One of the most interesting parts of the internship experience has been visiting kampungs (villages) in rural parts of Malaysia to meet various Indigenous groups.

I had the privilege of visiting a handful of kampungs in Peninsular Malaysia including Kampung Kelab, Kampung Lurah Bilut, and Kampung Berengoi-Mesau. My supervisor advised me to download an off-road GPS app to track our movement and pin landmarks since many kampungs in Semenanjung (Peninsular Malaysia) are deep in the forests and mountains, where phone service is limited and google maps are insufficient to rely on.

During these field visits, my supervisor engaged with the Orang Asli (Indigenous peoples of Peninsular Malaysia) residing in these kampungs, gaining insights into their needs and concerns. Prominent among these concerns were issues of customary land rights. The Orang Asli’s journey toward establishing and proving their customary land rights, crucial to preventing forced displacement, resisting governmental infrastructure projects like dams, and combatting deforestation by private logging companies, emerged as central topics.

These village visits also served as platforms for implementing educational and economic development programs, along with hands-on projects such as road repairs after landslides, bridge reconstructions post-monsoons, and the installation of solar panels.

Upon moving to Sabah, I was excited to join PACOS Trust on a kampung visit in a rural area in the mountains nearby Keningau, a town approximately 3 hours away from our home base of Penampang.

The purpose of this trip was to assess one of PACOS Trust’s Community Learning Centres in Kampung Kalampun – a village inhabited by over 600 Murut people, one of Borneo’s 29 sub-ethnic Indigenous groups. The term ‘Murut’, translating to ‘hill people’, seemed fitting as we navigated the winding mountain roads to reach the village. During our time in Kampung Kalampun, we had the privilege of learning rattan weaving from one of the CLC teachers, showcasing a traditional craft deeply rooted in Southeast Asian culture.

We also got the chance to explore two additional nearby kampungs, both populated by Murut people. In Kampung Kahaba, we engaged in pineapple harvesting, while in Kampung Dalit, we visited the village where one of our DAP colleagues was raised.

Observing the presence of Catholic Churches in these villages was intriguing, a rarity in Peninsular Malaysia’s Muslim-majority setting. In contrast, Sabah’s population consists of an almost equal distribution of Muslims and Christians. I learned on the village visit that Malaysian Indigenous communities bear ancient spiritual and cultural belief systems inherited from their ancestors. Historically, colonization led to attempts by missionaries to convert them to Islam or Catholicism. Today, many Murut people embrace organized religious systems alongside their culturally rooted Murut beliefs.

These village trips have illuminated the striking dissimilarities among these communities and offered valuable insights into the intricate tapestry of sub-ethnic groups and their unique stories. Sabah’s Indigenous population accounts for over half of the state’s residents, whereas in Peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli constitutes less than 1%. This difference is reflected in the infrastructure and resources of their respective kampungs, as well as their interactions with the government. Sabah’s kampungs are better equipped, resembling suburban settings with access to amenities, whereas Peninsular Malaysia’s rural kampungs often grapple with inadequate roads, limited medical and governmental services, and water sources mainly from nearby rivers.

The journey into the heart of these kampungs has revealed a tapestry of experiences that have left an indelible mark on my internship. Venturing into the rural corners of Malaysia to engage with its diverse Indigenous communities has broadened my understanding and appreciation for the complexities that shape their lives and has fuelled my commitment to fostering understanding, respect, and empowerment for these remarkable communities.