Alexander Simanjuntak was born in the Lake Toba area in Sumatra, Indonesia. In 1931, he joined the Methodist Mission of Malaya as a colporteur and then as a missionary working among the Sengoi indigenous group in Cameron Highlands in the state of Pahang, Malaya.
Lake Toba was where the German Rhenish Mission Society (Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft, RMG) had started mission work in October 1890. Alexander, who was from the Batak indigenous tribe, received his diploma as a Christian worker from the Rhenish training school in Sipoholan, Sumatra. He also received training in the literacy teaching method developed by Dr Frank Laubach. This came in very useful later when he worked among the Sengoi.
The American Methodist missionary, Paul Means, was instrumental in recruiting Alexander. Means had arrived in Sumatra in April 1927 to serve as the principal of the Methodist Boys School in Medan. He was surprised to find 12,000 to 20,000 Christians among the local Batak people who had been discipled by the Dutch and German missionaries. The “visible evidence of the power of Christianity to transform community life among the Bataks” made a deep impression on Means, who went on to play a leading role in planting the Sengoi mission in Malaya.
The first school among the Orang Asli began in October 1931 when Means and Alexander visited a Sengoi village at the 16th mile on the Pahang Road between Tapah, a small town at the foothills of Cameron Highlands, and Ringlet. They negotiated with the penghulu (village headman) to start a school for the Sengoi boys.
The school started with only three students: Bah Juah, Bah Muris and Bah Lemay. Another three potential pupils were wary and failed to turn up. According to Paul and Nathalie Means in their book And the Seed Grew, they thought, “Perhaps this tuan (Malay term of respect for master) comes to teach us so that when we become clever he will order us to be soldiers like the Malays. So why go to school?”
Little more than a hut, the school measured eight by 12 feet and was built on poles six feet above the ground. Its walls and floor were made of split bamboo and it had a palm-leaf thatched roof. Half of it served as a classroom while the other half as living quarters for Alexander.
Soon after the school started, Alexander reported to Paul Means: “The three boys are good pupils and their minds are clear. They are industrious, reverent and lovable. They like to sing and listen carefully when I read to them. They are learning a bit how to use their slates. Sunday I will teach them a hymn. I told them not to work on Sunday. They wanted to wash their clothes but I said today (Saturday) is the day for that. When you come, tuan, you will not want to stay in my house, it is so small. But you may stay in Bah Dikit’s house. Will you please take a picture of us at school when you come again, the teacher and his three pupils.”
Alexander was easily accepted as he spoke fluent Malay and there were some physical similarities between the Batak and Sengoi, who watched everything that he did closely. He planted several varieties of vegetables in a garden plot near his hut and settled into village life. Gradually, he was able to win the trust and confidence of the villagers, particularly the penghulu. Eventually, the Sunday service was conducted at Penghulu Bah Dikit’s hut which was more spacious. Alexander played his harmonica, taught them Malay hymns and to read from the Malay Bible. With their interest piqued, Bah Dikit, his wife and daughter later joined the reading classes.
Supplies of medicines from Paul Means were put to good use to heal skin ailments which the Sengoi suffered from, further cementing the villagers’ acceptance of Alexander and the message of the gospel. On Christmas eve that year, Alexander put up a small tree with some simple decorations. Candles, which Means had sent, lit up the hut and “Silent Night” was sung for the first time deep in the jungles of Peninsular Malaya. The Sengoi also received small gifts from Alexander after he had read the Christmas story to them.
In 1930, Bishop Edwin Lee of the Methodist Church of Malaya had initiated the Home Missionary Society at the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church to support the local Chinese and Tamil work. The Sengoi work was included in 1932. Alexander’s salary was raised to $25 per month and, if he married, he would receive $35 per month. That same year, he went back to Lake Toba to look for a wife to serve together with him in Malaya. In July 1932, he married Saripa Boru Silatonga at a bride price of $10.
On his return, he found that the school at the 16th mile had been taken over by B.W.F. Napitupulu, also a Batak teacher. In 1931, the Malaya Conference had appointed Reverend S.S. Pakianathan as the first president of the Home Missionary Society to take care of the Tamil and Chinese work in Pahang and the Sengoi work in Cameron Highlands. Pakianathan hired Napitupulu to take over the work at the 16th mile school when Alexander went back to Lake Toba.
