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The Batek People of Malaysia Essay

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2021


The Batek are native people inhabiting the Malaysian peninsula’s rainforests. They are the aboriginal people and live unassimilated. They mostly inhabit the Taman Negara Park along the peninsula. They regard themselves as Batek hep meaning ‘forest people’ (Bisht & Bankoti, 2004). It was not until the nineteen seventies that their extensive tropical rain forest inhabitant is raging from Lebir River up to Tembling River and from Chiku and Tanum River, that their land was logged and substituted with rubber and palm oil plantations.

They responded by further retreating inside the park. From the forest, they obtain yams, nuts, honey, fruits, leaves, small animals, birds, and fish. The Batek lives in encampments containing about six nuclear families. Initially, they would evade external influence by subsiding deeper into the rainforests, but time is rapidly catching up with them.

However, in the recent past, they have constantly interacted with outsiders due to government programs since their homes are being logged for the cultivation of palm oil and allocation of lands. They have a defined language, cultural values, and norms that revolve around their mode of subsistence. The Batek are foragers, and their economy involves hunting and gathering. Foraging is separated into blowpipe hunting, burrowing of wild yams, and rattan collection. Although they practice some agriculture, they do not pay key emphasis to land ownership (Bisht & Bankoti, 2004). The Batek of Malaysia foraging, which is the primary mode of subsistence, continues to affect their cultural behavior regarding gender relations, beliefs, and values, as well as social, political, and economic organizations.

Social Organization

The Batek community is composed of a nuclear family consisting of a married couple and their young ones. Nuclear families have temporary shelters for cooking and eating together. They take roles as a unit and participate in child upbringing. The husband and wife make decisions on where to reside when their exodus is due, and what roles to take. The nuclear families are bounded into the larger community by several flexible connections. Besides, “they beckon kingship ties bilaterally through both parents and have a strong obligation to help close kin on both sides” (Bisht & Bankoti, 2004 p.101). Siblings, as well as cousins identified with similar terms, establish joint support groups. Marriage forms complementary roles to the spouse’s kinsfolks or the in-laws, which persist even after the spouses are divorced.

Many Batek children, therefore, have a number of relatives who care for them. The camps had roles in food sharing networks even when membership changed. Moreover, they have high regard for personal autonomy, and no coercions exist amid adults, while parental power above the children is not as strong. Children have a tendency to ignore their parental reprimands as parents dismiss the case since they are only children who have their rights. Spouses freely choose to be married or devoiced and have equal roles regarding family issues and camp affairs.

Political organization

The Batek uses streams and rivers as a source of drinking and bathing water, fish, and, most importantly, as natural regional borders.

The people enjoy camping in a river’s vicinity and identify themselves with river confluences. They also have strong cultural bonds and a sense of homeland along watershed regions. They have headmen to represent them while dealing with outsiders such as the Malaysian government. For one to qualify for the position, one should be charismatic, extrovert, and familiar with the Malay language. The Batek lack internal leadership institutions other than the ones forced by the Malaysian government (Gowdy, 1998).

They have ‘natural leaders’ from both genders based on expertise to give advice and guide and not to dictate their interests through coercion. Violence is highly disregarded and angers the community. Since there lacks of formal leaders in the community, there has been headman appointed through the help of the government to speak on behalf of the people and possess no higher rank when among the Batek.

Every community member can make independent decisions regarding the tasks, movement, and joining of camps. If camp members are in agreement with the decisions, they remain bonded and coworkers. On the contrary, regroups are formed in varied regions to engage in different tasks. Some of the members are wise, experienced, and charismatic and are looked upon to resolve such issues, and they could belong to either sex. Besides, the Batek culture and religion award equality of men and women for the society to coexist properly (Lampell, 2010). They coexist peacefully, and when there is unrest, the two conflicting parties engage in private discussions.

Subsequently, they are their views to other members to hear them since every adult is treated equally, and internal leaders are absent. However, the government programs are interfering with this balance since they disregard female leaders and appointing male headmen spokesmen, although the Batek continues to ignore the idea (Lye, 2004).

