Published: 01 April 1993



Colin Nicholas


Published as "We Need to Reciprocate" in Hood Salleh (ed)(1993),
Orang Asli: An Appreciation.
Jabatan Anthropologi dan Sociologi,
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Bangi, pp. 32-37.


My involvement with the Orang Asli began with a selfish motive: I was then interested in jungle trekking and knew the Orang Asli had much to show me about traps and jungle survival, my pet interests in the early 1980s. Hence the reason I chose the Orang Asli as the research subject for a masters thesis on development and change.


I stayed with the Semai in two settlements in Pahang over a period of six months. From Day One it was to be an enriching and rare education for me, an experience I would not forget and which would prick my conscience time and again in the future.


First Meal
Barely a few hours after I had arrived in the first settlement at Buntu, my destined-to-be foster father gathered his jala (fish-net) and headed for the river. I followed him, recognising the photo opportunity that it provided. I later learnt from him that he was short on food  meat, in particular  and had gone fishing for my sake.




The late Tahir eyeing the waters of the
Buntu River before casting his  jala.


That same day too, I was to get an inkling of the problems generally faced by the Orang Asli. The batin asked me if I knew of any towkay in Raub who would buy his petai at a higher price and the question eventually led to an account of the economic problems they faced.


Throughout my stay with both communities, I was never left alone. This, at that time, did place some strain on me since I needed some time on my own to evaluate my own research progress and update my notes. But in retrospect, I must say I have no regrets for the great deal of time I spent with the children, my peers and the elders.

I ought to confess here that although I recorded 'participation-observation' as the method used, I did very little participation. Almost everything was done for me, and what little 'participation' I did was mainly to amuse or impress my hosts. Often, I was given the choicest portion of game, some of which we differed in culinary opinion (as in the case of the rather human-like little finger of a dong or pig-tailed monkey).



A Temiar Story

There is one instance that I still remain embarrassed about. This was in 1983, when I wanted to visit some Temiar areas on the Pahang-Kelantan watershed, with a view to doing research among them. Prior to this I had been warned (by some Semai!) that the Temiar were very aggressive and fierce people, who would not hesitate to cut off one's head to sell off to contractors of bridge projects.

Harbouring such anxiety, I left my old car in the Blue Valley Tea Estate and hitched a ride on a motorcycle to Penagau, a short distance away. Among the first things I noticed on arriving there was the headman crouched close to the fireplace, with headache plasters all over his head. He had that unmistakable look of someone suffering from a bout of malaria. I told him of my intention to visit Pos Lojing on the main range. He apologised for not being able to show me the way, and asked one of the villagers to escort me (in retrospect, perhaps only because I had a letter from the JOA, and the headman felt obliged to heed the 'directive').


It was a tough two-hour hike along the ridge into Kelantan. We also met some Temiar carrying out heavy loads of rotan manau to be sold for a few ringgit just so they can enjoy some of the modern necessities.


Despite being paid only RM1.60 for each length of rotan manau and despite the long distances involved,  the Temiar still found it necessary to do such heavy work.



My 'escort' introduced me to the people at Lojing, and after a cigarette, left to trek the same two-hour route back to his settlement. The headman's son offered to be my host at Lojing. He was a rather burly character and fitted my then misconception of a fierce Temiar. After the usual curtsies over a meal of roasted tapioca, he took me to Sinrod where I got to see my first multi-fireplace, multi-family, longhouse-type dwelling in the peninsular. Despite all this, I was still apprehensive of him, especially since he had conveniently decided to keep the cigarette lighter I had brought along.


That night, after dinner (of tapioca with smoked ear of wildboar which my host apologetically informed me was all that was left of one caught four days ago!), I realised that my lightweight sleeping sleeve (not unlike a sleeping bag but made of much thinner material) was missing. All kinds of thoughts raced through my mind, all of them unkind to my host.

