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Strangers in a Familiar Land: Orang Seletar Identities at Kampung Simpang Arang



This ethnography broadens these ideas, focusing on how the Orang Seletar negotiate their liminal place in the world and how their identity thus arises from a complex and holistic multiplexity. Rather than being purely victims of forces beyond their control, the Orang Seletar in Kampung Simpang Arang are charting rapidly changing identities in convergence and divergence to exterior forces.


The Orang Seletar are administratively classified as Orang Asli (Endicott, 2016), or native peoples, by Malaysia. They are also part of the Orang Laut (Zainuddin, 2012), or people of the sea.


To Come of Age

Empat lima?” I ask my friend Ping Ping, pointing up four fingers. Adif shouts from across the cracked concrete, raising his racquet, “Enam!”. We are playing badminton, and Adif’s team is winning. Their score is six. Ping Ping and I, we are at four. Ping Ping and Adif are Orang Seletar children, who attend the small local school within the village. One would not see them studying or doing homework, however. Their playtime stretches into the wee hours of the morning. After this match, they invite me to ride with them on their bicycles. They are barefoot. Adif continues to gloat that he bested me.


Habitus is repeated cultural practice, enforced socially through rituals (Mauss, 1973). For Orang Seletar children, their identities change from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and so do their rituals. As we are riding, a loud roar erupts behind us, as Isak and two of his friends come tailgating us with their motorbikes. They are not bullying us, but desire to join us. Switching on their headlights, they guide the way, illuminating the pitch-black and narrow backstreets of the village. We make a loop, and Isak invites me to ride pillion with him. Isak and his friends wear shoes. I spend about fifteen minutes with my arms wrapped around his waist.


Motorcycle rides are a ritual for Kampung Simpang Arang adolescent males. They are favored over automobiles due to their agility on the narrower roads leading up to the village, and their ability to traverse the muddy passages winding through the nearby plantations. Isak is only 16 years of age, yet he will not ride a bicycle again, for he has graduated beyond that childhood toy. So, he points at mine and laughs. However, like Adif, he is eager for competition. On my ride with him he goes full throttle. His friends follow, and they talk while riding. It is rare for these youths to ride alone, and usually they will pick up a friend as a passenger. Riding is thus a social and recreational ritual that facilitates bonding and competition among peers. For some, this is how they find romance: they offer to take their partner on a joyride.



A typical house in the village. A dog sleeps outside. Clothes drape over a motorcycle, and in the foreground lies the charred remnants of a heap of refuse.


For the adults, motorcycles become more vehicles of utility. They are the primary means of transport upon which they hawk their wares by the roadsides of Gelang Petah. Given that they might already spend numerous hours away from their village, sometimes returning late at night, they do not go on joyrides as often. Instead, it is their children who take over the same bikes at night, practicing their skills before they legally obtain a license.



Fleets of motorcycles are usually parked outside of communal areas. They serve as transport and recreation for many Orang Seletar.


People of the Sea

Just a few generations ago, the Orang Seletar were foragers and hunter-gatherers (Ali, 2002), adopting largely self-sufficient lifestyles (Endicott, 2016). They would live on the seas and rivers, sailing from one settlement to another, across the maritime borders of present-day countries. In doing so, they viewed the open sea as their “land” (Chou, 2016).


Their affinity with motorcycles today stands in stark contrast to their ancestor’s affinity with the sampan, or wooden boat. The Orang Laut of Singapore were skilled at crafting sampans with sails that could outclass the speed of western ships two centuries ago (Gibson-Hill, 1952). The absence of sails in sampans docked at the small jetty at Kampung Simpang Arang today belie the maritime expertise of the Orang Seletar generations ago and indicate that their voyages are very truncated compared to their forebears.


Aidil, a fisherman, does not venture far beyond the Johor Straits. Moreover, he does so not in a traditional sampan, but in a motorized boat. Despite this shift, Orang Seletar children grow up learning how to swim rom an early age. Frolicking nude in the river water in the late afternoon is an activity enjoyed by numerous children, some of whom are as young as three, suggesting that their ties to the water are by no means diminished.