So Alexander moved his work to a Sengoi village at the Telom Valley in Cameron Highlands which was bigger and headed by Penghulu Blang Muda. He and his wife stayed nearby at Ringlet town. On August 8, 1932, the couple decided to move into the jungle to be closer to the Sengoi and “to be like salt, and that we may become like a lamp for the Sengoi people because of Jesus Christ our Redeemer”.
By October, Alexander was teaching eight boys. The students learned to read quickly and were taught some simple arithmetic. They loved to sing. There was even a Chinese pupil among them. After a few months, a school building large enough to accommodate 50 pupils was built.
In his circular letter dated August 1936, Paul Means wrote: “The second day’s tramp brought us to the Telom Valley, where Alexander lived for two years. Batin Penghulu Batu is the head chieftain of the Sengois and gave us a real welcome. Here a large number of Sengois live in a comparatively small area. There are three or four large houses along the Telom River all near enough for us to visit. All these people were delighted to see Alexander and eager to tell us how much he had helped them.”
At the service held in his house that evening, Penghulu Batu spoke at length about how the guru (teacher) had helped them and how they had come to know God. “Formerly, we were often sick, now we are well. Formerly we suffered from hunger but now we have enough to eat. Formerly we were very afraid, but now we have many blessings. God is good to us.”
Among Alexander's students, Bah Prah from the Telom valley was the most promising. He studied under Alexander for three years and in 1941, he became the first Christian Sengoi to be baptised. Bah Prah later became the first Sengoi mission worker and evangelist.
The mission work and conversion of the Sengoi was not without controversy. An article published in the Straits Times of Singapore dated January 25, 1935 titled “Missionaries among the Sakais” reported:
“Christian hymns sung in perfect harmony by Sakais in their jungle homes. That is the miracle taking place in Pahang and Perak where Christian missionaries are preaching the Gospel to those aborigines. The work began three years ago and there are now three mission schools in existence teaching not only the Sakai boys and girls but also fathers and mothers.
“Unique as this situation is it becomes all the more extraordinary by reason of the fact that the missionaries in charge are Bataks, members of a savage tribe in Sumatra who themselves had been educated and converted (by the Rhenish Mission of Barmen, Germany). The story of this phase of Christian work is naturally an interesting one. When the difficulties in the path of the gurus are considered, the success they have attained is all the more remarkable.”
The article elicited strong negative responses from some readers who wrote in to the newspaper. One writer said: “What I can’t understand is: What harm and what wrong have the Sakais done to humanity or society that the missionaries must need to get on to them. They are real children of the jungle and what earthly use is there ‘to raise their life to a higher level’? All of them that I have met are perfectly happy in their mode of life, and what the eye does not see the heart does not grieve for.”
However, the reality of the situation was missed by many of the readers. Apart from the scarcity of food (due to their nomadic lifestyle) and the absence of education and proper medical care, the Sengoi lived in constant fear of demons. A government ethnographer named Noone from the Taiping Museum initially was opposed to the work among the Sengoi. In 1932, during the course of his work trekking the jungles at Kuala Lemoi, he observed the opening of a Sengoi school by Alexander. He was indignant and vehemently opposed this venture by reporting it to the relevant authorities to have it closed down. The penghulu went personally to the assistant district officer and Resident of the state to solicit official permission, and the work was allowed to continue.
In later years, Noone changed his mind about the mission work among indigenous tribes. In a conversation with Paul Means, he said, “Before I visited the Toraja tribes, I was quite opposed to mission work, but when I saw what the Dutch had done after forty years of work my concept of missions was completely changed. The Dutch missionaries lived for many years among these mountain people to learn their language and to become acquainted with their tribal structure and customs. They told me that for the first ten years no one was baptised because they felt it was unwise to take an individual out of his cultural background. The emphasis was to work through the chieftains. In this way the great traditional values of their own culture would be preserved. In becoming Christians the Torajas I saw had not become uprooted or less Torajan. Yes, my own ethnographic and cultural views were transformed by this recent experience among the Torajas.”
