Enticed by the pleasures of permanent homes and modern gadgets, some Batek people no longer live in the forests of the Malay Peninsula. While many older people are still illiterate, they are encouraging the young Batek to become educated.
An article on February 16th in the New Straits Times, which has already been moved to their fee-based archive, celebrates these triumphs of modernization and the work of the government agency responsible for them, the Orang Asli Affairs Department. The stated position of the Malaysian government is “to bring [the Batek] out of their nomadic lifestyle and assimilate with the rest of society.” The official representing the department, Zakaria Mahmud, has worked for five years on the project, though not always successfully. “It can be truly frustrating,” he says.
The government official has persuaded 27 families in one area to settle into brick houses, and 23 more are waiting for their own homes. However, ten families still live nomadically in the forests nearby. Zakaria indicates that “the soft approach has worked for most of them,” in persuading the people to settle permanently. He doesn’t say if the government will someday take a “hard approach” toward the remaining nomadic Batek, or what such an approach might consist of.
The journalist writing the story for New Straits Times was particularly impressed by the fact that “most of the Batek villagers own the latest household gadgets,” such as cars, telephones, and a satellite T.V. Instead of going into the forest for supplies, they can take a new road into nearby market towns to shop.
The New Straits Times not so subtly adopts the position of the Malaysian government, that the Orang Asli societies, such as the Batek, should quit their forest-based lives and accept the fact “that they cannot escape modernization.” However, according to the anthropologist Lye Tuck-Po, whose recent research was reviewed here on January 2, many Batek are still choosing to lead their traditional, nomadic lives and peaceful values instead of settling for the materialism of permanent communities that the rest of Malaysia seems to offer. Outsiders interested in learning about the Batek, an interesting example of a peaceful society, can accept the uncritical journalism based on government biases, or they can study the careful scholarship of contemporary anthropologists.