STEALING STORIES: Communication and Indigenous Autonomy

Published: 01 January 1997




Communication and Indigenous Autonomy



Colin Nicholas

Published in Media Development, Issue no. 3, 1997, London.



Traditionally, when the Orang Asli (the indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia) wanted to disseminate a message it was done by word of mouth. One community was responsible for communicating a particular message to the next, which in turn was responsible for doing the same again. In no time, a message could be communicated to all communities within a specified region – be it in a river valley or beyond a mountain range.


This was demonstrated effectively in the 1940s when the Temiar, a Mon-Khmer speaking Orang Asli subgroup, religiously obeyed the decision of the elders that any communication concerning the circumstances surrounding the death of an Englishman was forbidden. Pat Noone, the first Protector of the Aborigines (as the Orang Asli were then called), was much loved by Temiar, especially since he took a Temiar wife and assimilated well with the community. However, he was killed by his Temiar “brother” in a classic “love triangle” tragedy. Distraught that such a calamity had happened and fearing harm coming onto the community, the elders passed a ruling that from then on, no Temiar was ever to mention the deceased’s name, or ever to communicate about the incident.


So allegiant were the Temiar to this taboo-order, that relatives, friends and even the government were unable to ascertain the actual fate of Noone for a whole decade. His disappearance long remained a mystery despite many concerted official and unofficial efforts to locate him or to learn of his circumstance. Only when one (involved) Temiar decided that he could no longer carry the burden of the dreadful secret, and so felt he had to tell someone from outside the community, did the story eventually come out (Gouldsbury 1960: 118-20).


What is significant in the above historical anecdote is not that the method or system of communication employed by the Temiar was effective. If modern methods of communication had been present then, there is little doubt that they would have been used. Other traditions have adopted modern methods and there’s no reason to believe that the Temiar would not have done so too. The written page and the cassette recorder, for example, are quickly adopted by the Orang Asli today to communicate traditional songs, lore, and histories.


A more important point is that, in the above anecdote, the content and means of the communication were completely in their control. They determined for themselves what was to be transmitted, to whom, by whom, and how. At all times, their worldview, as manifested in their social structures and cultural practices, prevailed over every aspect of the communication. As is the case for most other indigenous peoples, it is a worldview that harmoniously unites people with their traditional resources, yielding a local knowledge that becomes central to the maintenance of identity for the community.


The local knowledge at issue here is collective knowledge. Assembled by past generations and passed down to its present inheritors, local knowledge is, in the main, something more than matter-of-fact information. It is usually invested with a sacred quality and systemic unity, supplying the foundation on which members of a traditional culture sense their communitas, personal identity, and ancestral anchorage (Greaves 1996: 26).


Such collective knowledge invariably translates into the culture of a people. This, as Varese (1988: 66) states, is its production, its objects, its works, the specific mode in which they are used, and the style contained in the work from the very moment of its production. The communication of this matrix of cultural complexes among the members of a community is seen as the very core of a people’s consciousness.


For example, the legends of a community - invariably recorded orally - link its people with a particular place, a particular culture, and it follows, a particular identity. The legends are collective knowledge and belong to the community; those who wish to use it owe nothing to those from whom it was learned, other than perhaps an obligation that this ethos be in turn observed.


Unfortunately, precisely because such knowledge is regarded as being in the “public domain”, little protection by way of intellectual property rights is accorded to it. On the contrary, the most common method of converting public goods into private ones – and so expropriating it from the community – is to grant it intellectual property (Brush and Stabinsky1996: 14). In like manner, for example, modern day bio-prospectors, armed with western intellectual property protections, have been able to procure valuable medical knowledge for themselves by simply attributing personal ownership to knowledge that was always regarded as collective.


Nevertheless, I argue that in some cases the expropriation of a community’s knowledge can be effected without needing to convert the knowledge into the private domain. By removing control over the means and content of communication, one community can appropriate the property of another, often with grave implications for the social identity of the latter.


The fate of the Orang Asli legend of Si Tenggang best illustrates my contention. The story, in brief, as it was told in school texts in the 1960s (Abd. Samad Ahmad, n.d.) is that of a poor Orang Asli boy, Tenggang, who joined a trading ship to improve his economic position. After a few years, he achieved success, married a Malay princess, and became the captain of a huge ocean-going ship, forgetting his humble roots in the process.