A Future on Land


The Orang Seletar, being “Bumiputera” (Andaya, 2002), are ostensibly given land rights as native inhabitants. However, increasingly the Malays have positioned themselves as the native people Malaysia and have the largest say towards land development (Idrus, 2022). Indigenous Orang Asli have little voice in Malaysian politics (Nah, 2006).


Developments on the surrounding land, such as the golf course east of the village river, and a housing estate at the old road leading to the village (Assignment 1), were constructed without dialogue with the villagers.


Developments on the surrounding land, such as the golf course east of the village river, and a housing estate at the old road leading to the village (Assignment 1), were constructed without dialogue with the villagers.


In Kuala Kubu Bahru, Selangor, I spoke with Bai, an Orang Asli tour guide for white water rafting. He shared that it was the responsibility of the Asli to helm these eco-tours and educate tourists on the importance of preserving nature, as opposed to the developmental projects that threaten to ruin its beauty. Interestingly, Kampung Simpang Arang reveals a different narrative. Whilst the site of the village is rustic, it is involved in the manufacturing of charcoal from the smoking of wood that is chopped down from the surrounding area. Additionally, there is a fish farm that is Orang Seletar owned directly adjacent to the village.



Wood is transported from the surrounding areas to be smoked at the storehouses and kilns in the village interior.


Sather (2006) asserts that the Orang Laut cannot be classified as pure hunter-gatherers for they practice pastoral and agrarian practices too. Kampung Simpang Arang today is an example of how different “stages” of society exist within the same people.


Multiplex Identities

Globalisation has led to unprecedented contact between numerous groups of humans across the planet (Eriksen, 2017). The Orang Seletar are not immune to this trend, for they are exposed to the global community with the advent of new communications and technology.


As I walked past one of the houses, an Orang Seletar family sat out on the porch with an iPad connected to a sound system, playing a children’s movie. Ah Qiang, Isak and Aidil have Instagram accounts, on which they are avid consumers of memes, and they asked me if I use TikTok. They are by no means the only users, for many in the village are also connected to each other on social media in the digital sphere.


As we were comparing sunglasses while going to eat Nasi Lemak breakfast together, Aidil asked which of ours looked more like the pair Tom Cruise wore in Top Gun. He brought this up as Ah Qiang played a TikTok which had the movie’s theme tune as a background. According to Appadurai’s Global Cultural Flows (1990), this would amount to the transmission of ideas, influencing human lives.


Indeed, the Orang Seletar are attuned to elements of popular culture. Rosaldo asserts that individuals might adopt multiple forms of identification, with identities spanning across racial or cultural groups (1981). This means they may belong to multiple communities simultaneously. Aidil curates his Instagram profile to showcase himself out in the sea. He presents himself as a fisherman, posing with his catches in one post, and as a boat racer in another, speeding across the waves on a motor speedboat. Ah Qiang, on the other hand, is a connoisseur of memes, creating his own humorous captioned pictures and posting them to his account.


Wealth and Status


The liminal identities of the Orang Seletar are also expressed in their consumption of material goods. Malaysia is included among the periphery nations in world systems theory (Chase-Dunn & Grimes, 1995; Chase-Dunn, Kawano & Brewer, 2000). This means it is used as a hinterlands for wealthier nations. However, economic purchasing power trickles down to some in the village more than others, resulting in material inequality.


Previously, I explored the surrounding land which been claimed by multinational corporations for plantations and quarries who employ migrant workers. These migrant workers often resupply at the village provision shops. The provision shop is owned by Ah Kuang’s brother, Aidil. It employs Ah Qiang, a nephew of Ah Kuang, as the shopkeeper.


A teenage Ah Qiang studied at boarding school instead of the small local school. As such, he speaks English. I had the privilege of staying overnight as a friend in his house. Perhaps the reason why he keeps goldfish is due to him being one-eighth Chinese, or his interactions with the lorry drivers who restock seafood for the restaurant his family owns. In some Chinese cultures, keeping goldfishes or koi symbolizes prosperity.

I asked Ah Qiang as to why he decided to return to the village. He shared that he was planning on working in the city, yet he missed the peacefulness and camaraderie of the village and elected to return. Moreover, he enjoys a stable life as the shopkeeper of the provision shop. At peak hours, villagers will buy essential items such as food and luxuries like cigarettes and alcohol from the little shop.


