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Orang Asli of Johor – a personal encounter PDF Print E-mail
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History and Tradition
Friday, 15 October 2010 16:10

Orang Asli of Johor – a personal encounter

The name Orang Asli comes from the Arabic “asali” which means ‘original’. The indigenous people

of the Malay Peninsula are not a homogenous group as there are 19 distinct groups identified by

anthropologists. Of these, the smallest group known as the Semang (3%) is thought to have

inhabited the land for 25,000 years as foragers.

Today there are an estimated 200,000 Orang Asli in West Malaysia. Once nomadic foragers, they

are now in settlements but always when the different seasons come round, they have not lost the

deep knowledge of the jungle and can go in to harvest the traditional bounty that is fast

disappearing with logging and development which includes the highways and golf courses.

The Orang Asli of Johor are from the classification of Aboriginal Malays, and there are Orang Kanaq

on the East Coast, the Jakun in the north of Johor, and the Orang Seletar and Orang Kuala of the

west and central coasts. Possibly between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago, the southern groups traded

with the sea-faring people from Borneo and the Indonesian islands. Some of these Orang Asli who

traded with Austronesian-speakers assimilated with them, hence the term Early Malays.

There are 29 settlements of the Orang Asli in Johor, in Kota Tinggi, Endau, JB, Gelang Patah, Labis,

Muar, Bekok Segamat, Tangkak, Pagoh, and Kahang. We have a little contact with the Orang Seletar

at Kampong Simpang Arang, found on the road between Gelang Patah town and Leisure Farm.

The location is easy to find because a sign clearly points it out. You drive through a palm oil estate and,

if lucky that day, will encounter a herd of cows, a monitor lizard, blue kingfishers and umpteen birds.

Then as you enter the gate the road is lined with durian, rambutan, duku and other fruit trees. The

headman is Tok, whose house is on the right as soon as you enter the settlement.

They are a wonderfully hospitable and cheerful people but plagued with the problem of poverty

indicated by a lack of proper garbage disposal, limited electricity and water and rampant head lice.

Yet there are signs of what a steady job can buy – motor bikes and an occasional car.

The traditional practices are well hidden if still there, as many of the Orang Asli are now Muslim,

and there are Christians and Buddhists too. They still retain their language and all speak Malay.

There is inter-marriage with some Chinese.

They are mainly fisher folk and the tributary that runs along one part of the village has their boats,

which go out for the fish daily. Shellfish, prawns and crabs are also caught – this is sold daily to

people who come by in the evening to buy the catch. The gorgeous kiddies are water babies and

have a ball leaping into the water and swimming.

We occasionally take in clothes, toys and foodstuff and are overwhelmed and overrun by the

children. Should you want to do this too, consult first with Tok. Most popular gifts are balls, puzzles,

school shoes & running shoes also sandals (for age 2 – 16), strong T-shirts and pants.

One memorable time we helped organize a Sports Day, complete with games for all ages, football

games – the highlight was a match with a visiting team. But the true success was a dress-up game,

open only to the women. Oh the cheating, screaming and deliberate flaunting of rules! Prizes were

mostly edible: bags of rice, big tins of biscuits and such. It was then followed by a dinner for 500.

As a Singaporean I itched to organize them into hygiene and enterprise. But it

simply Won’t Do to barge in. You need patience and specialised training for this.

There is so much potential in the place to run river cruises, make and sell handicraft,

run a restaurant and make an authentic nature ramble. Anyone out there

interested to try?


This village at Kampong Simpang Arang – or perhaps we have not penetrated

beyond the preliminaries – does not seem to practise the dream time awareness

that the traditional Orang Asli share with the aboriginals of Australia.

Further reading on the Orang Asli may be found on the internet. Some of the

information in this post is from the site for the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns also

found on the internet at:




Last Updated on Monday, 05 September 2011 02:19