BY EMILY DING
Before the buildings came up, Damansara Perdana used to be home to the Temuan people who tended to durian farms as one way to make a living. We find out how life is like for them after relocating from the land.
The 70-year-old Ismael Chat, headman of the Desa Temuan orang asli settlement in Damansara Perdana just outside Kuala Lumpur, is leading us up a hill, parang in hand to clear a path through the thick forest and the swarms of mosquitoes. “We haven’t come up here for a while,” he says. “We usually come during the durian season, but this year the trees have not borne much fruit. We don’t get as many as we used to.”
Later, we come to a small, overgrown clearing. “Here’s where our old kebun used to be,” he says. He pointed out the durian trees and remnants of the fruit, split open and decayed to black, littering the ground. Through the trees, we can see the gleaming, geometric outlines of high-rises.
Damansara Perdana today is populated by luxury apartments, shopping complexes and office blocks bounded, roughly, by the New Klang Valley Expressway and the Damansara-Puchong Expressway to the west and the east, and the North-South Expressway and The Curve shopping mall to the north and the south. But before Damansara Perdana was Damansara Perdana, it was the Bukit Lanjan orang asli reserve. In place of the high-rises were great swathes of forest hills, upon which the Temuan built their wooden homes and around which every aspect of their lives revolved. Among the trees, they foraged for fruits and produce like rattan, cultivated their own cocoa and palm oil, tapped rubber to eke out a subsistence. They lived off the land as they had learned to from their ancestors, but more than that—they were emotionally connected to it too.
“That’s where their whole history and identity and culture comes from,” says Dr Colin Nicholas, who runs the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC). “That’s why they’re called people of this river valley or that river valley. They didn’t call themselves orang asli, Semai, Jakun or Temuan. We called them that.”
The orang asli are the indigenous people of the Malaysian peninsula, accounting for just 0.5 percent of Malaysia’s total population, and the Temuans are one of the largest of the 18 ethnic subgroups. Having frequently been in contact with the Malays throughout their recent history, they look similar in physical appearance and speak an archaic variant of the Malay language as well as Bahasa Malaysia. This particular group of Temuans came originally from Bukit Nanas, then moved several times around Kuala Lumpur and Selangor before arriving in the foothills of Bukit Lanjan. Having lived on urban fringes for decades, however, they were already exposed to city life, though their next relocation to Desa Temuan would mark a more drastic turn.
In 2002, the developer MK Land acquired orang asli reserve lands in Bukit Lanjan totaling 256 hectares for commercial development. The Temuans were allocated 18 hectares for their new settlement, consisting of 147 bungalows and facilities such as a community hall, a football field and a school. They were also allocated 130 apartment units in an adjacent block for their adult children and houses in Damansara Damai and Desa Riang for rental purposes, as part of a compensation package amounting to RM61 million, which also included monthly allowances for the first several years, shares in Amanah Saham Bumiputra, and vocational training for youths.
This has often been lauded as a generous compensation package, but only compared to previous resettlement schemes, Colin cautions. “In the past, the orang asli had no say at all in such matters. The Department of Orang Asli Development (JAKOA) is basically the godfather of the orang asli. If they said you, a developer, could have the land, you could have the land. You didn’t even have to pay compensation,” he explains.
These days, due to a number of progressive court rulings, it is no longer as easy for developers to appropriate orang asli reserves without consequence, though Colin notes that appeal courts are still able to—and have—refused to apply such legal precedents according to the whims of individual judges. Moreover, Colin points out that the compensation package is, for such prime real estate, only a tiny percentage of the total project cost (reportedly in excess of RM4 billion) and that it inadequately makes up for the drastic change in lifestyle the Temuans have to adapt to. Also, 11 families had strongly opposed the resettlement terms and had contracted legal assistance to negotiate for better compensation.
Desa Temuan’s residents today seem divided on whether the development has been good for them. For Ismael the headman, living is undoubtedly better now. “We have roads. We have a school right in the neighbourhood and the children can get there easily. All you have to do is to push a switch or a tap and electricity or gas or water comes out. But of course, the bad thing is you need to pay for these things, and some people can’t afford it.”
His 38-year-old nephew, Amin Mahayu, agrees. “I like it better now. We need to modernise like everyone else. We have to walk ahead. We can’t walk backwards, right? I think it’s up to us now to make it work.” He has his iPad with him as we hike up the hill, checking his messages and taking pictures along the way. He lives with his mother, wife and four kids in one of the bungalows and works at a factory outside Damansara Perdana.
Mahat “Akiya” Chena, who lives with his family in Desa Temuan, thinks differently. He is a writer and a poet who has been invited to the Georgetown Literary Festival, and who has worked for Radio Television Malaysia for more than three decades, and still does so part-time. “I think it was better before the development,” he says. “Now we know what money is and we live easier lives, we want money and we have become self-interested.” His 26-year-old daughter, Rose Zieka, adds, “It’s true. We don’t really socialise with our neighbours. There’s no beramah mesrahere.”
Mahat isn’t saying that life was idyllic before development. According to Colin, even before MK Land entered the picture, the traditional structure in Bukit Lanjan had already been strained, due to the fact that a lot of outsiders had been moving into the area—Malays who married Temuans, or other orang asli tribesmen such as Mahat, a Semai, who had moved to Bukit Lanjan in 1983. “You could say that I have never quite been accepted here,” he says. And when the time came to negotiate the terms of resettlement, the divisions in the community were exacerbated by what some saw as the arbitrary differentiation of families into different categories to justify different levels of compensation.
Today, life for the residents of Desa Temuan no longer resembles their traditional kampung life. Reports have revealed that some bungalows and apartments have been rented out to non-orang asli tenants as residents have moved out, that residents don’t always earn a sufficient income to pay for utility bills, that Temuan cultural traditions and rituals are no longer adhered to. Children are known to loiter in the streets until late at night and to drop out from school, with the distractions of modern entertainment centres nearby, which also contribute to social problems.
In a traditional orang asli community, “the elders are the most respected because they have the most knowledge of the land,” Colin explains. “But when you move everybody to a new and alien environment, everyone has the same knowledge, whether you’re seven or 70-years-old. In fact, the younger, more educated ones are more accepted as experts. So the first thing that happens is a breakdown in the social structure. You can’t get away from that.”
These days, those who remain in Desa Temuan continue to adapt where they can, and find refuge in the forests when they can. The younger generation work in modern shops and factories, while some of the older Temuans, like Ismael, continue to make a side income from foraging in what’s left of the green hills around Damansara Perdana.
By Emily Ding
Archival photos courtesy of Colin Nicholas from Centre of Orang Asli Concerns