Explore Malaysia with the Orang Asli as your guides
A note from Our Better World
At the time of publishing this story, COVID-19 cases globally continue to rise, and international travel — even domestic travel in some cases — has been restricted for public health reasons. During this time, consider exploring the world differently: discover new ways you can support communities in your favourite destinations, and bookmark them for future trips when borders reopen.
Meet Yee Kuat
Even over an occasionally fuzzy video call on a tiny screen, Yee Kuat makes you feel like you are right there in Kampung Gurney, sitting outside his house while he tells you about the bounty grown and reared in his village.
Sharing how the villagers tend to the land, his pride is evident: “Our fish only eat cassava leaves,” he shares. “Our food is organic, we live in nature. What we have here is about the mountains, the forests, the river.”
Yee Kuat is of Temuan ancestry, one of 18 indigenous tribes in Peninsular Malaysia collectively referred to as Orang Asli, or “First People” in the Malay language; his Chinese moniker reflects his half-Chinese heritage and education in a Chinese school, where he also learnt to speak Mandarin.
An entrepreneur, he is also the chairman of his village committee in Hulu Selangor, an hour’s drive away from Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. And even amid a lockdown in the COVID-19 pandemic, he hopes someday that travellers would someday get to experience the land he knows and loves.
Kampong Gurney is flanked by the Sungai Sendat recreational rainforest, the treeline of which can be seen from the hilltop village. Just past the village is the Sungai Sendat waterfall, a draw for many day trippers who revel in its cool, clean waters.
Video courtesy of Native
The waterfall divides the public recreational forest from the Orang Asli's ancestral land, where their durian trees can be found, among other crops and vegetation they cultivate in the forest.
“We hope to open a guesthouse and host travellers, so that they get to know us, get to know nature, our food,” says Yee Kuat. “That’s why I’m glad to have met Daniel, because he has ideas that can help us pursue this dream.”
“Daniel” is Daniel Teoh, founder of Native, a social enterprise in Malaysia that partners with Orang Asli communities to offer travel experiences, to deepen appreciation of indigenous cultures while supporting livelihoods.
A Friendship Bears Fruit
Daniel and Yee Kuat connected over that most pungent king of fruits — durian.
Even the most passionate durian fans may have never heard of the durians cultivated by Temuan growers. Often generalised as “kampung durians” or “forest durians”, they in fact bear descriptive names like durian susu (milk durian), durian matahari (sun durian) and durian daun (leaf durian), reflecting their unique qualities.
This ripe heritage was not lost on Daniel, who got to know the durians and their growers over annual invitations to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
“Last year, when the COVID-19 situation was okay, we were able to visit a lot. And they asked if we would buy their durians,” shares Daniel. “So we decided to buy some durians to sell on [the Native] platform. And we also ran two tours, where visitors could be hosted by Orang Asli growers and learn about the durian cultivation process.”
The success of the efforts — some 1 tonne of durians were sold — led Daniel to start Biji Bumi Durian this year as an offshoot of Native, focused on selling durians grown by Orang Asli. Working with 12 growers, over 3.9 tonnes of durian were sold by the end of the season, bringing a much-needed shot of income amid a pandemic.
Central to this effort was Yee Kuat, who has been trading durians since he was 15, buying them from his fellow Orang Asli growers and selling them to retailers or wholesalers in bigger markets. Yee Kuat, says Daniel, “knows everyone”. “We were educated on the names of the varieties, who the farmers are, the farming methods,” he adds.
Typically, the durians were sold to middlemen for about RM3 to RM7 (US$0.70-$1.70) per kilo. Biji Bumi Durian however, paid the growers between RM8 to RM25 (US$1.90-$6) per kilo of durian, depending on the quality and what they would fetch in the market.
“We want to get them better sales, we want their durians to be of better market value,” says Daniel. “We made sure we got the high grade durians, because we really want to change the perception of their durians.”
