on it as just a matter
Of who began it between the two races.
Some gutteral expression of surprise
The Red Man gave in poking about the mill
Over the great big thumping shuffling millstone
Disgusted the Miller physically as coming
From one who had no right to be heard from.
Come, John, he said, you want to see the wheel-pit?
He took him down below a cramping rafter,
And showed him, through a manhole in the floor,
The water in desperate straits like frantic fish,
Salmon and sturgeon, lashing with their tails.
Then he shut down the trap door with a ring in it
That jangled even above the general noise,
And came upstairs alone--and gave that laugh,
And said something to a man with a meal-sack
That the man with the meal-sack didn't catch--then.
Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel-pit all right.
Orang Asli theology provides another trope for this sort of development. Here's a version from a related group of Orang Asli that appeared in a local newspaper (Tan 1999).
"EACH time chunks of earth tear down cliffs and hillsides, or the river rages, the orang asli [indigenous people, in this case Temuan] of Kampung Pertak in Kuala Kubu Baru, Hulu Selangor, believe it is the ular naga (dragon) venting its fury. It is angry that its forest is being plundered by man.
"They say the ular naga reared its head three years ago. Late in the evening of Oct 21, 1996, rivers broke their banks and swallowed part of the road to Fraser's Hill. Thousands in Kuala Kubu Baru evacuated their homes as flood water rose overhead. "The Temuan orang asli say the ular naga was merely protesting. Their headman had unwittingly permitted logging near the village. This had also fouled the river in which they bathed and washed, and drank from...
"And now, Kampung Pertak itself may be submerged; but it won't be the doings of the ular naga. The centuries-old village is being threatened by a dam to be built to contain the waters of Sungai
Selangor. A similar fate awaits the neighbouring Kampung Gerachi....When completed by 2004, the RM1.4bil project to quench the thirst of Selangor [a state just south of Perak] and Kuala Lumpur would have flooded 600ha of land.
"The 350 orang asli from 69 families in both villages stand to lose more than just their ancestral home and burial ground. "'Our durian and rubber trees will be flooded. How are we to earn a living?' asks Bida Chik, 52, the batin or headman of Kampung Pertak. 'We are unanimous, we don't want the dam.'
"The villagers own a substantial number of durian, rubber, banana, rambutan and other fruit trees, as they plant anywhere and everywhere in the jungle. Bida owns at least 200 mature durian trees, and has just cultivated another 200. Ramsit Anggong, 39, the batin of Kampung Gerachi, derives RM10,000 annually from his fruit harvest. "The orang asli also collect petai, rattan and bamboo; they cut the bamboo into strips which they sell to joss-stick and candlestick makers. The bountiful jungle which they live off, will in the near future be either flooded or become inaccessible.
"Ramsit traces their predicament to their lack of claim over the land. The villages were approved 34 years ago for gazette as orang asli reserves but to date, their status remains with the state.
"'We are like balls, moved here and there,'" says Ramsit. What's worse, say both batin, is that Orang Asli Affairs Department officials have refused to look into their plight and instead, insist that they make way for the dam.
Of course, the villagers can relocate. They've been told that each family will receive new, bigger houses and 2.4ha of land. But they are adamant about staying put. As Ramsit wisely explains, cash compensation will not last long, while newly-planted fruit trees will take years to
Moreover, the villages are now accessible--close enough to Kuala Kubu Baru for the orang asli to get work, provisions and, increasingly, alcohol supply. Buses ferry the children to school in town. Ramsit fears that moving inland would mean severing ties with civilisation and hence,
"'The project is a complete disaster in terms of the environment and economics,' opines [downstream] resident Mary Maguire. She foresees a short lifespan for the dam, because of siltation. 'Already, each time it rains, the river is murky with silt. We're also seeing lots of
landslides in the area, so it seems foolish to do a dam.'
"'Perhaps, it is something else which the developer is after,' says Ramsit. 'They say they want to build a dam but after removing the logs, they don't build.'
"Sounds familiar? Sarawak's infamous Bakun Dam may be shelved, but not before its developer Ekran Bhd logged 1,000ha of forest.... Those to be affected have banded together to pull theplug on the dam.
"They are spreading word on the project and collecting petitions.
"The orang asli have their own plans. While batin Ramsit says they might resort to using blowpipes to thwart dam-builders, his mother Mak Minah has more mischievous ideas.
"Eyes glinting and lips curled in a wry smile, she quips: Kita boleh jampi. Kita minta ular naga turun. ('We can cast a spell. We can ask the dragon to descend.')
Temuan are not as nonviolent traditionally as Semai, but the headman's fantasy of resistance is one Semai sometimes express. Such resistance would be as hopelessly self-destructive as actually calling forth the monstrous chaos that Temuan and Semai say waits in the cold waters beneath the world, rising up when people disrespect each other or the nature of the cosmos. Semai know that.
Maybe that's why the sun in Bah Rmpent's picture looks so unhappy.
"Rmpent" is the artist's Semai name. The Malay bureaucrat who issued his identity card gave him a Malay name, which is his offical name. Semai, including Rmpent, don't use it. I've written a little more about Rmpent and his education in a Native American publication (1993), though I didn't call him Rmpent in that article.
For the ethnographic and economic realities behind this essay, see my little book on traditional Semai ways (1979) or short description of their current life (in press). Dentan et al. (1997) offer a more
detailed account of the Malaysian situation with respect to indigenous people and development.
1975 Historical Afterword. In Pig Earth, pp. 195-213. New York, Pantheon.
Dentan, Robert Knox
1979 The Semai: a Nonviolent People of Malaysia. Fieldwork ed.,
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1993 A genial form of ethnicide. Daybreak (Autumn): 18-19, 13.
i.p. The Semai of Malaysia. In Endangered Peoples of East and
Southeast Asia, Leslie Sponsel ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Dentan, Robert Knox; Kirk Endicott, M. Barry Hooker and Alberto Gomes
1997 Malaysia and the "Original People": A Case Study of the
Impact of Development on Indigenous Peoples. Boston: Allyn and
1968  The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.
1964 The Vanishing Red. In Selected Poems of Robert Frost, pp.
92-93. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
1990 Arachne. New York: Avon.
1988 Plants and Flowers of Malaysia. Singapore: Times Editions.
0098 Agricola. MS.
Tan Cheng Li
1999 Environment: Damming the flow of progress. The Star
(section 2, January 19).