Sunday, February 9, 2020

'Merdeka' Means Having No Debts! (reprise)

First published in the Sunday Mail, 31 August 1997, in abridged form and subsequently included as a chapter in TANAH TUJUH ~ Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos (Silverfishbooks, 2007)
Uman, Anoora's stepmother, in 2005

“UNFORTUNATELY, many of us still owe the Chinese towkays (Big Bosses) thousands of ringgit,” a Temuan elder admitted with a sardonic grin. “Every durian season we have to give them first option on our harvest.”

But how did this vicious cycle of hutang (indebtedness) begin?

“Well, no bank will loan us a cent, so we ask the Chinese towkays for help. When our sons and daughters get married, we need money to hold feasts. Sometimes we need a motorbike or a bushcutter. Usually it's just an accumulation of basic necessities like rice, cooking oil, cigarettes - which we buy on credit. If there's no durian season, hutang lah!”

We were sitting around my mother-in-law's shanty in Kampung Pertak, drinking sweet black tea. Some were chewing betelnut while others just chewed the fat. The fortieth anniversary of Merdeka was approaching. I asked Utat Merkol, who must have been about twenty when Malaya became independent, if he remembered the changing of the guards on 31 August 1957.

Utat Merkol in the late 1990s
He knit his already furrowed brow and slowly shook his head.

“Doesn't Merdeka have any significance at all for you?” I probed.

“Not really,” Utat replied. “In the days of Hukum Orang Putih (White Man Rule) we were treated quite well. Every month the government supplied us with rice, sugar, cooking oil and other necessities.”

His younger sister Indah piped in: “I remember that everything cost so much less!”

This triggered off animated talk about the bounty of nature in pre-Merdeka days. My sister-in-law Anggu recalled her father's stories of the days when one could just dip a basket in the stream and return with a fishy feast for the whole family.

From conversations I've had over the past few years with various Orang Asli, it's obvious that they don't have a clearly defined notion of nationhood as a political abstraction. In the old days they identified themselves along purely tribal lines. Intermarriage with other tribes or ethnic groups would occur from time to time, but the idea of being part of a larger Orang Asli community is a fairly recent one - and one that has been thrust on them by anthropologists and bureaucrats.

Lumoh & Awa playing the Buloh Limbong at a gig in 2009
Broadly speaking the Orang Asli simply think of themselves as Manusia - Human Beings. They know this much: their nenek-moyang (ancestors) have inhabited certain bioregions at least since the Great Flood (perhaps 13,000 years ago). And before that? Who knows? Their tutelary gods, Mamak and Inak Bongsu, often spoke of returning to a home “beyond Pulau Buah (the Isle of Fruits or Paradise), beyond Tanah Sejuk (The Cold Land), beyond the highest heavens.”

Wherever they came from must be very, very far away from Tanah Tujuh (the Seventh Land or Seventh Planet).

Utat and his elder brother Diap (who was one of the last Keeper of the Stories) had hinted once or twice of battles between gods, between planets and stars... cosmic events beyond their comprehension. The Temuan, who used to be classified Proto-Malay by anthropologists (these days the preferred academic description is “Austronesian”), share linguistic roots with Malay, Tagalog, and other “Austronesian” tongues - including dialects spoken among certain Northern Territory aboriginal tribes in Australia. Many basic words are borrowed from Sanskrit. Manusia, for example, is from Manu - Progenitor, Archetypal Father. When we hear the word pusat, we usually think of “headquarters” or “administrative centre.” But to the Temuan, pusat means “belly button” or “navel,” which is its original sense in Sanskrit. This demonstrates that they have an earthier, gutsier, more visceral apprehension of reality. We urbanites have become too intellectual, too head-centred.

Halus in 1999 (photo by Colin Nicholas/COAC)
So what could Merdeka (Independence) possibly mean to an Orang Asli?

Colonizers come and go, but the indigenous tribes have rolled with the punches, assimilating whatever they could from the invaders. They themselves might once have been “invaders,” migration patterns being what they are, due to the vagaries of climate and tectonic upheavals that created whole new mountain ranges and land mass link-ups. One generation arrives to replace the previous - and life goes on in Tanah Tujuh (the Seven-Storied Land or Seventh Planet). This physical world that we inhabit is merely one of the middle stories.

Now and again, certain individuals may experiment with new-fangled lifestyles, as in the legendary case of Si Tenggang, a Temuan boy who ran off to join a trading ship and eventually became captain of his own galleon (after marrying a Malay princess, the story goes). Alas, success went to his head and Tenggang refused to recognize and receive his aged parents in their loincloths and crude dugout canoe, when they rowed out to his ship, anchored in a bay near his home village.

Heartbroken and humiliated, Tenggang's parents cursed the day he was born. Before long, a violent storm capsized Tenggang's ship and his roomy cabins were transformed into the limestone outcrop now known as Batu Caves, For generations the Temuan regarded it as a sacred site - until the land was acquired and developed into a Hindu shrine and tourist attraction.

(Even the fable of Si Tenggang has been assimilated into mainstream Malay literature. The 1992 New Straits Times Annual, for instance, featured a story by Adibah Amin - called The Stony Penitence of Si Tenggang - in which Tenggang and his family were recast as Malays.)

As tribal entities, the Orang Asli feel magnetically bound to their familiar hunting grounds. When forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands, they tend to wither spiritually and acquire negative traits like alcoholism and apathy.

My adopted kinfolk have told me hair-raising tales of massacres inflicted on their tribe over the last few centuries. Pirates from nearby islands used to hunt the Orang Asli for sport. The ones they captured alive were sold into slavery. Some ended up in Batak cooking pots! The White Man came and put a stop to all this - not so much for altruistic reasons but because the pirates were a threat to his merchant ships.

But why did the Orang Asli offer no resistance? Surely they had hunters and warriors amongst them who could be pahlawan and wira (defenders and heroes)?

“We are not an aggressive people,” Mak Minah explained. “Even though we feel anger, humiliation, and acute distress, we try to endure whatever befalls us. We believe that Tuhan (God) loves and looks after all his children.”

In true stoical tradition, the Orang Asli have generally sought peaceful co-existence rather than armed conflict. Even after wave upon wave of migrants arrived and began staking claims on their ancestral lands, the Orang Asli were more inclined to show hospitality instead of hostility. However, as in the famous story of the Arab and his camel, they now find themselves crowded out of their own domicile by pendatang (newcomers) armed with “legal” documents. Some say the meek shall inherit the earth. But when? After the earth has been turned into an industrial wasteland, a virtual Neraka (Hell)? Would an Orang Asli be shouting “Merdeka” in Neraka?

Yam Kokok & Karim reroofing the Bamboo Palace (2008)
Merdeka, as a political concept, holds no emotive meaning for the Orang Asli. In their own eyes, they have always been free. Even when foreign invaders called them sakai (the equivalent of “nigger” or “slave”) and treated them no better than cattle, they remained free in spirit by retreating deeper into the mysterious jungle - and into their own myth-bound psyches.

And they shall always be free (though the left-brained among us may perceive their love of independence as “backwardness” or “obstinacy” or “unreliability” or “indiscipline” or “recalcitrance”). Whether it's Hukum Orang Putih (White Man Rule), Hukum Melayu (Malay Rule), or Hukum Hutang (Rule of Perpetual Debt) - you'll never catch an Orang Asli yelling, “Merdeka!”

Only those who lack the reality resort to shouting slogans.

[First posted 30 August 2010]