Selangor International Indigenous Arts Festival (SIIAF) held on 4 and 5 August 2018 hopes to reconnect new generations of Malaysians to true natives. Our intern Nicole Chow shares how the people she met and the stories she uncovered opened her eyes in a weekend.
During the festival, I followed contemporary artist Shaq Koyok on his tour as he gave us insights and an introduction to the indigenous life. As a fourth generation Chinese and newbie in the world of indigenous living, I realized there is so much more to Malaysia’s history and culture than meets the eyes, even to a Malaysian student who is born and bred locally (i.e. me).
Why do I say so? Here are three people whose stories widened my perspectives at the festival:
Emi – founder of social enterprise in Laos, Ma Te Sai
Ma Te Sai is a social enterprise that supports local artisans in the rural areas of Laos. Luang Prabang is a agricultural heaven, producing materials like cotton and silk. Since 2010, Ma Te Sai helped the villagers by bringing their materials and handicrafts to sell in the town center of Luang Prabang.
Originally from Australia, Emi was working in Laos when she saw the gap in the market for more cotton and other handicrafts. Many high-quality Lao products in Vientiane were not represented in Luang Prabang. She started by sending materials like cotton to Vientiane to turn into handicrafts, then transporting them back to Luang Prabang.
This is economically not possible to last, so she sent some village women to Vientiane to learn skills such as sewing and weaving, with the support of a foundation in Malaysia! Soon, it made Ma Te Sai what it is today: a source for materials and products fully made from the village, for the village.
In the agricultural community, men are usually the financial pillar, but they don’t always earn enough. With Ma Te Sai, the women in the village can earn a somewhat steady income from their handiwork, and the money will go towards the health and education of their children. This empowers women by helping them realise their full potential, while changing the family dynamics in their homes. Emi hopes to bring Ma Te Sai to other parts of Southeast Asia, starting with Singapore.
These girls, they are empowered, because of what they can do for their family, some even for their extended families – Emi
Shaq Koyok – contemporary indigenous artist
A member of the Temuan tribe, Shaq is a cheerful and high-spirited contemporary artist who studies the life of indigenous people in Malaysia. His artworks on Orang Asli earned him the Merdeka Award Grant, allowing him to further his studies around Malaysia in preparation for his new book. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book myself!
As our tour guide, Shaq introduced several artisanal handicrafts made of natural materials. He also explained the stories behind the handicrafts, such as how accessories made from crocodile teeth symbolize bravery, and wooden shields were used to “protect one’s head” following the headhunting tradition. In the olden days, headhunting was performed in which a man will fight and chop off the head of the family’s enemy, to show his heroism in order to marry the girl in the family.
This led us to the topic of colonisation. In most Malaysian educational materials, British settlers are portrayed negatively for exploiting and burying cultural elements of Malaysia. According to Shaq, from the viewpoint of Orang Asli, the same colonisers stopped the merciless tradition of headhunting – an act that warrants credit for making Malaysia what it is today.
I want to fill this gap, with what I am good at, that is my art – Shaq Koyok
When asked what sparked his interest to work on indigenous people, apart from being a member of indigenous tribe, he revealed that Malaysia is known as a multicultural nation, but only among the Chinese-Malay-Indian culture.
This creates a gap in the idea of “multicultural Malaysia”, as Orang Asli are also a part of Malaysia in terms of culture and more significantly in history. This is also contributed by the lack of Orang Asli representation in politics, and educational materials. Shaq Koyok aspires to fill this gap through his expertise.
Akiya – indigenous author and writer
Akiya is a member of the indigenous tribe, a storyteller and an author of Malaysia’s indigenous stories. His famous books include Hamba, which talks about the enslavement of Orang Asli, and Kami, an autobiography and the social history of Orang Asli.
Akiya started writing with a big dream: to share the story of the Orang Asli. He revealed that most Orang Asli are hesitant about doing so, maybe because they “tak pandai” (are not educated) or they do not want to participate in the Malaysia discourse. Hence, Akiya writes to tell the history of Malaysia from his eyes.
I want an Orang Asli to write about Orang Asli, I don’t want anyone else to write about us – Akiya
During my long chat with him, Akiya revealed a little from his book Perang Sangkil, a story based on the untold history of Malaysia in the 1800s: the war between Orang Asli and Malays following the enslavement of the indigenous people by the latter, as observed by J.W.W. Birch at that time.
In our history textbooks, Birch was portrayed as the villain who meddled in the affairs of the Malays, showing little respect to their traditions and customs. Little did I realize, in the eyes of the indigenous people, Birch was respected for putting an end to the Malay enslavement of Orang Asli.
In the future, Akiya aspires to have his artworks presented as educational materials, in hopes of shedding light on the Orang Asli’s role in the making of the independent Malaysia we see today.
These stories need to be heard, especially among the Malaysians, about our home country. When asked about SIIAF, he hopes to see more Orang Asli participate in this event, to share their customs and perspectives of Malaysia, and one day make this event, THEIR event.
It is not about judging the past mistakes, it is to acknowledge the history of Malaysia in all perspectives, accept them and reflect on them, and make better decisions for the country in the future – Akiya
Selangor International Indigenous Arts Festival is a platform for urbanites to learn about the indigenous culture and tradition, while giving the Orang Asli exposure to city life.
I personally think the festival did a pretty amazing job in bridging this gap. Through these conversations, I am reminded that there are always different perspectives and worldviews. Needless to say, I had much to take away from this weekend, and I don’t just mean food!