In the modern social setups, the Batek are prone to external attacks, and this affects them very much since they lack internal leadership organization and warriors. Besides, the Malaysian government continues to interfere with their welfare since they destroy what Batek considers their homes, which are encroached for agriculture and logging. They have, therefore, been encouraged to live as non-nomadic farmers in Pos Lebir courtesy of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In their settlement schemes, they are supplied with equipment and necessities to facilitate agriculture, but they always give up the agricultural practice to move into the forest and proceed with foraging. This lifestyle liberates them since they move freely to collect food and some product to trade (Lye, 2004).

Economic organization

Batek gathers wild vegetables such as yams to comprise their foraging diet. Camp members leave in the morning to gather yams and use digging sticks to obtain the tubers. The women then gather vegetables and may catch any game on their way home. Seasonally, they enjoy honey and fruits and supplement their vegetable diet with game meat from monkeys, squirrels, birds, among others. They catch them by using bamboo blowpipes as well as darts whose tips contain a lethal sap. The Batek catch fish using hook and line, nets, or poisoned baits and enjoy fishing, particularly in the afternoons (Bisht & Bankoti, 2004).

Other than foraging, they practice trade with a particular interest in rattan for weaving and gaharu for incense through negotiations. Camp members collect and transport the needed products to get money or in exchange for other goods they are in need of. The achievement of their foraging and trading economy relies on their flexibility as well as food sharing. They are nomads and live in temporary shelters made of palm-leaves thatching. They are freed from having to look for food every day as a result of food sharing based on generalized reciprocity (Bisht & Bankoti, 2004).

The indigenous community of Batek is being affected by technological advancements, but they have pursued to evade the confrontation by retreating and supplementing their foraging subsistence. Today, the rising population has called for the clearance of forests and for agricultural purposes. They now reside in Taman Negara National park. They reside in familial groups in encampments consisting of about ten members.

This encampment controls the surrounding land, although they disregard private land ownership. Therefore, the encampment has land caretaker. They have become nomads since their wild plants have encroached, and therefore, they keep on moving to more favorable regions. Their economy is quite complex since they have neither private lands nor property due to their nomadic nature. They have to share with the entire community, for instance, the food harvested from foraging (Gowdy, 1998).

The Batek have been having increased contacts with the Malays. As a result, they have engaged in some economic activities where both genders participate. They both work for Malays as a laborer in the farms and sell their forest resources to them. The men are accompanied by their wives in the market to trade goods, and there is increased exposure to Malay traders. There has risen economic activities, which are maximized by males such as those that need some time off from the encampments, e.g., collection of gaharu wood to make incense.

Whatever earnings they gain are shared among the camp members, and it has not caused their fragmentation, nether is attributed to higher ranks of men as compared to women, unlike in some communities. Trade debates, as well as other informal interactions with the Malay, have not affected the gender parity that exists amid the Batek. Traders are aware that trade negotiations have to be treated independently of genders (Gowdy, 1998).

Beliefs and Values

The Batek believes that immortal supreme beings are the creators of the earth and its content. After they created human, others created the animal and plants to fulfill the needs of people. The supernatural beings continue to safeguard their seasonal cycles, such as honey and fruits and phenomenon involving the sky, earth, and sea. They believe their role is to safeguard the forests. They believe that the same fire should not cook diverse food types since it disobeys the creator. They sing to the Supreme Being to communicate with them, particularly during illness, to obtain healing powers and for thanksgiving.

They fight the evils through burning incense and making blood sacrifices to the supernatural beings to appease them. During the ritual, offenders cut a bit of their shin skin to get some blood and combine it with water and disperse it towards the sky while chanting.( Bisht & Bankoti, 2004). They prohibit actions named law, i.e., cooking mismatched foods using one fire, which is believed to bring bad omens such as illness. Each fruit season is marked by building low thatched platforms and singing to the supernatural beings for thanksgiving and to ask for healing. Sickness and healing dictate the community’s wellbeing and could emerge from cultural realizations. Among the Batek, sickness emerges when the community is angry at their own while healing results from personal apologies.

Additionally, asking the Batek for anything obliges them to give out since they believe that failure to do so could result in supernatural damage to the party. Moreover, this also is believed to induce society to become angry at the wrongdoer. Personal belongings are also lent to others, and refusing to give such favors would prompt the individual turned down to encounter a disaster, and that way, the community, would become angry towards the unkind individual.

