Rediscovering the Mah Meri

By Patricia Hului

WITH INTRICATELY WOVEN PALM LEAVES adorning their carved wooden masks, Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike are fascinated by the Mah Meri people because their culture is so unique from their own.


Besides the term ‘Mah Meri’, they are also known by other names: Besisi, Mah Bertise, orang Persisir.

Snapshots of the Mah Meri group when they performed at the RWMF in 2007.

Snapshots of the Mah Meri group when they performed at the RWMF in 2007.


Although they are one of Peninsular Malaysia’s native indigenous tribes, the Mah Meri are also one of Malaysia’s minorities.


They number to about 4,000 people spread throughout 10 villages.


Most of them live in Carey Island, Selangor, 90km to the south of Kuala Lumpur.

Rashid Esa

Rashid Esa


Led by their coordinator Rashid Esa, the Mah Meri musical and dance troupe performed during the Borneo World Music Expo (BWME) June 16-18, demonstrating the rituals and customs of the tribe.


They accompanied their performance with an assortment of percussion instruments including drums, gongs and bamboo shakers, along with violins and stringed instruments.


During BWME, The Borneo Post SEEDS caught Rashid for a short interview and he was ready to set the record straight on the misconceptions surrounding the Mah Meri people.


“I live with them, I see their place, and they are sympathetic, marginalised people. Their visions in lives are different, their cultures are different, that’s make them more interesting,” said Rashid, who works at the Mah Meri Cultural Village on Carey Island. A former IT-professional, he has lived with them since 1989.


He has earned many awards, the most recent one being recognised as one of ‘Digi’s Amazing Malaysians’ in 2006.


“First you have to understand how they work; once we understand then we can help them. Most of the people don’t understand.”


“Their history goes back around 15,000 years. To call them names like ‘sakai’ is incorrect,”  said Rashid.


Rashid emphasised that the Mah Meri people have been misunderstood and that not all that has been written about them by scholars or academicians is accurate.


An example of scholars being wrong in reference to the Mah Meri people were that this tribe was sexually permissive.


“We don’t understand their culture yet we keep on passing judgement on them,” Rashid stated.


“I found that their marriages are more focused on the equality of men and women,” he explained that although they do have arranged marriages that may not be based on love, they are nonetheless based on compatibility.


Rashid gave an example of a ritual where both the man and woman had to go through before agreeing to the marriage called, ‘Sorok Pengantin’.


In the ritual, the suitor picks his wife from a line of potential candidates who are separated from him by a curtain. They will show only their hands through the curtain, by which he will have to choose his future wife.


The ritual allows the woman to decline the suitor by a simple gesture of not putting out her hands.


Rashid also commented that the media always highlighted the hardship of the Mah Meri people, putting their poverty in the limelight.


“What is more important is telling the people who are these people, where do they come from, what are their cultures,” said Rashid.


He continued, “We always think that we are better than them, trying to convert them into Islam or Christianity; these are the things that upset the people. When the influence from outside comes in, that’s what makes them confused.”


An example of where the Mah Meri can already be at a disadvantage are in the education system where school textbooks use Western imagery or examples. “They teach the students, one apple plus one apple equals two apples, how are they supposed to learn when they don’t know what an apple is? If they used ‘petai’ instead, that would more make sense to them.”


He hoped that the education systems would be more fitting to them because the Mah Meri people stay very true to their beliefs.


For instance the Mah Meri people cannot say the word ‘tiger’ because according to their belief, the tiger would come if they say it.


He commented on the selfishness of some from the academic world where scholars who come to study the Mah Meri people tend not to share their findings or recordings.


“The problem with scholars is that they do not share. We can read books and refer to what they doing but they don’t share, especially with recorded material such as music. They came in for six months for example, they get their PhDs, and then they disappear with the material.”


Based on those experiences with academicians, Rashid made his own policy for anyone who wanted to collaborate with the Mah Meri people on their music or culture that they needed to share whatever the end result of the collaboration with the Mah Meri.


Together with the Mah Meri sculptors, he won at least 14 awards from the UNESCO AHPADA (Asean Handricraft Promotion and Development Association), a seal of excellence for their handiwork.


Want to know more about the Mah Meri? Get the information first hand at the Mah Meri Cultural Village’s official website here.


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