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About the Author

Kevin Rennie
Citizen journalist, Teacher (retired),Volunteer (Melbourne, Australia)

I am a retired secondary teacher and unionist. I have been an Australian Labor Party member since 1972. After teaching in Victorian schools from 1975, I spent 8 years teaching in the Northern Territory: 4 in Katherine, followed by 4 in Maningrida, an aboriginal community in Arnhem Land. Returned in June 2008 to Melbourne to live after 15 months in Broome. Now live near Red Bluff which overlooks Half Moon Bay on Port Phillip Bay's eastern side. I am a Global Voices author.


Hma’ Meri: Preserving Indigenous Malaysian Heritage

Published 22nd August 2010 - 17 comments - 5207 views -
Nine Th!nk3: Developing World bloggers visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in August 2010. We attended the 'Online Journalism: Chances and Challenges' conference hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation at the Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman. In addition we made a number of field trips.


As soon as the minibus turned off the main road, I sensed that we had entered the third world. We were greeted by what we call camp dogs in Australian aboriginal communities. They roam free, seemingly outnumbering the human residents.

It was a sure sign that the local villagers in Kg. Sg. Bumbun would be forgotten people. Though not completely, for apparently they are popular with tourists streaming in and out, looking for authentic experiences and exotic culture. On the day we visited, there were no other strangers in sight. An expensive tourism building was empty, apparently not available for use by the community for a gathering such as ours.

Governments often pay lip service to meeting the needs of indigenous people such as these. The typical village dwelling in Kg. Sg. Bumbun is very basic, mocked by modern Malaysian mainstream housing. Some are forced to live in tiny makeshift shacks that are totally inadequate. One family is patiently waiting and watching as the land cleared for a promised house becomes overgrown.

Some of the villagers earn a modest income from their traditional crafts of weaving and woodcarving. Our guide was Reita Rahim whose informal organisation, Gerai OA, is “a nomadic, volunteer-run stall which sells handicrafts”. Reita supports and assists the Tompoq Topoh Women’s Group who weave pandanus leaves. She helps to eliminate the ‘middlemen’ who are said to have exploited their labours in the past. The women make pandanus pouches and bookmarks. Some take three days to produce.

Both weavers and carvers aim for quality products. The men may take as long as one month to produce a carved head. They also make wooden masks and a marriage puzzle. There is a commitment to reviving traditional practices, not just copying the artefacts of the past. Outside experts have helped to preserve the stories embedded in these works. Young men rely on books in languages they cannot read to learn the stories. It is a reflection of the struggle faced in saving their heritage.

The Hma’ Meri (or Mah Meri) people are an indigenous minority of approximately 3000 people. They are part of the Orang Asli indigenous minority peoples of Peninsular Malaysia. About 500 live in the Bumbun village. They have resisted attempts at assimilation. They have also deflected ‘gentle’ persuasion to convert from their animist religious traditions to mainstream faiths.

With classic 21st Century irony, most of the women have mobile/cell phones that they use if and when they can afford the credits. Electricity has also brought a computer and internet access. They live on the estuarine island of Pulau Carey and were once fishers. The last of their boats is stranded on land, like its owner, cut off from the sea by unwanted land reclamation. The craft income supplements that from small oil palms holdings.


Tompoq Topoh Women's Initiative from Kevin Rennie on Vimeo.

Even though we were very welcome guests, it was hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable. Our Th!nk3 ‘fieldwork’ had the potential intrusiveness that tourists, journalists and researchers can bring. Here today…

Just before we left, three young boys skylarked and pulled faces into the lens of a large video camera as they watched themselves on the LCD screen. Inevitably it was faces of the children that lingered as the bus left the expressway and dropped us at our hotel. It is this universal appeal of the innocents that global NGOs use to promote their causes. Who can blame them.

Unless a tidal change occurs, indigenous communities like this one will only survive through their own determination and efforts. And a little help from their friends.

Online sales are available at the Tompoq Topoh Shop

Featured image: Center for Orang Asli Concerns

Category: Poverty | Tags:


  • Tiziana Cauli on 22nd August 2010:

    Hey Kevin! Great video and post. I like the way you pointed out how different that was from wealthy and busy Kuala Lumpur, just 1 hr drive away. Among the children we saw in the village though, I am not sure how many would want to stay there - even if the government built roads and houses - rather than moving to the expanding city. Also, once the tourists start coming, new houses and roads will be built and I am sure the island will no longer look and be the same.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 22nd August 2010:

    “Even though we were very welcome guests, it was hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable.” Very true, Kevin. I asked them how they felt about all these intruders into their lives, including ourselves, and the women were very diplomatic smile They said they got used to visitors and unless they were extra annoying, it was OK. But I agree with Tiziana’s point on the future of this community and numerous others: how many of those children will choose to stay in the community? How many will resist the city’s attractions? They already have some problems with the youngsters not being sufficiently respectful towards traditions - how long until they blend into the mainstream society and melt in it?

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 23rd August 2010:

    “As soon as the minibus turned off the main road, I sensed that we had entered the third world - ” Kevin, the community was hardly “third world.” Come to the Philippines or in other poorer countries and you will see how bad life can really be in the DEVELOPING WORLD. While we are not be blamed for our geographical roots or existence, I think all of us have a responsibility to be more sensitive in using terms that are politically insensitive to the development world…

  • Kevin Rennie on 23rd August 2010:


    Your point is a valid one. Nevertheless, I thought a lot about using the term beforehand. Unfortunately it is one that is too easy to apply to the living conditions of many indigenous communities in Australia. Poverty, health problems, land alienation and powerlessness are too frequent. For some people life can be really good in the developing world just as it can be appallingly bad in parts of the developed world.