Whilst these customers are friendly with Ah Qiang, his family, due to owning all these businesses, is visibly wealthier. I did notice that Ah Qiang’s family tended to associate less with those on the peripheries of the village, whose houses seemed shabbier, suggesting some form of social stratification.


Subsistence societies rely more on bartering and trust (Graeber, 2011), and were largely content with their lifestyles (Sahlins, 2006). The economy of goods and uneven distribution of wealth has resulted in a centralisation of power in the village for those who are wealthier, suggesting that the global economy and capitalist worldview has become ingrained in the village and that they might be moving away from subsistence strategies. However, for now it is heartening to see that these groups remain friendly and interpersonal.


It is uncertain whether any disembeddedness (Polyani, 1944) might come to afflict the community if they adopt more materialistic views: Perched upon the top of a hill, in a kind of domineering glory, is an unfinished home, larger than all others, with Greek style pillars. I was unable to ascertain their significance, but a number of homes that appeared to be in better condition than others had these same pillars incorporated into their construction. They could possibly be a desirable feature for houses symbolizing success.


Greek pillars as possible wealth indicators in Kampung Simpang Arang.


Notes on an Orang Selerar Cockfight

Another of Ah Kuang’s nephews has an interesting hobby, and it occupies the entirety of his backyard. He has been breeding fighting cockerels for a number of years after purchasing a breeding pair. This is against the law in Malaysia.



Ah Kuang's nephew, with one of his fighting cockerels.


He informs me that he cares for the cockerels a lot, and selects the largest ones for breeding. The fighting cockerels are significantly larger than regular cockerels, which roam the village freely. Occasionally, some people will buy the cockerels after a fight. Strength is viewed as of greatest importance. A competitor’s cockerel must be as strong as possible in order to defeat their opponent.


In many ways, this is similar to Clifford Geertz’s study on Balinese cockfights, where the cockerel serves as an extension of masculine ego (1972). It is notable too, then, that the Orang Seletar who engage in these games are all men.


The cockerels are not only valued for strength, but also beauty. Ah Qiang’s nephew painstaking preens each cockerel and feeds them daily. He also transfers them from cages in the grass to individual chicken coops for the night. They are trained to be as aggressive as possible in mock fights.


Dogs, Malayness, and Government

Mu Zheng, daughter of Ah Qiang, keeps the only purebred dog, a toy poodle. This same dog is the sole dog allowed to sleep inside. The other dogs roaming the village are communal strays, though some are chained at patios during the night or when it is raining. In Islam, the handling of dogs, especially their bodily fluid, is considered taboo. In Assignment 1, I speculated that the quantity of dogs could be a reason for the marginalisation of the village. A large portion of the village is Islam, up to forty percent, yet these families too do not shy away from dogs and are quite bold in handling them unlike other Malays. This idea that the Orang Seletar violate notions of Malayness could be imposed by figures of authority.



Kampung Simpang Arang street view. The large tubs on right are for storing seafood, keeping it alive and fresh, in these portable reservoirs of seawater.


During the covid pandemic, Aidil tells me, the government sent police, who would enter the village and patrol to ensure that the villagers were staying indoors and not mixing, which was not done in the neighboring Gelang Petah towns. He scoffs at this.


Conclusion

Paternalistic views promote the idea that indigenous peoples require protection and are victims against various forces (Kuper, 1988). The reality at Kampung Simpang Arang is much more complex, with forces acting within and without, with the Orang Seletar identity being influenced by and potentially influencing them.


It is undeniable, however, that influences of greater power might be seen as harming the Orang Seletar way of life, as it were. For instance, large scale plantations, often backed by government, mistakenly argue that their practices directly benefit the Orang Asli (Malaysian Oil Palm Council, 2015). The Malaysian government needs to undertake greater effort in dialoguing with the Orang Asli, inclusive of the Orang Seletar, from a platform of empathy and shareholding, rather than one of sympathy and othering. If the Orang Seletar are truly indigenous, their identities, despite differences to the majority, must be respected and their views need to be empowered as having equal status.

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