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The Batek Community in Malaysia: Cultural Behavior


The Batek of Malaysia represents a group of people from the Semang dialect that lives near Lebir River in the Kelantan State, Malaysia. People from Semang are characterized by physical feature of Negros origin, which are inclusive but not limited to noses that are flat and broad, curly hair, as well as a dark skin. Their language belongs to the Mon Khmer family, although there are some borrowed words from Malay, a language from Austronesia. Their population as per the statistics of the year 1975 to 1976 was about three hundred in total.

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By then, most of the Batek people were nomads, while the rest traded with the goods they used to obtain from the forest. Currently, the people of Batek occupy an area of close to two thousand square kilometers. However, although in 1970’s most of the Batek population used to live in the rain forest, the situation has changed especially towards the end of the twentieth century due to deforestation (Endicott & Bellwood, 1991). There is so much about the Batek people and with that background in mind, this paper shall focus on their main mode of subsistence and narrow down to how it affects their cultural behaviors.

Background Information

History of the Batek

The roots of the Batek community can be traced back from a group which was known as Hoabicians, since it inhabited peninsular back in the year 8000 BC. However, from 6th-13th century, Batek managed to interact with other communities. This was due to the fact that they were residing near a trade route, which was being used by people from a place currently known as Thailand. The main economic activity of the Batek community by then was trade with forest products as well as cultivation. The Batek lost trust on outsiders especially the Malays because they used to raid their camps with an aim of obtaining slaves.

The government gained control over the community in the mid twentieth century after the department of Aboriginal Affairs was established. Currently, Batek have been displaced from their initial dwelling regions due to the fact that the current government does not recognize their right to settle in the forest. Over fifty percent of the total population has been displaced due to clearing of the forests. Consequently, some of them have been settled in places where they practice cash crop farming and are able to be availed with social amenities such as hospitals and schools (Hathaway, 2007).

Economic Activities of the Batek People

Studies indicate that the economy of Batek is a complex issue since they take part in different economic activities. For instance, even though they are foragers, they are also involved in collecting and selling forest products as well as small scale farming, though occasionally. They make proper use of the wild food, which is inclusive of tubers like the wild yams , small animals killed using darts with poison and blow pipes like gibbons and monkeys, as well as different types of fruits which are edible.

As highlighted earlier, Batek also trade using products which are inclusive but not limited to fragrant woods as well as rattan, which are exchanged for goods like tobacco, cloth, rice and tools of iron to name just a few. Through their interaction with the Malays, they used to obtain some seeds and other plants, which they used to plant. Nevertheless, the Batek community takes part in projects of farming, which are usually sponsored by Malaysian Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

On the same note, it is important to mention that Batek people also engage in fishing. However, studies illustrate that they make use of food commodities in relation to the number of calories they obtain from the specific food. For example, they capitalize more on fruit and honey followed by goods which are purchased, wild tubers, and lastly foods which they grow (Endicott & Bellwood, 1991).

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Family Life

A conjugal family happens to be the basic unit of the Batek community. A family consisting of a married couple is considered independent not only politically, but also economically. However, it is important to mention that families live in camps and each camp may comprise two to fifteen families, which may be related in one way or another. Families keep on moving from one camp to another, as well as the whole group. Studies illustrate that a whole group moves approximately once in a week. A camp is not organized politically, but the leadership is based on influence. Therefore, the most influential member in a camp takes the leadership role. Although members in a camp originate from different families, they are obligated to share things like food with other members (Endicott, 1979).

It is surprising to learn that although Batek believe that land is owned by everyone, even those that are not of Batek origin, they still believe that there is a specific place for each person. The inheritance depends on the locality where a person grew up, or along a river where a person was born. However, although they believe that a person has got an inheritance, they also take it that any one is supposed to live and work on any land without any hindrance.

Impact of Batek’s Mode of Subsistence on Culture

Gender Relations

Like other communities who are hunters and gatherers, male and female members relate on the basis of equality. Both have a right not only to procure, but also to share food. Therefore, the contribution of every member either male or female in looking for food is highly regarded. Men usually focus on hunting while women concentrate on gathering vegetable foods. However, it is important to note that being an egalitarian community, there roles for women and men are not fixed. Therefore, men interested in gathering vegetables can do it without raising attention and similarly, women interested in hunting can also do it with no hindrance. The collection of goods used for trading like the rattan is done by male and females equally as it is the main activity that they engage in to obtain money. In case the society makes a decision of participating in the agricultural project, both sexes participate equally.

The relationship between men and women in marriage is similar to their relationship while carrying out the economic activities. Both have got the right of choosing their marriage partners based on love and compatibility. Decisions in the family are made jointly by both the husband and wife. In addition, they live as partners as they not only work together, but also spend leisure time in the company of each other. In case the relationship fails to work, it is the obligation of either a man or woman to ask for a divorce. When the divorce takes place, both can live alone independently and even take of their children. Most importantly, since the live in a camp, members of the camp can shoulder the burden of taking care of the children since it is their moral obligation to share food.

Impact of Batek’s Mode of Subsistence on Economic Organization

As highlighted in the introductory part, both men and women in the Batek community take part in economic activities. For example, both do work as agricultural laborers for Malays and also collect and trade products from the forests. In addition, women also accompany men in towns to buy and sell goods. Therefore, for economic purposes, men and women interact with other people outside the Batek community as they carry out economic activities.

