Temiar - History and Cultural Relations

Interference by outsiders may well have been an ancient feature of Temiar life, but the evidence allows us to date it with assurance only to the second third of the nineteenth century. At that time some upland Malay leaders claimed authority over all the Temiar living upstream, presumably for reasons of their own aggrandizement. These Mikong (a word of obscure, possibly Thai, origin) intermarried with Temiar women and remained in place as a loosely knit alliance of hereditary chiefs until World War II. Their home settlements were at the river-mouth villages of Kuala Betis in Kelantan and Temengor and Lasah in Perak, locations that allowed them to control most of the Temiars' external trade. The mediative activities of these Mikong probably had much to do with generating the sharp social distinction between Temiars and Malays. There is evidence, however, that relationships between the two peoples were closer in earlier times and that Malays sometimes ventured more readily into the interior than most commentators have assumed.

The picture was not untroubled, however, for downriver Malays (aided on occasion by Temiars from other valleys) are known to have raided Temiar communities for slaves. The victims were taken against their will to serve as domestic servants in settlements outside Temiar country. The raids continued until the 1930s in some areas, and the folk memory of them persists today. Indeed, it is likely that the fear of enslavement helped to generate the relative shyness toward strangers and the intense local communalism that Temiar life still exhibits.

Since the 1950s, the role of the Mikong has effectively been taken over by other agencies, most notably by the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs (Jabatan Hal Ehwal Orang Asli, or JOA). The Temiar went along with these various arrangements, not out of any feeling of obeisance to authority, but simply to put their external relations on a stable basis. In 1948 the British established the Federation of Malaya; this was immediately followed by a Communist insurrection known as the "Emergency," which lasted until 1960. It was led mainly by Chinese guerrillas who were fearful they would be squeezed out of an independent Malay state. During the Emergency some Temiar village leaders gave the appearance of having become followers of the Communist insurgents, who sometimes accorded them letters of authority. As "tribespeople," it made sense for Temiar to play all sides in the game of maintaining their distance from all powerful outsiders with whom they nevertheless had to deal. The game has changed since then, of course. Individual Temiars, no longer "tribal" in outlook, are as likely as any other Orang Aslis to seek a place in Malaysian society through more symmetrical arrangements, the most important of which is the recently formed Orang Asli Association of Malaysia. The older institutions of headman and village leader are still utilized widely at the local level by officers of the JOA, however.

A major influence on Temiar relations with the wider world is the Malaysian Aboriginal Peoples Act of 1954, revised in 1974. This piece of legislation, among its other features, empowers the JOA or the local police to control who may enter an Orang Asli village, and it empowers state governments to decide on the allocation of land rights to Orang Asli. The original purpose of the legislation was to accord governmental protection to the Orang Asli during the period of the Communist insurgency, when protection was sorely needed. The legislation remains in effect, however, leading to a reduction in the intensity of contact that the more remote Orang Asli (such as the Temiar) have with the rest of Malaysian society. This has somewhat delayed their attainment of civic maturity, while doing little to guarantee their rights of ownership or usufruct over the land that they occupy.

Increasing economic peasantization, literacy, and improved health have brought the Temiar face to face with the evaluations that others hold of them. These opinions are potent elements in the formulation of the various policies and plans that now affect Temiars' lives. Upper-level officers of the JOA tend to see the Temiar as an economically backward community needing "development." Military officers have seen them as an interference in what they think should be a free-fire zone. The police (whose Field Force has had very close relations with the Temiar and to which several Temiars belong) have regarded them ambivalently as both "eyes and ears of the nation" and possible subversives.

Other government officers have focused on ethnological issues. In accordance with the official inclusion of the Orang Asli within the "Malay" census category, they have often seen the Temiar as incomplete Malays who should become more fully so (through conversion to Islam) as soon as possible. Officers of the Forest Department and lumbermen working for the many logging companies now operating in Temiar country have seen the Temiar simply as people who waste forest resources—a particularly unjust evaluation.

Since the mid-1970s many Temiar have been living in "relocation settlements," furnished with permanent Malaystyle housing. These settlements were built by the JOA in response to the Malaysian security authorities' desire to leave the forested areas open for anti-insurgency operations.

The Temiar share a common genetic heritage with other Orang Asli populations, as well as with the now-dominant Malay population of the peninsula and the population of Southeast Asia at large. According to this view, the Temiar are the descendants of the people who produced the archaeological remains uncovered at several Hoabinhian and Neolithic sites within their territory. Temiar "origins" are in principle no more mysterious than those of the other indigenous populations of the Malay Peninsula, whether "aboriginal" or Malay. The Temiar form part of an ethnic and cultural array generated within the Malay Peninsula by sociopolitical processes relating to such issues as ecological differentiation and state formation.

Despite this, much popular and scholarly writing still treats the Temiar (along with other so-called "Senoi" populations) as having origins distinct from those of both the Malays and the Negritos, who are both commonly thought of as the residues of distinct migratory waves coming from southwest China in earlier times. Few archaeologists or biological anthropologists now accept this "wave" view, however.

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