Semai School children in Malaysian Schools

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The economic planners envisage the systematic elimination of the peasant. For short term political reasons, they do not use the word elimination but the word modernization. Modernization entails the disappearance of the small peasant (the majority) and the transformation of the remaining minority into totally different social and economic beings.  Besides offering the children a refuge (except from bullying by non Asli kids and the beatings by teachers that affect all children in Malaysian schools), the asrama reflects a belief that the reason Orang Asli children do not “live up to their potential” in school is Orang Asli “culture.” They and their parents, the story goes, don’t appreciate the importance of schooling (Dentan and Juli 2008; Nettleton 2008).

 Instead, the children get lonely, hate the bullying, take seriously the instances in which they are being told that they are stupid (as Dr. Piyan suggests), and play hooky to help their parents during fruit season (central to Semai agroforestry). Some 80 percent drop out before completing high school (Nettleton 2008). Despite the Malay proverb Di-anjak layu, di-anggur mati (Moved, things wither; transplanted, they die [Brown 1989:130]), the cure is kidnapping. But before discussing that process, common wherever governments undertake “modernization,” we need to look at a seemingly academic question that was once common in introductory anthropology classes: what do people mean when they talk about “culture”?  The closest equivalent word for Malays comes from Arabic adat, found throughout Muslim Asia, although the underlying Malay concept antedates Islam (Wilkinson 1901, I:5–6). Narrowly, adat is “customary law,” more generally the habitual behavior you expect from a particular category of people.

 Thus Malays say, “in the adat of fishermen, fish that get away were really big” (Brown 1989:77). And, like the English word culture, adat connotes “high culture,” in which sense it connects with “proper speech.” A person who is berbahasa, “well-spoken” (i.e., capable of speaking refined Malay), is civilized, unlike “crude” (kasar) people, who “are adat-deficient” (kurang beradat), and don’t have real language but just cluck and squawk like chickens or Orang Asli (Dentan 1997). Adat is central to the traditional Malay sense of self. Kecil dikandung ibu; besar dikandung adat; mati dikandung tanah: “Little, wrapped in mother’s womb; grown up, wrapped in culture; dead, wrapped in earth.” Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat. “Let your child die, not your culture” (Winstedt 1981:44). In this concept, ethnic identity and culture are things to formulate and preserve as is (see, e.g., the many Malay culture-and-etiquette books, such as Asiapac 2003; Alwi 1962; and Noor Aini 1991).  In the 1960s and 1970s, Orang Asli secluded from Malay influence often denied having any adat. “No, that’s a Malay thing. We here, we just get up in the morning, we work, we go to bed, that’s it,” said an old Asli man in 1976. Still, to outsiders, this man’s “culture” is striking enough and reified enough that the people have successfully commercialized it, exhibiting sculptures, inviting tourists to observe elaborate annual rituals, and generally treating it as a “thing” to manipulate.  Ironically, in the 1970s and 1980s Malay officials and advocates of “economic development” decried efforts to preserve customary ways of living as elitist sentimentalism in which Orang Asli “culture” was valuable only as a “museum piece.” Orang Asli themselves asserted that such preservation efforts did not mean that they opposed “development,” only development that involved dispossession without payment and “regroupment” (e.g., Veeranggan 2009) from their native land into smaller and smaller enclaves on which they remained basically squatters (e.g., Center for Orang Asli Concerns n.d.; Dentan et al. 1997; Endicott and Dentan 2004:40–44; Lye 2004:19– 48; Swainson and McGregor 2008; Subramaniam 2008; Zawawi 1996). Since Malaysian politics treats struggles over scarce resources as “ethnic,” Orang Asli have cast their resistance into Platonic ethnic terms, initially by defining themselves as opposite to Malays (Dentan 1975, 1976) and later by recasting the governmental administrative category “Orang Asli” as a grabbag “ethnic identity” based on being “more indigenous” than Malays, thus undermining Malay supremacy (Nicholas 2000).

 The Malay solution is to assimilate Orang Asli into the Malay population. As one old Semai man said, “Once Orang Asli [= ‘indigenous people’] become Malays, then Malays will really be indigenous people.” Along with Islamicization, public schooling mostly works toward that goal (Dentan et al. 1997; Juli, Williams-Hunt, and Dentan 2009; Nicholas 2000).  Struggles over land forced Orang Asli to recast general understandings that underlay local communities’ access to communal resources into terms of adat, in the sense of customary law. International law then allowed them to resist whimsical dispossession by politically more powerful ethnic groups (JOAS 2008). In the area of education, the Orang Asli situation parallels that faced by nineteenth-century German minorities in Buffalo (Dentan’s city): (1) language maintenance was essential to ethnic identity and cultural preservation; (2) knowledge of English [and Malay] essential for achieving prosperity; [but there was ] (3) interethnic debate over the propriety of public institutions encouraging cultural diversity; and (4) prejudice among politicians and school officials. (Gerber 1984:31)  Under international pressure (e.g., UNICEF 2008; Subramaniam 2008), bolstered by Semai nongovernmental organizations such as POASM and Sinui Pai Nanek Sengik (Tijah and Joseph 2003), the Malaysian bureaucracy recently authorized an elementary-level course in the Semai language (Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia 2003) and included mention of Orang Asli in textbooks. Several Orang Asli churches are developing texts, helped by Tim Phillips, a student from the Summer Institute of Linguistics. But official support for these courses is unreliable, and Dr. Piyan (the successful Semai we introduced at the start of this chapter) speaks Chinese at home. Any improvement in the situation Semai schoolchildren face is laudable. But we argue that cultures and identities are not things to be preserved but skills for dealing with the world. They change in response to changing circumstances (Carneiro da Cunha 1995).

In the mid 1970s, when Dentan first visited Btsisi’, a coastal group of Orang Asli, they were in the midst of a spectacular explosion of sculpture in response to outside demands. These new market-oriented sculptures had developed from Btsisi’ traditional disposable sickness figures. But now, apparently, these Semai make sculptures according to strict “classical” (1970s) models. Instead of letting the culture of carving develop autonomously, perceived market forces have reified it, making it into a Platonic thing. A course in one of the more than forty dialects of Semai, which is one of more than a dozen Orang Asli languages, is a valuable token of respect and may help the minority of Semai who are able to enroll in it when and where it is actually offered. But it will not “save” the language in the long run, any more than the Germans immigrants in Buffalo succeeded in preserving German. The appropriate goal, far harder to achieve than token jiggering with the curriculum by the ruling Malays, is for Orang Asli to control their children’s curricula and to educate them in what will then be an Orang Asli way. It is unlikely that that project is even a possibility. The hidden curriculum of schooling in “modern” societies is unlikely to change for the children of poor people, and those who institute and benefit from such programs are unlikely to abandon kidnapping, whatever country they live in.



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