Kampung Ulu Tual: Indigenous people struggling for better life

Visiting the aboriginal community of Semai in Northwest Pahang, Malaysia, is an experience like no other. Maritime Fairtrade recently ventured into this area and was met with a world in turmoil, filled with darkness, bumps and potholes, all of which were silently endured by its community due to ignorance, empty promises, and a lack of ownership from various entities.

Watch the video here.

Malaysia’s indigenous population was recorded at 206,777 in the 2020 Census, making up approximately 11 percent of the total national population of 32.4 million. More specifically, Peninsular Malaysia has about 0.8 percent of its population composed of Orang Asli. 

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs classifies the Orang Asli into three categories, based on ethnolinguistic criteria: Negrito (Semang), Senoi, and Aboriginal-Malay (Proto Malay). Each of these categories is further divided into 18 sub-ethnic groups, one of which is the Semai group.

The country has taken multiple steps to protect the rights of its indigenous people, such as endorsing the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Outcome Document of World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, but has still not ratified ILO Convention 169.

After an arduous hour and a half drive, we finally arrived at the destination: Kampung Ulu Tual, a village with a population of 6,000 Semai people. 

The name of the village was derived from the abundance of a particular tree species called Pokok Tual, which used to provide sustenance to several small mammals like squirrels and monkeys. This particular type of tree, unfortunately, is no longer in existence. At present, the village is led by Tok Batin Harun Siden Et Jantan, who is the headman of Kampung Ulu Tual. The Semai people rely heavily on cultivating grain crops, rubber tapping, hunting and gathering for their subsistence.

The Semai people fish near a waterfall with three kinds of tools, a fishing net (top photo), a pair of goggles (middle photo) and a sharpened stick (bottom photo).

Historically, it is believed that the Malays migrated to the Malay Peninsula around a millennium after the Semai had settled there. Research conducted by Dentan and Skoggard (2012) revealed that Malay and Semai would initially engage in a peaceful trading relationship. 

With the establishment of Malay kingdoms and the transition to the Islam religion, the relationship between Malays and other ethnic groups changed significantly. The Malays, for instance, began to see the Semai as “despised pagans” and had persecuted them like murders of Semai adults and abductions of young children. 

Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, Islamic religious institutions in some states have attempted to convert Semai people to Islam. However, the entirety of Kampung Ulu Tual community have chosen Christianity as their faith.

A young Semai girl cut bamboo used for starting a fire to cook food.
A fire, which was started with bamboo, to cook both fish and cassava, a kind of root vegetable.

Tragic deaths of pregnant women

Imagine one expectant mother in immense pain as labor approaches, wanting nothing more than to get to the hospital quickly. To reach a doctor, she has to take a difficult hour-and-a-half journey on a bumpy and potholed road just to reach the entrance of Kampung Ulu Tual. Yet, the hospital is still quite far from the entrance.

Neither hypertension nor hemorrhage during childbirth is the leading cause of death among women in the community. Rather, it is poor road infrastructure, particularly bumps and potholes, which impede the ability to reach hospital quickly that leads to more than 20 deaths. Most of these deaths are preventable.

“Since 2015, enough complaint letters have been sent to the JKR (Jabatan Kerja Raya, i.e., Public Works Department),” Tok Batin Harun said. “I have also attempted in-person meetings, but the response I always receive is to be patient, as they will contact me soon.” He further elucidated that the JKR had installed some signage in the vicinity but nothing else seemed to be happening. The roadway, including the potholes, hadn’t seen any improvement either.

Malaysia has experienced tremendous political instability over the last four years. There have been two changes of government since 2018. Last year, every vote was significant in the pre-election period, leading to various initiatives from the government that were aimed at providing recognition of Orang Asli rights and attempting to address their concerns and demands. 

“Many politicians only came around to solicit votes and gave the community false hope of better roads,” Tok Batin Harun added. “We desire decisive action, not mere promises that never come to fruition.”

The tragic death of more than 20 mothers as a result of ignorance and unfulfilled promises left many with unanswered questions. Who is responsible for this tragedy? The JKR, election candidates, the driver, or the Kampung Ulu Tual community? It is clear that action must be taken to ensure that such tragedies do not occur again.

The poor condition of roads in Kampung Ulu Tual.

No sustainable solution in sight

Kampung Ulu Tual, ironically, is not searchable by its name on Google Maps but can be found through the project titled Pusat Didikan Komuniti (PDK) Cenwaey Penaney, an initiative to construct a building, where Indigenous knowledge and values can be brought to the classroom. The new building offers a space for students to be exposed to a unique learning opportunity through incorporation of wisdom from local Indigenous communities into its lesson plans and courses.

Semai children in Kampung Ulu Tual often have to travel 10 km on a former logging track in order to get to school. To ensure they make it on time, they have to wake up at 4:30 am and wait for the pickup truck which serves as their school bus. 

“But the land and its surrounding environment also acts as a learning space for the children here, where they acquire the skills necessary to be productive members of the community, with guidance from extended family members and their peers,” Tok Batin Harun said. “This knowledge is then passed on and maintained by future generations, ensuring its survival and relevance.” 

On March 21, 2015, the community inaugurated PDK Cenwaey Penaney, which was constructed in collaboration with the Democratic Action Party (DAP), Tobpinai Ningkokoton Koburuon Kampung (TONIBUNG), and Engineers Without Borders Malaysia. 

The building is 120 feet long and 80 feet wide at its widest point and holds various facilities, such as a classroom, sewing (dance stage), community hall-cum-IT center, kitchen, and teacher’s quarters. However, without electricity, this space would be unable to operate as it is meant to.

Therefore, in a joint partnership between Universiti Teknical Malaysia Melaka (UTeM), the Ministry of Higher Education, and Samsung, the Nanum Village: A Community Sharing Program was initiated. This program facilitated the provision of solar energy systems for four consecutive years (2015-2019). 

Organizations such as Hanwha Q Cells and University Partnerships: The Rural Transformation Centre (RTC) then joined forces to develop The Solar Project PDK Cenwaey Penaney, a successor to their previous initiative. This new project is deemed to offer a more comprehensive contribution to the community.

The PDK Cenwaey Penaney building.

The initial exhilaration of short-term gains was exciting for everyone involved, but Kampung Ulu Tual may find themselves bearing a heavier burden of responsibility in the long term. 

We recently discovered that the community is living in darkness. With no access to electricity, they rely on a single small, portable solar panel for light at night in order to prepare and eat dinner, wash dishes, use the restroom, among other things. The absence of electricity has had a drastic effect on the day-to-day life of people, thus necessitating immediate action.

This is a great shame, considering all the hard work of those involved in these initiatives who had hoped that it would bring a positive impact. No organization is taking the responsibility for sustaining the solar energy project, resulting in the loss of its objective of good corporate social responsibility, cooperative education, and sustainability which is essence at its core.

In this story, we only highlight two necessities: electricity and roads. Unfortunately, many other essential needs for human life are overlooked as well and are left unfulfilled, such as water supply, phone service, and internet connection. Development is urgently needed to provide these facilities to Kampung Ulu Tual.

Watch the video here.

A single small portable solar panel serves the whole village.
At night at Kampung Ulu Tual, where there is not enough electricity to serve all the residents.

All photos credit: Annjil Chong

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