I was sure he had taken it from my bag and hidden it somewhere. After all, he had taken my haversack from me before we left for Sinrod, saying he wanted to keep it in a secure place. I also noticed that he had items in the house usually issued to army personnel: mess-tins, jack-knife, poncho.


My host probably saw through the anxiety much as I tried to hide it. Moreover, I did not want him to turn aggressive. Knowing that I would be cold that night, he offered me a blanket - an army issued one. Still, it was difficult to sleep that night, not just because it was extremely cold. I was genuinely worried for my remaining property.


Leaving the Lojing Highlands
and heading along the ridge of the Main Range for Penagau



The next morning my host and some of his friends decided to accompany me back to the car. Two hours later, we arrived at Penagau where I stopped to thank the headman and asked for my 'escort' of the day before. He was busy building his new house when we found him. And to think that he had given up much of his time and energy the day before just to show me the way to Lojing. I left him some canned food as a token of my appreciation for his service (which, I now realise, was grossly undervalued).


My 'entourage' then walked the remaining distance to the car. I unloaded my band and  lothere was my sleeping sleeve in the other bag that I had left behind in the car.

I was terribly embarrassed, but of course neither my host nor his friends knew why.

How could I have mistaken their hospitality, kindness and generosity for anything other than something sincere and genuine. I was even more ashamed of myself when I found out that my host had been an ex-Senoi Praaq soldier which explained the cache of army stuff in his possession. The least I could do to make up for this city way of thinking, I thought, was to treat them to a round of drinks. It really was the least and they did not ask for more.


Since that experience I have learnt never to prejudge the Orang Asli, let alone judge them negatively. On the contrary, I have had repeated occasions when my trust in them was restored many times over. This does not mean that there are no bad apples among them. But such occurrence is not the norm, and can be attributed to the negative influences of the external materialist-oriented culture.


Learning from the Orang Asli

I have strayed from the original intention of the editor of this volume. When approached to write this essay, I was asked specifically to write an appreciation of the social attributes, knowledge and wisdom of the Orang Asli. There is much to write about on these topics. But I do not consider myself qualified to do so; that is, qualified enough to do justice to the holders of such knowledge and values. Besides, others in this volume have done so with competence and empathy.


But if pressed to pinpoint the aspect of Orang Asli living that has made a mark on me, I would say that it is their aspiration for harmony – harmony between fellow human beings, and harmony between human beings and nature.


Among Semai friends, I am always reminded of the overriding rule of behaviour governing their lives, tenhak. In essence, this rule requires an individual to be responsible for the good and wellbeing of others.

This rule is so encompassing that one is said to have committed tenhak if, for example, someone in a distant land dies of hunger while you yourself had more than enough to eat. You are deemed responsible for his death and would have to suffer the consequences. This may seem extreme but tenhak also translates into everyday living via concepts of sharing, satisfying of needs, and what is generally perceived to be proper behaviour towards other individuals, whether Orang Asli or not.


Unfortunately, it is largely because of such worldview and attitudes towards living that Orang Asli are taken advantage of. Orang Asli hospitality and generosity are frequently seen as weaknesses to be exploited. Or simply assumed to be inherent. I have been told of many instances when this happened, and have personally witnessed several for myself.


Taking Advantage
For example, only recently a foreign radio broadcaster had wanted to do a programme on the Orang Asli. Despite the lateness in informing us, we agreed for her to meet with an Orang Asli teacher who could speak English. She (the teacher) agreed to show the visitor around on the Sunday after which the teacher was to return to the school in the Orang Asli settlement while the broadcaster was to return to Kuala Lumpur. When she did appear, she did so with two other foreigners she met on the way and whom she thought could free-load on the trip.


As it turned out it was a hectic Sunday for the Orang Asli teacher. Come Monday, the foreigners decided to take advantage of the teacher's hospitality and boarded with her in the village for the whole week. Much of her time, especially in the afternoons, was spent in entertaining the visitors or translating for them in the heat of the day, at the expense of her schoolwork preparation.

