An Orang Asli villageBy Sharon Ng Kooi Kin
Their frizzy hair, tight black curls and dark skin give them away immediately as Negritos.
I am in an Orang Asli settlement in Ulu Kelantan and am overjoyed when it is confirmed that the Orang Batek jungle dwellers are descendents of the Negrito (Semai) race.
The reason I am so excited is because I have only read about the Negritos in books and never seen any of them.
There are three main jungle tribes in the rain forests of Peninsular Malaysia: Negritos in the north, Senois in the central region and Proto-Malays in the south.
It’s been raining in Taman Negara Kelantan in Kuala Koh, so outdoor activities such as trekking are out. On a whim, we decide to visit the Orang Asli settlement about one kilometre from the park entrance.
I have been to many Orang Asli villages in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, Endau Rompin, Pahang/Johor and Ulu Geroh, Perak. But what strikes me most about this settlement is its utter primitiveness compared with the ones I’ve seen.
The huts are made of mainly bamboo, bound together with rattan twines and thatched with attap.
Elevated about half a metre from the ground, the floor is made of bamboo trunks overlaid with split bamboo. The walls are also of split bamboo and there are no doors. Some huts don’t even have walls. Cement and concrete are not used and there is no electricity supply.
The central courtyard is bare earth, with puddles of water and muddy patches. We tread gingerly as we visit one hut after another.
Recently, the state government has installed a piped water system leading from a mountain stream to a central water tank. Families collect water here for their own household needs.
The huts are bare, with no furniture. The single-room abode for a family functions as kitchen, bedroom and living room.
Cooking is done over a crude three-legged metal ring, using wood from the forest. Each family has a stove placed on a zinc sheet to prevent the bamboo floor from burning. One big pot and a kettle are the only kitchen utensils. There are no appliances or cutlery except for a hacking knife and plastic containers, plates and cups.
Mats and sarongs are spread on the floor for sleeping. There are no pillows or blankets though I see mosquito nets in some rooms.
Both the young and old men wear T-shirts and short pants and everyone wears Japanese slippers.
Each family receives an annual government subsidy of RM100 though staples such as rice, sugar and cooking oil are delivered regularly. A van comes two or three times a week with vegetables and sundry goods. Gathering from the jungle and hunting supplement is the community’s meager diet.
A simple division of labour exists in the Batek society. The women catch fish and pick jungle fruit while the men hunt for meat and collect bamboo. The nearest market is too far away without transport.
Vanishing Jungle Tribe
The Negritos form only three per cent of the Orang Asli population in the peninsula. A census in 2000 recorded only 1,519 Batek people who are considered the earliest inhabitants of the peninsula. They are of Austro-Malenesian/Asiatic origin from the Hoabinhian period. This has been determined by archaeological discoveries of burial grounds and cave drawings indicating that the Negritos’ history date back 10,000 years!
They speak a version of the Jahai language though many of the Bateks (sometimes spelt Bateq) are quite fluent in Bahasa Malaysia. None of the children here attends school though efforts are being made to enrol them in the nearest school, 30km away in Kampung Aring Satu.
The Bateks were a nomadic race but since resettlement by organisations such as Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Majlis Agama Islam, they can be classified as semi-nomadic.
Other Orang Asli settlements near urban areas, for example Gombak, outside Kuala Lumpur, can be considered permanent villages. But many are still semi-permanent settlements established on the fringe of jungle so that they can continue with their traditional way of living.
The Tengku Mahkota of Kelantan paid a visit to this Ulu Kelantan Orang Batek settlement in 2001, resulting in increased attention and aid.
The Batek Negritos may be a vanishing race as their livelihood and way of living are threatened by deforestation, construction of dams and encroaching plantations.
Though there are no signs of starvation among the Kuala Koh Orang Asli children, some have unhealthy scaly skin on their arms and legs.
I find out later that the average school dropout rate for Orang Asli children, after Year Five is as high as 70 per cent.
Forest resources, on which the Orang Asli are so dependent, is depleting fast. To further threaten their livelihood are modern hunters armed with modern techniques for fishing and hunting. They use guns, nets, poison and explosives.How can the Orang Asli, with their blowpipes, compete?
As jungle resources dwindle, a Batek settlement may be forced to move to a new location, usually deeper into the jungle.
Be a responsible visitor
Respect the sensitivities of the Orang Asli and their aversion to visitors and photographers. The kids, ever curious, do accept gifts of money and small items of food but bigger parcels should be handed over to Hamdan, the Tok Batin (headman), for distribution. Secondhand or new clothes such as T-shirts and sarongs are welcome.
During my visit, I notice they have canned food and soda, a soft toy, a sepak takraw ball and two toy trucks, obviously gifts from visitors.
Tour guide Zulkifli Mansor from Gua Musang says there are 100 villagers in 25 families here. He has been bringing visitors here for eight years. He prefers to bring small groups though sometimes there are groups of up to 40 schoolchildren.These young visitors would bring sweets and biscuits as presents.
Zulkifli organises three-day, two-night visits with interesting activities, accommodation and meals in nearby Taman Negara Kelantan.
It may have been a brief visit but it has left me with haunting images of extreme poverty that are in sharp contrast to the rest of the country. It is no wonder that the Batek Negritos, together with other jungle and hill tribes of Southeast Asia, are classified as Fourth World.
Burning issues such as land rights, social assimilation, education, medical care and depletion of traditional living resources need to be addressed.
How To Get There
Exit the North-South PLUS highway at Simpang Pulai and head towards Cameron Highlands and on to Gua Musang.
From there, take the road to Kuala Krai. You will pass a Shell petrol station near the 45km.
One kilometre after that, turn right and take a winding road that leads to the Aring Felda scheme and Taman Negara Kelantan, Kuala Koh, about 40km from the junction. The Orang Batek settlement is about 1km before the park entrance.