Friday, October 19, 2012


Semangs just like the negarito Aetas of Philippines, Andamaneses of India and other black tribes in Asia today are the remnants of the Homo Sapiens of African origin (blacks), who migrated out of Africa from about 80,000 to 70,000 years ago.  The Africans migrated along the coast of Arabia to West Asia to India; a branch continued across the major islands off Asia -- Indonesia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea -- and some as far as Australia, marking the first major sea crossing of humans; a branch continued along the coast of Asia to West Asia to China; from China a branch went westward into Central Asia, and then some southward into Southeast Asia, particularly India, while a branch continued westward into Europe, these together forming the Indo-European group and then the last major group went from China across the Bering Straight into North America and from there some continued into South America.
              Orang Asli/Semang (aborigines) preparing a meal - baking rice/tapioca root in bamboo tubes.

 According to Carey (1976), the Semang are the oldest to have been in the Peninsular Malaysia for at least 25,000 years.The Semang are also known as the Northern Aslian or ( Lowland Semang tribes are also known as Sakai, although this term is considered to be derogatory by the Semang people) and are commonly found in northern part of Peninsular Malaysia. They are concentrated in the highlands of Kelantan, Terengganu and the northern regions of Perak, Kedah and Pahang. They are broadly classified under the sub-divisions of western and eastern groups. They  comprises six different sub-groups namely: (i) the Kensiu.
                                    Semang people

people (Northeast of Kedah), (ii) Kintak (Kedah-Perak border), (iii) Jahai (Northeast Perak and West Kelantan), (iv) Lanoh (North-central Perak), (v) Mendriq (Southeast Kelantan), and (vi) Bateq (Northwest of Terengganu, Northeast Pahang  and South Kelantan). The Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) on the other hand, classifies the Semang under the Negrito sub-group of Orang Asli. 

                                           Semang (Bateq) people crossing a river

The endangered indigenous Semang group of Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia comprises of only 3.2 per cent of the Orang Asli population (JHEOA (1994)). Statistics by JHEOA in 2008 shows that the total number of the population has decreased to 2.6 per cent.Some of this group of Orang asli has suffered the fate of physical, cultural and language extinction over the last century.  According to Wazir Jahan Karim (2001), some of this group of Orang asli have experienced a demographic crisis and disappear while the others disperse into smaller group and eventually assimilated with Malay or other Orang Asli communities.

                    Native Semang boy of Malaysia

The word Semang is thought to be derived from the Khmer term meaning “debt slave”.  The Semang are sometimes referred to as „Negritos‟ due to their physical characteristics.  According to Carey (1976) the Negritos („little Negroes‟) are generally physically small in stature (1.5 metres or less), dark-skinned (varying form from a dark copper to black), typically wooly or freezy hair, and with broad noses, round eyes and low cheekbones. These various Orang Asli subgroups are said to be descendants of the earliest  known inhabitants who occupied the Malaysian Peninsular before the establishment of the Malay kingdom. They are thought to be related to other Negritos, such as the natives of the  Andaman Islands in the bay of Bengal (Zide and pandaya (1989) and the Aetas of the Philippines.
                                     Orang Asli (Semang) people of Malaysia

Until recently, the Semang have been traditional nomadic hunters, moving from place to place with the seasons in search of food, water, and grazing land.  They are ethnologically described as nomadic hunter-gatherers. They use blowguns to hunt small game,and gather wild roots and fruits. The Semang still possess some aspects of a nomadic life, even though they are beginning to settle in more permanent dwellings. 
Most Semang people live in small Malay-style bamboo and thatch houses.  Nowadays 
most Semang are permanently settled in resettlement villages established by the Malaysian government. They inhabit the lowlands and forested foothills of the northen regions of Peninsular Malaysia.
                                  SEMANG OF KUALA KENERING, ULU PERAK