  • Helena Goldon on 23rd August 2010:

    @ Kevin: thank you very much! I am eager to read even more stories from the KL trip!

    I agree with Iris. Look at your perspective. You live in Australia with your GDP $46,278 your country is 13th in the world.
    Should you be the point of reference? Unlikely.

    My perspective has changed by leaps and bounds since I moved from Poland to Ireland (37th on the list). I had previously stayed in Africa for 2 years - Poland seemed a heaven to me, Ireland is just living the high life I would have never dreamt of.
    I can afford anything I want - with a monthly salary I can afford a new MacBook, which I would need to save for for at least 1.5 years in Poland and a decade in Africa!

    It sounds so posh to me, if you call another country a Third World country. You are soooo lucky to have been born in Australia!

  • Ian Sullivan on 23rd August 2010:

    I knew Kevin would get the 1st post up! I personally wouldn’t use the term 3rd world and I also agree with Iris that in material terms they weren’t that poor(globally). But their fears over rights and treatment by the gov was vaild..

    And in terms of the children - I saw one of them in the ubiqitous European football shirt - I also can’t see how the life of the people will change rapidally in the next few years.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 23rd August 2010:

    I agree with Iris and Ian here, Kevin. The term “third world” is very out-of-date and should be avoided. I know what you meant when you wrote it, as I remember you telling the story of the dogs somewhere in Little India I think, but yeah, as Iris says, we have a responsibility to use terms sensitively. Otherwise - thanks for the video! Nice memories..

  • Kevin Rennie on 23rd August 2010:

    As indicated earlier I accept the criticisms of the term “third world” with reservations. We can be too PC but if people feel that it has negative connotations then fair enough. Perhaps this needs to be more widely cnavassed as a quick google of the term brought this item on 2 regional Oxfam sites: Climate cash must not increase third-world debt warns Oxfam. Malayasia describes itself as a ‘middle economy’ and is apparently pursuing the MDGs for 2015.

    If I gave the impression that Australia should be the perspective from which to see things, it was not intentional. There are many indigenous people who live in Australia who do not share the luck of us Aussies born into the “mainstream”. I hope my posts about Indigenous Australia give some idea about the enormity of meeting the MDGs in many of these communities.

  • Ian Sullivan on 24th August 2010:

    I meant to say that I can’t see how life won’t change for the people we met - just clarifying!

    And I don’t think Oxfam Hong Kong should have used that term. I would never use it in an Oxfam article - except maybe if discussing how expression has changed.

    But a good article.

    @kevin - what did you make of the Aus election.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 24th August 2010:

    I think Kevin has a point here. We’ve all been taught that the term third world should no longer be used,that it comes from a racist approach to history and geography, as for many other words our parents would use without feeling racist or unfair. The thing is, sometimes one cannot be politically correct, especially if he or she is writing a blog post and wants to express feelings, emotions and opinions. I think we all know - and if we didn’t, it’s clear enough from what he writes - that Kevin didn’t mean anything bad or offensive. And I think a strong and controversial expression like “third world” fit perfectly in that sentence, as it makes you think of the difference between the rich world we were coming from (and I mean Kuala Lumpur, not Australia, Italy, Spain or the UK) and the poverty we were suddenly surrounded by. I agree, that village is not the poorest place I’ve ever seen. Abandoned kids in African slums can only dream of living with their loving mothers, having food on their plates every day and going to school. Most of us have seen worse realities, especially if we work as journalists or researchers. But I guess none of us ever knew hunger and starvation. None of us was raised in a wooden house in the forest with no electricity (the kids in the village have only had that for a couple of years)and running water. So yeah, the majority of people in this world are not as lucky as we are, but still, there is a huge gap between our (including urban Malaysians) life standards and those of people living in that indigenous village, and one cannot just pretend this is just natural. If it was, they would not have brought us there to show us how difficult life was for those people.

  • Iris Cecilia Gonzales on 24th August 2010:


    Noted. Just the same, the experience is important and I went home with a lot of memories.

    Cheers to all.

  • Kevin Rennie on 24th August 2010:

    Basically agree with all your comments. I drafted the post on the plane and felt very tentative about writing, since we had little time to get to know the people and establish the kind of trust that is essential for this kind of reporting. I have sought feedback from Reita.

    Looking forward to your posts!

  • Kevin Rennie on 25th August 2010:


    Thank you for your response. I am sure that many visitors to Malaysia would come away feeling that it is not a developing nation. We were lucky to get out of KL and see some other aspects of your country.

    There are many parallels with the indigenous community in Arnhem Land where we lived and worked for 4 years up till the end of 2006. “Land is life”! It took 3 years before I felt knowledgeable or ‘comfortable’ enough to write anything about our experiences there and what we were learning.

  • Kevin Rennie on 25th August 2010:

    A couple of amendments to the story courtesy of Reita: “The village has piped water & electricity as well as mobile services but not a fixed phone service nor is internet available here. The computer you saw is not net-accessible and because of high humidity levels, is often prone to ‘dying’.”


  • Kevin Rennie on 26th August 2010:


    I will certainly follow up the link. In 2008 I was lucky enough to attend some sessions of the World Indigenous Peoples’ Conference on Education in Melbourne. Truly inspiring.

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