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MALAYSIAN SCENARIO: Berita Harian's Misteri Etnik series gives us an insight into the 120 or so minority groups in this country
PERHAPS many of you have never heard of these ethnic groups in Sarawak and Sabah -- Kejaman, Berawan, Tatau, Punan Kakus, Dusun Bonggi, Lundaweh and Bisaya. In the peninsula, among the Malay diaspora, groups like Rawa, Ponorogo and Jawi Peranakan are little known. It proves a point: we know very little about "the big Malaysian family".
More importantly, these diverse groups represent the real "Us". We are unique and multicultural and multireligious. Perhaps when the term "plural society" was coined to exhibit the combination of ethnic contrasts living within a particular space, it fitted the Malaysian scenario.
The study of ethnic groups and ethnicity has always been the territory of anthropologists. In the case of Berita Harian, a group of dedicated writers, journalists, researchers and photographers are introducing the ethnic groups to readers.
Berita Harian started its Misteri Etnik (Ethnic Mysteries) in 2010. Each series was published on the first Sunday of every month for the full week. It was hugely popular. Journalists Azrul Affandi Sobri, Mohammad Azis Ngah and the late Mohamad Muda spent many days with the ethnic groups featured, so, too, a team of photo-journalists. It wasn't an easy task and certainly not for the weak-hearted. The first volume, Misteri Etnik Malaysia, consisting of the first 12 series has just been published.
In the preface, Datuk Seri Najib Razak commended the effort for Malaysians are only aware of the dominant or major races, conveniently ignoring the existence of many minority groups. Distinguished Professor Shamsul Amri Baharuddin, who was the founding director of UM's Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita), believed such an undertaking benefited some 20,000 students taking the ethnic relations course at the universities. According to him, Berita Harian's initiative is a milestone in better understanding the country's ethnic groups.
Each ethnic group is systematically introduced, providing the historical background, myths and legends associated with the people, their economic mainstay, beliefs and religion, social norms, even traditional medicine, their rituals, performing arts and sculpture. Take the case of the Kejaman. Kejam in Bahasa Malaysia means "brutal", the fact there is such an ethnic group called "Kejaman" in the Belaga district in Sarawak is a mystery even to Sarawakians. They are certainly not brutal or violent, but a peace-loving people whose lives have not changed much in their enclave. An ancient klirieng (literally a "standing grave") is testimony to their comradeship.
There are many such markers in the book involving artefacts and totems of traditions and beliefs, manifestations of arts, religion and customs and myths and legends that defy rationality and objectivity. But these are part and parcel of their identity contestation.
Take the case of Jawi Peranakan, a significant ethnic group yet little understood in Penang. Most people tend to categorise them as mamak, which they are not. In fact, they like to believe they are neither Malay nor Indian. They are a sub-group from the mixed marriages between Malays and Indian Muslims, Punjabis, Arabs and Bengalis. They believe they have their own identity compared with the mamak or the Malays.
They have played a significant role economically since the 18th century. With their financial might they were the first ethnic group who came out with a newspaper in Malay, interestingly named Jawi Peranakan, published in 1876. The first newspaper fully owned, funded and managed by Malays, Utusan Melayu, came out only 63 years later in Singapore.
Among people of Javanese descent, the Ponorogo are probably the most protective of their culture. Many of them congregated in Batu Pahat and Muar in Johor. They came from the Javanese heartland, the town of Ponorogo in Java, not too far from Jogjakarta. They brought with them wayang reog (adapted as ketoprak), wayang geduk, wayang wong, kuda kepang and wayang kulit, so, too, many of the elaborate rituals. When the people of Ponorogo questioned the legitimacy of ketoprak as their own, they were baffled. Ketoprak is as much theirs as those in Ponorogo.
It is uncertain whether these ethnic groups can retain their culture and identity. For those in the hinterlands, logging and agricultural activities are causing havoc to their livelihoods. In other cases, religiosity is taking a toll on some of the rituals. In urban areas, mixed marriages are changing the racial landscape. But more importantly advancement and modernisation are reshaping their value systems and ways of life.
Only time will tell if the 120 or so ethnic groups in Malaysia can withstand the pressure for change. Whatever happens, the book has documented their proud history and tradition and the trials and challenges in facing the new world.