Their language is Semang, a Mon-Khmer language. Most of the vocabulary used in languages spoken by the Semang are originated to a common proto-Aslian and ultimately proto-Mon-Khmer and proto-Autroasiatic vocabulary. Many Semang words resemble words found in Mon-khmer languages of Vietnamese, Khmer and Mon as well as Austroasiatic of Munda languages of India. The native inherited words of Semang consists of words which belong to basic semantic categories. Beside that, there are evidence to suggest substantial borrowing of words among other Aslian languages (Kensu, Kintaq, Lanoh, Mendriq, bateq and Semoq Beri). 
In addition, there are also inter-borrowing from other non-Aslian  language like Malay ((Blagden (1906), Schebesta (1928), Benjamin (1977), Bauer (1991)). Anothet source of loan is Thai especially among the Kensiu of northen Peninsular (Bauer, 1991).

                         Semang people

Burenhault (2001) states that one of the most notable linguistics features of the Semang is their high degree of idiolectal change and variation. This is particularly due to their mobile lifestyle and intermarriage among other Aslian groups. As Benjamin (1997, p 18) noted the Semang has unusually high degree of idiolectal change and „consciously  changed their way of speaking during their lives, depending on whom they married and they they wandered to‟. Bishop and Paterson (1993) claim that they came upon one Semang settlement of southern Thailand whereby six languages or dialects were used among 13 adults present during their study. 
 Semang (Jahai) tribe woman of Malaysia

The  traditional  religious beliefs of the Semang are complex. They include many different gods. Most of the Semang tribes  are animistic. They believe that non-human objects have spirits. Many important events in their lives such as birth, illness, death and agricultural rituals have much animistic symbolism. Their priests practice magic, foresee the future, and cure illness. They would use Capnomancy (divination by smoke) to determine whether a camp is safe for the night. Their priests are said to be “shaman” in that they are someone who acts as a medium between the visible world and an invisible spirit world. The Semang bury their dead simply, and place food and drink in the grave.
                                          Semang of Perak

 A waistcloth for the men, made of tree bark hammered out with a wooden mallet from the bark of the terap, a species of wild bread-fruit tree, and a short petticoat of the same for the women, is the only dress worn; many go naked.
                                         Semang woman with native facial marks

Tattooing, or rather scarring, is practised. They draw the finely serrated edge of a sugarcane leaf across the skin and rub in charcoal powder.
                        Semang kid playing

One of the unique aspect of Semang musical instruments is the  Semang  nose flute called Pensol. This is a very well crafted nose flute from the Semang people of Central Malaysia. The pensol is a  very thin and quiet instrument. It is unique from other Malaysian nose flutes, in that the last hole is very close to the end of the  instrument thereby making the first interval a minor second. Pensol are very rare instruments, and this one was given as a gift to Randy Raine-Reusch in 1989 at a festival of traditional music in Malaysia. On festive occasions, there is song and dance, both sexes decorating themselves with leaves.
                               Semang people washing their dish

The Semang sub group of Orang Asli are regarded as facing the danger of extinction due to its smallest number of population compared to other sub-groups of Orang Asli. Some sub-groups of the population are undergoing drastic transmormation of their life due to modernization process putting their language and culture in imminent endangerment. A case in point is the Kensiu community of Baling, in the northeastern part of the state of kedah.

                                          Semang tribe man

The Semang Kensiu of Lubuk Legong, Baling
The Semang Kensiu are found in the north east of the state of Kedah. Their total population in 2008 was 224. Their main settlement area is located in the Baling district of Kedah. They live at the permanent Orang Asli settlement area of Lubuk Legong in the sub-district of Siong, 12 km from the town of Baling. Known as Kampung Baru Siong, it is a small village which contains approximately 46 houses (built by JHEOA), a school and a community hall. 
                             Kensiu girl of Semang people

This is the only Orang Asli settlement in the state of Kedah. The settlement area is equipped with electric supplies and surrounded by Malay villages. The term Kensiu is used for convenient sake to refer to the Malaysian Orang Asli (the Kedah‟s Kensiu) whilst Kensiw refers to the Northern Aslian people of Thailand. 
The Kensiu are related to the Kensiw in Yala Province, Southern Thailand and crossborder movement is frequent. 
The Kensiu community in this study went through a series of environmental changes throughout their lives. They adopted a normadic lifestyle before they were moved to the settlement area of Lubok Legong.  Asmah Hj Omar (1964) noted that their houses were previously built by using bamboo and roof made of sago palm, typical of Orang Asli traditional houses. Their economic activities revolved around gathering forest products. In 1967 the Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) built pattern settlement  consisting of two rows of houses. 

