First published in VIDA! (June 2005)
Flesh Of The Ancestors
14 Years With The Temuan Tribe
Text and Photos by Antares
The Temuan are the second most populous among 19 Orang Asli tribes
scattered throughout the Malay Peninsula. There are only 144 villagers
(give or take a clump of babies) in Kampong Pertak, Ulu Selangor, where
I've lived for the better part of 14 years. Didn't plan it that way.
Got snared, was charmed by, fell in love with a demure Temuan girl half
my age. When we got engaged, I asked if she minded my adding two A's to
her name, so it would sound more musical. Anoora nodded in silent
agreement. She's courageous, to say the least, and actually quite cute
except when she regresses into tantrum-throwing punk princess mode,
which is her non-verbal way of getting my attention (her mother's a
fully vocal control freak, like every cartoon mother-in-law).
I can relate to the French painter Gauguin who took a libidinal shine
to the native girls of Tahiti. There is something irresistible about
bronze, rubbery, supple, brown skin - and the edenic innocence that
flashes in their shy smiles. Pagan eyes that turn prudish at puberty,
because their mothers keep yelling "Malu!" ("Shame!") when they
skinny-dip with ripening bosoms and pubes. Contact with "civilization"
taught them to feel ashamed of their own simplicity, made them into
"primitives" living below the poverty line.
And yet, seeing a bunch of Orang Asli kids play like otters in the
river is nothing less than a glimpse of paradise. You can't stay
cynical or depressed in such an environment. The verdant landscape
itself is balm for the eyes, as much as the sparkling waters are a
treat for the senses. The Orang Asli soul is bonded with the land, the
living earth, nature itself. In mythic terms they regard their wild
habitats as the petrified flesh of their ancestors. Just as Native
Americans once revered the buffalo as a benevolent manifestation of
Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), a parental sacrifice to feed the children,
the Temuan view each species of flora and fauna as a gift from heaven,
as food, medicine, friend, or shelter.
The younger ones have all but forgotten, born as they were into homes
with TV sets bombarding all and sundry with images of a Brave New
World, where ancient wisdom and traditional ways are dismissed as
irrelevancies or mere superstition. But the older ones know there is no
separation between the land and life itself. To destroy nature is to
murder the Life Force that sustains all existence - and therefore it is
viewed as the ultimate wrongdoing, akin to forgetting one's roots and
turning one's back on all that is considered divine.
Well, that's a very general overview of the Temuan mythos, which
applies to just about every indigenous culture you can name - at least
the ones that haven't been completely assimilated and subsumed by
industrial society. However, admiring their resilience of spirit, their
innocence, and their wealth of hand-me-down knowledge is one thing.
Living with them at close quarters is quite another. They can certainly
drive an essentially middle-class, former urbanite like myself round
the bend with exasperation.
How so? Take the kids, for instance. Utterly adorable to behold, but
many are outright delinquents, mostly due to parental neglect. These
rural latchkey kids enjoy playing under our house - but the mischief
they get up to! When they aren't pinching small things like a box of
assorted screws I keep in a cupboard drawer, or cigarette lighters,
they're into various forms of vandalism like spraying aerosol paint on
the walls, or turning my motorbike on its side and emptying all the oil
from the gearbox. And nobody will own up to these crimes. I've had to
set up my own Bukit Aman (local version of Scotland Yard) right in the
village just to investigate these transgressions and bring the
perpetrators to book.
Usually I get them to come to the house and apologize for whatever
trouble they caused, and I give them positive feedback for being brave
enough to acknowledge their own foolish behaviour - and then I reward
them with some goodies. Seems to work. The most incorrigible punk in
the village, 15-year-old Mus - who has 10 siblings (actually 12, if two
hadn't died along the way) - is now on my payroll, helping construct a
bamboo hut behind our house. All Mus ever wanted was some paternal
attention and a healthy dose of positive feedback. After he formally
apologized for stealing my watch, I presented it to him, saying: "Now
you've learnt to tell the truth, I'll give you the time of day!"
There seems to be a testosterone-related problem with the males: as
soon as they turn 18, a sullen surliness bordering on xenophobia grips
them. The modest wages they earn cutting grass on road verges or
gathering bamboo for the Chinese towkays are mostly spent getting
totally pissed at the local bar; and then they fall off their
motorbikes and the rest of their hard-earned pay goes into repairing
them. If they happen to be married with kids, their wives quickly turn
into nags - because it's not uncommon that their husbands will stagger
home late at night stinking of cheap plonk, without any food for the
family. Apparently, this happens wherever indigenous "dreamtime"
cultures collide with industrial "machinetime" societies.
Anthropologists generally agree that the trauma of "culture shock" so
disorientates the tribal folk they become dispirited - and therefore
attempt to regain their spirits by imbibing vast amounts of the bottled
But as long as our tribal folk have the forest to return to, they have
a chance of eventually regaining their psychic equilibrium. My chief
contractor on the hut project, Yam Kokok, really enjoyed the process of
gathering about 3,000 bertam
leaves to weave into roofing material for Anoora's hut. First he built
a cozy lean-to while his wife began lining bamboo tubes with fragrant
leaves, before stuffing them with rice to boil on a woodfire. The widow
Lumoh had packed some salted fish and bottles of clear spring water. They
were all set for a long day's work, cutting the thorny bertam
leaves and carefully weaving them into attap. Yam Kokok's grandson and
nephews all came along to help and I could see that the six days they
spent "camping out" in the forest reminded them of the good old days -
even though every evening I'd pick them up in my van and chauffeur them
back to the village and some home comforts.
The forest is the Orang Asli's briar patch; their racial memory of
being sustained by Mother Nature goes back thousands of generations.
