Why Indigenous Rights Matter

Being proud of where you come from was something unfamiliar to me until I started working with the indigenous rights movement.

Like many urban kids, I grew up influenced by western media and took very little pride in my own culture and traditions. Instead, I wished I was born in countries of many seasons which captivated me in the books I read and the movies I watched.

My family was not traditional, but we did some “Chinese” things, like burning paper money for our ancestors. Back then, as an “angsty” teenager, I would say that it was a stupid thing to do because it was a waste of money and polluting the environment; even though I never really understood why we did it.

I first started getting involved in indigenous issues during my internship with the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC), and being proud your culture and traditions and where you come from are some of the core values of the indigenous movement. I started to feel very embarrassed, because I knew and understood so little about my own, and had grown up sort of denying my own roots.

I thought then that I was trying to understand another culture, the indigenous culture, only to find that it is really an ongoing lesson on understanding my own identity and how it relates to the rest of society, something which I never gave much thought to before.

This topic and series of photos were used in a talk given at TedXYouth KL 2012, titled “Why indigenous rights maer” on November 17, 2012.

During one of my first few visits to a Semai community, I remember trying to be extremely courteous and thanking anyone who offered me food and assisted me with anything. But whenever I helped others or offered food, no one said thank you back. I was not offended, but I thought it was strange.

My mentor later explained to me that within the Semai culture, you don't do things because you expect anything in return, but it is your responsibility in ensuring the wellbeing of others.

Because of their close relationship to the forest, many global organisations such as the UN have recognised the importance of the indigenous people's role in protecting the forest; those who depend on it are the best people to take care of it.

Have I lost it all? Am I just part of this global, homogenised, mainstream society that drinks Starbucks and watches 12 seasons of “American Idol”?

And is that what would become of the indigenous people?

As how the Semai community would put it, it is all our responsibility to ensure the wellbeing of every community in this process.

If not out of respect for one another, the indigenous rights movement is especially important because, as stewards of the forest, they may hold the key to protecting what's left of the forested land we have.

The indigenous rights movement inspires me because it taught me that it is okay to be different and to stand up for it. It taught me to take pride in where I come from, and that we are all in this together. I hope that it may inspire you too.

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