On the 18th of April, 2021, I attended the Inaugural Youth Conference surrounding issues faced by our indigenous communities. This Conference was organised by the 14% Project, a club formed out of the collaborative efforts between BAC and Sunway University’s Amnesty clubs.
The Conference was the first platform where Orang Asli representatives and the general public were given a chance to engage with each other, in the absence of the media. From the opening ceremony at 10.30am, right up until the closing of Culture Night at 10.30pm, the audience was given a learning experience like no other. For those of you who missed this rare insight, here are a few highlights!
Shaq Koyok, Orang Asli artist/activist
“Cherish the forest for our future. Without it, indigenous identity will perish”
If you speak of Orang Asli activism, Shaq Koyok’s name will inevitably come up. The activist/artist joined the webinar, wearing a traditional head dress. Smiling from ear to ear, he remarks how this conference is a special day for both indigenous people and youth in Malaysia.
He briefly narrated Orang Asli history and proceeded to present a few pictures of his journey as an artist and activist. Shaq was born in Kuala Langat, Banting and is from the Temuan tribe. His village was a 10 minute walk from the Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve (KLNFR). Shaq used to hunt and fish in the forest.
However, in 2006, they lost half the reserve, thus enlarging the distance between his village and the forest.
His art in 2006 was based on this loss of history, culture and connection to the forest. In fact, most of his work is based on the lives and livelihoods of Orang Asli communities. He explains how it is an easy way to express frustration and at the same time, his ‘visual language’ also encourages Malaysians to feel the effects of destruction.
The Orang Asli artist emphasised how their communities are always in the forefront, protecting our nation’s forests. “Without the indigenous people, we wouldn’t know what has happened to our forests.”
He highlights that Orang Asli communities, like the Temiar people, are fighting to enforce their rights. They want development that’s best on their terms and not the kind which destroys lands and the environment.
“If we keep destroying our forests, we will be left with nothing and this stages a huge threat to indigenous lives,” Shaq morosely said.
Shaq expressed how unfortunate it is that Malaysia does not have the spaces and mediums for indigenous people to share their histories and talents. If such spaces existed, it would be helpful not just to the Orang Asli, but also to Malaysians in general.
The activist/artist ended his segment by encouraging all of us to make a change for a better future.
“Buildings can be built at any time, but no one can build a forest – this is all we have”
This segment was hosted by Klima Action Malaysia. I was most excited for this webinar as it involved Orang Asli representatives from Kampung Busut Baru.
Rosnah and Faizul are community mobilisers and have been extremely vocal against the degazettement of the KLNFR. Their kampung is next to the forest.
A huge portion of the forest is part of the deforestation project. If the government goes through with this, their communities will lose sacred lands.
Rosnah recalled the villagers discussing the degazettement and how they should react to it. They unanimously decided to protest.
Villagers, Tok Batins and the elderly went in bus loads to hand in their memorandum of protest to the relevant ministry. A town hall session was convened last September but till date, they have not received further information.
Rosnah described, with determination, how important the forest is to them and their generations to come.
Faizul, as a youth, relayed how saddening this degazettement proposal was. He decided to take up this role in protecting the forest so his grandchildren will be able to experience the wonders of their lands.
The audience was then given a virtual tour of the forest via a 10-minute video. We learned about trees, plants, animals, Orang Asli traditions, dances, festivities and costumes. It felt like we were physically there, smelling the plants and dancing with the Orang Asli!
Rosnah then brought us back to the inception of Kampung Busut Baru in the early 90s. Through a series of slides, we were taken on a journey culminating in the state of the kampung today.
Due to government orders, in 1993, the community moved from their old kampung to their current settlement. This move was unsettling to their people.
Faizul, then, tells us about the recent fires at the forest, started by an irresponsible group of people. The hot weather caused it to spread across a large area of the forest. He explains how the deadly combo of unsustainable development and global warming will affect even the people living in cities.
As the KLNFR is efficient in absorbing carbon emissions, deforestation could lead to a large volume of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.
Rosnah closed their segment, before the Q&A, by emphasising that, if given the chance, their communities can rehabilitate this forest for the betterment of Malaysians all over.
Cultural Night was meant to bring together an array of talented Orang Asli artists and creators who use their work to shed light on indigenous issues.
It started off with a poetry reading performance by two soulful poets, Kulleh Grasi and Pauline Fan.
This was followed by a Visual Art Gallery and Artist Talk. The works of Orang Asli artists Kendy Mitot, Eleanor Goroh and Brandon Ritom were displayed on a virtual powerpoint. After the audience spent some time viewing their masterpieces, a panel was conducted with the artists.
Kendy, Brandon and Eleanor discussed their backgrounds and respective mediums of art. Each one of them had their own unique way of expressing Orang Asli histories, culture and heritage through art.
Kendy and Brandon utilise paintings and art exhibits whilst Eleanor focuses on traditional beads. She’s also a handtap tattooist and is dabbling in music and cartoon drawings.
The final segment was a film screening of Klinik Ku Hutan – a collaboration between Freedom Film Fest and a group of Orang Asli women. It tells the story of two girls who learn the traditions, teachings and cultures of the Orang Asli community.
The cast and crew consisted of Orang Asli people from various communities.
Cultural Night drew to a close and as I reflected on the day, it became distinctly clear to me that Malaysians needed to make room for Orang Asli spaces so that their people are able to speak out and have their voices heard.
This Conference was the perfect example of such a space. It was truly an incredible experience, listening to the raw, lived realities of Orang Asli people and communities in modern Malaysia.