Reita Rahim
Coordinator, Gerai OA, Malaysia

The Orang Asli are the indigenous minorities of Peninsular Malaysia and number less than 170,000. They consist of eighteen ethnic groups with different languages and cultures but broadly similar traditional belief systems (adat). The Orang Asli live in a variety of ecological niches, including upland forested areas, freshwater swamps, and coastal lands.

These eco-niches determine the locally available raw materials. A common plant found in or nearby Orang Asli villages are screw pines or Pandanus fascicularis, a clumping plant with long, thorny leaves. The fibrous leaves are harvested, processed, and dyed before the leaf strips are woven by women into a variety of mats, baskets, and pouches.

Orang Asli handicrafts are often utilitarian in nature, but with availability of cheap plastic replicates of mats and other products, the art of Pandanus weaving (anyam) is now on the wane. The synthetic products have slowly been replacing the crafts that were once woven from wild or cultivated pandanus harvests.

Realizing the Economic Value of Traditional Knowledge

The Orang Asli have no written language. The community’s knowledge is passed down orally and through practice; this includes knowledge related to handicrafts. Unlike ethnobotany, which is often documented due to its biomedical potential, traditional knowledge related to handicrafts is overlooked, even by the Orang Asli themselves.

There have been efforts to train and maintain Orang Asli pandanus weavers and even re-purpose their craft to fit modern usage. However, traditional knowledge related to the Pandanus plant and handicraft may soon disappear. Fortunately, some of this knowledge is being rediscovered by Orang Asli weavers themselves and shared communally as low-cost solutions to generate supplementary income for village women. Some weavers are relearning traditional ‘best practices’ that help conserve depleting plant stocks and improve the overall quality of the craft, ultimately increasing sales and earning the weaver more money.

For example, Orang Asli elders advise to plant pandanus seedlings in prone positions rather than upright. Such a practice was found to increase seedling survival rates in pandanus replanting schemes. Other traditional harvesting best practices being shared include limiting the harvest to a few leaves per clump to ensure sustainability. Only mid-range leaves are cut, sparing the harder lower leaves, which are not supple, and the fragile growing tips. Cutting the latter may cause the shoot to die.

As with many raw materials for Orang Asli handicrafts, pandanus leaves are not harvested during a full moon when leaves are full of sap. Community members still adhere to this harvesting prohibition as they have learned from the elders that knew the finished product would attract borer insects.

Losing More Than Just a Name

Orang Asli pandanus handicrafts are displayed in local museums, but what is often overlooked is an understanding of what the craft means to the people who made it. A few Pandanus basketry forms have become extinct while names of certain motifs and patterns are lost.

Some Orang Asli names given to motifs indicate how the craft may have travelled between villages and even across cultures. While similar motifs do exist elsewhere in the region because of similar twill weaving methods, localized motif names offer a tantalizing glimpse into a people’s history. For example, the cross-like Tanjung Sepat motif of the Semelai people in Pahang is named after its supposed place of origin, the Mah Meri village of Tanjung Sepat, Selangor, a location that is five hours away by car. Yet among the Mah Meri this motif is known as kallang dapor (pot stand).

Overall, efforts to ensure the continuation of Orang Asli pandanus weaving should focus on encouraging women not only to weave, but also to appreciate that their craft heritage was shaped by valuable communally shared knowledge that is still relevant today.