In January 1937, Alexander’s wife Saripa gave birth to a daughter at the Tapah Hospital. However, Saripa became ill and passed away four weeks later. She had suffered much as a missionary wife – losing a child in 1935 and experiencing prolonged homesickness and multiple ailments from living in the jungle, including endemic malaria. Though Saripa's life was cut short, it encouraged and inspired many of the missionaries and teachers with whom she served.
Her funeral was conducted by Reverend Abel Eklund at the Tapah hospital. It was witnessed by eight American missionaries, three Bataks, five Indians, three Chinese, two Sengoi and two Malays – a fitting tribute to a young woman committed to her Christian faith and who worked hard as a missionary right to the end. Her daughter, Esther Simanjuntak, was looked after by Miss Mechteld Dirksen, a missionary nurse in charge of the Girl’s Boarding School in Sitiawan.
Throughout his years of mission work, Alexander suffered persecution and fierce opposition. However, he persevered to the end, as did his wife, and was determined that “regardless of the obstacles, the mission work must go on”.
He was eventually elected Conference evangelist and became a full member of the East Coast Sumatra Annual Conference of the Gereja Methodist Indonesia. In an article about his death, the December 1974 issue of the Methodist Message noted that despite his advanced age, he had spent one-and-a-half months that year in Sengoi villages at the invitation of the Sengoi Christian penghulus. "To the very end of his life, Alexander remained faithful to his mission of spreading the Gospel far and wide and among the native peoples of Malaysia and Sumatra," added the article.
He passed away on May 29, 1974 in Medan, leaving behind four children. Two of his sons later became church pastors.
- ^ Johan Hasselgren, Rural Batak, Kings in Medan: The Development of Toba Batak Ethnoreligious Identity in Medan, Indonesia, 1912-1965. (Swedish Institute of Mission Research, Uppsala University, 2000), 88, https://uu.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:161933/FULLTEXT01.pdf. Accessed April 28, 2021.
- ^ Sengoi or Senoi are an aboriginal people group living in the jungle along the central Main Range of Peninsular Malaysia, numbering around 100,000 today. They have a nomadic lifestyle of hunting and gathering jungle produce for subsistence. They speak the Sengoi language and some basic Malay. Prior to 1950, the term “Sakai” was used which had a derogatory connotation of “slave” or “primitive”. This demeaning term was later replaced with “Orang Asli” or “Orang Asal” which means “Original People”.
- ^ Laurel Means, Beyond Words: The Remarkable Story of Paul and Nathalie Means (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2009), 17.
- ^ Paul and Nathalie Means, And The Seed Grew (Singapore: Private publishing, circa 1982), 9.
- ^ Means, And The Seed Grew, 10.
- ^ Veronica Poore, “Rev Solomon Swamidason Pakianathan”, in A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Historical Record of Key Pastors in the Indian Churches in Malaysia and Singapore (Selangor: Council of Churches of Malaysia, 2011), 44.
- ^ Means, And The Seed Grew, 16.
- ^ Means, Beyond Words, 71-72.
- ^ Means, Beyond Words, 72.
- ^ Means, And The Seed Grew, 25.
- ^ Means, And The Seed Grew, 26.
- ^ "Simanjuntak: He felt God's call to the hill tribes of Malaya". Methodist Message, December 1974, 7.
- ^ “Simanjuntak”. Methodist Message, December 1974, 7.
Council of Churches of Malaysia. A Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Historical Record of Key Pastors in the Indian Churches in Malaysia and Singapore. Selangor: Council of Churches of Malaysia, 2011.
Doraisamy, T. R. Heralds of the Lord: Personalities in Methodism in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: The Methodist Book Room, 1988.
Means, Laurel. Beyond Words: The Remarkable Story of Paul and Nathalie Means. Singapore: Genesis Books, 2009.
Means, Paul and Means, Nathalie. And The Seed Grew. Singapore: Private publishing, circa 1982.
"Simanjuntak: He felt God's call to the hill tribes of Malaya". Methodist Message, December 1974, 7.