Chop down the trees and replant the land with cash crops like rubber
and oil palm - and the Orang Asli become rootless, disconnected from
their own past, insecure about their future and therefore apathetic.
True, some of the younger generation have adapted quite well to video
games and factory jobs; a handful of Semai and Semelai have even made
it all the way through university, and have become academics and
doctors (though I know of no such examples from the Temuan tribe).
It's easy to demonize the Jabatan Orang Asli (Aboriginal Affairs
Department) but it's really just a case of horribly misaligned
worldviews. JHEOA officers, mostly urbanized Malays, scorn their own
humble ancestry and sincerely believe they can persuade the Orang Asli
to join the mainstream Malay community. Their strategy is two-pronged:
first, systematically convert the jungle into plantations, so the Orang
Asli can't hide in the past; and then convert these diehard animists
into pious little Muslims. I've long advocated that the JHEOA
(instituted in 1954 during the Emergency years) be dismantled, as it
serves little real purpose today except to breed the most loathsome
varieties of bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption. Think about it:
how would you like being treated as a minor all your life and have some
government agency manage your affairs as if you were severely retarded?
Who would put up with a Jabatan Orang Serani or a Jabatan Orang Punjabi
or a Jabatan Orang Cacat? If everybody else who enjoys Malaysian
citizenship is free to live without an official guardian, why must our
first peoples endure such an ignominy?
The argument that Orang Asli need a "protector" because they are still
largely illiterate and can't cope with the demands of the modern world
is a totally spurious one. First of all, after more than fifty years
under the JHEOA's thumb, the Orang Asli have gained little ground in
mastering left-brained activities like learning to manipulate
alphanumeric symbols. The question is: why not capitalize on their
strengths instead? Most Orang Asli are physically agile, imaginative,
fun-loving, and possess incredible stamina: in areas like sports and
the arts, they would certainly be champs. Well, some descendants of
African slaves in America have made their mark as athletes, musicians,
actors, and dancers: would you think of Charlie Mingus, Michael Jordan,
B.B. King, Eddie Murphy, Tina Turner, Ludacris, or Will and Jada
Pinkett Smith as handicapped or backward?
What keeps the Orang Asli insulated from the outside world is the
Jabatan Orang Asli's feudal mentality. That and the noxious effects of
a patriarchal bias the Orang Asli got infected with along the way.
Traditionally, the menfolk have been the hunters and womenfolk, the
gatherers and nurturers. In Kampung Pertak, there are quite a few
unmarried mothers - girls of 17 who got knocked up after some
smooth-talking fellow handed them a Guinness at an all-night wedding
party. With so many kids bawling and crawling around the house,
12-year-old girls are often forced to look after their younger siblings
while both parents are out working. By the time they reach 15 or 16,
many end up as mothers themselves, which gives them little time or
opportunity to grow mentally. So we have generation after generation of
Orang Asli kids raised by completely ignorant mothers with little on
their minds apart from neighbourhood gossip and a bleak view of marital
All this would change if teenaged dating was accepted as something
perfectly natural. When I first asked my mother-in-law if I could take
Anoora down to town and buy her a meal, I was told we would have to be
engaged before she would allow it. In other words, the relationship
between men and women is always a sexual one; post-pubescent boys and
girls simply cannot be friends and go out together. They end up getting
married very young, prompted by hormonal surges, and never really have
the chance to interact with a variety of friends, of different ages and
genders, and therefore lack the means of acquiring communication skills
and a broader perspective on things.
Most families in the past slept together in one large room with no
partitions - or only very thin ones, at best. Obviously, sex was
something carried out under cover of darkness, furtively, quietly (so
as not to wake the kids), almost involuntarily - and never became an
artform, or developed any degree of kinkiness, as it has in the cities.
I witnessed what happened when a young friend of mixed parentage from
the big city started dating a village beauty from Pertak. On their very
first secret rendezvous, she had asked if he was going to marry her
(that's what he reported). Soon, the whole village was bristling with
resentment at the urban Romeo. Even little children, no more than 8 or
9 years old, would taunt him as he drove past; the men in the village
became more and more hostile, sabotaging his vehicle wherever he parked
it, glaring at him with hands on their parangs. Posses of grandmothers
and babes-in-arm would confront him at his rented lodgings in the
village, demanding to know where he was hiding the girl. They gave him
no peace until he buckled under the pressure and married the girl in a
Now the girl in question has had several lovers, and at 18 gave birth
unexpectedly to a baby girl while trying to move her bowels, thinking
it was one huge stomach upset she was experiencing. As to be expected,
she's a lot more savvy and sophisticated than the other girls in the
village. She could certainly learn to cope with life in the city, and
has actually expressed a desire to someday get a job in KL. Now, is
there any correlation between an active sex life and intellectual
curiosity? Remember that biblical myth about the forbidden fruit? Sex,
drugs and rock'n'roll (or hip-hop or techno-rave, if you prefer) are
definitely evolutionary triggers - that's why the patriarchy everywhere
is so determined to outlaw them. What would happen to the Orang Asli if
their youth got into sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in a big way?
Soon, they'd become pretty much the same as you and me, don't you
think? And maybe that will prompt cityfolks to adopt more of the Orang
Asli lifestyle - to reconnect with the earth, with Mother Nature, fresh
air and sunshine. Sort of a cultural exchange: they become more
experienced like us, and we become more innocent like them. Perhaps
that's how things will ultimately balance out, and paradise will be
regained on earth.
Tanah Tujuh: Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos,
a subjective interpretation of aboriginal folklore and cosmomythology
interwoven with a documentation of Antares's colourful life among the Temuan
tribe will be published in early 2007 by Silverfish Books.