When the weekend came, it was a hectic programme of further visits to other Orang Asli settlements for the teacher. The visitors only left on the second Monday, eight days longer than the agreed stay. As for the teacher, she fell ill at the end of it all, probably out of exhaustion and was given two days' medical leave. That meant two days without a teacher for her pupils.


There was no compensation for her time or assistance, and if that was not bad enough, the foreigners bought food only for themselves. They did not even have the courtesy to think of buying food for their host. We have not heard from them since.


Another instance of lack of appreciation, or taking advantage, of Orang Asli hospitality occurred earlier this year. A four-wheel-drive adventure club had made a social visit to a community where we have close links. The convoy of 20 vehicles camped in the Orang Asli settlement and conducted a medical clinic for the Orang Asli.

A fortnight later one of the participants came back with his family and they were very kindly shown a spot in the river known only to the Orang Asli, an ideal private picnic spot. After the swim, they were served tea and food by the Orang Asli.


Then came the bombshell. They told the host that they wanted the Orang Asli to build them a hut where they could come and stay on weekends. They offered to pay the Orang Asli RM200 for their effort. No permission was sought as to whether they could do this; they merely requested for Orang Asli labour.

When the Orang Asli host told them that there was no need to do so as they could always stay in his house, the visitors replied that they had children and that they did not want the Orang Asli to be troubled by their mischief. They left with the order to build the hut.


The Orang Asli host later told me that he was disturbed by the attitude of the visitor. Despite the host's kindness and hospitality, the visitors had shown no respect for their rights to their land and were, in fact, rather condescending.

After discussing the matter, my Orang Asli friend asked me to convey a counter-request to the visitor. The Orang Asli would do as requested if the town-dweller would do the same for them. That is, build a small hut in their garden for the Orang Asli to use whenever they visited Kuala Lumpur. They did not want to live in the owner's house as they too had children who were wont to be naughty.

This was conveyed to the urbanite, and the matter was promptly put to rest. Apparently, he valued his privacy more than he realised.


This reverse-situation method has always proved useful in making others see things from the view of the Orang Asli. Researchers, in particular, should ask themselves whether they would allow their own homes and lifestyles be the subject of research from a nosey investigator.

For my own part, I sometimes find it very difficult to be gracious when someone from the village simply telephones to say that he wants to stay a few days with me. It is when I am hardpressed to meet certain deadlines that I sometimes find such visits very trying and taxing. But when I put myself in their place, I realise that I am the one who usually imposes on them. And certainly, they had to bear with me more often than I with them. But then, isn't this what reciprocity is all about?


Reciprocity Expected

Yes, reciprocity is what Orang Asli expect; for it is in their way of life that one should try to repay whatever kindness or good deed extended in the past.

Often when I am visiting their communities, the Orang Asli ask if I knew so-and-so who did research on them during such-and-such a period. They are always anxious to know whether the said researcher is still alive (especially since they had not heard from him or her since the end of fieldwork). If I know the person concerned, I try to update them on the researcher's whereabouts and current work. If not, I just shrug my shoulders and plead ignorance. 
But I wish I did not have to.

I always thought that if more people especially those who lived and shared their lives with the Orang Asli, benefitting from them in various ways worked together to show their appreciation for the Orang Asli, I am sure the Orang Asli would be a lot better off today than they are.


As it is, the Orang Asli still count, officially, as being the poorest among the nation's poor. Their rights to their land are not legally recognised. And they remain marginalised despite rapid progress around them.


This publication is therefore timely in that it reminds us that we have much to be thankful to the Orang Asli. It is but a small way to tell the Orang Asli that we appreciate their kindness and generosity.


The next more important step, however, is to reciprocate.

The requests from the Orang Asli are many. They range from seeking solutions to simple individual or community-level needs, to helping out in broader policy-oriented reforms.

For sure, the call from the Orang Asli is there. It is for us now to respond positively.