Published: 01 November 1997








Problems & Prospects




Colin Nicholas


Paper presented at the Seminar on 'Mother Tongue Education of Ethnic Minorities in Malaysia:
Problems and Prospects', 1-2 November 1997, Dong Jiao Zong Higher Learning Centre, Kajang.
Subsequently published in Kua Kia Soong (ed) (1998),
Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian
Ethnic Minorities,
Dong Jiao Zong Higher Learning Centre, Kajang, Selangor, pp. 140-4.



First, I should stress that I am neither an Orang Asli nor even remotely an authority on Orang Asli mother tongue education.

The President of the Peninsular Malaysia Orang Asli Association was to make this presentation but owing to circumstances unknown to the organisers, he is not able to do so. So when asked ysterday to stand in for him, I reluctantly agreed.

Thus, what follows is a hasty putting together of my thoughts on the issue coupled with heavy reliance on reference materials I could lay my hands on last night, especially that of a paper by Geoffrey Benjamin entitled '
The Aslian Languages: An Assessment' (presented at the workshop on the Study of Endangered Languages and Literatures of Southeast Asia, Royal Institute of Linguistics and Antropology, Leiden, , 9-13 December 1996).


It has been said that languages are among the most complex products of the human mind, and the loss of any is a loss not only for the community concerned but also for all of us. For each language carries with it a culture, a literature (both oral and written), a worldview (and all knowledge that goes with it), that represent an end-point of thousands of years of creativity and invention.


The Problem of Homogenization

At the risk of seeming simplistic, one can argue that if any single blame is to be attributed for the phenomenon of language-loss, it has to be the process of homogenization, the process of making everyone not united, but unified. This is a process that has been going on for thousands of years. State expansion, even in early times, acted to impose the rulers' languages on the incorporated populations. In this respect, Malay-language domination is merely following what European colonization did (with respect to the English, Spanish and Portuguese languages for example) as what also happened in China and other early states.


In the case of the Orang Asli, the expressed policy of integrating/assimilating the Orang Asli with the Malay sector of the population, clearly fits the mould of a policy of homogenization, and it is therefore not surprising that many, if not all, Orang Asli languages are facing the threat of extinction today.


But then, very few languages are protected from extinction. The most secure ones are those that have been chosen as official national languages. The next most secure languages, linguists tell us, are those that currently have at least one million speakers, though even such numbers are no guarantee of the language's survival. In any case, none of the Orang Asli languages fall in either category.


But in the past, Orang Asli languages survived happily with just a few hundred or a few thousand speakers. In fact, the Orang Kanaq community in southern Johor, were able to sustain its unique language and cultural identity despite its population hovering around only 40 members!


'Killing' Languages

Why then are such languages no longer guaranteed continued existence? Social-linguists suggest that this is because there are new ways of killing off languages aside from the once-common practice of killing the speakers themselves or in forbidding them to speak their language. Minority languages such as those of the Orang Asli today are being snuffed out slowly but surely, through a broadening in the scope of social relations under modern conditions. Trade between formerly hostile groups, intermarriage, moving to urban areas in search of work, the introduction of mainstream education these lead either to the development of heavy borrowing from, and/or the adoption of, the majority language. The mass media further reinforces this pattern, aggravating the process of language loss.


With regard to the Orang Asli, Dr. Geoffrey Benjamin of National University of Singapore, has shown that the highest rates of borrowing from Malay were found among the smaller and/or collecting populations, especially where the lowland Orang Asli groups have historically been straddling old Malay routes through the forest. The Proto-Malay groups in the south also display a high rate of Malay borrowings, as is to be expected since these groups have long favoured trade with Malays and others downriver.


The lowest rates of Malay borrowings, on the other hand, were found among the large farming populations, such as those of the Semai  a result of their relatively remote situation and from their higher degree of self-sufficiency. Similarly, the interior-dwelling Temiar were historically buffered from linguistic contact with Malay by the other Orang Asli languages that surrounded them viz. Semai, Lanoh, Jahai and Mendriq. This has had several other consequences: its lexicon has been enriched by multiple borrowings from other Aslian languages, such that it has become something of a lingua franca among the Orang Asli.


Nevertheless, it does not mean that there have been no attempts to 'preserve' the language. On the contrary there have been a number of efforts at putting the Orang Asli languages into print. Invariably, however, the intention was not to preserve the language for the sake of the language or the community, rather it was to gain access to the community.


Using the Local Language

Thus, since the 1950s, we have had Semai versions of the bible as well as hymnals published. In fact, the Sengoi-English-Sengoi dictionary that has since been published, was actually intended to help evangelists in their missionary pursuit, as they did in Sabah and Sarawak. Even the DBP publication Tengleq Kui Serok by the then Commissioner for Orang Asli Affairs, Iskandar Carey, which incorporated a Temiar wordlist and pointers on Temiar grammar and language structure, was aimed at primarily for use by JHEOA officers.


