The wife sleeps on a makeshift hammock woven from torn fishnets, suspended inches above the wooden floor; it’s a rough surface contrary to what we call comfortable. The children share an aged, questionably moldy mattress barely large enough to fit the backs of two adolescent boys. Yet, their bodies curl adjacently, fitting snugly onto its four corners. The husband, however, contends with an arrangement of planks laid on the floor with nothing but a wooden headrest carved out by his wife. It looks unforgiving to his back. There weren’t any curtains, nightstands or fancy bed lamps, but littered across the floor were rusting fishing tools and outdated silverfish-invested school books. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid if the father weren’t my age, and his wife even younger. Instead, it spoke volumes of early marriage and the views surrounding it within the Mah Meri tribe, an indigenous group in Malaysia.
Hollywood movies rarely fail to pervert our senses, and this holds truer for the younger generation. Romantic comedies and chick flicks have crucified marriage repeatedly into a caricature of itself, yet its fairytale aroma remains adamant in society today: true love conquers all, no matter the consequence. The ‘happily ever after’ scenario earns applause and revenue, and is steepened into hubris digested by our society. But the underbelly of such implications is rarely explored, at least not in dialogue. Compatibility, financial credits, and trust top the young urbanized marital requirement checklist, with a sprinkled dose of Western hegemony on top. Pak Ihmoh, however, simply wanted his bride to bear him healthy children.
At 22, Pak Ihmoh is a fisherman by trade, but a young father by choice as he had already transitioned into parenthood while I inched towards paying my first income tax. His two sons are aged 3 and 4. He married his wife, then 17, within the boundaries of Kampung Sungai Dua, a fishing village an hour off the coast of Pulau Ketam. Marriage, he said, must come with children. Piecing together broken sentences of Bahasa Melayu, he spoke proudly of his sons. “They are growing fast and hopefully it’ll be soon enough for them to replace me in my trade,” he said. They spend a part of their days learning the tools of his trade, repairing fishnets and trawling equipment and learning naval navigation without technology. “Of course, they go to school too. It’s important they learn some things from school,” he added.
His wife, who refused to be named, told a similar frame of how marriage works within the Mah Meri village. “I’m happy to have had children right after we got married. They can grow up fast while we’re still young and be our caretakers of what we’ve left behind.” Both Pak Ihmoh and his wife went through the compulsory education of six years in primary school but stopped to carry out their expected roles within the community. For them, marriage steps in at adolescence – this early start is brought forward by their society’s view of marriage and its functions within the community. Understandably, poverty has also placed larger emphasis on earning a livelihood through labour-intensive work, handiwork and craft.
96% of indigenous women are married by the time they are 18, with pregnancy following soon after, noted the late Carol Laderman, a critically acclaimed anthropologist in 2007. The Mah Meri tribe, a subgroup of the Senoi, are scattered in communities along the south-west coast of Selangor, and literacy rates are alarmingly at 51%. They are also living under extreme poverty where 35% of Orang Asli communities are categorised as the ‘hardcore poor’. The numbers tally to paint an unfamiliar picture: a foreign lifestyle that sits uncomfortably among the urbanized middle class. Education isn’t on the agenda for Pak Ihmoh and his wife, and neither is gender equality, national health care, voting rights or cultural liberalization.
The darker underside of early marriage shows itself on different scopes of the spectrum. “Arranged marriages are common practice,” said Pak Ihmoh. “My wife and I both agreed to our family’s decisions, and from there it went well.” When asked if there were any cases of marriages that were unwillingly arranged, an uneasy glint of discomfort comes upon his face, “Yes, but their parents often know what’s better for them.” Cases where couples are arranged to be wed without consent is not unheard of. Illiteracy and healthcare are also among the civil rights of the Orang Asli community which remain unsolved.
There is an apparent conflict of interests for Pak Ihmoh though, as the conversation continued. A shift in the paradigm of expectations is obvious through an optimism that disregards the unemployment factor. When asked of their children’s future, Pak Ihmoh accepted that education is the way to go: “Of course, school would do them well. It’ll be great for the children to learn more, to be successful in life. They may not have to work hard daily any more if they do well in school and find a big-city job.”
At this time, the children clamour over iPads and books that we brought along — their eyes were open in wonderment to places beyond the boundaries of what they were offered and what was expected of them. Could it be that the next generation will see things and think about life differently from the generation before them?
It was during a brusque lunch that I witnessed the simple intimacy and companionship between Pak Ihmoh and his family. Dishing out rice, wild vegetables and broiled cat-fish, the family of four feasted while taking shelter from the scorching midday sun under giant banana tree leaves. There were no phone calls, television feedback or radio chatter in between, just sounds of a young family enjoying a mid-day break; the children bantering about the games they had been playing with the other children, the parents sharing talk about the day’s work. As an observer, I saw contentment coming in a form that is often disregarded in our increasingly convoluted society.
Perhaps the youth today have overshadowed the basic figment of marriage that expects conformity from many ends. From overlooking opportunities that are given in privileged lives to the relentless pursuit of self-gratification in marriage, it’s a growing trend for adults to encounter a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies: I Do, then re-do. For the young urbanised middle class, the idea of marriage itself is a story that many find unhappy endings to. A parcel we can take from the Mah Meri tribe is the convention of contemplation for the future, as how Pak Ihmoh and his wife view as the foundation to their union. Marriage, at face value, gives the younger society an excuse to re-roll the dice until we stumble upon the right number at the right time.
Essentially, early marriage among the Orang Asli isn’t as foreign an idea to most of us today. Companionship and compassion to those we love and learn to love eventually puts everyone on the fishnet hammock and the wooden floor. An apt verse from Robert Burn’s To A Louse reads:
‘To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us’
Edited for ISSUE Magazine by Mabel Ho.