Forty per cent of every RM1 earned by Biji Bumi Durian was distributed to the 12 growers — totalling RM30,559 (US$7,355) in all. Biji Bumi Durian covered the expenses of transport, packaging and other related costs.
Connecting with Malaysia’s ‘First People’
Although durian season has ended for the year, the work continues for Native to help their partners develop opportunities in tourism.
Yee Kuat notes that growing up, he interacted with very few people outside his village, which has a population of 300. “We are strangers to most people. It is hard for people to understand us. Or know us. And we were afraid of outsiders too,” the 33-year-old shares. “We are afraid of what others think of us.”
Those from older generations used to caution against having too many dealings with outsiders. “They would warn us of scams, that other tribes and villages have lost land and had to move,” says Yee Kuat.
“I want people to know why we belong to this land and why it is special to us. And we need to find a way to grow, to develop our livelihoods.”
Yee Kuat Chairman, Kampung Gurney village committee
The 18 Orang Asli tribes, each with its own language and culture, make up less than one per cent of the population of Peninsular Malaysia, and are categorised into three groups: Senoi, Proto-Malay and Negrito.
The Temuan are classified as Proto-Malay, who are thought to have migrated to the Malay archipelago and peninsula between 2,500 to 1,500 BC. Today, they live in the states of Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Selangor and Johor.
Due to land dispossession for economic development and various other policies, the Orang Asli’s ability to preserve traditional subsistence lifestyles are under threat, compromising their livelihoods. Almost all Orang Asli communities in Peninsular Malaysia are in the bottom 40 per cent (B40) income group.
Daniel, who hails from Penang, was a university student when he met Faizul, who is Temuan, in a village near his campus in 2016. The two became friends after Daniel helped Faizul raise funds needed to finish building his home.
Seeing the rise of platforms like Airbnb Experiences, Daniel lit on the idea of creating experiences where others could get to meet and learn from Orang Asli communities as he had. “Faizul was onboard, and we put together some ideas on how we could show people a different side of Malaysia while creating an alternate driver of development in their community,” says Daniel.
“I feel passionately about the cultural transitions that many Orang Asli face, where they often feel like they have to choose between 'modernisation' or tradition. Many communities exist in between and they should have every freedom to shape their culture as they see fit.”
Daniel Teoh Founder, Native
Since 2019, Native has co-led close to 50 tours, working with 15 hosts in four communities, and generated RM12,000 (US$2,880) through these experiences for its hosts, plus RM6,500 (US$1,560) for a community development fund.
Though it has currently paused running activities due to COVID-19, it has kept busy. Apart from the Biji Bumi Durian project, Native is partnering with NGO EPIC Homes to develop a tourism project in Kampung Serendah, to be owned and managed by a Temuan community there.
And Native remains committed to working with Orang Asli communities to develop tourism experiences owned by the community. “Initially, these experiences can be booked through us, but we hope they run it on their own in future. We see ourselves as ‘incubating’ these enterprises,” says Daniel. “We don't want to become gatekeepers, because it is not in line with our mission of long-term empowerment.”
Says Yee Kuat of Daniel: “He has a good heart, and he comes up with ideas. Our younger folks are open to ideas. They don’t want to work for others forever.”
Within Malaysia, Daniel acknowledges there is a long way to go in addressing the bias and lack of understanding the Orang Asli face. “There is discrimination even in our language, like ‘Jakun’ is a [derogatory] word for stupid, but it is the name of a people.
“Tourism is powerful because it puts the Orang Asli face-to-face with other people. When people have encounters, they spread the story, they share the positivity, and change minds,” says Daniel.
Yee Kuat agrees. “We really hope people know about us, then our village will have hope. We have so much to share, but no one knows about us. Native has given us this opportunity, so that we can work for ourselves and don’t have to be exploited by others.”
Native was one of the six winning teams under Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs programme in 2019. Through mentorships, study visits and opportunities to pitch for funding, the programme nurtures social entrepreneurs of different nationalities, to drive positive change for the world.