Published: 01 August 1995



A Tale of Two Orang Asli Women



Colin Nicholas


Published as ‘Not One and the Same: A Tale of Two Orang Asli Women
in WAVES (Newsletter of the All Women Action Society), Issue No. 17,
June-August 1995, pp 12-13.


Our little party of five concede defeat to the blistering sun, and proceed, sweaty and ashened, to the shade at the top of the selai (hill-rice field). Still, the morning's progress was good, with almost a quarter of the plot planted with rice.


Kening Ruan eyes the sekor tree (a distant relative of the rambutan), which is in season, and coaxes her husband to climb it. The fruits are not quite ripe, but prove to be excellent thirst quenchers.


With their two young children amusing themselves in our company, I take the opportunity to ask Bek Aman about the Semai practices revolving around the selai cycle. The questions are directed at him, as all my questions invariably are, partly because my upbringing tells me that it is considered uncultured to engage in direct conversation with a member of the opposite sex, especially if her spouse was around.


But I know from my past association with the couple that Kening Ruan is the more knowledgeable of the two as far as Semai culture and tradition are concerned. And so, as expected, I find Bek Aman checking the answers with his wife, sometimes even asking her for the answers.


How was the site chosen? How do you determine the extent of the plot? How many varieties of rice are grown? When do you decide to burn the field? What rituals are involved?  Etc., etc.


Kening Ruan has all the answers. Some are so detailed that space does not provide for them here. But I learn that site-selection is an important process, not just in terms of terrain, plant cover and evident fertility, but that the taboos are to be strictly observed. That was why the sekor  tree was spared, for example. I also learn how the ruai baq (the rice soul) is to be appeased, and how various flowering plants have to be grown (to distract voracious insects from the prized crops), and where each of the seven varieties of rice are to be grown.


Kening Ruan is clearly the holder of the traditional knowledge here. Even her husband, a trainee halaq (shaman), often consults her before conducting any ritual.


A firm believer in her indigenous religion, Kening Ruan has always been an active participant in all the rituals in the village. She knows which herbs to gather for the ceremony's paraphernalia, and is well-versed with the requirements and taboos of the ritual. Further, she is the only female I have seen who plays the gendang (goat‑skin drum) during the more celebratory asyiks (trance ceremonies). And because of her vast knowledge of the traditional practices, she is often consulted by the others, including, of course, her husband.


This knowledge did not come to her by chance. Her mother is the wife of a senior halaq; her grandmother, a much sought-after midwife (bidat) and an elder. Thus, because Semai women are generally the holders of the community's knowledge, Kening Ruan benefitted much from tradition.


It is a tradition she is determined to pass on to her children; a tradition that is closely linked to her people's bond with the land – her community's nenggrik or customary forest area.


The conviction that land is a source of livelihood and spirituality holds true for Kening Ruan, as for most of her community members. It is the land that clearly establishes her link with the past (as the home of her ancestors and the storehouse of their knowledge), with the present (as the provider of her material needs), and with the future (as the legacy she holds in trust for her children and her children's children).


When seeking out the familiar niches in the forest for food, medicines, fuelwood, or even forest products that are sold for cash, she is ever mindful that her community can be no more than a trustee of the land. She and her fellow Semai have a collective responsibility to see to it that the nenggrik remains for future generations. She is also fully aware that her people's identity – their indigenousness – hinges on them belonging to a particular place.


If you know Kening Ruan, you will quickly see that her life is deeply rooted in the land – materially, culturally and spiritually. Even the patterns she weaves into her mengkuang mats relate to objects found on the land. I have no doubt that her worldview (and her values) will remain intact ‑ but only as long as her community remains in control of their nenggrik.


I had once thought that all Orang Asli regard their traditional lands in much the same way as Kening Ruan. But now I am careful to qualify that there are ethnic Orang Asli and there are practising Orang Asli.


Kening Ruan (her real name, incidentally) would represent for me a practising Orang Asli insofar that her life is still very much linked to the land.


On the other hand, Zaleha (not her real name), a civil servant living close to the city with her family, is an ethnic Orang Asli. 'Ethnic' because her claim to being Orang Asli is based solely on a bloodline.


No longer living with her community, and long since detached from her native forest environment, Zaleha's attachment to the land is no longer cultural nor spiritual. On the contrary, her new worldview – she has since taken on a new religion ‑ allows her to see the coveted customary lands of the Orang Asli as a commodity to be exploited for individual gain.


Not surprisingly, she has joined her husband in setting up a company to take advantage of the perceived Orang Asli preferential treatment in business opportunities ‑ including, among other things, vying for logging concessions in Orang Asli areas!


A politically ambitious woman herself, it is not uncommon to hear her talk of 'Vision 2020', 'revolusi mental' and 'integration with the wider society' – frequently trumpeted buzzwords used by functionaries of the dominant society when they condescend on Orang Asli lifestyles.


Listening to the rhetoric put out by Zaleha, one would quickly realise that 'religion' is divorced from the land, that indigenousness is a helpful label, and that you have to accept that it is a rat-eat-rat world we live in – one where, if you are not aggressive enough, you will only get the crumbs (if at all any is left). To survive (succeed?), you have to put yourself before others.


Hence, whereas Kening Ruan sees the land as a source of life – a gift from the creator that nourishes, supports, and teaches – Zaleha considers it a commodity, to be traded and capitalised on.


But you cannot really fault Zaleha for what she is today. Kening Ruan would probably emulate her if the basis of her being, if her nenggrik, was seized from her community.


It is not difficult to see that with the loss of the community's traditional lands, women like Kening Ruan will lose out the most. Not only will they be responsible for salvaging their material lives, but their status as holders of the community knowledge will gradually erode as the physical environment changes.