Cultural Overview

Btsisi' are an Orang Asli (Malay, "original people") tribe, who speak Btsisi' or Hma' Heh ("we people"), a South Asiian language belonging to the Mon-Khmer family of Austro-Asiatic languages. Traditionally, moving in and out of various ecosystems including the inland rain forests, mangroves, and the littoral, Btsisi' carried out opportunistic foraging in these environments. In the rain forests Btsisi' hunted and gathered; they would also cultivate small patches of cleared forest with hill rice and other food crops. In the mangroves, Btsisi' fished using nets, hook and line, and poison tubers. They also crabbed using a variety of techniques depending upon the tide. The mangrove forests also provided wood for houses and firewood. Along the strand, Btsisi' gathered clams, cockles, and other bivalves, and fished using long stationary barrier nets raised and lowered with the incoming and outgoing tides. In the Straits of Malacca, Btsisi' fished with long lines and palisade traps. Many of the traditional subsistence activities are no longer practiced, as a result of deforestation and mangrove clearing by commercial agricultural plantations, and commercial overfishing. While Btsisi' still fish and collect mangrove fauna, it is less productive and results in smaller catches. Modern Btsisi' work as wage laborers harvesting oil palm for plantations, while others work at the new international airport and nearby resorts as cleaners and baggage handlers. Cash cropping is now a major economic activity with oil palm, coffee, and fruit as the major crops.

One village has a well-established wood-carving cottage industry marketed to tourists.

Traditionally, Btsisi' lived along the upper reaches of mangrove rivers which gave them easy access to the various ecosystems they exploited. People built stilt houses along the tidal banks and others resided on small boats wandering in the mangroves. Today, a few Btsisi' still live in the mangrove, but most have opted to live inland and travel to the mangroves. With increasing integration into the cash economy, wealthier Btsisi' are beginning to build their houses with cinder blocks on cement floors. Poorer Btsisi' continue to build their houses on stilts using materials from the mangrove; however, building materials are becoming scarce due to the commercial oil palm plantation draining the mangroves.

Villages vary in size but most are no more than 60 households. There are seven island communities, and four mainland villages situated near the coast. There are also a scattering of Btsisi' who still opt to reside in the mangroves in small clusters of two to three houses. The Malaysian government census places the Btsisi' population at around 1,300 people.

Most decisions are reached at the household and kin group level. When a village meeting is called, everyone knows the issue or problem, thus allowing time and opportunity for extensive informal discussions before the formal meeting. People reach their opinions prior to the meeting; a married couple usually reach a joint opinion which the husband presents. Women rarely participate since they do not speak with appropriate decorum. There is no proscription on women learning proper behavior and speech, but they leave this to the men. Women attend meetings sitting amongst themselves, listening to the men. Meetings always end in consensus, highlighting the unity of the community.

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