                          "Kensiu Negritos" Sungai Pau, Sik, Kedah, Malaysia.

In 1972, they were increased to 25 houses and 14 year later about 44 houses were built accommodating 44 families. Most of the houses are built using wood with zinc roof resembling typical Malay houses. At present there is evidence of more modern houses being built by the community in the settlement area of Lubuk Legong using concrete materials. Attempts made by the government to mordenise the Kensiu have caused drastic changes not only to their traditional lifestyle and values  but also their language. These changes in their environment have resulted in a change of their lexical items and their everyday language choice.

BATEQ TRIBE (Sub-group of Semang people)

Introduction / History

                                         Bateq (semang) woman picking lice from her daughters hair

The Bateq (also spelled Batiq or Batek) are one of the nineteen Orang Asli people groups of Peninsular Malaysia. They are part of the Semang (officially called Negrito) subgroup. When asked who they are, Bateq is what they will usually answer. The Bateq ("people of our group") are a people with little accounting of their history. They are nomadic foraging people who have a very low literacy rate and almost no formal tradition of story telling.
                                      Bateq tribe`s girl of Malaysia

Their settlements are located in the Kuala Krai district of Kelantan, the Besut district of Terengganu, and the Jerantut and Kuala Lipis districts of Pahang.
Semang (Bateq) tribe woman of Malaysia and her child
What are their lives like?
Traditionally, the Bateq lived in the rain forest in small, nomadic groups. They survive on a combination of hunting and gathering wild foods and trading forest products such as rattan and resinous wood for food, tobacco, and manufactured goods. Surrounded by a household of plastic ware and steel containers, the Bateq of today are no longer the loincloth-clad people of years gone by. The men's loincloths of pounded bark have given way to shirts and shorts or sarongs, and sometimes long trousers. Blouses and sarongs have replaced the women's short kilt and strands of fungus which where made from a waist-string of the same material.

Much of the Bateq's traditionally occupied jungle homeland in Kelantan has been destroyed either by unchecked development of logging activities or logging by the Federal and State governments. The alternative location provided for the Batek is a thousand-acre patch of land surrounding Post Lebir, a government-sponsored settlement on the Middle Lebir River.
                                           Bateq woman with her baby in a sling

The vast majority of the Bateq have fled into the nearby National Park (Taman Negara), which straddles the Kelantan-Pahang border. Some settled along the northern border of the National Park and others withdrew into the interior of the Park to continue their traditional way of life by foraging and trading. Still others have joined the Bateq living near the Park in Pahang where they make their living by trade and wage labor.

                                         Bateq woman and her child

Many Bateq remain quite nomadic. Moving between three villages every six months, crops (like tapioca, yams, and groundnuts) are cultivated, harvested and replanted. Tending to crops is the job of women; the men hunt mouse deer, monkeys, gibbons, birds, and harvest bamboo.

What are their beliefs?
Most of the Bateq who have settled down in permanent villages have converted to Islam. Generally, Bateq are animists who shun their own people who have converted to Islam. Nevertheless, the worldview of the Bateq is still gripped by animistic beliefs. Some still follow their traditional religion, a complex set of beliefs and practices that connect them to their environment and fellow Bateq through relations with a group of deities that are associated with forces of nature (such as thunder god).

                                                       Orang Asli Bateq tribe children

What are their needs?
Much of the Bateq's jungle homeland has been destroyed by unchecked development and logging activities. Pray that God will provide adequate resources to meet their physical needs. Pray for believers who live near Bateq villages to relate and respond to the needs of the Bateq.