In 1959, when the Emergency was being fought in the forest homelands of the Orang Asli, the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, launched the Siaran Orang Asli on Radio Malaya. The aim was not to encourage the use of Temiar and Semai languages, the two main media used for the broadcasts; rather it was to win away the Orang Asli from the communist insurgents and to persuade them over to the side of the government.


However, with the end of the Emergency, the radio programme continued right up to the present, but now to propagate the messages of the government. In fact, so useful were these daily 2-hour broadcasts that prior to the 1995 general elections, the airtime was increased by another two hours! At that time, you will recall, Tengku Razaleigh was still a pain in Dr. M's neck, and the PM was determined to go all out to get rid of this Member of Parliament from Gua Musang, an Orang Asli stronghold.


To be fair, there was some talk, in April this year, of introducing Semai as a subject in Pahang schools. Certainly there has also been efforts at adapting the school curriculum to Orang Asli needs.


However, adapting the curriculum and having Semai as a school subject are two completely different things. Both, nevertheless, miss the point of seeing the language as something more than just a mere means of communication.


Language an Important Identity Marker

At a recent seminar on Orang Asli identity, several Orang Asli leaders, from various Orang Asli sub-groups, were asked to define Orang Asli identity. Many were at a loss at doing so, as many of the cultural elements they thought were unique to their particular ethnic group were actually held in common by many of the others. Only the language stood out as being distinct and different from the others, no matter how similar their way of life was.


Yet, as it has been rightly pointed out at this seminar, language is not divorced from the culture. It is, as the poster behind says, the soul of the indigenous people. It is also, as Ben Topin said, directly linked to our cultural environment where the world of meanings is stored.


In this regard, the strife for language-rights, if I may call it that, cannot be divorced from the struggle for cultural freedom and political autonomy within a specific homeland. For once you are removed from your specific ecological-niche, your specific customary land  whether by choice, by force or by deception and if you are not a dominant player in nation state politics, you are exposing yourself to cultural ethnocide. In such a situation, the first to erode is your traditional knowledge, to which the language is intimately linked. Sadly therefore, but not surprisingly, it has been said that the rate of erosion of the traditional knowledge held by indigenous peoples has never been so high as it is in the current generation.


In this respect, language loss is similar in character to the broader processes of social and cultural change within which it occurs. The ultimate result is that cultural disintegration sets in, causing indigenous groups to lack self-worth and self-esteem in their culture and language. And this in turn sets in motion a vicious cycle of further language-loss and cultural disintegration.


Saving a Language

Hence, given this understanding of the roots of Orang Asli languages, you cannot really begin to save a language by merely teaching it. You have to put it in its cultural context. And you cannot really 'teach' a culture; you have to practice it. But with a little inventiveness coupled with huge doses of political resolve, you can marry the two. For example, in the Orang Asli context, the problem of lack of trained native-language teachers can be reduced if instead of young ill-equipped non-Orang Asli teachers, community elders were incorporated into the teaching process. They could tell their old legends, teach about their culture and show what is to be Semai, a Jakun or whatever ethnic sub-group  in the language that best captures the spirit of the lesson. In the process, you ensure a continuity of the culture, if not actually initiate a recovery of it. And, more importantly, you are actually applying the traditional pedagogical system by restoring self-worth and respect into the elders who are the traditional store of knowledge in the indigenous community.


Efforts should also be stepped up to ensure that the traditional knowledge of the community  whether it be their stories, their medical knowledge or their cultural practices be actively documented in the various media formats, including video, audio and the printed page. Motivating efforts to do such documentation, and the actual process of doing so, can also be very effective means of helping to instill a sense of community and purpose, elements essential for reasserting a people's identity.


Nevertheless, it is obvious that if Orang Asli and other ethnic languages are to be kept alive, there must be a serious commitment to multi-culturalism, and, it follows, multi-lingualism. This requires large doses of political resolve, and perhaps even greater commitment on the speakers of the respective languages to see the need to do everything necessary to protect and encourage the languages - and the cultures - that give them meaning and colour.


So what's the scope, at the very least, for having Orang Asli languages taught in Orang Asli schools? Well, if the present Director-General of the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) remains in charge, the scope is very bleak  for, going by his press statement two days ago, he has problems even acknowledging the Orang Asli as the First or Original Peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. And that is the thrust of all problems facing the Orang Asli today: they are not recognized as the first peoples of this peninsula, and consequently do not fully enjoy the benefits and prioritization that such recognition is expected to entail, at least in the Malaysian context.


The need, therefore, is for the Orang Asli communities to recognize that this pervasive threat to their languages is also a threat to their identity and their very survival as unique indigenous peoples.


It is still not too late to reverse the trend as the languages are still being spoken and the respective cultures are, in the main, still 'alive'. But as you are aware, languages and cultures take very little effort to be extinguished. Yet, once lost, they take more than what you may have to revive or recover them.