Why does the shy slow loris only go out under the cover of night? Why does the siamang monkey keep shouting all day long? And why are the mongoose and the cobra enemies?
Charming answers to all these questions can be found in the form of Orang Asli folk tales. All of which are contained in the classic book Orang Asli Animal Tales, written by the late Dr Lim Boo Liat, one of the pioneers in the field of zoology in Malaysia, who died at the age of 94 on July 11 this year.
Outside all the pioneering academic books, papers and journals written by Lim through his illustrious career, Orang Asli Animal Tales has, in its unsung way, emerged as one of his works that has stayed regularly in print and continues to attract new readers.
Lim’s warm-hearted book collects 26 animal stories told to the author over the years by his many Orang Asli friends whom he met through the course of his work, particularly from the Temuan tribe.
Orang Asli Animal Tales may be a relatively short book but it has a loyal audience in the literature scene. Next year will mark its 40th anniversary.
The English version of Orang Asli Animal Tales was first published by Eastern Universities Press in 1981, with a Bahasa Malaysia version following three years later.
In 2010, a second edition (English version) was published by the Center For Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) organisation. This was an expanded and re-edited edition, with additional nine stories and new illustrations from Orang Asli artist Pandak Basri included.
This version was edited by Jefri Dylan Ong. A third English edition followed in 2016.
Indigenous tales to learn
These tales, documented by Lim, are not only for enjoyment and amusement. They also teach us morals and give us a peek into the rich scientific and cultural heritage of the Orang Asli – which should rightfully warrant a significant place in Malaysia’s cultural heritage.
Born in Klang in 1926, Lim was a zoologist and conservation advocate. He helped to establish Zoo Negara in KL and was also instrumental in reviving the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) after WWII.
Lim was the first person to be awarded a PhD from Universiti Sains Malaysia in 1977, and won many accolades throughout his life, including the 2013 Merdeka Award (environment category).
“Dr Lim lived a very colourful life. He was very helpful and friendly. He would go out of the way to introduce people to each other, or tell them where to find things. Especially when it came to students, ” recalls COAC coordinator Dr Colin Nicholas, who encouraged the idea of a new edition of Orang Asli Animal Tales book, which was mooted by COAC in 2003.
“Despite being an eminent scientist, in person, Dr Lim was more of everyone’s favourite uncle who loved to chat and share a laugh. I am certain there are many young and old scientists, naturalists and conservationists out there whom he nurtured and inspired, till the end of his days, ” says Ong.
Nicholas says the reason Lim was able to collect his stories was because he built genuine relationships with the Orang Asli people he came into contact with.
The most prominent individual was Sipang Anak Ecoin, a Temuan tribesman who first met Lim at the Ulu Gombak Forest Reserve in 1947.
Lim mentions Sipang and his wife Minah as “born naturalists” in their own right, and had always been respected by many scientists.
When the author was working at the Institute of Medical Research (IMR) in Kuala Lumpur, the Orang Asli community nearby would regularly bring him small animals to examine.
These Orang Asli friends were all an invaluable help to Lim’s research work (including books such as Poisonous Snakes Of Peninsular Malaysia and A Pocket Guide: Amphibians Of Ulu Muda Forest Reserve, Kedah).
“Every time they brought animals in, they would tell stories about them from their traditions. And Dr Lim had the good sense to record them all down. Later, he became proactive, and started asking stories about other animals, knowing they had such a rich oral culture about them, ” says Nicholas.
Beyond scientific studies in animal ecology, Lim found a way to craft the Orang Asli insights and wisdom of the jungle into accessible stories.
“Stories about animals were not just stories. They offered important insight on the animal itself. Some had morals. But to be able to create a story about an animal, that requires a good knowledge of it, its habitat, its behaviour and so on, ” adds Nicholas.
Origins and documentation
The COAC veteran added documenting these Orang Asli stories were very important. Not just to prevent them from being forgotten, but also to prevent them from being appropriated.
Some Orang Asli tales, he mentions, have had their true origins forgotten. People have retold them while believing they were from other cultures.
What is the appeal of this Orang Asli Animal Tales book, that it remains in the public’s imagination almost four decades on?
Nicholas and Ong believe it is because it can be enjoyed on many levels.
“For some people, they just want to know more about the Orang Asli. For scientists and zoologists, its good for research. For the general public, its a nice collection, great as a gift or birthday present, ” says Nicholas.
“The Orang Asli Animal Tales is a small but unique part of Dr Lim’s great body of work, but importantly, one that is more accessible to non-scientists like myself. If anything, I hope the book has and will inspire a greater appreciation and respect for the traditional indigenous knowledge of our Orang Asli communities, ” says Ong.
Nicholas says there is definitely interest in another edition of the book, or another collection of such stories.
“I think these stories are important because they bring you back to older times. You understand the stories, you understand the culture behind them, ” says Nicholas.
Activist Rizuan Tempek was working for an Orang Asli NGO when he was first approached to help with the book. He helped to translate some of the additional stories that were not in the book’s first edition.
“I think this book is very relevant, even now and in the future. It helps to ensure Orang Asli storytelling stays alive, and can be read by today’s and tomorrow’s generations. Storytelling plays an important role in Orang Asli value systems, beliefs, spirituality and culture, ” says Rizuan.
The book’s whimsical stories have captured the imagination of both children and adults over the years.
In 2015, playwright Leow Puay Tin was curating Malaysian texts for a performance project, Another Country, produced by Wild Rice and performed in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
One of the texts she chose for the project was the story of the Moonrat, from Lim’s book.
“I remember being transported to an ancient and fascinating world the first time I read Orang Asli Animal Tales. It moved me to know the stories had been passed down orally for thousands of years, told and re-told countless times over and over, and I would not have known about them but for Dr Lim who recorded them, ” says Leow.
“I think the book should be widely read. And not just by children. The tales are not your usual type of animal stories that are targeted at children. The adult reader will find much in them that concerns moral values and social critique, ” she concludes.