                                            Orang Asli Bateq girl, Kuala Koh

           Bateq (Semang) tribe children

Bateq tribe (semangs) of Malaysia

photo source: mudme

The end of the world for the Orang Asli(Semangs)

In our January End of the World Issue, we go deep into one of the most important stories we've ever done - the plight of the Orang Asli Semang people in Taman Negara. Extinction comes in many forms. For the Negrito people of Taman Negara, a tough new bill threatens their traditional cultural survival. Is it a case of adapt or die? Here's an excerpt from the story:

Under the British, the Orang Asli were seen at best as "noble savages", at worst as wayward children, who could not be trusted to manage their own affairs. If anything, this refusal to grant West Malaysia's indigenous people any autonomy has become worse, rather than better, since independence. Tijah says her people are sick of being told they are backward. "I always tell the authorities to stop thinking we know nothing. We know a lot. We know what we want. For me, they do not treat us like children, they treat us like chickens. They keep us in coops. They feed us, but it's not because they want to look after us, they just want to control us, so it's easier to cut our necks."

The Department of Orang Asli Development (Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli, JAKOA), has an extraordinary amount of control over the lives of its charges. To some, it has perpetuated the British colonial attitude that indigenous people are not advanced enough to make their own decisions. No reasonable person could spend time with the people of Kampung Chang and believe they cannot manage their own affairs. To others, however, they are an institution that can protect indigenous people from the predators of the modern world be that logging, prostitution, AIDS, alcoholism or a myriad of other issues that Fourth World denizens face. In Brazil, the agency tasked with that is the respectedFundacao Nacional do Indio (FUNAI), a world leader in protecting natives’ rights. In the USA, it’s the more controversial Bureau of Indian Affairs(BIA). Most would laud official protection of native peoples but often, the institutions can be as much harm as help to the wards they’re assigned to. NGOs have often come in to address these concerns. 
Semang old lady smoking pipe

Founded in 1989, the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), has done more than any other pressure group to raise awareness of the treatment of the Orang Asli. Its Director, Colin Nicholas, says JAKOA should be abolished, and its various functions handed over to more appropriate agencies. "It [JAKOA] has shown itself to be incompetent of taking care of Orang Asli interests, in terms of education, in terms of development, in terms of health, to the extent that they have slowly had responsibilities taken away and given to the correct people, such as the Ministry of Health, who are more qualified, have more resources, and are more willing to do the job."

One of the ways JAKOA exercises control is by appointing village head men, known as tok batin. This is despite the fact that having a formal leader is alien to most Orang Asli peoples. Traditionally, decisions affecting the whole village were taken communally, with much weight being given to the advice of respected elders.

According to JAKOA's rules, all batins must be male, and be able to speak Malay. This undermines not just the traditional role of elders, many of whom cannot speak Malay, but the respected role of women in Orang Asli culture. Batins are paid a monthly stipend, which gives them conflicting loyalties, torn between trying to represent their community, and wanting to please their paymaster.
A bateq boy plays with swings in his house, a house builds from bamboos

Like the Batek, the people of Kampung Chang have been moved around to suit the whims of others. The village has also suffered repeated land grabs by outsiders. The most serious current threat is a plan to set up a national botanical garden on their land. Their consent has neither been asked for, nor granted. After learning about the plan, they objected so strongly, including filing a police report, that it has been put on hold temporarily.

This has been an added impetus for the villagers to draw up a detailed "community map" of their customary land. Within the territory marked out, details are given about what different areas can and cannot be used for. For example, some places are sacred, others are set aside for hunting, while others still can be cleared to grow crops. Despite such a powerful and long-standing link to their land, the villagers ofKampung Chang face losing it all, if government proposals go ahead.

Under a draft policy outlined in late 2009, each Orang Asli family will be "given" two to six acres of land. Even if every single family receives the full six acres, it would only add up to 72,600 hectares, much less than the 127,700 hectares of land which currently enjoys some degree of recognition (either gazetted, approved for gazetting, or formally applied for gazetting, as Orang Asli reserve land). To put that into some sort of context, this is less than one percent of the total land mass of West Malaysia (13,209,000 hectares). 