However, women are excluded from some economic activities which are left exclusively for men. For example, activities like looking for the wood that is used for burning incense is done entirely by men since it requires someone to be absent from camp for many days. Nevertheless, the fact men are involved in some economic activities in absence women does not make them to be more powerful economically since the earnings are shared widely among the members of the community. Therefore, unlike the case in other communities, trade and other economic activities do not lead to poor relations between men and women nor does it make one sex powerful over the other (Hathaway, 2007).

The relationship between men and women in the Batek community is highly respected even by the outsiders. For example, while conducting trade activities, the Malays deal equally with men and women and treat them in a similar manner. Women leaders are given a chance to exercise their leadership even if there are men who can perform their duties. Even if other communities that interact with Batek believe that it is only men who can make good leaders, the Batek have not been influenced up to date and continue regarding both sexes equally. Despite the fact that some Batek men have tried to practice polygamy like their Muslim neighbors, the practice is not widespread since women do not appreciate it.

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Political Organization

The study has indicated that autonomy of not only individuals but also nuclear families is emphasized among the Batek. Therefore, there is no mature person who is considered to be more powerful than the other. In a family set up, it is the duty of both husband and wife to make important decisions though they can consult with other members of the community. It is only in few instances and activities that a leader is required and in such circumstances, people have got a habit of following a person who can perform the activity in the best way possible.

However, there are some people who are regarded as natural leaders and people seek advice from them despite the fact that they do not have the power and authority to compel others in the society. Therefore, the leadership present among the Batek society is dependent on a person’s ability and character and is not determined by gender or any other factor as studies of Tuck-Po (2002) indicate.

A headman who is in most cases a man is usually appointed by Department of Aboriginal Affairs to help in organizing the interaction between the two groups. On the same note, it is important to mention that such a leader does not have a significant influence among the Batek’s unless he happens to be a leader naturally. In case of a dispute, the concerned parties are allowed to argue their case in public since there is no formal method of dealing with the same. Worse still, incase it becomes impossible to solve the conflict; one person has to surrender or move away.

Beliefs and Values

The Batek’s believe in supernatural being who is responsible for creating not only the animals and the earth, but also all the plants. In addition, they believe that the forest was created for the purpose of food, materials that can be used for building shelters as well as for obtaining body decorators. Even currently, the Batek still believe that a supernatural being continues to control seasons and some other processes. They also believe that they are supposed to safeguard the forest; the main reason why the supernatural being chose them to be foragers. Batek also believe that they are not supposed to cook some plants and food over the same fire as it is an insult to the super naturals.

There are some religious rituals that are performed from time to time like singing sessions. Studies illustrate that the Batek community sing as a ritual incase a person gets sick, before the season of fruits to ask for abundance, as well as afterwards as a form of thanks giving. They strongly believe that it is the intention of the super naturals for them to live in the rains forest where they can communicate effectively with them. Most importantly, they also take it that incase the forests are destroyed; the deities can get angry and destroy the earth by dissolving it in to the sea.


The study of various issues concerning the Batek of Malaysia clearly illustrates that the mode of subsistence of a certain group of people influences culture a great deal. The Batek are a grouped as foragers as their mode of subsistence is characterized by hunting and gathering to obtain food although they are still involved in other activities (Endicott, 1979). As a result, different aspects of their culture are governed by their basic mode of subsistence. For example, the study has indicated that their main economic activity is gathering and selling forest products. Therefore, as they gather and hunt food items, they also collect valuable items which they exchange with other communities in order to obtain money (Endicott, 1979).

The mode of subsistence also affects gender relations. Among the Batek, there are no fixed roles for men and women as both have got a responsibility of contributing towards the sustenance of the family. Even in the family set up, they are no specific gender roles for men or women since every member of the society is regarded as equal disregarding sex or gender. The leadership present is not based on gender but on personality as well as on ability. Finally, religious beliefs and values which are important aspects of culture are equally affected by their mode of subsistence. For example, they believe that the supernatural beings require them to stay in the rain forest where they derive their livelihood. In addition, they also conduct singing sessions before the season of fruits and even after as a sign of giving thanks in case of abundance.


The Batek community is among the groups that depend on hunting and gathering as their basic mode of subsistence. Since culture is dynamic and is usually defined as people’s way of life, their mode of subsistence affect their culture in various ways. The study has indicated that their religious beliefs, political organization, gender relations and economic organization are greatly affected by their foraging nature. However, although the Batek emphasizes on preserving their culture more so their mode of subsistence, the same has not been possible especially due to clearing of the forests. Nonetheless, the remaining Batek still preserve some aspects of their culture like their traditional religion despite the influence from other communities.

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List of References

Endicott, K. (1979). The hunting methods of the batek negritos of malaysia. Canberra Anthropology , 2 (2), 7 – 22.

Endicott, K., & Bellwood, P. (1991). The possibility of independent foraging in the rain forest of Peninsular Malaysia. Humanities, Social Sciences and Law , 19 (2), 151-185.

Hathaway, M. (2007). Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia. Journal of Ethnobiology , 27 (1), 132-133.

Tuck-Po, L. (2002). The Significance of Forest to the Emergence of Batek Knowledge in Pahang, Malaysia. Southeast Asian Studies , 40 (1), 3-22.

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