One day, in order to take shelter from an impending storm, his ship happened to berth near his birthplace. His ageing parents recognised him from a distance and rowed out to him in a dug-out canoe, carrying gifts of fruit. They called out to their long lost son. Si Tenggang recognised them but was too embarrassed, in front of his royal wife, to acknowledge the dirty duo in loin-cloth as his parents. The elderly couple was extremely depressed by this denial, and placed a curse on their unfilial son. The story goes on to describe how, in the ensuing storm, the ship capsized and was transformed into rock. The cabins of the ship then became the caverns of what is now known as Batu Caves, a popular tourist attraction just north of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia.


That this was an Orang Asli story is beyond doubt. In the textbooks, Si Tenggang and his parents were described as “sakai”, the derogatory term used popularly then to refer to the Orang Asli. Illustrations of the elderly couple also conformed to the stereotyped perception of the Orang Asli: ragged hair, topless, loin-cloth, wretched-looking.


Nevertheless, the story as it stands has important implications for the Orang Asli, not the least of which being that the story is but part of the vast body of oral tradition identified with the particular Orang Asli group – the Temuans – living around Batu Caves. Such clear references in the legend to the presence of Orang Asli living near the caves since mythical times also add testimony to their claim as the original inhabitants of the area. In any case, the legend contributes to the cultural complexity that gives the community its social identity.


However, in recent times, the story of Si Tenggang has been retold without any allusion to Orang Asli characters. In the 1992 version, in a widely read annual magazine (Adibah 1992), there is no doubt that Si Tenggang and his parents had always been Malay. There was also no suggestion of any Orang Asli origin to the story. More recently, in perhaps an attempt to firmly establish the “Malay context” of the story, it was made into a television drama and aired over the national channel (Berita Harian, 22nd May 1997). The casting, the costumes, the dialogue – all left no doubt that it was a Malay story about a Malay event.


Thus, by the gradual action of communicating a deception, the collective property of the Temuans became appropriated by another community. In the process, the “historical” link of the Temuans to the caves has been diluted in the mind of the public, and over time, their own spatial identity with the caves has been affected. This has been possible because the Orang Asli community is no longer in control of the form and content of the communication. In a way the community has been subjected to a sort of cultural imperialism where the weapon is the external system of communication.


Other Orang Asli stories, legends and myths have similarly been victims of this sort of expropriation. For example, the many animal stories in which the tiny mousedeer, Sang Kancil, is featured as a clever animal able to outwit the bigger beasts in the forest are now commonly perceived to be Malay stories.


Current draft international legal provisions suggest that such “prejudicial actions” may be subject to criminal sanctions as they fail to indicate the ethnic and geographical source of an expression of folklore in printed publications and other communications in public. Unauthorised utilisation of an expression of folklore, or deliberately deceiving the public about the ethnic source of a production, are also grounds for criminal action, as is any kind of public use which distorts the production in a manner ‘prejudicial to cultural interests of the community concerned’ (Unesco and WIPO, cited in Posey 1996: 85).


Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Orang Asli – at least in the immediate future – would resort to reasserting their legal and moral right to their stories, partly because it is not in their worldview to regard such knowledge as property to be owned, and partly because the effort would seem futile since they do not, as yet, control the system of communication.


This loss of control over the communication system profoundly affects a subordinate people’s culture: it causes people to lose their cultural and civilisational autonomy, and transforms them from cultural creator to passive user, consumer, and alienated reproducer of a foreign culture (cf. Varese 1988: 65). That is to say, the community’s loss of control over the system of communication, as a matter of course, invariably subjects the community to the despised assimilation and integration with the dominant culture.


Thus, issues in indigenous intellectual property rights do not merely translate into dollars and cents lost to the community, or gained by an outsider. They often affect the very basis of indigenous autonomy and indigenous identity.










Abd. Samad Ahmad (n.d.), Nakhoda Tenggang. Kuala Lumpur: The Khee Meng Press.

Adibah Amin (1992), The Stony Penitence of Si Tenggang. New Straits Times Annual, pp. 146-9.


Berita Harian, 22nd May 1997. Intisari Pilihan: Nakhoda Tanggang.


Gouldsbury, Pamela (1960), Jungle Nurse. London: Jarrolds Publishers.


Greaves, Thomas (1996), Tribal Rights. In: Stephen B. Brush and Doreen Stabinsky (Ed.)(1996), Valuing Local Knowledge: Indigenous People and Intellectual Property Rights. Washington DC: Island Press, pp. 25-40.


Posey, Darrell A. (1996), Traditional Resource Rights: International Instruments for Protection and Compensation for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.


Varese, Stefano (1988), Multiethnicity and Hegemonic Construction: Indian Plans and the Future. In: Guidieri, et al (Ed.), Ethnicities and Nations. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 57-77.


UNESCO and WIPO (1985), Model Provisions for National Laws on Protection of Expressions of Folklore against Illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudicial Actions.