The Orang Asli, like most indigenous people, generally view land in communal rather than individual terms. Even if they were happy to split their ancestral land into individual plots, under the draft policy, they will have no right to manage these plots. Instead, the supposed Orang Asli land will be managed by JAKOA. Colin Nicholas explains the importance of customary land. "The Orang Asli, like indigenous communities elsewhere, are communities linked to the land, not just land per se, but a particular piece of land, a particular ecological niche, or geographical space. Other people are interested in land as a commodity, but land for indigenous people is their identity, what makes them who they are."
A group of bateq kids, walks home with their new shirt, new school bag and stationary a gift from FMDC( a group of photographer)visits at Orang Asli settelment, Kuala Koh National Park.

Unlike Malay reserve land, which is heavily protected by law, the Orang Asli are treated as little more than squatters. The law does not require their consent for their land to be taken, nor are they entitled to full compensation. Despite the rules being stacked against them, the Orang Asli have won a number of important legal victories over recent years.

It is significant that JAKOA, the body charged with the welfare of the Orang Asli, has sided against them in every single case that has gone to court. Perhaps to save more embarrassing reversals, if the 2009 policy becomes law, the Orang Asli will be explicitly denied the right to mount legal challenges.

Even though the policy was approved two years ago, it still needs to be ratified by parliament to become law. It seems likely now that the government will not try to put the issue before parliament, until after a national inquiry into indigenous land rights by SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. SUHAKAM is expected to issue its report by this June (2012). 
bateq tribe boys
 According to government statistics, roughly half of all Orang Asli households live in poverty, compared to just 3.8 percent for the nation as a whole. About one in five endure hardcore poverty, while the national average is just 0.7 percent. The statistics are certainly shocking, but they do not tell the whole story.

As both the Batek of Kuala Koh and Semai of Kampung Chang told me, access to their ancestral land makes the difference between grinding poverty and being able to provide for their families. Although they are poor in monetary terms, thanks to nature's bounty, they need far less money than urban Malaysians. Take away their land, and they say their communities will become unsustainable. 
Semang tribe boy
Few doubt that some development is necessary to alleviate poverty levels among the Orang Asli. Improving the healthcare, education and sanitation of their villages are urgent priorities. But Rizuan Tempek, an SPNS coordinator from Kampung Chang, argues that the Orang Asli must be consulted on the development which affects them. "It's not that we are anti-development. They [the government] have to be clear about what kind of development, what kind of benefits they are talking about. They are always saying the Orang Asli must 'get out'. Do you have to 'get out' from the village to be a developed person? As if living in the village as an Orang Asli is a bad thing." 
Read more about the plight of the orang asli in our January End of the World Issue, out now in newsstands. Words by Pat Fama. Photographs by Sze Ning


A yougster from bateq tribe, gives a pose in his house.

Semang (bateq girl

semang girl with her flower decoration

Semang girl swimming

Semang young lady

Semang (bateq) woman carrying firewood

Semang baby boy sleeping on a mat

Smiling semang girl

Semang family



  1. This is a great article and I have wanted to learn more about the Orang Asli/Semang people. Thank you.

    1. Hello Marley. I'm Orang Asli but from Semoq Beri tribe. Good to hear you like to learn about this people. Yes go ahead.

    2. Then came out of Africa during the migration check out the documentary from the Discovery channel called ( The real eve on youtube )its amazing

  2. The Semang are not "African". They are even less so than Europeans.

    1. Sega what do you mean by They are even less so than Europeans?
      Not so clear the message.

    2. Negritos are the most genetically distant group from Africans.

    3. sega heres proof from china

    4. Sega...These people are Africans. Your ignorance is setback to you and those who thinks like you. Accept it or not. Its like saying that whites in Australia are not Europeans or Arabs in north Africa are not Arabs. Continue to live in your ignorance.

  3. This is very informative and well written. Thank you for raising awareness of the struggles of Orang Asli to retain their cultural identity, tradition.

  4. Thank you so much for this article :)

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