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Change or be changed – Malaysia’s Orang Asli

April 22, 2009

Minority or ethnic tourism is a popular business in developing countries. Tourists are given a chance to experience something different, to overnight in a minority village, to learn about disappearing traditions, and to capture a sense of what it must be like to live there.

Romantic notions of tribal life far removed from the reality. Progress brings tourism and tourism leads change. Whether these minorities want it or not; they are caught up in the snowball. SE Asia is full of ethnic tribes, highland and lowland groups of different origin, descendants, and history. Some groups have remained out of reach due to location and terrain, while others have easily transformed their lifestyle into something new.

Adaptability to change depends on the people affected. Change can be perceived as a mix of good and bad; clean water, basic health care, education, roads, buses, tourists, hotels, loss in habitat and hunting grounds.

Thinking about the impact of change, I hunted around in my mind for some insightful words to write in this post.

Peter Senge has beaten me to it:

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed

Orang Asli

Nestled on a ridge between the tourist town of Tanah Rata and the area’s tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands, sits a small village of thatched huts, dogs barking and cheeky children. Where adults and elders sit indoors watching time go by, and tourists come on a daily basis to observe and catch a glimpse of traditional life; before it changes.

by Cate

by Cate

The village is set in a landscape city people long dream about. Undisturbed panoramic views filled with lush vegetation and wildlife, A simplistic lifestyle cellphone-less and zero pollution. Yet turn around from this view and progress is staring at you in the way of asphalt and double lanes with traffic.

With the arrival of the road construction crew some time ago,  the Orang Asli were slowing saying goodbye to their traditional way of life, folklore, and animism. Christianity has also reached this village, a means of saving those who need it during this time of change.

by Cate

by Cate

Resisting change

Still the children play, and torment the tourists, older youth hide themselves and women are rarely seen outdoors. Orang Asli have a story to tell, a story of movement from huts to houses, from villages to cities: back to huts. An unwilling movement, a means of appeasing government policy, without accomplishing anything. For many of the Orang Asli, as much as they embraced change, the desire to be in their homeland, gave them the resistance needed to fight back, peacefully. Life on the ridge has not gone back to its original way, but the elders have returned, the youth have remained, all wishing to keep their identity unique.

Traditions play a valuable part in the tribe’s life: blowpipes for hunting, bamboo for everything, songs accompanying dances. Some traditions have disappeared, sunken into the ground dormant for a generation or two, ready to be watered and nurtured in time.

by Cate

by Cate

Progress continues bringing tourists, eagerly attempting to interact, often unware of the impact they have on traditional ways of life.

Caffeinated Traveller

  1. April 24, 2009 8:21 am

    Wonderful write-up! And the pictures are captivating!

    Back in secondary school in Singapore, we had a geography lesson on the Orang Asli’s agricultural methods and how they lived.

    To witness the clash between traditional values and modern infrastructure is sometimes heartbreaking. I saw a documentary on how a man who grew up in a village, broke down and cried because he didn’t understand what ‘city living’ was all about and his children were moving to the cities. He prayed to his ancesters to help him understand what is this ‘culture’ that his children always talked about because he didn’t want his children to leave the village. It was completely heart wrenching.

    Thank you for sharing this story.


  2. April 25, 2009 8:34 am

    I usually find myself asking the question of whether our minorities in the Philippines should adapt to change. Indeed, some places are attractive to both local and foreign tourists because it retains its traditions. But then again, when I look at our neighbors in the Asian region I can’t help but admire at how they have retained their cultural identity yet cope with the modern trends. I do think ethnicity should still be around for future generations to appreciate and learn from. Thanks for sharing.

  3. April 25, 2009 1:20 pm

    Cheryl – that story is heartbreaking. I can only image the pain. It took me a while to figure out this story, how to write it without downgrading people on both sides. I’m glad it worked out and you enjoyed reading it.

    Janecajuuiran – true, to fit in with progress and still retain your cultural identify is hard. But then I think having a strong cultural base and firmly respected traditions helps. It is important to keep their identities, not to compare themselves with the perceived “norm”. Thanks for following and your comments.

  4. dr jadswinder permalink
    May 1, 2009 6:54 am

    change or be changed is a common saying i think people should change

    • May 2, 2009 8:54 am

      ? don’t really understand your comment. Perhaps you could elaborate here. Thanks

  5. May 6, 2009 1:22 pm

    Stephen from
    Your site is brilliant, you are a real light, I can feel so much care and love…I believe in the spiritual evolution of people, the more people are in the world of matter the more they loose their centerdness and the awareness of their wonderful inner life. Traditions are beautiful if they don’t prevent people from exploring other ways. Sometimes people are attracted to something they feel a lot for but their community won’t allow it because of the fear of change. I see it in coaching, some have to first ask people around their opinion and when people show doubts then their decision is made: run away…


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