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When Orang Asli cultural traditions are reduced to mere artefacts

The static preservation in a small gallery of indigenous cultures is a poor substitute for cultures that should be lived and enjoyed and evolve

Orang Asli protesters seek to protect their livelihoods and cultural heritage

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In what seemed like an attempt to appease angry and horrified Orang Asli communities who opposed a planned construction of the Nenggeri hydroelectric dam in Gua Musang, Kelantan, Tenaga Nasional general manager for Kelantan and Terengganu Mustaphakamal Yaakob reportedly stated that the electric utility company would build a mini gallery in which salvaged indigenous cultural artefacts from the affected areas would be collected and displayed for public viewing.

The RM5bn dam project, which is expected to cater to the renewable energy needs of the peninsular Malaysians beginning 2027, would span 18 villages and affect about 1,185 residents because parts of their ancestral land would then be submerged.

Mustaphakamal added his company plans to preserve artefacts and archaeological materials that may be found in 13 cave areas around the project site.

However, it is feared that the seeming generosity of the company to preserve the Orang Asli’s cultural objects to compensate for the loss – no, destruction – of their ancestral land, lived traditions and livelihoods may tempt others, such as developers, to exploit this strategy to pursue their own vested interests. In other words, it might make the displacement of indigenous communities shrewdly creative as a result.

The Orang Asli, as a collective, have had their ancestral land encroached on by outsiders many times in the past in Kelantan and elsewhere in the peninsula.

Indeed, the static preservation in a small gallery of the indigenous cultures in this manner is a poor substitute for cultures that should be lived and enjoyed and evolve over time.

If anything, such an initiative could be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as mere tokenism aimed at giving a feel-good impulse to the Orang Asli affected by the displacement.

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That is why the Orang Asli have good reason to be concerned about the gigantic project that would eventually inundate a large part of their ancestral land and jeopardise the sustenance of their cultural traditions and livelihoods, especially when these are defined by the land they inhabit and roam.

Furthermore, they should have the right to self-determination, as a people in a democratic society.

Similarly, people outside of the indigenous communities are equally concerned, as they fear for the latter’s traditions and sustainable existence and the as environmental degradation that would contribute to climate change in the long run, much to the chagrin of Energy and Natural Resources Minister Takiyuddin Hassan, who takes exception to the concern and involvement of “outsiders”.

As stakeholders, the Orang Asli communities concerned should be consulted before any project is drawn up and implemented so that they are well informed of the consequences and not affected adversely or unfairly.

To displace the Orang Asli from their own land is as bad as uprooting, say, a self-sustaining fishing community to make way for so-called development. It is in such a context that these communities are often negatively cast as anti-development elements.

If having a gallery is indeed felt necessary under certain circumstances, it is hoped that care and respect for the Orang Asli artefacts and their traditions and beliefs would guide the management of the outfit, particularly when it involves culturally sensitive objects.

The proposed gallery is obviously more than a mere collection or repository of artefacts and archaeological finds. It should be a viewpoint of the indigenous communities concerned.

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Without proper care and adequate knowledge of indigenous traditions, as shown by the experience of certain countries, the indigenous cultures that are displayed in galleries and museums could be misrepresented and misunderstood, and be unjust to the indigenous communities.

In particular, the transferring of cultural artefacts from their original location to the gallery clearly involves a process of de-contextualisation, as they are finally kept in an alien and cold brick-and-mortar room.

An object that is considered sacred, for instance, would need to be carefully placed in relation to certain other objects so that the arrangement comes close to what it was in the original setting while preserving as much as possible its embedded meaning. Inappropriate physical arrangements of artefacts could create a misunderstanding or be deemed a sacrilege.

Given such cultural complexities, it is imperative that the Orang Asli communities themselves play a major role in helping to manage the gallery to avoid unwarranted cultural distortions that would hurt the collective dignity of the communities.

The Orang Asli are a living collective and culture, and should be treated as such. – The Malaysian Insight

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The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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