Navigating Identity: Reflections on Orang Asli Livelihoods and Archiving Practices

Image by Vin Crosbie from Stamford, Connecticut, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I attended two events about Orang Asli in April. First, it was a physical workshop titled Evidence Gathering by Dr Colin Nicholas, which is part of the Orang Asli Rights Workshop Series. Second, it was an online symposium titled Archiving Orang Asli by Orang Asli Archive, Keene State College. Five speakers spoke in this symposium including Dr Colin Nicholas. As Dr Colin Nicholas spoke at both events, I will compile my learnings and reflections from both sessions into one post.

1. Evidence gathering

Documentation is a tedious process, but it is essential for continuity and future research. I realised the significance of documentation when I pursued my Master’s in Visual Art. Finding proper documentation was difficult due to misconceptions about Visual Arts. Most people only associate Visual Arts with drawing and painting. Furthermore, writing about art in an academic setting can be very daunting. I often felt inadequate, especially when my research was rejected many times.

However, that changed after attending the evidence-gathering workshop. As Dr Colin Nicholas shared his past experience, one of his slides caught my attention. I resonated with the slide as it was similar to my research, in which I read materials, conducted interviews and visited archives. I do need to improve myself in this aspect.

Types of evidence
The original slide I took was blurry, so I recreated it for this post.

I learned that documenting cultural evidence is crucial as it reflects our identity. When we recognise the good and bad of our culture, this information enables us to comprehend our strengths and heal from our traumas. People may attempt to erase your identity, but no one can take away the authenticity from you.

2. Intention of Archives and museums

I enjoy visiting museums as they provide immersive learning experiences through visuals, text, and interactivity. They offer diverse perspectives while looking at the artefacts helps me to process information in my mind.

Dr Aya Kawai, one of the speakers in the symposium discussed the intentions of archivals from different powers.

She highlighted how the colonisers collected materials based on their defined categorisation during the colonial era. As former colonies gained independence, new powers defined the intentions of archives and museums based on nation-states. While the intentions are to preserve history, it is often based on the majority ethnicity.

Dr Aya Kawai suggested a shift to a local-focused approach in archiving heritage, where NGOs and indigenous people take the lead in documenting their history. This approach brings diverse perspectives, challenging the government’s narratives and offering a more inclusive representation of a country’s history.

When I heard this, I compared the narratives in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur and the Borneo Cultures Museum in Sarawak. Peninsular Malaysia was colonised by the British colonisers since the 1800s. However, the British only colonised Sarawak for 17 years. Hence, the information presented in between two museums are different due to their different histories. Hence, most of the direction of the museum is quite closely related to the government’s way of preserving history.

3. Q&A Session/Orang Asli Crafts and Heritage

This is one of the most productive Q&A session that I have heard as many Q&A sessions that do not further the topic. Also, I miss the academic conversations though. There are few things that I took note about such as digitalisation and Orang Asli. Shaq Koyok shared about the challenges of documenting their cultures, especially with very old materials such as converting things from camcorder to the current format.

Also, how do we help Orang Asli define their cultural heritage that is slowly forgotten? We need to acknowledge the strengths of the Orang Asli, which is Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The National Park Service from United States defined TEK as “on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways.”1Definition taken from National Park Service in United States.

However, these knowledge are slowly getting lost. First, unsustainable development impacts the forests and livelihoods for the Orang Asli. Second, some knowledge are getting lost especially the older generation passes away. Third, there is a need to train the Orang Asli in digitising these knowledge. Shaq Koyok highlighted some of the needs such as digitalising from camcorder and also more resources to document. Therefore, there is a need to document all these before some of the cultural markers of their identities disappear.

One of the interesting thing that is brought up is how Orang Asli use social media. They use social media to see the world outside, which leads to look within themselves. They started to take pride about their identity and reclaim what has been taken away from them.


Overall, I found the sessions well-rounded, with a mix of academics and people working on the ground with the natives. Academics provide a broader perspective and their research papers can serve as references to address future gaps. On the other hand, those working on the ground can gather information from the Orang Asli to improve their lives while the natives can mobilise their tribe for the greater good. It was a stimulating session, blending intellect with heartfelt discussions.

  • 1
    Definition taken from National Park Service in United States.