INTERNING at the Centre for Orang Asli Concern helped Puah Sze Ning appreciate the culture of the indigenous people, as well as her own.
Growing up, she was often ridiculed about coming from Klang and was somewhat ashamed of her roots.
“I was an angry teenager and couldn’t understand why people hold on to such rituals as burning “hell money” during the Hungry Ghost festival,” she said.
But her time with the Orang Asli taught her that the modern and the cultural should co-exist.
The 28-year-old photographer and documentary maker slowly learned how the Orang Asli were so self-reliant and selfless, and her admiration for them grew.
She first noticed this when she visited Semai communities in Perak and Pahang. “I would thank them whenever they helped me with my bags or gave me food, but when I returned the favour, I didn’t get the same reaction. It felt weird,” she said.
Her mentor explained that the community reacted that way because they didn’t think they were doing her any favours. “Whatever they did, they did because they felt it was their responsibility to ensure the well being of everyone in the community,” she said.
Puah said the Orang Asli are not as backward as some may think. Through electricity supplied to their villages by micro hydro-dams, they are able to connect with the rest of the world through cellphones and the Internet, which they are using to bring their plight to greater attention.
“They move with the times but still hold strongly to their cultural identity, beliefs and practices — that’s a lesson that I’ve taken to heart,” she said. Perhaps, we all should. — JO TIMBUONG
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