On the same note, the concept of sharing is a moral obligation for the Batek. They not only share food in which a person harvests, but also there is a ritual manner accompanying it. For instance, the hunters are the tail and offal eaters since they are the slices that cook first (Lye, 2004). The cooked meal is then sectioned for every family member to have a share in accordance with the family size. Interestingly, to them, the act is not to show kindness, but they believe that these are natural resources, and therefore it’s their moral obligation for those with food to give others without. Selfishness is not allowed by the community.

Even so, the encampments are open, and therefore, one cannot hide food without other’s knowledge. Taking such food cannot be taken as stealing since one has a right to take the food if starving. Sharing and acts of kindness are extensively applied by the Batek. The males possess blowguns applied for hunting, which are shared. In the rainforest, the weather is a bit hot and humid, and this is not conducive to keep food for a long time since it would spoil (Lye, 2004).

Gender Relations

The Batek practice egalitarian gender relations. Both genders engage in the procurement and sharing of food. The role of searching for food varies with gender. Women engage in the gathering of vegetables while men engage in the hunting of game. Every person’s contribution is considered valuable irrespective of gender, and acquires an equal share of food from the network in the encampments (Lampell, 2010). The Batek does not set explicit rules for defining gender roles, and the role of hunting and gathering may be done by any of the sexes at will. Both genders collect and trade rattan that is the major economic activity. They also engage in farming practices for those who comply with allocation schemes from the government.

The Batek egalitarian arrangement of their economic practices corresponds with the egalitarian arrangement of their marriages. Both genders elect their partners depending on how affectionate or compatible they are. The families are independent in economic decisions as both the husband and the wife decide on food sources and camp transfers. Their lives are integrated, where they share work and leisure time and make effective companionship as coworkers.

In a case that this is compromised, they are allowed to divorce, and each individual can dictate his own actions following the divorce but continue to depend on camp networks for food. Both sexes participate in shelter constructions while other camp members aid in child care (Lampell, 2010). Gender disparity is not culturally instilled with prejudice rules. However, egalitarian gender interactions are integral to the lifestyle of the Batek.


The Batek resist assimilation from the Malayans and persist on their values such as gender parity. For instance, Malayans believe in female subjugation, but the Batek emphasize that they cannot give up their values. Generally, they disregard the Malay’s way of life. However, in the light of things, their foraging lifestyle could be compromised when the logging and encroachment intensifies. Therefore, they would have to live together with the Malaysian as the government programs continue to prepare them in order not to be caught unaware.

If they are unwilling to neglect their lifestyle, then they have to supplement their mode of subsistence of foraging with a trade or waged labor, which might segregate their society along social, political, and economic lines. Besides, dislocating them from their traditional residents and insufficient economic options place them in a shaky state. Similar to other indigenous communities, Batek has to pave the way for assimilation in society and advance with the changing times. They have to rethink other subsistence modes to relocate and integrating with the Malaysians.

However, they believe that they have to harvest the natural resources from the forests to claim ownership. These items can be harvested by anyone. Since they are hunters and gatherers, they are faced with severe impacts of human encroachment due to urbanization. As a result, they have been advised to settle in specific areas and practice subsistence agriculture, which adversely affects them. Traditionally, the community gets its mode of subsistence from gathering tubers, fruits, game meat, vegetables, honey, and fish for their nutrition. The Batek of Malaysia foraging, which is the primary mode of subsistence, continues to affect their cultural behavior regarding gender relations, beliefs, and values, as well as social, political, and economic organizations.


Bisht, N. S. & Bankoti, T. S. (2004). Encyclopedia of the South East Asian Ethnography. Enclave, Delhi: Global Vision Publishing House.

Gowdy, J. M. (1998). Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader on Hunter-Gatherer Economics and the Environment. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Lampell, K. (2010). “The Batek De’ of Malaysia: Development and egalitarian sex roles.” Cultural Survival, Inc. Web.

Lye, T. (2004). Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia. Oxford, UK: Lexington Books.

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